BLOG: "2017 KNOTS Summer School and Field Trip - Where Ideas Innovate and Live" Written by Huong Ngoc Nguyen

2017 KNOTS summer school and field trip - Where ideas innovate and live

Written by Huong Ngoc Nguyen

MAIDS Alumni - Chulalongkorn University, Thailand


Two weeks ago, I joined the first summer school and field trip of the Fostering Multi-Lateral Knowledge Networks of Transdisciplinary Studies to Tackle Global Challenges (KNOTS) project[1] in Tam Dao and Duong Lam, Vietnam. I still have mixed feelings about the trip until now.

Tam Dao – where ideas innovate

Our trip began with the one-week summer course in Tam Dao hill station, a summer retreat place for nearby urban habitants due to its cool climate and beautiful landscape. Although the town kept on satisfying me with its famous dishes “su su xào tỏi” – a fried leafy green vegetable with garlic, I felt sad while observing its changes during my stay there. 

My favorite dishes “su su xào tỏi”.  Source: Internet

My favorite dishes “su su xào tỏi”. Source: Internet

Memories in the past reminded me of Tam Dao as a small town located on the hilly mountain and surrounded by the natural forests, with only a few small hotels and facilities for tourists. At night, there were a few electric lights and not much entertainment so travelers often walked around the foggy town or into the forest up to the TV tower and tasted the misty and quite atmosphere, which made the sixteen-year-old girl (me) felt like “Alice in wonderland”. Instead of being thicken by forests, at the moment the “wonderland” has been mushroomed with lots of construction sites, hotels, villas, coffee shops, central square, etc. which are dense but disordered. They seem to be built without much planning.

High dense buildings in the town

High dense buildings in the town

Surprisingly, at weekend flocks of people jam-packed the town with interweaving sounds of the motorbikes from tour groups, the music from coffee shops and local radio, the loud from conversations, and the noise from construction sites. All blend together and make the town become chaotic. In spite of acknowledging that the changes is inevitable, I felt that the town has been put too much burden on its small shoulder and I wondered why this happened and what I can do.

Questions hanged on my mind, I turned energy to classes at the summer school of KNOTS where researchers, lecturers and graduate students from eight universities across Europe, Thailand and Vietnam exchange and discuss the transdisciplinary studies in tackling global challenges, especially in Southeast Asia. To me, KNOTS in general and the first summer school in particular are the promising environments to create networks of not only ideas but also people.

Participants of the first KNOTS summer school.  Source: KNOTS Facebook

Participants of the first KNOTS summer school. Source: KNOTS Facebook

First, high-density flow of ideas and knowledge has innovated during the intensive week of the summer school. Through appealing presentations, constructive discussions and team work, I have learnt that the more integrated the world become, the more complex and interlinked global development issues are. These challenging problems including human migration, environmental degradation and social inequality are not usually defined in such clear and tangible way due to different perspectives, contexts, and cultures. Consequently, it requires the mixture of different disciplines and participation of diverse actors to co-produce knowledge, ultimately to comprehensively and appropriately understand the complexity of the problems. This is considered as one of the key theme of transdipciplinary approaches. As a student interested in environmental issues, KNOTS’s summer school gave me the chance to learn, discuss and examine the transdipciplinary approaches through political ecology lens in researching on forest governance, ecotourism and river. Political ecology is understood as the combination between the disciplines of ecology and a broadly defined political economy which could help us not only understand the co-production between nature and society but also look for a chain of causality operating between the relation[1]. More notably, I have discovered some reasons answering for the chaos of current Tam Dao which are lack of co-management in tourism planning, the weakness of enforcement of forest management regulations and unclear buffer zone planning[2]. Looking deeper, the region including the town and surrounding national parks has confronted the issue of unequal distribution of forest land access due to local power structure under decentralized administration of forest land allocation policies[3].

Second, the summer school offers me valuable networking opportunities with diversity of students and researchers. Besides the classes, we chit-chat about life stories, explore the town and gather through “collective” meals and games. Through these activities, I can understand about different backgrounds, perspectives as well as different cultures. Saying goodbye to Tam Dao, the feeling of nostalgic has not been disappeared yet, but I am pleased that I have found a part of answers and more importantly have chance to know interesting people.

