Inspiring Conservation

Nigel Sizer with

The Edge Malaysia, January 3, 2011

Environmental conservation and climate change have quickly become buzz words, but many continue to ignore the issues at hand. Nigel Sizer, vice-president of Rare Asia-Pacific, an organisation that inspires conservation among those who live in the world's most bio-diverse places, talks to Jacqueline Toyad about innovative methods it employs for social change.

These days, bad news tends to outweigh the good when it comes to matters concerning the environment. Our natural treasures are at great risk, and have been for over a century now since the age of industrialisation. Much of the destruction (and elimination in some cases) of certain species and/or their habitats have been at our hands, triggered by our choices -development over conservation. It is only fair then that it is at our hands that this destruction be reversed, rehabilitated and reborn.

In this new century, there has been some stirring, an awakening of some sort among the more developed societies regarding issues faced by Mother Earth. People within these societies are actively participating in the cause -some make little changes at home while some contribute through donations. Then there are those who just read about it in the paper and turn the page over. 

Meanwhile, there are communities in this world that don't even have a choice. For some, the only methods they know to feed their families, heat their homes and earn their livelihoods is by unknowingly destroying the natural resources around them.

This is where Rare steps in. Rare is an organization that employs an innovative method for social change -the Pride campaign, a hybrid of traditional education and private sector marketing strategies. It's a tool designed to inspire conservation among those who live in the world's most bio-diverse places. So far, Rare Pride has achieved significant impact in more than 50 countries, its method contracted by large conservation organisations that want to utilise social marketing techniques for local conservation efforts.

Established in 1973, Rare began as an organization looking to preserve rare and unusual creatures, the habitats that sustain them and the people who live in the midst of them.

An acronym for Rare Animal Relief Effort, Rare has changed and restructured itself over the past three decades, even narrowing its focus to tropical birds back in the 1980s. It was during this time that Rare launched its first Pride campaign, based on the work of Paul Butler (who would later join Rare as its director for conservation education).

This campaign aimed to save the Saint Lucia Parrot, then numbering slightly more than 100, from the brink of extinction. Butler adopted the time-tested marketing techniques used by the private sector and built a comprehensive marketing campaign around the image of the bird, including billboards, pop songs and engaging classroom activities.

As momentum picked up, local political figures and religious leaders began incorporating campaign messages into their speeches and sermons. This resulted in a grassroots movement of community pride that motivated people to save their most precious natural assets, including the parrot and its habitat. Today the species numbers 600 and is protected by law. 

Butler soon got onboard with Rare full-time and began replicating his experience in other Caribbean islands, like Saint Vincent and Dominica. Based on these campaigns, he wrote a manual documenting his methods, condensing 10 years of experience into a one year action plan and began the process of identifying entrepreneurial conservation leaders in other islands whom he could mentor through the process.

With a successful track record across 13 Caribbean nations from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, what is now called Rare Pride expanded throughout Latin America, the Pacific, and most recently Asia and Africa, with more than 150 campaigns. Rare has trained 158 local leaders in the developing world whose campaigns have influenced more than 6.8 million people living in over 2,400 remote communities.

These campaigns have proven to be effective as they appeal to people on an emotional level, generating an increased sense of pride and public stewardship that go beyond mere awareness. And instead of just speaking to one level, these campaigns often reach and engage every segment of the community -teachers, business and religious leaders, elected officials and the average citizen. So far, in this part of the world, Rare Pride campaigns have helped reduce overfishing and illegal logging, improve management of protected areas, increase adoption of more sustainable agriculture, and save multiple species from the brink of extinction. 

"Rare is over 30 years old. Until about 8 to 10 years ago, it was a very small organisation. It had done small projects here and there, raising awareness mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean. About 10 years ago, our new CEO Brett Jenks did an amazing job building our organization,” says Nigel Sizer, vice-president of Rare Asia-Pacific. "We've gone from only three Pride campaigns in 2000 and 2001 to about 70 Pride campaigns running this year. We've gone from a budget of less than US$1 million a year to raising over US$20 million last year for the organisation."

Sizer was in Kuala Lumpur in conjunction with YTL Corp Bhd's launch of the YTL Fellowship for a Rare Planet, which receives a US$2 million contribution from the integrated infrastructure conglomerate for the support of Rare Pride programmes in Malaysia and Asia over the next four years. This fellowship will recruit more than 100 local leaders over the next four years to run Pride campaigns for forest and marine conservation as well as climate change adaptation, primarily in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, the Philippines and the rest of Asia. For its first year, the fellowship has already identified 22 sites in the Coral Triangle, one of the world's richest marine eco-systems, to save its dwindling reefs and fisheries.

