Sharmalene Mendis-Millard is the Research Associate for the Community Conservation Research Network. She is helping to synthesize the research results and experiences from across the network’s 25 study sites, with the aim of presenting lessons learned in ways that will be useful for communities, policy makers and academics, among others.
What sustainability means in a practical sense in different locations within a global context has taken Sharmalene down two career paths: one as an academic and the other in the environmental non-profit sector specializing in lot-level stormwater management and green infrastructure.
As an academic, her research focus has been on how the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program is operationalized in Canada, and how communities can adapt to changes (i.e., the transition from traditional resource-based, extraction economies in the face of climate change) in ways that improve human well-being and social-ecological resilience.
Sharmalene served as a member of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Committee for two years when it was revitalized in 2010. She also served as the Coordinator for the Canadian Biosphere Research Network, an informal entity linked to the Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association, from 2003 – 2013.
With local environmental non-profit organisations, Sharmalene gained practical experience in helping to develop and implement the Green Communities Canada RAINCommunitySolutions.ca program in Kitchener, Waterloo and Guelph, Ontario, in partnership with the municipalities. RAIN promotes practical ways of adopting green infrastructure on private and public properties through community engagement and education, with attention to policy changes aimed at flood reduction and pollution prevention. She also was a member of the TransitionKW team that developed a Climate Change Adaptation Toolkit and workshops for Waterloo Region.
Sharmalene’s research has primarily focused on the Clayoquot Sound (BC), Redberry Lake (SK), Riding Mountain (MB), and Mount Arrowsmith (BC) biosphere reserves.
Established in 1971, biosphere reserves are sites that span terrestrial and marine environments and consist of core protected areas embedded in working landscapes. Held up as “models of sustainability, they are designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme for their ecological significance and local efforts to reconcile conservation with sustainable use of resources. As of November 2016, there are 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries, including 16 transboundary sites. This expanding network includes 18 Canadian sites in 8 provinces and 1 territory – two of which were most recently designated in 2016. Biosphere reserves are intended to serve as “living laboratories” to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to local-level stewardship, conservation of biological and cultural diversity, and sustainable development at local and regional scales through collaboration, citizen engagement, research, education, and training.
How these ideals evolve and are put into practice around the world is of continuing interest.
Research interests include collaborative approaches to environmental and resource management, regional adaptive governance, community-based research, community capacity and well-being, socio-cultural capital, social learning, and social indicators.
Sharmalene’s doctoral work at the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo concerns the roles that biosphere reserve organizations already – and can potentially – play in fostering the adaptive capacity of their regions. This work also addresses the implications of growth, development and Central Region First Nations engagement in Clayoquot Sound (BC), and bovine tuberculosis management and rural viability in Riding Mountain (MB).
As a Master’s student at the University of Saskatchewan, she developed a conceptual framework of community capacity and compared self-assessments to socio-economic scales of well-being of the Clayoquot Sound (BC) and Redberry Lake (SK) regions through community-based mixed-methods research. This Master’s project won the University of Saskatchewan Social Sciences Graduate Thesis Award and was recognized by the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve Association as an example of mutually-beneficial community-university collaboration.
She was also active in developing the Canadian Biosphere Research Network (CBRN), associated with the Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association, which formed as an ad-hoc volunteer group to connect people – locals, academics, civil servants –interested in research in biosphere reserve sites or on what the UNESCO biosphere reserve designation means on the ground. Initially conceived as a student network in the 1990s, a revitalized CBRN in 2004 set out to meet several goals: to make biosphere reserve-related documents and resources accessible; to provide forums for researchers and practitioners to share experiences, communicate findings and potentially find opportunities for collaboration; to help connect researchers with locals and others working in biosphere reserves while they plan and carry out projects; and, to communicate research needs ethical research guidelines that are specific to different biosphere reserve regions. However, CBRN has been dormant for some years due to a lack of funding and dedicated champions and volunteers. Efforts at the regional EuroMAB level to revitalize a biosphere reserve research network are promising and welcome.