Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Spreading the Word

Here in Kenya very few people like the sea. This is a fact which has taken a long time for me to accept as my whole life purpose at the moment is driven by my own love for the deep. The reason is that very few people have access to swimming pools and many areas of the country don't have any large areas of water, and so no one learns how to swim and hence the ocean is just a death trap. Even for those who are born on the coast, the sea is associated with black magic and death. Genies live in the waters and 4m tall spirits in black cloaks are said to stalk the beach at night. I don't know how much people really believe this, but it certainly seems no one wants to risk it.
So why does this matter? Well a crucial part of conservation, which I believe A Rocha has grasped, but few other conservation organisations really focus on, is the beliefs behind why something has conservation value. In the West especially, many of the hottest new buzz words and conservation concepts miss this essential facet. "Payment for ecosystem services", "Natural Capital", "Environmental goods and services" all  reflect the utilitarian arguments for conserving; i.e. if people see a physical (usually monetary) benefit from nature then they will conserve. However, many people are short-sighted or selfish and can equally say, well clearing that forest and building my factory on it makes me money now, so why should I care? Why anyone cares about anything is a reflection on the things they like and their beliefs.
Here lies the issue therefore, if very few people in Kenya like the sea and have little connection with it, then very few will be willing to conserve it and hence very little action or mitigation will be taken on its behalf. And that, of course, is exactly what we see. Kenya does make money from its marine Natural Capital, but this doesn't change behaviours and probably won't until the money flow is seriously effected. Politicians support oil exploration, new port developments, intensive fishing practises with no impact mitigation legislation or action, business people dump their waste near shore and local people exploit marine life with no thought for tomorrow. They just don't care. 
I've realised that my biggest potential impact for conservation here in Kenya is to get people to care. Its not about the data I collect or the papers I write alone, its also about the people here on the ground and what they think. I am not going to quit the PhD or stop doing the fieldwork I love, but I just always look for opportunities to include people and share the excitement. While Bob and his family have been here for the past couple of months they also understood this issue and worked on some rock-pooling events to introduce all the staff at A Rocha and the kids from the local school to the marine world. Whenever I can I take volunteers out on the boat while I'm doing surveys. Its small stuff, but its hearts and minds, one person at a time. And besides, it can be enormous fun and so rewarding when your friend finds their first starfish or swims for the first time.

Matthias with a starfish

On a sand bar with Simon about 1km from shore

Josephat with dive gear after a survey (best photo ever :-p)

The magic of the ocean