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Q & A with Professor James Blignaut, SAEON's new honorary research associate

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Prof. James Blignaut enjoys working in a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research environment


In 2012, Prof. James Blignaut (left) and Dr Steve Mitchell signed an agreement with SAEON on behalf of ASSET Research


Biodiversity and land use is an ASSET Research focus area. Here students undertake rehabilitation planting


Prof. Blignaut believes that economics should be used more in the interface between people, society and ecology


Students ponder restoration aspects in an arid landscape devoid of plant cover


Prof. Blignaut has been involved in research aimed at determining the economic risk/return parameters for developing a market for ecosystem goods and services following the restoration of natural capital

Prof. James Blignaut studies interactions between economic and natural systems, with the goal of developing a sustainable and efficient economy.

He enjoys working in a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research environment and wears many hats – among others as a part-time professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Pretoria and director of Beatus and ASSET Research, a collaboration platform initiated to offer unique development models and learning experiences in the field of resource economics and related fields.

ASSET Research aims to build capacity through the facilitation of research as well as the supervision of MSc and PhD students. Through all their projects, ASSET staff and students seek to contribute to the alleviation of poverty and unemployment, and the lack of food, water and energy security amid conditions of increasing urbanisation, intensification of resource use and environmental degradation.

"We are inspired by the resilience of the people living on the land in the African continent and, through our research programmes, we make ways to improve the well-being of the largest possible number of hungry, poor and deprived people," says Prof. Blignaut.

Adding another hat to his varied collection, he has now also accepted SAEON’s invitation to join the ranks of its honorary research associates.

SAEON eNews caught up with this award-winning ecological and environmental resource economist to find out more about his work and his links with SAEON:

Why did you decide to join SAEON as an honorary research associate?

I do not think economics should be confined to the sterile closets of high finance and academia; it has to be applied. Economics is an enormously powerful discipline packed with a wide variety of tools with such an array of applications that it is actually sad not to see it used more frequently in the interface between people, society and ecology.

You are no stranger to SAEON. In 2012 you were instrumental in forging a partnership between SAEON and ASSET Research to facilitate and strengthen integrated and in-depth research and data analysis. Would you like to elaborate on this?

Under the partnership agreement with ASSET Research, SAEON currently hosts a team of interns under the leadership of a postdoctoral fellow in a project managed by ASSET and funded by DEA: NRM (the natural resource management programme of the Department of Environmental Affairs). This project would not have been possible if the partnership agreement had not been in place. ASSET Research counts itself very fortunate to be in this partnership with SAEON.

ASSET Research is also closely involved with the Renu-Karoo Veld Restoration project headed by two other SAEON honorary research associates – Prof. Sue Milton-Dean and Dr Richard Dean.

Yes, indeed, I had the privilege to co-edit a book with Sue on the restoration of natural capital. That is still a landmark publication bringing together a collection of people and case studies from around the world in an effort to show that restoration does make sense. Actually, it makes such sense - any car owner knows that if they want to use the car they have to maintain it, so why do we struggle to apply this simple logic to natural capital?

With SAEON gearing up to expand its strategic role in resource economics and socio-ecology, the organisation can no doubt benefit greatly by drawing on your vast background and experience in these two disciplines. What role do you see yourself playing in this regard?

I focus mainly on two aspects. The first is student supervision and guidance. I strongly believe that i) one can achieve more by working in teams; ii) research teams comprising students/learners/interns are among the best to conduct both fundamental and applied research; and iii) it is absolutely essential to develop capacity in the resource economic field.

The second aspect that I focus on is research management in a complex and dynamic context. Combining these two I hope that I can contribute to SAEON in partnering with fellow SAEON researchers and node leaders in developing projects and executing them across a range of demanding topics/challenges and research questions.

Environmental and natural resource economics is rapidly gaining global importance in an effort to develop more sustainable methods of managing those resources to ensure their availability to future generations. You are regarded as one of the pioneers in this field. Where did this interest originate?

