Focus Group: Overcoming ethical challenges in marine conservation communication
Communications and Public Relations are getting rapidly increasing attention and allocation of resources within marine conservation organizations. But Mainstream Media (MSM) is struggling with either a huge lack of institutional capacity or editorial priority to cover related affairs as part of regular news agenda. In many cases, high resource needs to operate in remote marine areas and the novelty of the subjects to the newsroom are related to this scenario.
This dynamic is making way for ‘embedded’ journalism covering conservation efforts without clearly laid-out ethical safeguards on both sides. I’ve observed many such cases in Bangladesh, Thailand, Singapore, and the USA, where MSM is being engaged to disseminate contents while being directly or indirectly guided and sponsored by the subjects, that is nature conservation and conservation groups, but this kind of communication and PR contents are not the replacement for objective journalism. This practice consequently deprives the nature conservation of objective reporting and critical coverage which are cornerstones of transparency, accountability, and public trust. A strong, responsive and dynamic ethical regime is imperative to address this challenge.
The Focus Group is designed to gather information about ethical challenges faced in marine conservation communication, identify key values and ethics, and prepare a draft for an ethical guideline. Before the conference, the host and other contributors will prepare a working-paper and distribute among the registered participants for their feedback and inputs.
So, whether you work with communications, marine conservation, media ethics or not, if you have experience and expertise to contribute to this Focus Group, please register, and do reach out to us.
Featured Photo: Perhentian Islands, Terengganu, Malaysia. by Anwar Hossain Chowdhury
As a journalist, when I started inquiring about ‘community-based conservation’ projects in 2010, I anticipated that we will be dealing with works which are empowering and enabling people into conservation, but that was not to be. We have found out that, in many cases, communities are less likely to be planning or implementing the conservation projects and more likely to be silent ‘poster child’ for the NGOs who are. Not only CBCs, to my experience back in Bangladesh, other approaches to conservation are also built on the gross dehumanization of people who are suffering the most from ecological degradation. And oftentimes, the ‘best’ leverage to trigger conservation interventions turns out to be very costly for the people who are the least negative actors in the system.
In this context, I am happy that I got the opportunity to attend the Pathways 2017 Conference in Colorado last year. It was very positive to listen to the first-hand account of professionals from many countries that, things are changing in many places. Most particularly, considering ‘human dimensions of wildlife conservation’ is being gradually popular among managers, slowly, but it’s happening.
More than three hundred professionals involved in social science aspects of fisheries and wildlife management took part in the conference from September 17 through 20, 2017; mostly academics, and there were other scientists, NGO professionals, and students. Partnered with The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the conference theme was; ‘Futures: Integrating Human Dimensions into Fish and Wildlife Management.’ With a poster session, a number of panels and workshops, and at least 142 (not official count) contributions as oral presentations, it was very tightly scheduled.
Organized by the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at the Colorado State University, to my knowledge, it is THE largest knowledge forum to know about HWC works and meet the related people. Pathways is also a training platform focused on ‘increasing professionalism and effectiveness’ in the human dimensions of fisheries and wildlife management.
It’s not my purpose here to inventory all the sessions and presentations I attended, but just a few notes are in order. And, of course, nothing preoccupies me during looking at a conservation intervention as much as the stake of the community who is being affected or expected to participate. So, I was mostly focused on that type of presentations and sessions.
Getting mainstream: Research related to human dimensions of wildlife conservation can be traced back to as early as the 1930s in North America (Stevens & Organ., 2017). But still, in the particular case presented by Stevens and Organ, the funding ratio for HWC research has not significantly increased. But interestingly, diversity of HWC research projects has been increased involving diverse stakeholder communities, and ‘society began to demand greater input into decision-making regarding wildlife and fisheries management’.
Another thing I would like to note that, at least half the presentations I have attended was about working with something ‘first of its kind’ or ‘one of the first’. Social Suitability Index (SSI) for predator conservation that ‘measures the cultural context for conservation in a region’ (Kraftee et al., 2017), for instance. Given the history of big cat conservation, one can think that this could have been done long ago if there were enough attention and resources. And, that is a possibility if it is mainstreamed into conservation narrative. I remember, President and CEO of Association of Zoos and Aquarium, Dan Asher’s main argument during his keynote, that is, ‘there are no human dimensions of conservation, conservation is all about humans.’ It is an very effective rhetoric to show the way forward; we need HWC to be mainstreamed into conservation.
