Harnessing Local Pride for Global Conservation

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The toughest problems to solve are the ones that are hard to detect and require humans to change their behavior. That puts conservation at the top of the list. According to the World Conservation Union, some 40 percent of the more than 40,000 species it tracks on its Red List of Threatened Species are in danger of becoming extinct. The renowned biologist E.O. Wilson has written that the “loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats” is a more serious risk than energy depletion, economic collapse or even limited nuclear war. “As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations,” he observed more than 30 years ago. The loss of biodiversity “will take millions of years to correct,” he added. “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.” 

Over the past few generations, conservation groups have spent billions of dollars on scientific research, land purchase, policy change and education to address these threats. But one question that has received little attention is: How do we get people to change their behavior? What really works? 

In recent years, psychologists, economists and neuroscientists have shed light on these questions. Their ideas have attracted popular interest, but haven’t changed the way most conservation organizations work. Only a tiny percentage of the money spent on conservation is focused on changing behavior. And we know that public education is not enough. 

Since forcing people to change is usually politically problematic, it makes sense to think more about this challenge. That’s why I’m focusing today on a modest size organization called Rare, which may have one of the most critical, and underappreciated, social technologies to protect ecosystems and biodiversity. They call it the “Pride Campaign”: it is a methodical, well-honed approach to social marketing that has been replicated by diverse groups more than 200 times around the world — with some remarkable success stories. Rare has developed an accredited two-year Masters Degree in Communication for conservationists, which is taught in the United States, Mexico, Indonesia and China. 

“You read the headlines about climate change or ocean acidification or species extinctions or overfishing, and you see that each of these are borne of human behaviors,” explains Brett Jenks, Rare’s chief executive. “We are the problem and therefore we need to be the solution. 

Consider the problem of overfishing and the work of Cathy Demesa, one of Rare’s conservation fellows, based in The Philippines. When we think of overfishing, we imagine trawlers in the open seas. But in many parts of the world half the fish are caught by independent fishers in tiny boats who typically operate within a few miles of shore (pdf, p. 10). Many of these artisanal fisheries are in trouble, notes Steve Gaines, Dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In particular, he points to  Central America and the Pacific Isles — where he estimates that the average fishery is 50 percent below its optimal fishing threshold — a level that scientists consider dangerous. 

Demesa works for an environmental organization in a coastal municipality called Tinambac, located in the southeastern part of Luzon, where most households rely on the fish industry for their livelihoods. Back in the 1960s, fishermen caught 10 kilograms of lobster or fish each day using hooks, lines, nets and spears. In songs, they described their home as a paradise. 

Over the years, fishers seeking to increase their catches began using fine-mesh nets (which catch small fish), as well as cyanide and dynamite (to stun or kill fish en masse). These practices led to a cratering of the local fish supply, as well as damage to the marine ecosystem. In recent years, the average catch plummeted to two kilograms per day, yielding a subsistence wage. 

Like many fishing communities in crisis, the local government established a marine sanctuary. One of the proven strategies to restore a fishery is to establish a sanctuary in which local residents gain exclusive fishing rights in exchange for respecting “no-take zones,” where fish stocks can replenish. (When fish are allowed to mature, they spawn many more eggs.) 

And as with many sanctuaries around the world, locals lacked the unity and commitment to enforce it. Commercial fishermen paid off people to continue their practices. About 90 percent of local fishers participated in illegal fishing, said Demesa. To fix these problems, she contacted Rare to learn how to conduct a Pride Campaign. 

The idea of the Pride Campaign originated on the island of St. Lucia, where in 1977, a visionary conservationist named Paul Butler, fresh out of university, was asked by the head of the country’s forestry department, to save the St. Lucia Parrot, which was fast approaching extinction. 

Butler believed that the government needed to establish a sanctuary for the parrot and institute tough penalties — but there was not enough public support to make it happen. He got the idea to launch a campaign, with government support, to tap the islanders’ sense of pride. He created a parrot mascot — Jacquot — and got volunteers to dress up in colorful costumes and visit schools. He printed T-shirts, created puppet shows, commissioned children’s magazines, encouraged hotels to print bumper stickers, convinced a popular band to record a song about the parrot, and asked ministers to quote Bible verses about good stewardship. The campaign took off, the government passed the laws, and the parrot was saved. Today, the parrot population is estimated at 1,700, according to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and St. Lucia’s forestry department. Later, Butler repeated the experience in St. Vincent. 

