A couple of years ago, under a Fulbright U.S. Student full grant, I proposed to live in an indigenous Guna community called Armila in the remote Darien region of Panama. My goal for the year was to set baseline nesting abundance data for what was suspected to be one of the world’s largest rookeries for the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).
In other words, I would spend a year in the jungle counting turtles.
Upon arrival, I quickly realized that my entire knowledge of and experience base in conservation biology and community-based conservation — along with my mental, physical and emotional faculties — were about to be tested. The delicate cultural situation in which I found myself called for much more than would a science project.
Three years later, what is most valuable to me is not the scientific data and conclusions that justified my living in this relatively inaccessible village, but the experience of spearheading a project with diverse stakeholders for the benefit of a community as well as a population of a vulnerable species.
I won't elaborate on my project here (see my blog for that if you're interested). Instead, as many young scientists are heading into the field this summer to work on their projects, I would like to take a moment to distill some of the lessons I learned from developing a community-based conservation project. I have tried to frame this advice in a way that applies not just to conservationists, but to anyone working as an outsider on a project that hinges on trust-building and community buy-in.
1) BE POSITIVE. Working on issues such as poverty alleviation, humanitarian aid and wildlife conservation can be demoralizing. You see hungry people destroying what little is left of important natural resources because it's the only choice they know they have, and that can be tough on your psyche when your mission is to help people find alternative livelihoods.
Don't sweat your losses, but do learn from defeat. Celebrate the little victories, and keep your eye on your mission. The most important and lasting impacts you have on a community will often be indirect and may not be readily apparent, such as with youth programs and education initiatives that cultivate a more responsible and aware generation down the line. Just because you cannot measure or see an impact doesn't mean it is not being made.
2) SIT DOWN AND TALK WITH PEOPLE. It's the best way to build your most valuable resource: social capital. However great the impulse at the end of a long day to head back to your room and relax, make the effort to accept any and all invitations to sit and have a coffee or a short conversation with someone. These meetings will help you forge meaningful relationships within communities. Even if it doesn’t mean much to you, it might mean a lot for a small family to have “the foreigner” come visit their house for an afternoon.
3) BE RESPECTFUL. Learn the local customs, tread lightly and do not upset local values systems and social dynamics. This is essential for helping ensure that whatever project you're trying to implement fits into local realities.
For example, one of my research goals was to get an idea of how many leatherback turtles were nesting on a particular beach. The ideal methodology is to fit turtles with ID tags on their rear flippers. Applying the tags means physically touching the turtles, which is a huge taboo in the local culture. It might be an impediment to perfect science but, as my co-principal investigator's research indicated, this cultural superstition is in fact what prevents local people from eating turtles and their eggs.
Always do your research and talk with locals before starting work in a foreign situation.
4) BE IMPECCABLE WITH YOUR WORD. If you say you’ll do something for someone, do it. Always. It’s tempting to fall through on some promises, especially when it’s the tenth thing on your list and four other people have not followed through on the meetings or activities that you’ve gone to great lengths to arrange. I promise you that the first obligation you forego, people will notice and they'll remember. Under-promise and over-deliver.
5) BE GRATEFUL. Set your default reactions to grateful rather than expectant, and apologetic rather than blameful.
6) DON'T GIVE HANDOUTS. If your budget allows it, there can be a strong urge to give donations to gain social capital in a community. One of the main tenets that my co-researcher Amanda and I adhered to is that things that are given for free are usually undervalued. It is good to assume that people have to invest time, sweat or money into something in order to appreciate and value it. This is important if you want to be perceived as a partner rather than a donor.
When we first arrived to Armila, Amanda and I sat down with the chief of the village, who offered to build us a house. Seeing an opportunity for creating a longer-term impact out of the community's efforts, we decided to invest the money we had set aside for accommodations to create a larger, more permanent house that would serve as an ecotourism lodge after we left, with all proceeds going to the community. Our small investment spurred the local government to invest community funds in the construction project, so that the community had a vested interest in the completion of the house. If it had been only our money and our initiative, the project wouldn't have had the community support behind it and would almost certainly have been left unfinished. Once it was completed, this house generated more money for the town than any other income stream.
While you should shy away from giving things for free, don't be stingy on services rendered and do be supportive of local businesses. This brings up another piece of advice: be conscious of where you spend your money. Don’t just visit one shop in the town, be unpredictable so people don’t lump you in with particular families or groups in the community. There is often inter-family competition within communities, especially small ones, so try to stay above it and prevent jealousy by showing as little preference with your purchasing as possible.
7) CHECK YOUR COLLEGE DEGREE AT THE DOOR. Don’t assume that you know more than local people, because you usually don’t. It is important to exercise your knowledge and experience, but not at the expense of local know-how.
You do not want to be that aloof intellectual who knows what's good for people better than they do. And if you think you do know, find a better way to communicate it than talking down to people.
One way of doing this is by using local culture as a vector for messages. After a few months in Armila, several people mentioned to me that baby turtles would often come into the town in the thousands during the hatching season, and the children would be recruited to pick them up and bring them to the ocean before the dogs could eat them. Several hypotheses were put forward, but people were generally confused about this new phenomenon. After trying and failing to explain in Spanish that the turtles were attracted to light, I spoke in front of the congress in Dulegaya (the indigenous language) and used the metaphor: "Baby turtles are like moths, they always come to the light." The people all murmured among themselves and the Sahila (head chief) stood up, mandating that they had to take action during the hatching season to diminish artificial light in the community.
Which leads me to my next piece of advice:
8) SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. Even if you already speak it, listen to local accents and emulate the way people around you communicate, work and behave. Do not be afraid to ask people to clarify colloquialisms and terms you don't understand, which can also be a great icebreaker. When you can bust out a local phrase or idiom, it makes you much more relatable to local people.
My Colombian family, who come from a region where their accent is considered to be "the perfect Latin American Spanish accent," were thoroughly amused that I was speaking like a "costeño" after spending so much time on the Caribbean coast. Beyond bending my accent in Spanish, a working knowledge of Dulegaya helped me immensely in transactions and discussions, especially with town elders.
This doesn't mean don't be yourself — in the end, people want to interact and cooperate with genuine people, and the more you can adopt local knowledge and customs into your own way of life, the better you'll be able to relate to local realities. This is of utmost importance if you are working on alternative livelihood or development projects.
9) GO TO REI AND BUY ONE OF THESE. The XL one. I wouldn't have survived without it.
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Photos are used with the permission of Morrison Mast.