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Fabiola Espinoza Córdova studies climate change adaptation in coastal communities in relation to power and justice

Boats and house by the sea in the Caribbean. Photo: Pixabay.
Marine coastal ecosystems such as seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs provide services of vital importance for coastal communities in the Caribbean. Photo: Pixabay.

As a PhD student in the MaCoBios project, Fabiola Espinoza Córdova aims to explore how we can reframe adaptation to climate change in coastal communities towards more sustainable and just pathways. She believes that impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems linked to climate change are not only driven by global warming and human pressures, but are directly embedded in social changes. Read about what drives her as a researcher, what she thinks about sustainability science and her impressions of Lund.

What will you examine in your research?

I will focus on understanding how power dynamics and worldviews shape how different social groups come to know and experience climate change and their impacts in marine and coastal ecosystems (MCE), what it means for decisions about how to adapt and how we can use this information to develop more equitable interventions. My research is set in the context of the Caribbean Region, a region that relies heavily on MCE for livelihood opportunities and is recognized as one of the most vulnerable regions to the impact of climate change.  

MCE, such as seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs provide services of vital importance for coastal communities in the Caribbean, such as regulating natural cycles, protecting coastal areas and supporting livelihoods such as tourism and fishing. However, the effects of climate change, coupled with human-induced pressures, are reducing their capacity to provide such crucial services. In this context, while strategies that integrate the sustainable use of these ecosystems into adaptation actions are increasingly being prioritized, many critics have pointed out that these interventions often fail to reduce the vulnerability of the most marginalised, leading to negative effects and inequalities.   

If we aim to reconfigure the trajectory of these interventions into more just and sustainable pathways, we will need to pay extra attention in integrating the social context into adaptation planning and policy. Among others, this requires acknowledging that climate change is not only an objective biophysical phenomenon, but its impacts, and perhaps more importantly, the way we act upon it, is deeply conditioned by how we understand change and experience it. I am to contribute to increase out understanding on these aspects, with the ultimate goal to better guide decision makers to develop more effective ecosystem-based measures that are more just and sustainable overtime.

What sustainability challenges do you want to solve?’

Undoubtedly climate change impact is one of the most pressing sustainability challenges of our time. While “leaving no one behind” is a clear commitment associated with our sustainable development pathway, in the context of climate change adaptation, interventions do not often accomplish this aim. While mainly focusing on the techno-managerial aspects, adaptation actions often favour the most powerful, leaving the most marginalised continuously vulnerable to climate change impacts. In this sense, finding ways to make adaptation interventions more equitable and sustainable are some of the main challenges policy makers and practioners face. 

I aim to contribute to tackling this challenge by promoting the recognition that MCE impacts linked to climate change are not only driven by global warming and human pressures, but are directly embedded in social changes, and vice versa. Expanding the focus of adaptive interventions by acknowledging that power structures and different worldviews influence how climate is experienced and known, will enable us to design more just adaptation policy and planning. 

Why did you become a researcher? What drives you?

If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever get into the research path, I would have confidently said it was highly unlikely.  However, after a few years facing the challenges of implementing fisheries management and biodiversity conservation projects on the ground, I realised research was the required step in my career to make a more meaningful contribution in this field.

As part of the decision makers, I experienced that there is a general lack of evidence-based knowledge to support the design and implementation of climate change adaptation strategies in coastal communities. Specifically, lack of scientific back-up knowledge on how power dynamics, knowledge and worldviews of different social groups influence how they experience climate change and its consequences in the implementation of interventions. This lack of evidence-based guidance for policy making generally resulted in narrow adaptation frameworks, prone to short-term outcomes, increasing or prevailing inequalities. Facing this reality on the ground made me particularly interested in contributing to increasing understanding of these issues, and more importantly, providing this knowledge to policy makers, who are ultimately the ones facing governance challenges on the ground. This was my main motivation for changing my career path and become a researcher in the sustainability field. 

What did you do beforehand?

After concluding my undergraduate studies, I worked for a few years at the Peruvian Service for Natural Protected Areas. Specifically, I was part of the management team of the marine protected area called Guano Islands, Isles, and Capes National Reserve System (RNSIIPG), which covers 33 island, isles, and capes along the Peruvian coast. As part of the team of policy makers, I participated in the development, implementation, and monitoring of various natural resource management plans, in close coordination with fishing communities and government authorities, as well as supported the formulation of the protected area’s long-term strategy. Additionally, I was involved in organising and conducting participatory processes with main stakeholders of coastal communities as well as environmental awareness campaigns.

After completing my master’s in environmental science, policy, and management at the Central European University, I worked as an international consultant at the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). During this time, I focused on promoting the financial inclusion of small-scale fishers and fish workers, specifically in the Asia and Africa Region, through capacity building as well as developing technical guidance for policy makers and other key stakeholders. 

Why do you think sustainability science is important – what can it give society?

In our time, where climate change and loss of biodiversity, among other complex problems, are severely impacting and threatening our future on the planet, we need to not only understand the complex dynamics that underpin those challenges but find solutions to them. In the context of climate change adaptation, the used-inspired approach that characterise sustainability science encourages us to expand our research focus to find ways in which we can transform our present interventions into just adaptation actions that ensure social and economic development while ensuring ecosystem resilience. 

Moreover, the complex goal of sustainability science to reframe these interventions encourage us not only to purse a research interdisciplinary but promotes the co-production of knowledge. That is promoting that policy makers, practitioners and private sector stakeholders collaborate with scholars from different disciplines to create knowledge that is useful for solving practical issues in this field. In this way, by including different perspectives, methodologies and worldviews, sustainability science can help rethink climate change adaptation processes in a more inclusive and fairer way.

What do you think of Sweden and Lund University so far?  

Like many people who started a new job in this pandemic time, where social contact is restricted and life as we know it has pretty much changed, I must admit that my move to Sweden and the start of this new challenge has been far from normal. However, my so far (online) experience, has not devaluated the charm of being part of Lund University. The online workshops, classes, and specially the regular meetings with my supervisors have enable me to feel supported and constantly inspired by colleagues and researchers from my field. While not ordinary, I can happily say that my welcome to academic life has been enriching and inspiring.

Although I have not been able to experience the city as much as I would have liked, I already feel Sweden, and especially Malmö, where I live, as a second home. The proximity to the sea, the parks and nature in general, and the special international and relaxed atmosphere of the city, make me feel quite at ease. I'm looking forward to trying more fikas, selmas, liquorice (yes, I've already been drawn to it!) and exploring the beautiful landscapes and nature the country has to offer in the years to come.

Headshot of Fabiola Espinoza Córdova. Photo.


Fabiola is a doctoral student at Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). She holds an undergraduate degree in biology with a specialization in fisheries management from the National University of San Marcos and a master’s degree in environmental science, policy, and management from the Central European University. Prior joining LUCUS, Fabiola was working as a fisheries and finance consultant at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Additionally, she worked on marine protected area management in Peru. 

Read more about Fabiola Espinoza Córdova