How two new WUR-professors focus on the triangle of human, nature, and policy

November 10, 2023

On the 16th of November 2023, two new professors at WUR, Maria Tengö and Georg Winkel, will deliver their inaugural speeches. Tengö will focus on how human-nature relationships matter, while Winkel will delve into perspectives on nature policies. "We are quite different, but also complementary. That's why we are organising a two-day symposium and delivering our inaugural speeches simultaneously," said Winkel.

Less than a year ago, Maria Tengö joined the Chair Group of Forest & Nature Conservation Policy at WUR as she was appointed as a Special Professor in Human-Nature Relationships in the Anthropocene. The group also welcomed a new chairholder the year before, Georg Winkel. These two new professors work on significant themes such as land use and biodiversity conservation, each pursuing their own research directions within the chair group.

The research conducted by the Chair Group Forest & Nature Conservation Policy encompasses everything that determines how people interact with nature. How do societies at large relate to forests and nature? What is the impact of specific policies? What social and economic influences come into play? Winkel stated, "The group has three main research perspectives: analysing forest and nature policies and governance, studying value chains and markets for ecosystem services, and understanding nature-society interactions. Our research spans from the level of governments to individuals. So, the focus is quite broad, but I see that diversity as a strength.”

Complimentary research interests

Winkel is interested in how people perceive nature, and how societal demands, environmental concerns, and economic interests meet in policy making. He mentioned, "For example, we currently work on rewilding by analysing perceptions of land abandonment in rural Spain, where the rural population is declining and large scale natural forest regrowth occurs on former agricultural land. On one hand, this process creates opportunities for rewilding, on the other hand, our research showed that rural people were also sceptical, as they perceived the return of the forests as symbol of rural decline. This creates tension that only become visible through empirical research.”

While Winkel's research often revolves around conflicting interests, Tengö's focus is on positive relationships between people and nature. "I'm keen to bring together people who can reflect on theories and methods for a better understanding of human-nature relationships, especially positive or regenerative ones. Furthermore, I will connect this with policy and practice. For instance, how can the ways that people care about nature around them be brought into for example ecological restoration projects?" Tengö uses a transdisciplinary approach and set out to further investigate how human-nature relationships matter in science-society collaborations, so called “knowledge co-production". “

Outdoor and policy classrooms

Before taking on her part-time professorship at WUR, Tengö already taught a course on transformative research. She may expand this in collaboration with the Stichting Nature College, which funds her position. "I have an interest in outdoor relational learning. For me, that is also a research area in itself. Being outdoor helps to bring in reflections of what nature means to us." Winkel seconds this perspective and underlines that there is lots of interest in the group – and amongst students – in the concept of outdoor relational learning.

Of course this would also depend on the course contents: “A big part of my own teaching is on political theory and policy analysis – and here, rather than outdoor learning, a “policy classroom”- that is going with students to government buildings to meet with policy makers – would be authentic.”

Yet, both Tengo and Winkel agree that learning could benefit from more outdoor experiences. Winkel remarked, "I found it quite challenging in the early days of my own studies 25 years ago that lots of teaching took place in classrooms, while my motivation for choosing this field was to have a professional life that involved spending a lot of time outdoors. It's somewhat ironic that I didn't get to spend much time outdoors throughout my professional career. We need to explore innovative teaching methods that allow people to go outside, into nature, or to The Hague and Brussels for policy courses. Perhaps we need different 'classrooms,' connecting students with all senses to the topics we teach academically."

Numbers and stories

With all the major environmental issues we face now and in the future – climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution – it's, according to Winkel, striking how much people value nature for its beauty and own intrinsic value as habitat for plants and animals. In a recent survey of 13,000 Europeans on forests, these aspects scored the highest: "I think this desire for nature is strong. Politically, such numbers can be influential in shaping environmental policies," Winkel concluded. Tengö added, "Of course, numbers are important; that's one way to demonstrate the value of nature. But there's also another approach, which is storytelling. Narratives about human-nature relationships can be powerful as well. We need both."