Top 5 JWO finalist
Dr Yolandi Schoeman
Dr Yolandi Schoeman believes that is possible to engineer natural systems back to health.
An ecological engineer by training, she has been shortlisted for the JWO Research Grant for her proposal entitled ‘BioCredits: Regenerating Africa’s Landscape bio-intelligently’, and aims to “develop an impactful biodiversity credit system for sustainable development, by incentivising sustainable land use, and ecosystem and landscape regeneration.” She says the system will “revolutionise African conservation, promoting biodiversity, ecosystem health, and sustainable development”, as well as “benefit communities and nature, and offering social and economic advantages through sustainable practices.
Asked why she embarked on this research, she says: “I am deeply passionate about addressing the unprecedented challenges that Africa faces due to climate change and environmental conflict. The devastating impacts on biodiversity, livelihoods, and the overall well-being of communities motivate me to embark on the BioCredits project.”
Schoeman believes that “a scalable and practical solution is needed to reverse biodiversity loss and promote sustainable development in Africa”, and that “by integrating the planetary health nexus methodology, we can create a comprehensive understanding of ecosystem health, foster interdisciplinary collaboration, and attract private-sector finance for positive actions towards biodiversity management.”
She says that through the research “we hope to gain a comprehensive understanding of the planetary health nexus in Africa by analysing microbial diversity and ecosystem health indicators. This will contribute to our knowledge of the interconnections between water, climate, food, rewilding, and land systems and their impacts on human well-being and the environment.
“Based on these findings, we expect to develop a robust framework that integrates the various dimensions of the planetary health nexus. This framework will capture the relationships and dependencies between human and natural systems, emphasising the importance of biodiversity conservation, sustainable land-use practices, and ecosystem services for sustainable development.
“Additionally, we aim to create a visual representation, a planetary health nexus map, that incorporates data from multiple sources such as microbial diversity, ecosystem health, land use, water resources, climate patterns, and food systems. This map will serve as a valuable tool for identifying priority areas for biodiversity conservation, informing decision-making processes, and guiding future biodiversity investments in Africa.”
Schoeman’s optimism in the possibilities of change is informed by her own research, during which she worked for nearly 10 years on a project “focused on the ecological reinstatement of a legacy degraded mining site … One of the most remarkable aspects of this research was witnessing the profound transformation of a severely modified and anthropogenically impacted landscape into an emerging vibrant ecosystem. Through the application of innovative regeneration techniques and ecological engineering interventions, we successfully reintroduced indigenous plant species, started to stabilise eroded areas and revitalise soil health (as part of the overall microbiome), and established habitats for a diverse range of wildlife species.
“What truly captivated me,” she says, “was observing the gradual resurgence of biodiversity in the area. Previously, the site had been devoid of life, but as our restoration efforts took effect, we witnessed the gradual return of insects, birds, and small mammals. It was an awe-inspiring experience, highlighting nature’s resilience and its remarkable capacity to rebound when provided with the opportunity.”
This success has “solidified my belief in the transformative potential of initiatives like the BioCredits project, which seeks to replicate and scale up these successes throughout Africa.”
That’s what she hopes winning the JWO award would enable.
“With the JWO award, I would dedicate the resources towards scaling up and implementing innovative solutions that address pressing environmental challenges. I would invest in research, fieldwork, and community engagement to promote sustainable practices, protect biodiversity, and foster resilience in the face of environmental change in Africa. The award would not only support the continuation of my research but also allow me to collaborate with diverse stakeholders, influence change, amplify awareness, and inspire others to take action.”
Schoeman says that while climate change is undoubtedly a significant environmental challenge facing Africa, it is important to acknowledge other pressing concerns as well. “One of the most worrying environmental and conservation challenges in Africa is habitat loss and degradation. Habitat loss occurs due to various factors such as deforestation, urbanization, conversion of land for agriculture or infrastructure development, and illegal logging. It directly threatens the survival of numerous plant and animal species, disrupts ecological balance, and compromises the overall health of ecosystems.
“Habitat loss and degradation are particularly alarming because they can have cascading effects on the environment and exacerbate other conservation challenges. It can disrupt wildlife migration routes, fragment habitats, increase the vulnerability of species to invasive species or diseases, and contribute to the loss of cultural and traditional knowledge associated with ecosystems.”
This is why “addressing habitat loss requires a multifaceted approach, including the protection and expansion of protected areas, implementation of sustainable land-use practices, promoting responsible development, and engaging local communities in conservation efforts. It necessitates collaboration between governments, conservation organisations, local communities, and the private sector to ensure the preservation and restoration of critical habitats for the long-term sustainability of Africa’s rich biodiversity.”
Asked what she considers the most hopeful recent scientific development, she notes the “growing recognition and adoption of nature-based solutions (NBS), which involve harnessing the power of nature to address environmental challenges and promote sustainable development.
“The implication of embracing nature-based solutions is significant. It allows us to work with nature, rather than against it, in tackling environmental challenges. NBS not only provide tangible benefits such as carbon sequestration, improved water quality, and enhanced biodiversity, but they also offer co-benefits for communities, including improved well-being, livelihood opportunities, and social resilience and re-instating coupled human-natural systems towards planetary health.
“The adoption of nature-based solutions is gaining traction globally. It is being integrated into policy frameworks, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“By embracing NBS, we have the potential to transform our relationship with the environment, shifting from a paradigm of exploitation to one of cooperation and stewardship. It offers hope for achieving a more sustainable and resilient future, where human well-being and nature conservation go hand in hand,” she says.
Dr Schoeman is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of the Free State holds a master’s degree in environmental management from the University of the Free State, and integrated water management from Monash University.
She completed a Ph.D. at UFS in 2022, and is also currently completing a Ph.D. in Economic and Management Sciences at the North-West University, specialising in coupled human and natural systems landscape sustainability. She also heads up two Innovations Labs: the Yolandi Schoeman Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where she focuses explicitly on creating entrepreneurial ecosystems and empowering micro-enterprises, and the Ecological Engineering Innovations Lab, which focuses on nature-based solutions.