Nature Watch

Scientists debunk long-held theory about loving nature

A new study of the Amazon explores what it means to appreciate the outdoors.

Amazon rainforest
Getty Images

When it comes to nature, you don't need to be an expert to appreciate it.

You might know this intuitively — you enjoy a quick sniff when passing a blooming bud, but can't identify the flower's taxon. However, scientific literature hasn't always supported this concept.

Previous research claimed "ecological knowledge" — knowing the names of an ecosystem's components, what they do, and their use — was necessary for deeply caring about nature. A new study debunks this idea.

The study surveyed migrant farmers in the Amazon about bird species in the area, finding the majority expressed a strong connection to nature — and possibly a desire to protect it — although "bird identification knowledge" was generally low to moderate. While fewer than half of the bird species in the survey were recognized, the farmers still expressed high levels of emotional and cognitive connections to nature.

"We found that farmers do not need intimate knowledge of local biodiversity to care about nature," Katarzyna Mikolajczak, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and lead author of the study, explained in a statement.

This finding was published Thursday in the journal People and Nature.

Indigenous protestors blocked a major Trans-Amazonian highway to protest against the lack of governmental support during the COVID-19 pandemic and illegal deforestation in and around their territories.

JOAO LAET/AFP via Getty Images

Necessary background — The researchers interviewed survey participants living near the Transamazonian highway in southeastern Brazil.

In the 1970s, the Brazilian government began a campaign of deforestation in the area to better connect the region to surrounding areas and "consolidate Brazil's geopolitical claim to the Amazon," the study authors explain.

Prior to this campaign, mostly indigenous people lived in the area. After the development of the highway, the area became predominantly a farming community, including migrant farmers who were not from Amazonia.

The researchers wanted to learn about the farming community's "psychological nature connection," which they define as "the extent to which a person self-identifies" with nature. No participants in the study self-identified as indigenous.

Indigenous people in the Amazon, in turn, and considered to hold "traditional ecological knowledge." The study authors definite this knowledge as "ecological knowledge that is accumulated, evolved, and culturally transmitted over generations."

Migrant farmers, the scientist hypothesized, may lack the cultural and historical familiarity of the area, but could still develop "local ecological knowledge" based on their own experiences with nature and peer learning. The question was whether or not an understanding of the biodiversity they interacted with would influence their overall appreciation for nature. Do you really need to know the name of different species to care about them?

How they did it — The researchers identified roughly 40 sites near the highway and identified male and female heads of households living near those sites. Ultimately 227 participants were included in the final case study.

Participants represented a mix of education levels, ranging from no formal schooling to those who had completed some higher education. They also represented small, medium, and large landowners, as well as older and younger participants between the ages of 18 to 75.

The researchers wanted to understand the relationship between the participants' ecological knowledge and their connection to nature.

To assess the respondents' ecological knowledge, researchers asked participants to identify photographs of 19 birds. Thirteen of the birds lived in non-forest areas, while the rest lived in the forest.

The scientists also played the bird calls of several non-forest and forest birds, to see if participants could recognize the species by sound.

To account for the fact that participants might not know a bird's species but could recognize it by another name, the researcher also graded the participant's knowledge of the bird's family and genus.

Next, the researchers used a two-pronged approach to test the participants' connection to nature.

The first approach is the cognitive nature connection, which tests the extent to which someone believes that they are a part of nature. The researchers assessed this perception by using seven Venn-diagrams containing two progressively overlapping circles representing ‘self’ and ‘nature.'

Participants were asked to identify which Venn diagram best represents their relationship with nature.

The second part of the approach concerns the participants' affective or emotional nature connection. Scientists asked the participants five questions "aimed to capture feelings of love, caring, awe, and psychological well-being derived from nature."

A farmer feeds a tame crested guan (Penelope purpurascens).

Katarzyna Mikolajczak

What's new — The researchers found no correlation between participants' ecological knowledge of local bird species and their connection to nature. For example, older participants felt a greater connection with nature, despite possessing less knowledge about non-forest bird species.

Both ecological knowledge and nature connection have their own unique factors that drive behavior, ranging from gender to access to nature.

"... having a knowledge of nature is not necessary in order to connect with nature."

The scientists also found participants could often identify bird species by image and sound, but not by the species' names. Overall, participants identified 46 percent to 61 percent of non-forest bird species and 12 percent to 15 percent of forest species at the genus level.

Cultural and demographic factors played a role in participants' responses. Men, for example, were 2.33 times likelier to identify non-forest birds than women. Participants who grew up in the Amazon and visited nature more frequently also possessed a greater connection to nature.

Participants were also more likely to recognize non-forest bird species than forest bird species, suggesting a greater familiarity with birds closer to the farms where they lived, and less familiarity with bird species in the forests of the Amazon. They, in turn, were more likely to recognize bigger bird species that did not require special equipment — such as binoculars.

Despite their lack of formal knowledge of bird species, many farmers still demonstrated a strong connection to nature on both the cognitive and emotional parts of the scientists' assessment.

"Our findings indicate that having a knowledge of nature is not necessary in order to connect with nature," Mikolajczak said.

Indigenous protestors blocked a major Trans-Amazonian highway to protest against the lack of governmental support during the Covid-19 pandemic and illegal deforestation in and around their territories.

Photo by JOAO LAET/AFP via Getty Images

Why it matters — This is the first study of its kind to be conducted in the Global South. It has important implications for the ability to advocate and protect nature, especially as climate change means greater biodiversity loss — and the loss of bird species in the Amazon due to deforestation.

Farm forest landscapes in the Amazon are a critical area of biodiversity loss, and farmers — like the ones in the study — are "key conservationist actors," the study authors write. Studying the farmers' ecological knowledge and nature connection is vital to future conservation work in the area, they argue.

This study also contradicts previous research conducted in North America and Europe, which found correlations between ecological knowledge and nature connection.

"This suggests that the relationship between ecological knowledge and nature connection is complex and might be context-specific, and we shouldn't assume there is a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to encouraging nature conservation," Mikolajczak said.

1. Conservationists often assume that connection with and caring about nature's well-being is strongly linked to ecological knowledge. Existing evidence on the link between ecological knowledge and psychological nature connection is mixed, geographically limited to countries in the Global North, and does not scrutinise potentialdifferences in determinants of ecological knowledge and nature connection.
2. We investigate the relationship between psychological nature connection and ecological knowledge of local bird species, and assess their associations with potential drivers, including access to, contact with, and reliance on nature and socio-demographic characteristics. Our study is carried among a novel participant population of colonist farmers living along a major deforestation frontier in the Brazilian Amazon.
3. Our study context has high conservation relevance and provides an ideal setting to assess the extent to which conservation psychology's insights from the Global North hold true elsewhere. Tropical farm-forest frontiers suffer from intense habitat and biodiversity loss, and farmers with migrant origins are important yet rarely studied conservation stakeholders. Importantly, farmers' experiences of nature are likely to vary considerably due to the wide range of socio-demographic, economic, geographical and cultural diversity.
4. Interviewees scored highly on two indices of nature connection, but scores werehigher among older people and those with greater contact with nature. Bird identification knowledge was generally low to moderate, and higher among men and younger people. Species more frequently recognised were regionally common,larger-bodied or associated with non-forest habitats.
5. Ecological knowledge of birds and nature connection were not correlated, and they did not have any predictors in common. Our results indicate that colonist farmers are capable of forming strong connections with nature, even if they rarely possess detailed knowledge of local forest biodiversity. Considering the complex and apparently context-dependent relationship between knowing and caring about nature, it is unwise to assume that changing one would automatically affect the other.
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