Demesa used a similar blueprint. Working with local leaders, she came up with the campaign slogan “This is Ours,” she created a mascot, Agcaton, a red grouper, and spread the word through T-shirts, posters, school uniforms and — most effective — six jingles, which told the story of the fishery — how abundant it once was and how joyful people will be when it is again. 

People came together. The government decided to pay for a guard house, a 24/7 patrol boat, and offer stipends to local fishermen who enforced two no take zones. Many of the same people who once fished illegally today serve as “fish wardens.” 

It led to a turnaround. “Now 83 percent of the fishers say they no longer fish inside the no take zones,” Demesa told me. Sixty percent of fishers have observed an increase in their catch and the seaweed harvest has increased 20 percent. “It taught everybody that the solution is in their hands,” she added. Demesa has been invited by five neighboring municipalities to replicate pride campaigns. Word has spread further. Across The Philippines alone, Rare received more than 100 requests for campaigns, a sharp increase. 

Over the years, Rare has refined its methodology and applied it to numerous conservation threats. Pride campaigns have been used to protect Siberian Tigers in China and spiny lobsters in the Bahamas. One campaign led to the creation of an 895,000 acre national marine park in Indonesia’s Togean Islands; another produced a marked reduction in forest fires in Mexico’s Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve. 

Conservation fellows who go through Rare’s two year training are exposed to solutions pioneered by many others around the world. This is vital because it generates ideas about how to remove the barriers that most often prevent behavior change. 

When you’re asking people to stop doing something that they count on for survival, you need to offer a realistic alternative. That’s a core component of Rare’s training. Consider a problem that is widespread in mountainous regions of South America. Farmers at higher altitudes often clear cloud forests for cultivation and, consequentially, destroy the watershed for farmers downstream. One idea is to create reciprocal agreements in which downstream farmers compensate upstream farmers for preserving the watershed. Pride campaigns in conjunction with this approach have worked in multiple sites across the Andes. “You have to create win-win relationships,” explains Butler. “If people don’t see a benefit they’re not going to change behavior.” 

Until 2010, Rare, whose budget is about $16 million today, responded to conservation needs in a scattershot way. Then Jenks and his colleagues asked: What if they could advance 500 pride campaigns all targeting one theme — say, sustainable artisanal fisheries? Could it tip the world? A billion people depend on fish for their primary source of protein. If overfishing continues in thousands of small-scale fisheries, it could become a global humanitarian crisis. 

Now, they’re testing the idea. This fall, Rare organized an online Solution Search which elicited 103 ideas for managing sustainable fisheries from 48 countries. This week, they received a boost in the form of a $20 million challenge grant from the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust. Rare has also sharpened its focus on global hot-spots, such as the Coral Triangle, an area encompassing The Philippines, Malaysia and most of Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, which contains more than half of the world’s coral reefs and 75 percent of all coral species. 

The big question is whether Rare can speed up its training and still maintain quality. There are thousands of conservation groups that could benefit from its social marketing insights. A study of 130 community-managed fisheries published in 2010 in the journal Nature reported that the most important quality for success was local leadership. 

By the end of this year, Rare will have 50 campaign sites across the Coral Triangle. Some will work; some won’t. “There’s a bell curve,” says Butler. “Some issues are easier to tackle than others. But the majority succeed. And the key isn’t what they achieve in the first two years — it’s what the fellows continue to do.” More than half of Rare’s alumni launch and fund additional campaigns on their own. That’s what Demesa plans to do. 

“There are many communities that have solved their problems,” says Jenks. “We have a huge opportunity to take what’s working and make it widely available so that others can adapt it to meet their own needs.” 

 Butler adds: “And let’s not forget the power that emotions have in driving behavior.” 

(Note: For those who are interested in ideas about ways to fight climate change using new insights into behavior change, check out this initiative from the Garrison Institute.)

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