OSUN CORUSUS Project Bridges Research, Mobility and Curriculum Toward Rural Sustainability

From January 10-18, participants in the OSUN CORUSUS project’s ethnoecology course, hosted by CEU’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, gathered in Vienna at Central European University (CEU), bringing some of the university’s MESP and MESPOM students together with faculty and students from OSUN partners University of Witwatersrand (WITS) in South Africa, American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Kyrgyzstan and American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon.

The ethnoecology course, which focused on the use of indigenous natural resources for local livelihoods and cultural purposes, and how this relates to sustainability and local resource management, was co-taught by professors Wayne Twine (WITS), Lina Jaber (AUB), Ruslan Rakhimov (AUCA) and Brandon Anthony who is the CORUSUS project lead (CEU).

Now in its second of three years, CORUSUS (Collaborating for Rural Sustainability) has significantly evolved, with the annual ethnoecology course being just one aspect of a multifaceted project that entails mobility for summer student internships across rural sites in three countries, as well as collaborative faculty research visits in South Africa, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon.

“We're highly appreciative of OSUN for the support and the latitude to create our own project under the sustainability theme. We’re working with the sustainability of subsistence livestock farmers in three countries. It’s a small piece of the larger sustainability pie, but it's a very important one,” commented Anthony. “All of the faculty partners are working with individual farmers, individual villages and small institutions that are in rural areas,” he added, noting that the scaling up of research outcomes must be treated with an awareness of context. Prior to the current project, Anthony conducted research for years in South Africa, working with Twine, which was the seed of partnership from which CORUSUS grew.

CORUSUS faculty with Oleksandr Shtokvych (R), Head of OSUN Secretariat at CEU. Photo by Sotiris Bekas.

Joint Course, Global Classroom

For student Nour Bassil (AUB), going to Vienna to attend the ethnoecology joint course was her first time abroad. The trip opened her mind to new topics and to travel. She emphasized how the CORUSUS course helped her more deeply consider the importance and transmission of traditional knowledge: “A very simple example is that my grandmother knows how to go in the forest and pick the grape leaves. She knows where they are located and how to find them. Even though I have some of that knowledge, I do not often go out to do that with her, and that's a simple activity that may not get passed down. The course made me pay attention to what we can do to help conserve traditional knowledge.”

Another visiting student, Salaidin Kamaldinov (AUCA), is simultaneously pursuing his studies while working in sustainability at Helvetas Kyrgyzstan. He found his CORUSUS peers to be particularly active and knowledgeable and appreciated the wide variety of perspectives and cultures discussed. “Professor Twine shared really interesting knowledge about indigenous local practices mostly from South Africa, but they can easily be applied to our rural landscapes. What was memorable to me is learning how the indigenous knowledge can be integrated with modern scientific knowledge and theory,” said Kamaldinov. “We even learned about one conservation project in which the indigenous local tribe was helping scientists to monitor the population of a local species of antelope. The tribe was equipped with modern GIS tools from the project team to map the species.”

Wayne Twine teaching at CEU in Vienna. Photo by Sotiris Bekas.

Last year, Twine fully taught the CORUSUS ethnoecology course. With the project faculty, he is pleased to have evolved the structure for this second year to include co-teaching and cases from partners, deepening the conversation across more rural contexts. For example, Rakhimov, an anthropologist, gave a lecture about the evolution of pastoralism in Central Asia, which includes a Soviet legacy, offering a historical approach as a way to analyze land use resource management. He additionally spoke about land use and climate change in Kyrgyzstan and how such processes work.

In reflecting on the recent course, CEU student Lily Hess noted, “One thing we learned is that trust is very important if you want to cooperate with local communities and indigenous people. In many cases such people have been marginalized by society or their knowledge has been exploited and they haven't benefited from sharing that, so there are a lot of ethical considerations you have to take into account.” She added that, “Ethnoecology incorporates a lot of different world views and an important thing that we were taught is that you don't have to necessarily believe a particular world view, but you have to respect it in this work.”

CORUSUS ethnoecology course at CEU in Vienna. Photo by Sotiris Bekas.

