Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Conservation: Complexity, Constraint, and Community

By: Elise Gilchrist

In January of 2012 I boarded a plane headed to Turks and Caicos, a small island chain in the Caribbean. I would be spending a semester studying marine conservation and resource management with the School for Field Studies. Among lectures, SCUBA diving, and field research, I saw firsthand how humans are devastating our world’s oceans. In fact, I was directly involved in measuring how the community I lived in was stripping its reefs and surrounding water of the resources it depended on.
But the question that plagued me was: How do we solve this worldwide problem? How can I help solve this local problem? Should I strut into town with presentations, facts, and figures proving that the people were rapidly damaging the environment? Should I offer this struggling community some of my “Western” knowledge and show them a “better way”? Should I yell and shake them by the shoulders, explaining that if they continue removing seafood at an unsustainable rate, their ecosystems are bound to collapse? How do I show them that what they are doing is wrong?

 Spiny lobster is one of the most important sources of income for people living on South Caicos.
Let’s rewind my story for a moment a so I can describe to you the other ways that I spent my semester. Once a week I went to the local primary school to tutor a young girl named Cassandra. Cassandra was struggling to keep pace with her other classmates in math and reading, so during our hour together, we worked through her assigned problem sets. If she remained focused for the full hour, and we completed the lesson early, we would get to play a game together. I then spent weekends with my friends enjoying the low-key nightlife the town offered. I shared many jokes in Darryl’s restaurant and learned the skill and flare necessary to play dominoes on a rickety table from a group of fishermen in Chicken Bar. In retrospect, I spent half of my semester methodically studying the long-time degradation of a marine ecosystem and the other half enjoying experiences with newly-gained friends in the village.

Cassandra with a mouthful of cake on one of our last days together.

Now let’s revisit my question of how to show the community that the surrounding ecosystem was collapsing. Should I go into town and tell the guys at the fishing docks that they should not fish anymore and therefore not support their families? Or, should I go to the school and explain to Cassandra that her father is destroying the coral reefs? This struggle taught me the most important lesson I gained in college: Conservation is not just about collecting and presenting hard scientific facts, but it is a complex issue that must include consideration of the local community, especially if you seek to develop long-lasting management plans.
            Interestingly, this is not a new idea. In the 1980s and 90s the conservation movement saw a shift from ”fortress conservation” to a strategy that more actively involved the community. Fortress conservationists believed that creating protected areas to keep human disturbance to a minimum was the best way to safeguard wildlife. This shift in philosophies led conservationists to involve surrounding communities in decision-making and implementation of management plans. Community-based conservation is not a foolproof plan, however, and there have certainly been many grave failures as well as a number of reassuring successes. Conservation is a case-by-case, exceedingly complex issue, but long-term solutions have little hope of sustaining without the support of surrounding communities.

One of the mahout's daughters showing her comfort with and affection for the elephants she has grown up around.
How are we applying this same idea to conserving Asian elephants in Thailand? Think Elephant International’s education initiatives are designed to teach Thai students about topics including animal behavior, elephant biology, and conservation. By instilling a respect for wildlife and an understanding of humans’ impacts on the conservation status of animals, like elephants, students learn that their actions have potentially negative consequences. Furthermore, a student participating in one of our programs may grow up to be a government official who can have a lasting impact on the conservation status of elephants. A program like ours aims to directly change apathy into action in the next generation of government officials, community leaders, and consumers in Thailand.

A photo taken after we taught a lesson on elephant anatomy at a local Thai school.

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