Conservation and Diversity: Lives, Languages, and Land in the Balance. Researching and Studying Abroad with ERS Chair Larry Gorenflo

“Linguists reckon we lose a language every two to three weeks. Species extinction rates are about 1,000 times higher than they were before people showed up. None of that is good news.”

Larry Gorenflo, professor of landscape architecture and geography, conducts research to understand how cultural and biological diversity co-occur in the hope of helping to conserve both. Gorenflo also holds the Eleanor R. Stuckeman Chair in Design which provides him with support to further his ongoing inquiries. Gorenflo’s research has demonstrated that places with a high number of species also feature high numbers of indigenous languages. He adds, “Both are disappearing at alarming rates.”

Gorenflo has examined the co-occurrence of species and language extinction in-depth with methods he has developed over the past fifteen years. In 2014, Gorenflo co-authored a monograph Linguistic Diversity in High Biodiversity Regions, which functions like an atlas, while providing illustrations of the biodiversity hotspots where myriad native languages co-occur. “Most languages occur in about twenty-five percent of the Earth’s terrestrial area. So, there is a real concentration.” He describes, “The things that compromise biodiversity also compromise resident indigenous cultures. Often impacts come from large multinational corporations that come in with chainsaws and drilling rigs, but just the presence of modern cultures and societies can change the local economy and degrade the interest in or need to speak a local language.” He summarizes, “When you get the opportunity to look at a biodiversity hotspot locality with high presence of indigenous languages, you think maybe you can conserve both. That seems like a good idea.”

With linguist Suzanne Romaine, a colleague from Oxford, Gorenflo has conducted a series of analyses over the past few years, which they are continuing to publish. Their recent work focuses on places identified by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, often national parks. He explains, “there is a striking number of UNESCO sites that also have heavy indigenous language presence.” Gorenflo and Romaine are at the stage of compiling a list of the highest priority locations. They hope the research will allow them to take the next step to propose redesigning the management of World Heritage Sites and other protected areas to help maintain the indigenous cultures that occur in the same locations. “One of the things we are looking at is the potential for co-managing a lot of these locations, which doesn’t happen very much. Indigenous people don’t often get a lot of say in the management of protected areas… despite the fact they are much of the reason these places occur in the first place.”

One ERS Chair – Three Gorenflo Projects

1. In Tanzania, where he works on other projects, Gorenflo has noted the presence of more than one hundred different indigenous languages spoken throughout the country, many occurring in the area (the Eastern Arc Mountains) with the highest amount of biological diversity and remarkable numbers of plant and animal species that occur only there. “The species became trapped on the mountains as the area evolved over thousands of years,” he explains. “Many species can’t travel to lower elevations or to another mountain, so they have evolved independently, inducing high levels of speciation.” Settings such as these often are referred to as ‘sky islands’, pointing to the isolation between the mountains ranges.

2. Gorenflo is also working in the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. The region, which includes parts of Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Bangladesh, and India, boasts nearly four hundred indigenous languages. When Gorenflo was in Cambodia this past December, he visited an area near the Laotian border on the edge of the national park where eight local languages are spoken. This work may lead to expansion of the linguistic-biological diversity research project into the Indo-Burma hotspot.

3. Gorenflo hopes to begin a third field study in the East Melanesian Islands’ biodiversity hotspot, focusing on Vanuatu, an archipelago north of Australia. He explains, “Vanuatu has the densest linguistic diversity of any place in the world. There are more than one hundred languages spoken in the small island chain. On average, there is one language every ten thousand square kilometers (an area roughly sixty by sixty miles).” Some of these small islands are about twenty miles across but host four different languages.

Research and Sustainable Design in Tanzania

The ERS projects have blossomed in part out of Gorenflo’s ongoing research in Tanzania. In 2010, he began a study abroad program in Tanzania, called the Tanzania Parks and People Program. He says that working in Africa is important “because it has a lot of endangered world heritage sites – primarily due to social upheaval and civil wars, and also because of excessive resource harvesting. The natural habitats are getting beaten up in a variety of ways.” There is a lot of linguistic diversity, particularly in West Africa; however, Gorenflo says, “In the absence of a reason to maintain an indigenous language or in the presence of pressure to lose it… after a couple of generations, the languages just disappear.”

Gorenflo finds immense value in teaching, especially in bringing his students abroad. “I’m committed to the study abroad thing because I had that experience when I was 21 as an anthropology undergraduate at Penn State.” He conducted fieldwork in the southern highlands of Mexico. “It changed my whole life. I had never been anywhere or seen anything. So, what I try to offer students is what I managed to cobble together on my own, through an enormous amount of luck and the trust given to me as a Penn State anthropology student running this project.”