Ruth Yeoh, YTL Corp director of investments and granddaughter of company founder Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, serves on Rare's board as its youngest trustee. It was she who initiated this move for the company to support Rare's community-based conservation efforts. 

Says Sizer, "We expect the growth of Rare to continue because we have very strong support from our board members, like Ruth Yeoh. Here in Asia, we're adding more board members like her, and what really motivates them to support us is that we're very grassroots focused, keeping the costs really low, directing as much of the resources as possible to the partners, training them and very openly, very transparently measuring and reporting on what's working and what's not working. So if you go to our website ( you can also read about campaigns that have failed, campaigns we were disappointed in, partners who've left the programme.

We're very open about that. But most of them do very well, and some do incredibly well.”

The partners whom Sizer refers to are Pride campaign managers who are mainly local conservationists from around the world who make a two-year commitment to inspire environmental protection at every level in their communities. They are trained by Rare through a university diploma programme in ecology, biodiversity, community-based conservation and social marketing. Those who successfully complete the coursework and a successful Pride campaign receive a master's degree in communication and a lifetime membership in Rare's Global Alumni Network.

"The key to our success is that Rare does not implement these campaigns directly. We train local leaders, those who are from the site, who understand its unique social and cultural values, and who are likely to stay in the site long after Rare is gone. We call these leaders Conservation Fellows and we rely on major investors in each region to support their work;' says Sizer. 

He then talks about Lang Jian Min in China, whose programme focuses on saving Siberian tigers, based within the Hunchun Nature Reserve in the Jilin Province." This gentleman is a passionate conservationist. He was sort of a mid-level staff of the local nature reserve... no one had heard of him until he started the Pride campaign, mobilising the communities," explains Sizer". He organised a festival in the provincial capital to promote the conservation of tigers. He has now been tapped by Beijing and sent to the World Expo in Shanghai to talk about how China and his organisation are working to protect the Siberian tigers. That transition happened over the course of six months; he went from almost nobody to being a national celebrity. And here in Malaysia and Indonesia, it's a similar process. Our partners, through the training, become effective communicators.”

On the list of more than 40 YTL Fellows currently working in Asia is a Malaysian, Suzieanna Ramlee who heads the Pride campaign in Sabah's Tun Mustapha Marine Park. Suzieanna works with WWF Malaysia, helping fishers in Sabah better manage their fisheries, not just for conservation but also their livelihoods.

The local communities are now setting aside areas where fishing is prohibited to help the local fishery industry recover from overfishing and dynamite fishing. Apparently, the area in which Suzieanna grew up is the prime target of fishermen from neighbouring villages, and even from as far as the Philippines. However, these fishermen are using homemade bombs or cyanide, both of which have devastating effects on the population of fish and their habitats. Suzieanna together with WWF, is working on a campaign to promote community-managed "no-take zones" that give local fishers greater access to marine resources in exchange for better management and protection.

The campaign is also rolling out training in sustainable fishery management and coastal monitoring. Local communities are now participating in the drafting of new regulations and system for the long term enforcement of sustainable practices. According to Sizer, Rare develops the overall strategy in discussion with experts, more recently, experts in overfishing and marine conservation. Then, organisations are invited to apply for the training programme. Suzieanna who applied through WWF, was one of the 11 selected for the programme two years ago.

"They come in, do the training programme, we train them how to use the tools, then they develop the campaign themselves at the site. Our staff mentor them 24/7 by telephone, email or SMS, visit the site several times and help them through critical periods," explains Sizer. "It's very difficult to do these campaigns; it requires a lot of confidence and Suzie has become so much more confident -she has to stand up in front of hundreds of people in that community and talk about these issues. She was just a local girl before she started doing this, interested in the issues but not able to mobilise the communities. She's been given the power now to do that through the tools. But it still requires a lot of courage, passion and commitment to do that. And our staff help them build the momentum, build the confidence...'you can do it, go on, you can do it' look at how so-and-so's doing it in Kalimantan and so-and-so in Papua. You can do it too Suzie'. And as they run into problems and challenges, we help them through those, connecting them with other partners who've encountered similar problems so that they can talk to each other as well, mentor each other.

"It's quite an intensive programme of support, that's why we can only take a fairly small number of partners at a time. Quality is very important. There are a lot of programmes and projects working on awareness and behaviour change with local communities, but they're not necessarily very effective. To ensure that they are effective, we invest a lot at each site. We're really aiming for the gold standard. It's actually quite a high standard that they achieve and that's why we are able to present those who graduate from the programme with a master's degree from the University of Texas."

