Dana Baker, Sarah Tolbert & Emily Zink,


Countries represented in TRI News and TRI Bulletin research articles, 1986 - Present.


Reflections on Reading 30 Years of TRI Bulletins

Publication Text

Reflections on Reading 30 Years of TRI Bulletins

Dana Baker, Sarah Tolbert, & Emily Zink

2013–2014 TRI Program Assistants

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tropical Resources Institute, we embarked upon a project to explore the evolution and history of the Institute. Delving into past Bulletin articles, research and faculty profiles, and past collaborative partnerships from across the globe, we spent the fall of 2013 reading and cataloguing 260 articles published from 1986 to the present.  After indexing each article, we pulled out the major and minor themes, and examined where the research was conducted. The use of wordles, or word maps, gave us the chance to visualize how students’ research reflected the changing challenges, understandings, and pursuits in environmental studies. Although this project started with the aim of understanding the history of TRI, our research gave us insight into how conceptions of tropical resources have evolved over time.

In 1986, the publication, then known as TRI News, began as a way to disseminate news from research stations across the globe before the time of internet and email. Now the bulletin, known as Tropical Resources, gives fellows the opportunity to publish and share summer research findings. Tropical Resources encourages fellows to think creatively about their research. The articles selected for this Anniversary Issue provide a glimpse into the history of the Institute and represent the breadth and diversity of research conducted by TRI fellows.

For 30 years, TRI has given fellows the space to creatively research social, political, and environmental issues in the tropics. Fellows are allowed the freedom to move beyond orthodox science and thus have reshaped and collectively redefined ideas of natural resources, from logging in Amazonia (Nepstad 1989) to a study of whale shark tourism in Belize (Quiros 2005). TRI’s presence in this work has taken fellows all over the world, with over 58 countries represented in the published Bulletins since 1986. While the research articles we analyzed are dominated by studies in Latin American countries, fellows have increasingly expanded their research to include countries in Asia and Africa.

One of the most significant transitions we observed was the changing perception of what a natural resource is. In 1986, most student research was rooted in the natural sciences. Research topics were dominated by studies of material physical resources such as forests, wildlife, and natural resource management. However, a noticeable shift occurred as students started to conceptualize natural resources in increasingly abstract ways. While many students continue to study physical resources, current research now incorporates social science frameworks by blending traditional scientific methodologies with ethnographic and social studies. Today, there is a greater emphasis on development and policy, ecological economics, indigenous knowledge, and climate change in the tropics.

Yet the work does not end there. The challenges facing our generation continue to morph and our education and traditional disciplines must follow suit. Like the fellows before us, we continue to feel a sense of urgency as the breadth of challenges facing the global community grows.

Natural resources continue to be extracted in unsustainable ways, communities lack access to clean water and healthy food, species are going extinct, climates are changing, and poverty persists. But as researchers, citizens, and expats who have lived abroad, we remain cautiously optimistic. The boundaries of the environmental studies field are expanding and the silos of traditional disciplines are being challenged. We now realize that scientific orthodoxy alone will not solve the social, political, and environmental problems persisting on the global scale. At the beginning of this 30th anniversary of TRI’s special edition, we echo the words of TRI’s founder, Bill Burch, at the 2014 TRI symposium: we challenge both current and past fellows today to break free from the frameworks of traditional scientific research to create new responses to global problems that cross borders, traditional disciplines, and world cultures.