The challenge to transform ‘human dimensions’ into the ‘new normal’ of conservation: And, how do we do that? There are many critical opinions out there. And, with my little experience as a practitioner, it does not seem like a disciplinary case. For instance, mainstreaming social sciences (Bennett et al., 2017) in conservation will not do the job as such. Of course, it might help HWC to be broadly accepted; we will be seeing more works of this kind. But I can’t see that will necessarily transform HWC into the new normal of conservation. To me, the challenge is, whether HWC will enable us to intervene in core political and policy premises of traditional nature conservation narrative that still see ‘human dimensions’ as just another ‘tool’ to do the old job more effectively, that is, continuing the ambivalence towards ecological justice while celebrating only the presumed success of species-level conservation.
Stevens, S., & Organ, J. (2017). The Evolution of Human Dimensions Research through the Lens of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program Grants in the Northeast United States. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.
Kraftee, K., Larson, L., Powell, R., Allen, L., Hallo, J., & Jachowski, D. (2017). Assessing Cultural Context for Predator Conservation. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.
Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K. M. A., Clark, D. A., Cullman, G., Epstein, G., Nelson, M. P., Stedman, R., Teel, T. L., Thomas, R. E. W., Wyborn, C., Curran, D., Greenberg, A., Sandlos, J. and Veríssimo, D. (2017), Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conservation Biology, 31: 56–66.
Gellately, Robert. 2006. The specter of genocide: mass murder in historical perspective. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press.
In August, we participated in a discussion about ‘Being a Self Aware and Adaptive Leader’ organized under an Exchange Program at Georgetown University. In our group, we were more than half a dozen people from different countries discussing our experience and opinion about leading teams under different circumstances in culturally diverse spaces. Facilitated by famous Deidre Combs of Combs and Company, we were given Daniel Goleman’s six styles of leadership (Goleman, 2000) as a reference. Here’s a PDF file summarizing Goleman’s classification.
I asked the fellows about which leadership styles they have found as best suitable for environmental organizations. The responses were diverse, but there was a consensus about one thing that each of this styles has different purposes to serve in different circumstances. Which means, according to my fellow leaders, no single style is adequate for an organization. Having said that, one of our fellow Firuza Gulayozova prioritized about ‘affiliative’ leadership style in environmental conservation.
Based on her experience in Tajikistan she thinks for organizations engaged in environmental conservation, adopting ‘affiliative’ leadership style is very necessary. This observation intrigued me, and we talked about it later again, on another occasion. So, thought before I forget, I should write it down.
Personally, until very recently, I didn’t think of any particular leadership style. I have led a few collective endeavors in mass communication, civil and human rights, and conservation with certain successes and a number of terrible disasters. Looking back at those times now, I see I was always relying on others to lead together. I still am; leading like a diver; slow and steady, and always looking out for each other. Because for me, more than to achieve some goals the important thing is working with people we love; works which we are passionate about.
Leading like a diver; slow and steady, and always looking out for each other.
Also, I am still not convinced that, we can effectively identify exclusive features of leadership to attribute them to a certain style or category. But, of course, for the sake of communication, we can’t avoid classifications and terms like these categories of style. So, the necessity of discussion on prioritizing ‘affiliative’ leadership style in conservation organization resonated with me to some extents. I hope, it is just not a confirmation bias for me.
Firuza’s professional focus is Tolerance and Conflict Resolution, and she is ‘an expert in youth psychology and has developed skills in listening to the problems of young people and helping them find solutions.’
For any organization, Firuza said, it is important that everyone has the scope to bring many ideas into the process; and, affiliative leadership is a very powerful tool to create such an institutional environment. The affiliative style is best for ‘supporting the team morally and make them feel useful and effective’, she said. She thinks the job of conservation groups is not easy because the main task is ‘working with people’, not otherwise. The team members in such organizations need the highest degree of mutual patience and support. And the affiliative style of leadership serves this purpose ‘very well’ under any circumstances.
I get it in a sense that, ‘conservation is about people’ approach needs to be first mainstreamed through the institutional process of conservation organizations. And, the leadership traits which we identify as ‘affiliative’ is based on ‘people come first’ mantra and recognizes that empathy, building relationships, and communication are very important emotional intelligence competencies. I think, maybe these are the things we need to prioritize to revive our conservation organizations which are in very badly affected by failing bureaucracy (‘commanding’ style?).