Gorenflo, with colleague Carter Hunt of Penn State’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, brings groups of students to Tanzanian villages where they conduct research. “Usually the students are nervous at first when working in a village, but by day two they become comfortable. We take them to beach at the end of the study abroad program. We also take them on a five-star safari in the middle of the six-week trip, but the thing they like the most is going into the villages, camping in the villages, living in villages.”

Student testimonials bear witness to the value they see in the Tanzania study abroad program. A fourth-year Penn State Landscape Architecture/Geography double-major wrote, “I can honestly say it was the best decision I have ever made. Before coming on this trip, I was unsure about where I fit into the profession and what I could bring to the table that was different from others. This trip has made it clear to me that I am meant to produce designs that help people who are most deserving.” A third-year Larch student describes, “I feel so fortunate to have chosen the Tanzania Parks and People Program because I feel like it’s helped me grow so much in my understanding of what’s important in life. I’ve learned the significance of broad-scale thinking and digging into the culture of a place, to understanding people and communicating with them, to allowing the emphasis to be on community design rather than a top-down approach. These are things that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

The study abroad program is six weeks long from mid-May to the end of June. Students attend lectures at two universities. “They work at the best ecological monitoring center in Tanzania (the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Centre), and the second most biologically diverse park in sub-Saharan African. It is a huge opportunity. The students are surrounded by people who speak different languages. They also see four to five species of primates within two kilometers of their dormitory, as well as many of the four hundred species of birds and two hundred species of butterflies currently documented in the park.”

The students’ work during the abroad program is, in many ways, an extension of Gorenflo’s research in communities surrounding the park. Gorenflo refers to the locals as “primarily subsistence agriculturalists who rely largely on the food they grow rather than the small amount of cash they earn.” He describes, “When we go to the villages, the people are happy and look healthy. They grow a lot food. We want to find out how much money they make versus how much food they grow or obtain by other means.”

Since most economic decisions are at a household level in rural Tanzanian communities, Gorenflo has been conducting a series of household income and expenditure surveys. He works to identify how the local subsistence wage economy works. Gorenflo says they want to know the details: “How much time do they spend in the garden? What do they harvest in a given day? Did they sell some of the produce? How much for? Did they take some of the money they had to buy some deep-fried pastries at the local shop? How much money did they spend?” They are tracking every bit of income and expenditure, defined broadly in terms of energy and effort, as well as money. Gorenflo asserts “I don’t think this has ever been done in Africa before, at least at this level of detail.”

The research at Udzungwa ultimately explores how the people living near national parks may place pressure on the park for various resources. The concern is real, not only for Udzungwa but also elsewhere in Tanzania. In 2002, there were about two million people living within six miles of sixteen national parks in Tanzania, based on a study by Gorenflo in 2011 using the most recently available census data. Where we work in east Africa, the people are very poor. Right across the road from the village is a national park with huge stands of firewood, for instance. People would use it if they had the opportunity, but locals are shut out from resources.”

Gorenflo is using his survey method to figure out what locals use and what they still need, so that they can design solutions that will sustain the community and the parks.

Gorenflo asks, “What resources might they need to buy or find in the park? What can we do as the conservation community to help local people meet those needs? What can landscape and community designers do to redesign these communities so they work a little better?” They can use this information to inform local park management and local village governments about how they may do a better job to and plan for the communities.

Gorenflo is beginning similar work in Cambodia, and has collaborated on a proposal (with Hunt and other researchers) to support this sort of study in coastal ecosystems in Columbia. He plans to expand biological-cultural diversity investigations into new continents and countries: Australia, and, possibly, China where there are some of the biggest co-occurrences in the world.

Through his research projects and the Tanzania program, Gorenflo has impacted scholarship, created real-world solutions, and influenced students to create community-focused designs. After ten years at the Stuckeman School, Gorenflo says he now knows more about landscape design and feels he is supported in his commitment to “maintaining as much cultural and biological diversity in the world as I can.”

“We are losing battles in conservation all over the place. I am convinced that the only hope is to create designed environments. If you can design a park to work properly, and also design the immediate surroundings so they don’t put too much pressure on it, with a soft edge, as opposed to a hard edge… I think we may have hope of maintaining things so that in another few decades, when the population is higher. We will have a world that I want my kids to see.”

Gorenflo is focused on protected areas and nearby communities, and his goal is to make his designs more and more effective and to conserve the cultural heritage so that local people can live a rich life. He explains, “it is like having your cake and eating it too!”