Courtesy of Shorna Allred

February 28, 2020

Conservation and Development: How Indigenous Communities Can Respond to Climate Change and Natural Disasters

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How do social conditions play a role in our rapidly changing environment? Prof. Shorna Allred, natural resources, focuses her research on conservation social science, in which she studies the social implications of climate change mitigation and resilience against natural disasters.

“I was drawn [towards] the opportunity to work with the Center for Conservation Social Sciences [because] at the time of its founding, it was one of the first units of its kind in the nation to focus on social dimensions of natural resource management issues,” Allred said.

Allred’s current domestic projects take her from rust belt cities in upstate New York to implement sustainability within community development, to Long Island’s Jamaica Bay for establishing post-disaster resilience in urban environments, which eight years ago was struck by Hurricane Sandy.

On an international scale, Allred collaborates with the Southeast Asia Program and Global Development to work with indigenous communities in Sarawak, a state on the Malaysian island of Borneo. Allred also worked with the program to investigate flood resilience in Bangkok, Thailand, where she conducted research for her sabbatical in 2016.

“[These regions are of] global ecological significance…which are regarded as highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” Allred said.

As the leader of a collaboration between the Global Citizenship and Sustainability Program and partner universities in Malaysia, Allred’s current work includes a project working with the indigenous Penan community in Borneo, in which she studies “cultural resilience” — how cultural identity and practices affect a community’s ability to overcome adversity.

In this project, Allred works within the community to understand the traditional knowledge and practices of the formerly nomadic tribe. This is important because in order to stimulate sustainable community development in indigenous communities, it is essential to consider “decision-making about livelihood options which are intertwined with issues of social justice, cultural survival, power imbalances, and economic development,” Allred said.

Shorna Allred during her experiential learning trip in Borneo

Courtesy of Shorna Allred

Allred during her experiential learning trip in Borneo.

Despite her dedication to her research, Allred finds the most fulfilling aspect of her career to be her interactions with indigenous peoples.

“I learn so much from their local knowledge and I am incredibly grateful to work in partnership with [indigenous peoples],” Allred said.

As the first tenured African-American in the Department of Natural Resources, Allred expressed both pride in her achievement and urgency in further developing the Cornell community to be welcoming towards African-American students and professors.

“There are less than 100 tenured faculty that identify as African-American at Cornell,” Allred said. “[Therefore it is immensely important] we create communities here that we feel a part of and that help to sustain us throughout our careers.”

Allred is also eager to give back to students and her community by mentoring “young scholars, students, faculty, and peers as they are coming up in the field,” which fills her with a “strong sense of gratitude to those whose guidance and support has been so essential to [her] along [her] path.”

Allred led her students on an experiential learning trip to Borneo, Malaysia.

Courtesy of Shorna Allred

Allred led her students on an experiential learning trip to Borneo, Malaysia.

She also advocated for students across all majors to get involved in environmental and sustainability issues because “to address cross-cutting and cross sector issues like climate change, we need all areas of expertise, from science to social sciences to engineering to the humanities,” she said.

Her advice for students looking to get involved in her field is “to take time for stillness, quiet contemplation, meditation and other mental spaces in our lives that keep us attuned and awake to creativity and opportunities that will enrich us personally and or professionally,” Allred said.