Date of Award

1999

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Science Honours

Faculty

Faculty of Communications, Health and Science

First Advisor

Dr Pierre Horwitz

Abstract

Significant ecological restoration is required in the agricultural regions of south-western Australia. Environmental history, including local knowledge based on long-term observation of the biophysical environment, can help guide this process. Scientists already use local anecdotal information because other information sources are absent or too recent, yet they are often skeptical of its veracity. This study focused on whether environmental oral histories can be evaluated for factual accuracy and their capacity to be useful in the restoration process. Some of the complexities associated with linking environmental histories with restoration ecology, and the role played by oral histories in establishing the link were reviewed. Three analytical tools were then established: 1. A set of five ecosystem attributes against which the relevancy and comprehensiveness of the oral histories could be assessed. 2. A classification of uses of historical information in the restoration process for assessing the capacity of the interviews to provide information that helps determine restoration potential, understand processes of change and assist restoration planning. 3. A triangulation process for corroborating recollections across interviews, and through the use of external data sources, in order to examine the consistency and veracity of the recollections. These analytical tools were applied in a case study set in the degraded headwaters of the upper Tone River, south-western Australia. Purposeful sampling was used to select seven interviewees with information-rich recollections of the biophysical condition of the river commencing prior to extensive clearing in the catchment in the late 1940s. The interview method employed broad, open questions about the ecosystem attributes to avoid pre-determining the content of the interview, and to give participants the freedom to recall what was significant about the river to them. To avoid compromising the triangulation exercises, memory aids were not used. The deliberate non-use of specific and probing questions in the interviews probably reduced the amount and type of detailed information collected, and the capacity to determine its factual accuracy. Amending the interview method would address this issue. Nevertheless, information was collected that was relevant and potentially useful to river restoration, principally in relation to setting goals of importance to local people. Cross-interview analysis corroborated almost 50% of selected recollections across the interviews. An exercise using the results of the cross-interview analysis and identified information sources, found that most of the statements could be corroborated, and therefore increased in evidentiary value. In another independent test of the oral histories, statements were taken from transcripts and given to scientists trained in aspects of restoration ecology. They determined that nearly two-thirds of all statements were capable of being checked for factual accuracy. This study has demonstrated that when oral histories are collected for a particular purpose, there are techniques that can be used to extract and evaluate relevant information. By using a diversity of techniques to assess the veracity of the recollections with significant success, it has also been shown that recollections can be a valuable source of factual information.

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