How does the socio-political landscape shape our natural one? This is the driving question for
Dr. Rachel Nalepa, a Postdoctoral Visitor with Professor Sheila R. Colla’s Native Pollinator Research Lab. As a human geographer grounded in the field of political ecology, she examines environmental issues that emerge in rural spaces through the lens of the policies and norms that create them.
As a doctoral candidate, she took inspiration from anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott to “see like a state” in order to explore how rural development and economic growth can come at the expense of marginalized people or alter natural landscapes in ways that negatively impact endemic biodiversity. A particular interest is how land classifications (i.e., “unused”, “marginal”) using geospatial technology and other means, support narratives that echo colonial era natural resource mapping and serve to abstract and define spaces in ways that serve powerful actors. These actors include centrally planned states (often struggling with land rights reform) and transnational corporations.
Nalepa's research contributions such as Downgrading Recent Estimates of Land Available for Biofuel Production and Marginal Land and the Global Land Rush: A Spatial Exploration of Contested Lands and State-Directed Development in Contemporary Ethiopia have provided counter-narratives that center often overlooked human-environment interactions on smallholder farms and other rural spaces. In Ethiopia, her work stressed the importance of government accountability in the protection of biodiversity and vulnerable communities as state actors work to transform the country’s most valuable asset, land, for state accessible product such as hydropower and agricultural commodities for export.
In Canada, Nalepa continued to focus on pro-environmental agricultural practices and development as a Policy Advisor to the (former) Environmental Commissioner of Ontario before beginning her current appointment at EUC focusing on native pollinator conservation. She has conducted field and survey research of Canadian fruit growers to better understand the factors that shape decisions around pollination management practice and the likelihood of adopting native pollinator-supporting actions on their land. Through this work, the Colla lab identified “low-hanging fruit”, i.e., easy and inexpensive actions currently adopted by relatively few growers. This work also demonstrated the importance of an increased awareness of the benefits of wild bees and the threats they face in encouraging the adoption of more pollinator-supporting practices on the farm.
Rachel Nalepa's current research focuses on writing Canada’s First National Pollinator Strategy: A Collaborative, Interdisciplinary, Science-based Approach and is funded by the Weston Family Foundation. Pressing threats to Canada’s pollinators are widespread and require a merging of centralized and decentralized approaches to conservation. These threats include climate change, the introduction and spread of non-native species, habitat destruction, pesticides and pathogens. The strategy will provide key actions and research priorities that need to be urgently undertaken at the federal level and evidence-based guidance around how to best support native pollinator conservation at a sub-national scale.