One of “collective” games connects us together.  Credit to Winnie Wichitra, CMU

One of “collective” games connects us together. Credit to Winnie Wichitra, CMU

Duong Lam – where the ideas live

After the summer school, in order to make the ideas happen, KNOTS built “an experimental lab” to connect the dots between the theory and reality which allows researchers apply the transcipdiplinary approaches into practice with the four-day field trip at Duong Lam commune, Son Tay, Hanoi. We were divided into three groups with key main themes discussed at the summer school including human migration, social inequality and river. I chose the river group studying the aspects related to the Red River within the scope of the commune because I think the river would be a great example of applying transdipciplinary approaches and understanding human-nature linkages.

The remark of the field trip for me was the day we spent at Hung Thinh village – a small village with total length around 1,000m along Red River and with about 830 local inhabitants. The major livelihoods are 70% agriculture (rice farming) and 30% non-agriculture (factory workers, sand transportation, etc.). By using different research methods including meeting with the commune leaders, wandering around and discussing with locals, our group got an overview of the current situation of the river. Meanwhile, the river is under pressure of various factors from industrial waste from upstream factories, human waste from nearby villages, agriculture, sand mining, and further upstream dams.

Our river group walked with villagers to see the Red River and new-built bridge

Our river group walked with villagers to see the Red River and new-built bridge

Moreover, we have learnt about the perception of locals about their current state as well as future vision of the village through the co-mapping method. Villagers were asked to draw pictures of the village and important elements they perceived as important or effect to their lives with the support and facilitation of our group. To my surprise, not only the river is stressful, the village itself seems to be at the margin of urbanization and industrialization with significant problems, namely loss of livelihoods (loss of agricultural land and informal market beside the riverbank due to new built bridge and changed land use) and the risk of settlement (landslide of the riverbank). For future development, stable settlements and alternative livelihoods are two major wishes of the villagers when they were asked to dream about their future. The challenges of the village could be explained by the rapid urbanization within the commune since Son Tay (Ha Tay province) geographically merged to Hanoi – the capital in 2008 and the industrialization trends in the country since the economic reform (“doi moi”) in 1986. On the whole, the current situation of the river and the village reflects what I have learnt from the summer school that the co-produced and return way of causality relationship between environment and society in which human actions are continually producing the environment and environmental change “loops back” onto people and society.  

Locals draw mapping of their current and future village under the support of our group.  Source: KNOTS Facebook

Locals draw mapping of their current and future village under the support of our group. Source: KNOTS Facebook

Returning from the trip, I somehow find out the answer for the question of “what can I do?”. Firstly, I have realized the importance of being responsible and conscious in producing knowledge. As a student planning to pursue the PhD, to consider transdipciplinary approaches as a mindset helps me critically shaping thoughts since the first stages of the pathway, namely developing research proposal including research questions, objectives and methods, and thinking about different actors including both academic and non-academic actors who are related to the research issue and who should involve in the research process. Furthermore, the field trip taught me to be organized but flexible, which is useful skill for me doing future researches. Since transdipciplinary studies require adequately address complexity of problems and diversity of perceptions, it is highly recommended for the researchers to be prepared to learn the cutting-edge issues but also be open-minded to grasp new information or explore changes. Last but not least, even though the challenging problems are big and complex, I believe that I should start from small steps, for example be conscious about what I produce and consume, not only knowledge but everything in life.

[1] KNOTS project is a three-year project which was initiated in October 2016 and created by the collaboration between seven universities in Europe, Thailand and Vietnam including the University of Vienna, Austria; Charles University, Czechia; University of Bonn, Germany; Chulalongkorn University and Chiang Mai University, Thailand; and Ho Chi Minh City Open University, Southern Institute of Social Sciences, and Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Vietnam. The project is funded by the European Commission’s ERASMUS+ programme. 

[1] Presentation of Ajarn Carl Middleton, KNOTS summer school and field trip, 19 – 30 September 2017

[2] Duong, V.H. (2013). Tam Dao National Park. Evidence-based conservation: lessons from the lower Mekong. Bogor, Indonesia: CIFOR.

[3] Cari, A.C. (2012). Local Power Structures and Their Effect on Forest Land Allocation in the Buffer Zone of Tam Dao National Park, Vietnam. The Journal of Environment & Development, 22(1), 74–103.