We are convinced that ecosystem services (ESS) management can alleviate poverty if it is embedded in local processes of adaptive governance that rely on continuous monitoring and knowledge generation. This is especially the case in remote mountain regions, where poverty is often interlocked with multiple ecosystem threats, data scarcity, and high uncertainties. In these environments, it is paramount to generate locally relevant knowledge about multiple ESS and how they impact local livelihoods. This is often problematic. Existing environmental data collection tends to be geographically biased towards more densely populated regions, and prioritised towards strategic economic activities that bypass the poor. Data may also be locked behind institutional and technological barriers and monopolised by the better educated or politically connected. These issues create a “knowledge trap” for data-poor regions, which is especially acute in remote and hard-to-reach mountain regions.

This project will blend cutting-edge concepts of adaptive governance with technological breakthroughs in citizen science and knowledge co-generation to break this vicious circle. Our central research question is how recent conceptual and technological innovations in environmental sensing, data processing, interactive visualisation and participatory knowledge generation can be leveraged to implement demand-driven, interactive and multidirectional approaches to knowledge generation about ESS. Our approach to this question is built around the notion of Environmental Virtual Observatories: decentralised and open technology platforms for knowledge generation and exchange that enable participation of marginalised and vulnerable communities bypassed by the traditional mechanisms.

Our case studies are 4 remote and poor mountain regions characterised by acute degradation of ESS, in particular water supply, soil fertility, and land cover. We will implement a process of participatory data collection and processing on these ESS and their trade-offs, embedded in the local NGO and educational setting. Mechanisms of continuous evaluation and improvements will be set up, and tested for usefulness, robustness and impact on human wellbeing.

Our goal is not to develop specific solutions to specific problems. Rather, we will leverage the cross-disciplinary nature of our consortium to create a flexible and adaptive set of tools, protocols and concepts to promote citizen science on ESS for poverty alleviation. As such, the project aims at nothing less than reconceptualising the approach to managing ESS for poverty alleviation.