Hess is additionally looking forward to an internship in Lebanon for three weeks this summer as part of the project at the rural research site affiliated with AUB. The internship aspect of CORUSUS is open to CEU MESPOM students who successfully interview and match with one of the partner institutions. “One of the main points of CORUSUS is to conduct research and improve rural livelihoods, which is very important for global sustainability. We are studying about how rural landscapes should be managed and those areas make up a big part of the world,” she commented.

Rural Sustainability in Context

Faculty and student mobility is embedded in the CORUSUS project design, taking participants to the various partner sites in rural areas. In addition to the ethnoecology joint course hosted in Vienna each year, CEU student internships have already occurred during summer of 2022 in Kyrgyzstan and South Africa, and in 2023 will additionally include Lebanon. Among their activities, students have helped conduct focus group discussions and document rural life in agricultural and pastoral areas. One of the objectives as an OSUN project is to build relationships, not just among faculty, but between students and researchers from the North and the South, and also South to South.

For faculty, site visits for comparative research took the team to Kyrgyzstan in 2022. “For me personally going to Kyrgyzstan was really insightful. I could translate some of what I learned there into my courses, and I think it made me better understand the struggles about our local communities by seeing another context,” reflected Jaber. The faculty will meet in South Africa in 2023 and in Lebanon in 2024. “For CORUSUS, we mostly concentrate on the Global South,” highlighted Rakhimov, adding that, “The research contexts are very different - the ecosystems, rural areas, historical and political configurations. These differences make the cases interesting to analyze, and at the same time, we can notice more global trends and draw parallels among these different contexts.”

Jaber further notes the valuable perspectives and insights that emerge from being able to visit the select rural sites and meet as a collaborative team during the research visits. “The most important thing here is to realize is that although we're literally from four different corners of the world, it's a project that helps to both highlight our distinctions, but also a lot of our commonalities,” she said. “Many of the struggles are similar around climate change, rural poverty and certain threats to traditional culture, so it's good to see how we can join forces and learn from each other in facing these challenges.”

CORUSUS classroom at CEU in Vienna. Photo by Sotiris Bekas.

“One thing we're trying to do is understand to what degree traditional ecological knowledge is playing in adaptation. Not just adaptation to climate change but to any of the challenges towards sustainability,” explained Anthony regarding the research in process. He emphasized that the research focus is not on one particular challenge, but rather to deal with the complexity of a suite of challenges faced by livestock farmers. “Who do they talk to? How do they work together? How do they themselves collaborate on making decisions? When are they deciding to try something new or innovative and what does it take for that to happen?” Anthony asked. CORUSUS is trying to take a broader view of sustainability challenges in these rural landscapes focusing on livestock farmers, because it's part of an entangled socio-ecological system.

Another phenomenon CORUSUS researchers found to be in common across all sites is the out-migration from rural areas and a sense that the young people are moving, leaving fewer people to whom practices can be passed on to. This makes it more likely for such practices to diminish or die out. “We hope to contribute to general policy recommendations regarding how to retain youth in the rural countryside and enable them to have a meaningful life where they can provide for their families and have a sense of well-being,” noted Anthony.  

Just as CEU student Hess highlighted regarding the course, ethics and trust building are a critical aspect in working with the rural populations involved in CORUSUS. While the project has been running for just two years, the local research relationships in the selected sites have been slowly developed over many years by Anthony, Twine, Jaber and Rakhimov in their respective sites, building the local legitimacy of the researchers over time. On this topic, Twine said, “Our research focuses on real life challenges and issues faced by rural communities, and we place a lot of emphasis on feeding back research findings to communities in ways that are useful to them. That's part of the building of trust.” Mutuality and reciprocity are a key part of these research engagements.

In summarizing the CORUSUS project, Twine highlighted, “OSUN has brought together unlikely, but very interesting contrasting research partners in contexts that are different in some ways, but also have commonalities across rural sites. The unique insights from these different regions enrich what we can contribute to both the teaching and the research.” He maintains that rural sustainability is an important challenge faced by the world, especially the Global South, and noted that the CORUSUS team is well-positioned to generate insights because of the diverse perspectives of the partners.