Helping to stop nature’s decline
“I don’t want to keep repeating the story that nature on our planet is deteriorating. I want to look for solutions”, says prof. Wieteke (Louise) Willemen. As a researcher at ICT, the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation in Twente, she studies the relationship between people and nature. Her research focuses on ecosystem services, nature’s benefits to people (like the regulation of water and pollination of crops), which are under increased pressure.
Willemen puts the effects of measures against land degradation on the map (often literally). In many places in the world, nature has disappeared and/or biodiversity has heavily decreased as a result of human behaviour. Governments, entrepreneurs and NGO’s are trying to solve this worldwide problem. This is the case in Baviaanskloof in South Africa for example, where one of Willemen’s research projects is being carried out. “It’s a dry region where only livestock farming is possible. Since sheep and goats have overgrazed the area for decades, Baviaanskloof has almost become a desert. There is no longer a business case for farmers. That is why farmers have switched to growing lavender and rosemary, plants that thrive in dry conditions. We use satellite images to monitor the effects of these changes on people and nature.”
It is crucial that researchers collaborate with decision-makers, Willemen says. “Globally awareness is growing that nature’s decline must be stopped. As scientists, our contribution is to help make choices. People want to do the right thing but often don’t know how. They simply want to know what works and what doesn’t. That is why we are involved in an interesting project in Ethiopia, for example. Dutch companies in this country have developed methods for providing planted trees with more nutrients and water so that these trees have a greater chance to survive.”
Willemen and her fellow researchers of the University of Twente are also currently doing research in Paramaribo. The capital city of Suriname has expanded so strongly, that hardly any nature is left. As a result, the petrified city is getting hotter every year and floods have become common. Researchers of Twente are measuring the temperature at various locations in the city and are modelling water infiltration. In cooperation with the government, they are also examining how public green areas can be protected or even expanded
On a larger scale, Willemen recently contributed to reports of the IPBES, the UN platform for biodiversity and ecosystem services. As the leading author, she contributed to a document drawn up on behalf of and in consultation with the 135 member countries. Willemen investigated the information and the tools that should help decision-makers in their policy to restore nature and biodiversity. “I always have an eye for the issues at play with governments, industry and investors. Everyone now sees the consequences of land degradation. When nature is gone, or there is no water any more, the land is no longer productive. The question is: what can we do to prevent a situation like that? It is the job of scientists to help to find solutions.”
“I use my research projects also in the classroom,” Wieteke Willemen says. “We have developed educational programs for both the University Twente and the Anton de Kom University of Suriname, based on our research in public green spaces in Paramaribo. It benefits students. They gain insight into social issues and contribute to solutions in urban areas. It also fits in with the Challenge-Based Education and People First ideas that the University of Twente stands for.”
Willemen has an eye for inclusivity within her research and education. “My starting point is that everyone should have equal opportunities and equal access to, for example, locations for field research. It applies to both scientists and students. I’m constantly aware of that.”
Prof. dr. Wieteke (Louise) Willemen (1979) obtained her PhD at the Wageningen University & Research on spatial modelling of ecosystem services. She worked at the global research-for-development organization Bioversity International in Colombia, the European Commission’s Research Center in Italy and the Cornell University in the US. Since 2014 Willemen works at the ITC faculty of the University of Twente, where she holds a chair in Spatial Dynamic of Ecosystem Services.
Willemen has been a board member of the JA@UT, the young academy of UT. She was also chair of the Reflection Group, which advised on the mission, vision and strategy of the University of Twente (Shaping 2030).