Rare reaching out to preserve nature

Nigel Sizer, Rare vice-president for Asia Pacific, is supportive of grassroots conservation efforts.

NST Online, December 16, 2007

Employing everything from funky music to beauty contests, one group shows how connecting with people on a personal level changes minds and lives, writes ELIZABETH JOHN.


THE stories seem unbeliev­able. Melodramatic soap operas that turn people off turtle eggs. Baking contests that get folks worried about threat­ened species and infectious mari­achi tunes that move farmers to halt forest burning.


But they're real. No kidding. These strange-but-true tales of quirky deeds that triggered amaz­ing changes are all part of a Rare Pride campaign experience.  And this experience is coming Malaysia's way.


A Pride campaign is how US based conservation group Rare reaches out to people living near important but threatened biologi­cal hotspots, like forest reserves and coral reefs. Rare trains and helps passion­ate locals to use a range of tools ­from billboards to mascots to build a community's awareness and support for conservation.


They bring the message to these usually far-flung areas in fun and very personal ways. The campaigns instil pride in the natural wonders of the regions these people call home and create communities that push for better treatment and protection of their environment.      


Three such campaigns jointly funded by Rare and YTL Corpora­tion, are expected to kick off in Malaysia sometime next year. Rare is now working with Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia to identify part­ner organisations here who'd like to volunteer one of their staff to train and run such a campaign over the next 1 and a half years.  


The group is looking for young, gung-ho and committed people who'll be able to inspire conserva­tion as campaign managers. And, hopefully, this someone will have some experience in com­munity development, too, because that's what it's all about,' says Rare's Nigel Sizer.        


Some years back, as a 20-something researcher studying ecology in some of the most amazing forests on earth in South America, Sizer watched as local commu­nities were left out of conservation efforts and turned into its enemies. I was deeply concerned to see very poor people's livelihoods being destroyed even dying as a result of the efforts of conserva­tion organisations.


"So from that time on and throughout my career, I've been very supportive of grassroots conservation efforts," explains Sizer. Since his student days in Cam­bridge and adventures in the mighty Amazon, the tall lean Briton has served as a policy maker at the World Resources Institute and programme director at The Nature Conservancy.


The latter brought Sizer to Jakarta, Indonesia and finally to his permanent home in Bali from which he now serves as Rare's vice-president for Asia Pacific. There's little wonder why Sizer ended up with this organisation. Both recognise that communities play a very important role in conservation.


"We feel the environmental community in general doesn't work effectively enough with local communities," Sizer continues. He's quick to add that there's al­ready a lot of very good work go­ing on in other areas like policy, regulations, changing trade pat­terns and raising awareness in ur­ban areas which guzzle up most of nature's resources. .


So Rare focuses on mobilising local communities living near the forests to change their behaviour because what they do also has a very big influence. Often communities are ­marginalised by conservation efforts, he says. Parks are often created without consulting communities. Commu­nities resent it, they don't understand why it's there.     


Often, they're not partners in the conservation-effort although they're the primary users of the resources and, perhaps also, the primary threats to it. "So, if we donít work with them ' effectively; the conservation pro­grammes will fail and we've seen that again and again." Sometimes, when they're lucky, says Sizer, campaigns bring the urban and rural policymakers and people together as it has with one project in Indonesia.


The group has been campaign­ing, with WWF, to create anew 800,000- hectare national park in central Kalimantan in a very, very important area of forest just across the border from Sarawak. The Indonesian government was always supportive but at the grassroots, there was only fear' and concern. People living in and near the area were directly dependent up­ on those forests and grew worried at news of a park.


Would they be kicked out of the area? Would they be stopped from fishing or hunting? This is where Rare entered the picture. Their Pride campaign with communities there is helping to calm fears; create better under­standing and binds support for the park. It's challenging work; says Siz­er, and not always successful. "Campaign managers' get tired by their organisations, run away with the money and the earn campaigns collapse. It happens in about five to 10 per cent of cases." It's especially tough when campaigns sometimes involve funding alternatives to the more tempting, quick cash activities like illegal logging.      


This is a subject he knows well Sizer spent his World Resources Institute days focused on global forestry issues. In 2000, he also co-authored a controversial report for the Euro­pean Commission on the expan­sion of logging companies into the former European colonies ­some Malaysian companies fea­tured prominently in that report, mostly for misbehaving in forests overseas.          


But Sizer is the first to commend Malaysia's calm but concerned re­sponse at the time, particularly that of then Primary Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik. Now a resident in neighbouring Indonesia, he also sees the many problems the long, porous and ungovernable borders, the cash strapped enforcement agencies and, most of all, poor local com­munities at the front line of illegal logging.


He says people who promote il­legal logging activities buyers of the wood financiers or those supplying the communities and encourage them to take up these activities.  Of course, it's tempting, says Sizer. There's money involved and sometimes quite a lot. But its pro­moters often exaggerate the bene­fits of illegal logging.


None talk about what happens when a poor family's breadwin­ner ends up in jail because he's caught with a chainsaw doing ille­gal logging for some organisation. So Rareís campaign managers help communities and alterna­tives like small scale timber pro­duction from managed forests or ecotourism. Rare's Pride campaigns also help these communities under­stand the alternatives and encour­age them to give them a try. "Making them see the risks and making thern emotionally inspired by the forest they live in helps to reduce the risk that the had guys can come in and take over."    


It's not easy and it's why so much is demanded of campaign managers and so much is invested in training them. But for all the dif­ficulties and the couple of failures,' it's still worthwhile says Sizer. "Because in 20 to 30 per cent of projects, the campaigns have had impacts far beyond expectations and that justifies all the work we do."   


From ecotourism projects that benefit hundreds of families to dozens of large new protected sites, Rare does have a decent portfolio of achievements to show. Rare will bring its aims to in­spire to Malaysia through one pro­ject each in peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. In places where people have a , great influence over the future of the flora and fauna around them, and soon where they'll have some unbelievable stories of their own to tell.


For details or to apply to be a partner organisation, go to www.rareconservation.org

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