You are now taking me back about four decades. Like so many young people I wanted to become a vet. We didn’t have the money for me to study, let alone at Onderstepoort, so I had to apply for various scholarships. After more "Dear Johnny" letters than I can (or would like to) remember, I got a scholarship to become a commerce (accounting and economics) teacher at the then Department of Education in the Free State. Well, that started the process.

After finishing my Master’s, my father-in-law asked me, what will your PhD be in? I then thought of merging my childhood passion for nature and my academic training up to that point - and that was the start of it all. That was also the start of ASSET Research, an NGO/PBO aimed at providing scholarships to students in resource economics and related subjects. I would not have been able to study at all, not even towards a Bachelors degree, if somebody hadn’t given me the opportunity. So, it is time for me to give back.

You have indeed been "giving back" by building capacity in the fields of economic development, as well as environmental and ecological resource economics. What role do you see yourself playing in SAEON’s capacity building initiatives including the SAEON Graduate Student Network?

As mentioned before, I cannot detach myself from capacity building since that would imply detaching myself from myself. Capacity building, however, has to extend beyond the classroom to real-life experience of research. It is there where one can engage much more directly with people in a mentoring relationship than being a teacher or professor. It adds one more layer to the pathway towards assisting people to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.

You are currently subcontracted by SAEON on the Natural Resource Management contract of the Department of Environmental Affairs. SAEON is hosting four of your students - a PhD and three Master’s students – who are working on the project. Please tell us a bit more about the project and its interface with SAEON.

That is indeed correct. The project is about developing a systems dynamic model that would allow us to estimate the benefits (or not) of early restoration compared to a range of alternatives focusing mostly on invasive alien plants. This implies we have to develop an understanding of the bio-physical dynamics of the behaviour of invasive alien plant species under different conditions, but then also the impacts thereof on people and the economy. We are at an early stage of the project, but will eventually focus on eight sites across the country and seek to distil some messages from them.

You seem to have a special interest in ensuring that research results get translated into meaningful action. You have established a number of companies for this purpose, endeavouring, among other things, to make rural development and poverty alleviation a reality in sub-Saharan Africa, by providing the necessarily links between the formal economy and the natural resource base of the rural economies. Would you like to elaborate on this?

Not all the initiatives were equally successful, unfortunately. The main focus now is i) ASSET Research, which seeks to develop capacity in environmental resource economics, as mentioned before, and ii) Beatus and Futureworks. The latter are consulting companies working mainly on food, water and energy security as well as the restoration of natural capital.

I have a fairly simple, and many would argue too simplistic, view of economic development. This is if the pillars to development, which are the four aspects mentioned, are not in place, no form of economic development is i) sustainable, and/or ii) likely to succeed. By focusing my research on these four areas I, and the individuals and teams I work with, seek to contribute towards putting those pillars in place, or resuscitating them, or, in most cases, seek to heal wounds that have been caused by not seeking to understand the inter-dependence of these systems on each other, and any form of economic development on them as a whole.

You recently co-authored a scientific paper titled Debunking the myth that a legal trade will solve the rhino horn crisis. How do you ensure that your research gets entrenched in national policy and translated into meaningful action (i.e. effective implementation plans), among other things to help safeguard the future of a species?

The short answer is, I probably do not do enough. The longer answer is that we do seek to develop policy briefs concerning our work where we can (for example

In reference to this specific paper: the lead author, Dr Doug Crookes, was interviewed by the ministerial committee responsible for looking at the legalisation of trade in rhino horn. The interesting thing about this paper is that we had to battle a bit against our own training. Market solutions are in most instances a far superior solution to ecological challenges than command and control methods. With respect to the trade in rhino horn, however, this is not the case. This is due to the peculiar characteristics of the demand for rhino horn that make the product completely insensitive/unresponsive to changes in price. Any price-based mechanism (whether demand or supply-side measures) to stem the demand will therefore be futile.

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