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WVU researcher advances the study of the human dimensions of cave and karst science and conservation in the Caribbean

What do caves and human geography have in common? That’s what West Virginia University’s María Alejandra Pérez, Associate Professor of Geography at the Eberly College of Arts & Sciences, will be considering as she studies “ecologies of participation” in karst regions of Puerto Rico. 

Supported by a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Studies Program, Pérez will be looking at the novel and creative ways humans work together to study and conserve karst, the kinds of landscapes where caves usually occur.  The research is a collaboration with Dr. Aixa Alemán-Díaz of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

A karst topography is one shaped by water. These landscapes are often made of limestone and have features like caves, sinkholes and groundwater aquifers. They also include animals that depend on the karst ecosystem, like bats. In the case of the Caribbean, much of this karst is along coasts, so it is both fresh and saltwater that come together to shape caves. But Pérez and her colleague, Aixa Alemán-Díaz, are looking at something deeper than just a cavern along the coast. As trained cultural anthropologists, they’re focused on collaborations between local experts, volunteers and academics within a social science and humanities framework that understands exploration and field science as cultural activities. The idea is to view science — in this case, speleology and the study of karst — through lenses like identity, place, values, history and politics. 

“We're really thinking about the people who are at the forefront of this, of exploring, studying and conserving these vulnerable and oftentimes hidden dimensions of the karst.”
– Maria Pérez

“We want to understand what motivates these people, how they organize and how they do their work despite having very limited resources to do it. These people and their organizations appear to be at the forefront of the study and conservation karst in the Puerto Rican archipelago. Their insights are of great value to people in the rest of the United States, the Caribbean, and even Latin America.” 

A group of researchers in a cave appears as shadows in front of sunlight streaming through a hold in the cave roof.
A group of Puerto Rican and US-based cavers, along with a Puerto Rican archeologist exploring the difficult to access caves of the continental karst of the Puerto Rican main island (photo by María Pérez)

While the project is about how karst science and human geography intersect, Pérez said it’s ultimately about telling a human story. In fact, some of her preliminary work that made this project possible was funded by the WVU Humanities Center. She’s paying particular attention to the lives and aspirations of project contributors she calls non-traditional actors. 

“Many of the people who are at the forefront of cave and karst science and conservation are not academics,” she said. “They're doing this work because they are highly skilled explorers and they’re passionate about the environment and their communities. They understand the interconnected nature of the systems upon which their lives and the lives of other beings depend. They are not citizen scientists. Instead, they are expert explorers, mappers, community organizers and leaders, and they don’t get paid for this. So, we’re really trying to understand these on-the-ground efforts.”

These non-traditional actors can become catalysts of change as well as important local, regional and even international collaborations. 

“We aim to describe and elevate this broader scope of critical people and organizations,” she said. “Oftentimes, a volunteer base with hardly any money is taking a leadership role. Not only are they identifying key scientific questions, they are also taking leadership in answering them.”

Many of these questions consider the compounding challenges of climate change and human development in karst regions. In Puerto Rico, 37% of the terrain is karst, and the issue of access to freshwater aquifers, for example, is fundamental to the livelihoods and well-being of communities. Such vulnerable regions are known as critical zones. Pérez said these areas are changing rapidly, which is why she and Alemán-Díaz stress the urgency of their research.

Pérez sees parallels between Puerto Rico and West Virginia. Karst topography is also prevalent in West Virginia.

“There are a lot of caving groups and organizations here in West Virginia that are volunteer-based and dedicated to the study, exploration, mapping and conservation of karst,” she said. “These include volunteer cavers on the frontline, witnessing the impact of climate and environmental change and development. They’re going underground, making friends with property owners so they can access the caves on their land.”

Pérez expects her work at home in West Virginia will grow, and she said it will be important to draw lessons from NGOs, caving groups and community organizations in places like Puerto Rico. Both regions are vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation and often suffer when profit is placed before the health of the ecosystem and well-being of communities which depend on them. 

“There are a lot of caves in West Virginia,” she said. “It’s easy to contaminate your drinking water if you don’t understand the connection between the surface and the underground. The impacts of pollution and resource extraction — not only environmental but also cultural and ecological — are in many places devastating. We all want our communities to thrive. Many communities in both West Virginia and Puerto Rico are socially and economically vulnerable, and we need to find a balance that doesn’t compromise or hurt the environment that undergirds their livelihoods.” 

A notable component of the project includes elevating the role of maps and Geographic Information Science (GIS) in the researchers’ Caribbean work. 

“These maps can be used to tell powerful stories of the social dimension of how we explore and experience the earth,” Pérez said. “So we have a really creative component that actually uses ArcGIS Story Maps, and we have local collaborators who are going to help us produce the content, both in Spanish and English.”

She expects her team will examine whether and in what ways the role of non-traditional actors is fundamental for the exploration, science and conservation of coastal karst in Puerto Rico. Her collaboration with Dr. Alemán-Díaz is fundamental to the success of this research.

“What I'm learning through the project and my collaboration with Dr. Alemán-Díaz, is that these people in many ways epitomize the most creative kinds of organizations and initiatives that I have seen anywhere. We're constantly thinking about how to translate the work and share these lessons and, perhaps, explore opportunities for other kinds of collaborations in the future.”

North America map with the United States colored in red and Puerto Rico circled in red.
Map of Puerto Rico in relation to the United States and the Americas (wiki commons)