Rare Pride is a very intense programme, and that is why, Sizer admits, there have been failures. The campaign managers go through a very emotional process and sometimes their lives are threatened by those who don't appreciate what they're doing, those who are involved in illegal logging or illegal fishing activities.

"These guys - the Pride campaign partners – are the real heroes. I'm not a hero ...I just manage the programme and design the programme. Those are the guys who do the hard work,” Sizer says humbly.

Sizer is a fairly affable guy, soft-spoken, neat, mild mannered, not exactly the cartoon image of a radical, loud, scruffy tree-hugging shorts-and-boots-wearing character we often conjure up the minute we hear "environmentalist" or "conservationist". His fair skin tone, though, shows no indication of him being outdoorsy, but one can always put it down to a really good brand of sunblock. 

However, a peek at the UK native's curriculum vitae confirms that underneath this mild-mannered exterior lurks a radical one indeed. He admits that even in his university days, he was very engaged in social causes and social justice issues in the UK "Those were the Margaret Thatcher years," he recalls with a smile. "As a student I was quite radical in student politics, and combining that with an interest in nature and biology, it was natural for me to move into the activist/ environmentalist direction."

After obtaining his bachelor's degree in biology from King's College University of Cambridge he went off to the Amazon, spending three years in the Brazilian rainforest doing research for his PhD, also with Cambridge.

"I was' always interested in science. I studied science in high school. So, I was studying the dynamics of that eco-system in a very scientific, sort of very ivory tower way, and in the process of doing that, I couldn't help noticing how much destruction was going on all around me and also how much local communities were not involved in conservation efforts.

"In fact, communities that were managing those forests sustainably were being kicked out of the forest at gunpoint by the Brazilian government to set up national parks. I finished my PhD and left the academic world to become an environmental activist," reveals the Rare VP. 

Sizer then went on to work with the environment policy think-tank, World Resources Institute, in Washington DC, for eight years. His initial task was to create a programme to promote conservation and sustainability in the Amazon Basin. He went on to head a group of experts working on forest issues and biodiversity all over the world, including in the Amazon and Andean countries, Congo Basin, Indonesia, China, Canada and Russia. 

After that, he moved on to The Nature Conservancy as director of the Forests Programme for Asia-Pacific, based in Jakarta, where he leveraged US$20 million in private sector support for forest conservation efforts in Indonesia. Then he joined the United Nations Environment Programme based in Nairobi, Kenya, as senior programme officer for biodiversity, with a US$200 million portfolio, responsible for the award of grants from the Global Environment Facility to assist governments, NGOs and others in the implementation of the Biodiversity Convention.

Sizer joined Rare in 2006 as VP, responsible for all operations in Asia-Pacific, developing partnership with small and large environmental groups, governments, businesses and international agencies. This involves leading the development of an entirely new programme in China, consolidating efforts across Indonesia and managing a team and budget that had tripled by late 2007.

Sizer also conceived and is now developing Community Carbon, a grassroots effort to link the poor with global carbon markets, in partnership with several carbon offsets companies and philanthropists, starting in Indonesia. He currently serves as lead adviser to former US President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative on climate change and energy issues in Asia. He has also written widely about environmental issues, including for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The Journal of Commerce, The Jakarta Post and The Toronto Star.

So where did he get his passion?

"I grew up in England, in Cambridgeshire, which is the most deforested part of Europe. There are almost no more trees left where I grew up and the river is almost empty of fish. It was my grandfather who inspired me -he would take me fishing from the age of five and as we walked the countryside, he would talk to me about how it was different when he was a kid," recalls Sizer. "From then on, I've always understood that connection between communities and nature. When we go into a site, we realise the communities aren't onboard because they don't understand or they have no alternative because they depend on destroying that resource to feed the family. If there's no alternative, the destruction is going to continue. So Rare focuses on how to address that problem."

For Sizer who is now based permanently in Indonesia, it has been a 20-year journey.

"It's continuing and it's one that I love,” he says with a sparkle in his eyes. "My wife's Indonesian, my children are Indonesian, we love living in this region and I'm sure we will continue to do that. I love sharing my love of nature and the forest with my children. I've taken my five-year-old daughter in the jungle with wild orang utans. She climbs up the trees with them, running around. It's wonderful to see and it inspires me to continue doing this work because it's for them, the next generation.

"This is so important. I want them to see the things that I've seen. I want them to see wild gorillas in Congo, I want them to swim with whale sharks, giant manta rays in Indonesia and Papua, I want them to be able to see the amazing coral reefs of Sabah and visit the extraordinary forests of Malaysia. They won't be able to do that unless we continue doing this kind of work."

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