NSF CAREER: Analyzing the Emergence of a Complex Swidden Management System in the Toledo District, Belize (NSF#1818597, NSF#1553875)

Duration: 2016 — 2022

Principal Investigator: Sean Downey

The goal of this project is to advance our understanding of the dynamics and emergence of coupled human and natural systems through a multi-year study of the swidden agriculture of Q’eqchi’ Maya farmers in southern Belize. The project analyzes the ecological effects of swidden from the perspective of landscape ecology, social networks, and common pool resources using information from southern Belize including forest plots, social networks, and experimental data.

Doctoral Dissertation Research: The effects of forest habitat modification on hunting and prey abundance (NSF-BCS #2116570)

Duration: 2022 — 2024

Principal Investigator: Sean Downey

Co-Principal Investigator: Shane A. Scaggs

NSF Award Abstract: The world’s rainforest ecosystems are hotspots of global biodiversity and have extensive histories of occupation by Indigenous peoples as locations for customary agriculture and subsistence foraging and hunting. With these reservoirs of biodiversity now showing signs of decline, we require a better understanding of how human-influenced forests can both support Indigenous livelihoods and sustain diverse floral and faunal communities. While human use and modification of rainforests has historically been thought of as a potential driver of species loss, recent research suggests that forest mosaics created by human activities harbor a substantial degree of habitat diversity and novel foraging opportunities that may benefit animal and plant communities. The purpose of this doctoral dissertation project is to study the relationship between customary agricultural practices and subsistence hunting to understand how these practices impact local faunal and floral diversity in a neotropical rainforest. In addition to training a doctoral student in anthropological science, the research helps local stakeholders manage natural resources and generalize these insights so they can be used to develop management designs that incorporate local practices to prevent wildlife loss.

The central research question of this dissertation project is whether the human-influenced forests that are created by customary agriculture can support populations of wild game and enable sustainable harvests of wild game by subsistence hunters. The researchers test whether and how human disturbance precludes or facilitates resource conservation. Integrating theory and methods from human behavioral ecology, wildlife management, and community ecology, this research documents hunter movements and harvest returns and links them to patterns of wildlife abundance along a disturbance gradient created by customary agricultural practices. The researchers use semi-structured interviews and participant observation to ethnographically contextualize the social and ecological dimensions of customary agriculture and subsistence hunting. By studying how humans and wildlife select and use habitat in a mosaic of cultivated, secondary, and climax forest, this study contributes theoretical insights about the mechanisms for sustainable harvest of wild game species and the coexistence of ecological communities with human communities. Rather than study hunting and farming as distinct forms of human-environment relations, this study conceptualizes these practices as key parts of an integrated socioecological system.


Indonesian Language and Genetics

The lab participates in a long-term collaboration with Stephen J. Lansing, Murray Cox, Peter Norquest (and many others) related to ongoing analyses of the language and genetics of Indonesian. The primary contribution of the lab relates to the application of computational methods (alineR, see Software) for analyzing historical linguistic data (Swadesh word lists).

Human-Centered Neotropical Food Webs

Duration: 2020 — 2021

With funding support from the Sustainability Institute at The Ohio State University, we are building a human-centered neotropical food web, with a special focus on Belize and Central America. To construct this food web, we are combining published literature on trophic interactions, wildlife dietary assemblages, and gut contents with preliminary interviews with Q’eqchi’ hunters and foragers about the species they harvest and what those species consume. This project is inspired by work on Martu food webs of the Western Desert of Australia (cf. Crabtree, Bliege Bird, & Bird 2019).

Past Projects

A multi-scale integrated approach to historical linguistic and demographic reconstruction in Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia (2010-2014; NSF#1030031: $199,782)

Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Socio-ecological analysis and modeling of Q’eqchi’ Maya Milpa Agriculture in Toledo District, Belize (2007-2009; NSF#0647832; $15,000)