Goleman, D. (2000, March-April). Emotional Intelligence: Leadership That Gets Results. Harvard Business Review, pp. 82-83.
The more I was attending those meetings, the more I was getting this feeling that as if I am sitting among a group of colonists who are making plans to set up new reserve in an occupied country; in the countryside, ‘protected’ from access by the colonized people; where the white settlers will be enjoying the utilitarian and intrinsic values of the ‘nature’, and the natives will be living on the edge to serve the whites.
Problem with this feeling is, first of all, I am not recounting memories from past centuries (I am not that old, you know), those meeting happened between 2013 and 2016. And, there were very few white people attending those meetings. Those meetings were not taking place in India under East India Company’s brutal rule, or in colonized Zimbabwe, those meetings were held in present-day Bangladesh. And most importantly, no one was talking about the violent business of colonization; cleansing, slavery, or dislocation of native communities, in old or new form, neither.
Now, let me use the vocabulary of a good-hearted politically-correct liberal naturalist; those meetings were about nature ‘conservation’, where conservationists (experts, practitioners, government officials, local representatives of international NGOs) were discussing ‘spatial management’ or ‘protected area’, and so on; they were discussing strategies, management plans for ‘protected areas’, to create ‘alternative livelihoods’ for the ‘local communities’.
Probably, you can make a guess, this type of meetings are generally workshops, consultations, seminars, conferences and so on, mostly organized by INGOs, NGOs, UN agencies, and universities. Unfortunately, I have found myself among the organizers, sometimes. It’s been almost one year since I am not attending any such meetings, but all these thoughts recently came back to me while I was talking to one of our colleagues; we were on a very long-distance call about something else, but he was seemingly uncomfortable about a discussion recently took place in Dhaka which he was a part of.
It was a discussion about conservation of Hilsa, and one of the talking points was, riverine communities engaged in wild Hilsa fisheries are ignorant people, ‘beyond amending’, and we should think about pulling them out of this largely subsistence and artisanal fishery and re-employ them as workers in export-oriented ready-made garment factories. Maybe it is a noteworthy fact that most of the experts who attended the meeting are aquaculturists.
It is not just something being discussed here and there by some groups, it is happening. Rather than focusing on addressing major stressors in social-ecological systems, conservation projects are going after the most vulnerable communities. Because simply it is ‘doable’ to mislead about the ‘indicator’ of success. For instance, when in a fishery hundreds of mega-trawlers are dredging without Turtle Excluder Devices, a conservation project can just declare success by forcing out some subsistence and artisanal fishing families from the coastal waters to urban slums and name it as ‘alternative income generation’.
If you do not have the historical experience as formerly colonized people, the experience of being dehumanized in this way, you will find it very difficult to get the idea, why these discussions are reminiscent of the brutal colonial era; how in 21st-century conservation is still rationalizing violence on people.
So, while protecting or conserving the nature always sounds unquestionably innocent when we live in our liberal bubbles, it is not that rosy for the people who are suffering most from ecological degradation without contributing much in the process of degradation, and again they become the victim of nature conservation efforts. When it comes to ‘conservation’ efforts by a specific government or inter-governmental agencies or international or national NGOs; things are not very black and white for the people living on the edge.
The question is, if the ‘best’ leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful to the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought? Was it chosen because it was deemed as the best possible leverage to start creating a positive trend? Or it was just hand-picked based on the ease-ness of delivering the project? If you are a conservation partner of a government in the global south, in countries where oftentimes political participation is restricted, you know it better, there’s no other easy things to do, than motivating such a government to go after the marginalized communities.
But we can’t allow it to be continued. Because in this time when the unsustainable global economy is at its peak with all the consequences in the forms of global warming and extinction threat and so on, we can’t afford any more false hope in conservation.
If any ‘conservation’ efforts exclude the ‘nature’ from social system, if they consider nature as ‘resources’, if they deny the indigenous relationship, knowledge, and practices of communities, if they consider communities as ‘means’ to achieve ‘conservation’ ends, we should call those efforts out, those projects are not conservation, something else.
Conservationists should certainly stop excluding nature from societal spheres. In this way, we will be able to see that, we are not the messiah saving the ‘pure’ nature from the ‘people’. We need to be conscious of this savior complex of ours and avoid it.
And, when working with the communities to empower them against internal and external stressors within the social-ecological system, we should certainly stop stereotyping about communities because as a people no community is a homogeneous group. Individuals in a community need to be recognized for their unique vulnerabilities as resilience.
