College of Liberal Arts

Close to the Land

The people of the Okavango River Delta region of Botswana live close to the land.

The delta's watery fingers provide water for crops and livestock. They draw wildlife that sustain the tourism industry and they grow grasses that go into crafts and other products.

Kelley Crews, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at The University of Texas at Austin, is in the midst of several research projects concerning the interactions of the people and the environment in the Okavango Delta.

"It's a puzzle, a very messy puzzle," Crews said. "I'm an academic because I like trying to solve puzzles."

Her goal is to fit together as many puzzle pieces as she can to depict a region and its people in transition.

Crews uses an assortment of the geographer's tools: she searches for patterns in satellite images, interviews people in their homes and gets detailed information on the ground by walking specified routes — transects — in the Botswana savannah and bush.

She lived and worked in Botswana for 18 months in parts of 2009 and 2010, which grounded her in how life is lived in the Okavango Delta.

She got in tune with local mores and ate the local food. She dealt with snakes trying to get into her house and worked in places where, if you get too far from your tent or vehicle, "you're on the menu."

Her field research will be useful to local and regional resource managers in Botswana and developing countries with similar puzzles of problems and choices.

In Botswana, she collaborates with local researchers, who help spread the information and techniques to others.

The geography classes Crews teaches in Austin are informed by her latest research and techniques she develops in the field.

She also takes students to the field. This summer Crews' field team will include three graduate students and three undergraduates, thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the university's Environmental Science Institute.

Read the full feature story.