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  • Writer's pictureAnna

Scientific outsider at the Neretva Science Week (BIH)

I just came back from the Neretva Science Week (NSW) 2023, where scientists from more than 15 different countries around the world joined forces to highlight the uniqueness of this amazing river. For a week we camped, shared and measured around four main so-called missions to characterize the stunning diversity the Upper Neretva has to offer.

"Now is a critical moment to collect data to provide evidence of what is at risk if hydropower development continues in this area, and to thereby increase public visibility of these valuable ecosystems" Neretva Science Week mission
The Neretva in Ulog
The Neretva river in Ulog

I promised I would get back with some reflections on what it meant for me.

Below a random collection of thoughts.

#1 -About my mission(s)

The NSW is about the river and its nature, but my side of the mission was to:

- focus on the participants and their reasons to be part of the NSW

- incorporate the locals of the Neretva and understand their connections to the river.

To me, BIH is simply the most stunning natural European country. Travelling there by plane is not my favorite, as I do not get to slowly be drawn into the place - still, approaching Sarajevo from the airplane has its own, different, meaning. Landing in Sarajevo was also a great way to meet Martine and Josh, who arrived at similar times; we had a nice walk while waiting for Mara, another member of my "socio-cultural" team. Then, we got to drive through beautiful landscapes until Ulog, a village in the Upper Neretva and the basecamp of the NSW.

A view of Ulog
Ulog used to be a large village; now only 13 people live there year-round. Many of them were pivotal to the success of the NSW as they supported the coordinating team taking care of us.

In Ulog I hugged Ana and Constance, and was quickly introduced to the amazing group of organizers and participants; I did a regular-to-poor job explaining the other side of the mission, the questionnaires to the participants to the Neretva, and introducing the team :)

#2 -Senior scientist ahoy

I told my students “I am learning from you as much as you are learning from me”

It was my first time in the Upper Neretva and I naively thought I would be able to do some trip to visit some of the wonderful sites everybody was going to. It was also really important to set up the work with my group and try to make sure Martine and Josh were comfortable with their roles. In the end, I managed to do what I needed, sacrificing some conversation and field trip. Somehow I felt I was not really part of Neretva Science Week, at times more of an outsider than I should (it turns out I could have been helping a few of the teams in the field - I thank my bachelor and master for that!).

Still, by the end of my short stay, it was tough to leave Ulog and all the new great people I met. It was even harder to leave Martine and Josh, even though I know they are perfectly capable to handle everything will come their way. I feel I should have been better. When you have to coordinate others, when others depend on you, you need a whole new set of capabilities. In some ways I am already there, because of the way I base my own scientist-self on empathy and kindness. But I am unprepared to the uncertainties of the social-science field, so central to this part of the project. I told my students “I am learning from you as much as you are learning from me” and it may not be completely true, but it sure as hell goes near.

Am I making it too difficult for myself?

I am still not completely comfortable with coordinating work of others. I think it is normal for someone like me, in constant need of shoving back and away the shyness and fear of being unprepared. It would be so much easier to coordinate a group for hydrological monitoring! I might try and propose that for next year, perhaps to look into the minimum discharge point - relevant to many other NSW groups and to the conservation objective. I am not sure if this is why I felt a bit like an outsider. May I have self-proclaimed myself an outsider because of the path I took to get there?

#3 - The people

I feel this work with the locals is the most important thing I have ever done.

Such cool people I met! Amazing scientists, activists, journalists, and most of the organizers. I have written down a list of names with a small note about inspiring conversations and points of view. I cannot help but thinking what more could I have learned by sticking around until the end of the week. I could have met many more and didn´t get the chance. I would have loved to pay back a couple of beers to the fungi/dendrochronology team, possibly my favorite <3 (close to the large predators "solo teams"), discussed potential connections with my amazing roomie, and hopefully met more people and joined some teams on the field!

A separate whole world is the amazing experience of learning from the locals, and the ways one approaches interviews. Local values and knowledge are critical to understand and address conflicting values in the Balkans – and everywhere else. I feel responsible to show this to other scientists, activists, journalists and everyone else. People are users of the land, they care for the land, they are (supposed to) participate to management decisions, they are the ones who will perceive/adapt to any change and the carriers of the knowledge about previous changes. Our multi-disciplinary group can be the voice of change! With Martine and Josh I am going to look into what they let us know about them soon, after the interviews are over and we are all back to our usual countries, houses and company. I feel this work with the locals is the most important thing I have ever done, and look forward to make their voices heard. Also: I really wish I could understand/speak with the locals by myself!! Pity my Swedish is so bad, I need to learn that first.

Big thank you to Špela, Gabriel, Vlado & C., all the people I met, and my wonderful team.

#4 - Notes to self:

- if you go to Ulog, get a 4x4!

- your "inspiring speech capability" is inversely correlated to the amount of people listening, with a close-to exponential decrease when the group is >20 people: magic

- sadness can really follow you anywhere

- "after 3 days without a shower your hair start to look better" is not true



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