Conservation needs to empower people who are the worst victims of ecological degradation; in countries like Bangladesh where political participation is very limited, that is a very difficult thing to do, and the job of conservation is to start addressing it no matter how much difficult it is. Of course, there are sectoral limitations, we can’t just start talking partisan politics, we should not. But working with communities for ecological justice is a good way to start, it will help flourish clusters of locally-led conservation efforts.
The development agencies who fund conservation efforts run by the governments in the global north need to understand that, if they want to serve interests of their taxpayers, which they are supposed to do, the interests should be mitigating the biggest global ecological crisis in human history, not aggravating it.
[ I am a Community Solutions Program fellow hosted by the NOAA’s Georgia Sea Grant College Program and based at the Athens and Skidaway Island campuses of the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Service. The practicum part of my fellowship has ended this week with an End of Program workshop held at a hotel in Washington, D.C. Following is the script of my EOP speech which I shared with international fellows. Here, it’s slightly edited for clarity. ]
We, underwater divers, sometimes make a joke about ourselves; that is, diving is a lazy person’s adventure. Because, in the depth of the sea, the slow and steady you swim the better you navigate. For me, it’s true about life on the land also. Slow and relying on others to lead together. It’s all about doing things we love, with the people we love.
And, it’s been quite a few months like that, as we are on this fellowship; to me, it feels like the first workshop here in DC, the first time we’ve met DD was just days ago. For me, the last few months were very peaceful, working with wonderful colleagues was almost like a drift-dive with sea turtles. It feels like time is flying by.
Dear fellows and guests! My thematic focus is ‘Environmental Issues’, and my leadership journey is about PEOPLE. Back in Bangladesh, it started with me a and few of our friends’ commitment to the people living in the northeastern Indian Ocean region; one of the most climate vulnerable communities in the world.
As for our teams in Bangladesh, the strength is our shared life experience as a people facing an unprecedented loss of social resilience and ecosystem services. Our trust in people’s power led us to build a network of conservation movements. Throughout the networks, we always prioritize knowledge-collaboration and learning-sharing. It’s one of our core approaches.
Also, these conservation groups are unconventional in the way that, it’s not about animal biology; we have people from all of the wakes of life, professionals from all disciplines collaborating with each other for mainstreaming of conservation into policies and practices.
What drives us is the commitment that we need to institutionalize community action to build locally led efforts for conservation. We have a few successes. To proceed, we have a lot to do with very unjust Natural Resources Management Regimes and approaches; all over the world.
The state of my practicum, Georgia, faces very similar challenges. To me, last few months, it never felt like a foreign country. As a Scholar-in-Residence with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant Program based at the University of Georgia, one of my projects was to prepare a coastal public education program that will diversify the participants. During the planning phase, as part of the conversations with local families in the coastal city of Savannah, many people said to me that environmentalism is for affluent people.
These lower and middle-income families, they don’t have a recreational fishing license or a villa on the beach. But they do suffer the most from the changing climate and increasing disasters. Many of them asked me, what’s in conservation for their children? They will move to inner cities anyway, looking for jobs. As a child born and raised in coastal Bangladesh during the decline of the coastal economy that was dependent on a healthy Ocean, their experience is very familiar to me. During the conversation with these families, one aspect of my talking points was, this feeling of being left out can be a starting point to take part, to prepare our young ones as the environmental stewards, to take over the policy process in the top. At a point during such a conversation, in Skidaway Island, one of the mothers approached me and said, ‘I want you to be the mentor for my son, no matter wherever you stay.’
Her son, Scott the Junior is an excellent artist at his age, and he told me he wants to be a Marine Biologist. We agreed to be a mentor and mentee. Last few months, there were a lot of moments like this, it was really a blissful time for me. In this way, my life and leadership was always about people and will continue to be like that.
For now, with my host organization, we are planning to initiate a permanent conservation capacity-building program for early career professionals in five Bay of Bengal countries. It will be exactly a trans-boundary collaborative-learning for community action.
Dear fellows! To share is the most effective way to evaluate our own works and develop. So, no matter what thematic area you are focused on, no matter which regions you are from, let’s share all of our experiences about the people we work with and work for. As a communicator, it will be my pleasure to collaborate with you based on shared experiences.
Many thanks for your attention, and remember that, we can do the community works better if we do the learning-sharing better.