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Social Learning for Ecosystem Services in Lake Baiyangdian, China

This research work in 2010–2011, funded by the UK research councils, was undertaken as part of wider research programme exploring the potential of managing ecosystems services as a means of poverty alleviation. Baiyangdian catchment lies in the middle of the North China Plain and is home to almost 700,000 people officially recognised as living in poverty. A large catchment area of 31,200 km2, historically with nine rives, Lake Baiyangdian is the largest remaining semi-closed freshwater body in the northern part of China. As a result of industrial expansion and increased water use for agriculture to supply Beijing, rivers have dried up and the surface area of the lake greatly reduced with inevitable degrading of the catchment ecosystem and livelihood implications for the population.

Using a variation of the heuristic framework described earlier, a cross-disciplinary research group of ten scientists designed a process of inquiry involving researchers from science and social science backgrounds, working with managers and community groups in Lake Baiyangdian to engage in a social learning process about the history, context, and framings of issues in the catchment. A week long inquiry involving workshops, interviews and field visits was designed to be open to local contexts, allow for emergence of new insights from a range of actors with different geographical, organisational and political links; and to generate systemic understanding of the situation through social learning among those involved.

The detailed description of the work and the findings are reported in Wei et al. (2012). In terms of the present discussion, the findings reveal the limitations of current framings of Lake Baiyangdian water management, dominated by particular framings of nature, ecology and ecosystems that are considered manageable through engineering, understood as 'good practice' in Chinese water management. Insights from the social learning process were gained in several areas, including

(i) understanding the diversity of participants' perspectives of the situation and how the disciplinary training and institutional framings of the researchers and policy-makers shaped their suggested focus for improving the catchment; (ii) opportunities and potential to progress water managing through the purposeful design and enactment of a catchment managing learning system; and (iii) that the lake could become a focus or 'mediating object' to enable new conversations about ways to transition to more ecologically sensitive decision making and greater social and institutional resilience.

Mindful of the particular cultural context, careful attention was paid to good process design, the presence and expression of stakeholders (including cultural outsiders), valuing multiple partial perspectives and effective facilitation – all key requirements if a more sustainable managing of the catchment is desired. As with the other cases reported above, social science integration was not a deliberate focus, but the design of the learning process was able to accommodate a wide range of physical and social science perspectives throughout the process, particularly when engaging with policy making in an attempt to facilitate new framings of the situation.

These examples are just some of the action research situations where designing a social learning system has been advanced as an appropriate conceptual and methodological innovation to bring about more integrated resource management which recognises the importance of both biophysical and social science. In the next section, we explore some limits and opportunities for designing social learning systems as means to enable integration of social science into policy.

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