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Top ten tips on how to inspire communities to restore the environment

I spent the past five years running a participatory whale research project in a tiny village in SW Pacific Mexico. We collected groundbreaking data on humpback whales and dolphins during our 1600-hour study, but the real success was inspiring and supporting the 600-person community to take ownership of their struggling marine environment’s health. After five years, the community...

I spent the past five years running a participatory whale research project in a tiny village in SW Pacific Mexico. We collected groundbreaking data on humpback whales and dolphins during our 1600-hour study, but the real success was inspiring and supporting the 600-person community to take ownership of their struggling marine environment’s health. After five years, the community is taking first steps to reverse decades of environmental degradation in what was once and will be again a naturalist’s wonderland.These are the top ten tips I learned along that way.

  1. Prioritize human connections over stated objectives.

Conservation is messy, non-linear and difficult to quantify in the short term. Scientists are often the first outsiders to come into a place, assess its ecological state and determine next steps. Successful scientists must have perfectionist tendencies and an affinity toward categorization and quantification. They also tend to be introverts. It is hard to put down the camera, step away from the computer and pick up a broom or hang out on a stoop with someone you don’t know very well. But it is more important to take a little time answering questions about what you saw out there in the field that day with a local than to get the expensive, hard-to-obtain and even harder to repair gear cleaned and put away for the day.

  1. Focus on the right people. (Ask locals who they are!)

When I started out, I thought I would be working with the senior fishermen in the village. As a fisherman who loves to hang out on boats and listen to old salts gnatter away, this seemed like an excellent way to spend five years. But after a messy but successful pilot year, I asked around the village about how I could help them best. They told me if I wanted to improve the health of the ocean and the lives of the people in the village, I should focus on kids, women, and young men who were just finding their way. Which kids? Which women? Which young men? I paid a lot of attention and asked around. I ended up focusing on the feistiest free range kids and those who needed the most attention. They were the ones who rushed our boat when we returned from the field each day, eager to get the daily whale scoop. They ate with us, helped maintain our gear, enter data and rallied the whole village to attend our weekly workshops and presentations. While we lit up thousands of kids through our school and library programs, it is this little posse of kids who have gained skills, knowledge and inspiration over five years with us, that will lead the village toward long term, lasting health.

Sebastian Cabrera (in orange above) lives in the same house where our makeshift office is. He never misses an opportunity to hop aboard and made himself available as gear cleaner, errand runner data enterer throughout the 5-year study. Here, Sebastian tracks a whale as Manolo Mendieta records it from above with a drone. Photo by Terra Hanks
Sebastian at his usual post in our office working on writing up the daily field summary alongside Terra, Manuel and Claudia. Photo by Katherina Audley
By year four, sebastian was making sophisticated presentations about whales in the neighboring city of Zihuatanejo and he plans on becoming a biologist when he grows up. here, project member Terra Hanks, Sebastian’s biggest motivator and support, listens with delight as he nails a talk at the zihuatanejo farmer’s market. Photo by Abel Organiz.

I found the women with the most successful kitchen restaurants who the other women got along with and rented their houses, put interns in with their families and paid them to feed our team once a week. We also assisted in every way possible with the creation and growth of a women-run village arts fair.

Araceli Oregon arranges her nature-inspired crafts during the village arts fair. Women artists can earn in a day what a fisherman earns in a month during this annual event. Photo by Katherina Audley

I focused on the young men who had a bent toward ecotourism and entrepreneurism and who hadn’t already blown it so many times as to have lost respect in the village.

Local fisherman and ecotourism entrepreneur, Arturo Mellín, collected acoustic and sighting data with our team for five years. Pictured here, Arturo collects acoustic data while biologist, Pablo Chevallard NavarRo records water temperature. Photo by Patrick Weishampel/Blankeye.
By year five with our study, Arturo had become the region’s foremost expert on marine mammals. pictured here: During a high school citizen science whale survey, I looked up from writing to see that the students had all migrated to the back of the boat and were listening, enraptured, as Arturo taught them about their neighborhood whales. Photo by katherina Audley
  1. Keep a pot of coffee on and cold beer, mineral water and tasty snacks in your fridge.

Changes of heart don’t happen during meetings. They happen over coffee or a beer. Food creates friendships; friendships create trust; trust makes leaps of faith and scary decisions possible. Conservation is NOT about the animals you are trying to save. It is about the people and relationships you need to build.

  1. Work hard to integrate yourself.

Live in the community hosted by families, not in a clump of scientists. It’s a lot less expensive to put your team in one house and to cook your meals together and share the household expenses. But it’s the least efficient way to get to know your host community. Eat out, hire local people, get involved, go to the parties, dance, eat and laugh together. Find out how you can help – whether it is teaching English, collecting half-used bottles of sunblock and bug repellent to dole out to locals, or jumping in to give a hand with a flat tire, ditch digging or lifting something heavy onto a truck bed. You’ll find out what the underlying concerns and issues are, how the community fits together and you’ll learn how you can all work together toward a healthier future.

Team interns, Andrea García Chavez and Dane McDermott get faux married at a village party to the delight and hilarity of onlookers. Photo by Pablo Chevallard Navarro
  1. Strive for compassion and humility.

Listen more than you talk. It is great when scientists and educators share their knowledge but I’ve seen very knowledgeable locals shut down and quit sharing what they see and know after having been speechified to on the wonders of their environment. I’ve also seen more scientists scoff and shake their heads at the garbage, animal abuse, unsanitary conditions, unhealthy diet and lack of education than I can stomach. If you have the luxury of working in another country on someone else’s problems, you are among the very rich and fortunate. Try continuously to understand local perspectives, but assume you don’t understand. It leaves more room for conversation and growth, both ways.

  1. Be inclusive.

Invite and re-invite everyone to come to all of your programs. Also, make it possible for people to attend by having your programs fit with the timing of the community.

Abel Organiz, a local project intern who learned computer and science skills working with our team, assembled a hydrophone using locally available materials to use and sell to newly minted whale watch guides. Photo by Katherina Audley
  1. Be collaborative.

Be available to work with everyone, especially at first. Give credit to everyone. Partner with other research and conservation groups. Share your data. Some people will not agree with you and will not like you or trust your agenda. Listen to them, be available to them, make sure they are invited to all activities, but do not spend too much time on them. There will always be some people who do not want to work with you.

  1. Be honest, transparent and accessible.

People will ask where your money comes from. Tell them. People will want to know how it is that you are able to be there. Tell them about your life and how it is that you are able to afford to be there. Share your successes and failures locally, every day. Be ready with an explanation on why your work matters that anyone can understand. Explain how your work and findings will benefit the community immediately and in the long term. If it will not, you might not be doing important work.

  1. Show up on time; be consistent.

Integrity is everything. How you do anything is how you do everything.

  1. Assume noble intent.

Believe in the goodness of people. Only a tiny percentage of people want to hurt the planet or do the wrong thing. Most people want to do the right thing and enjoy helping. Set people up to be heroes of the ocean and champions for nature – make it worth their while.  Many people make the choices they make because they don’t know any better or may not have the ability to choose differently.  We need to be aware that most people are good. If we start from a place of judgment then you have probably already lost.

We kept hearing that local kids wanted to be biologists when they grew up, and so I asked them to draw pictures of what scientists do. Here, a local kid drew an aerial view of our team working on our computers in our simple village house, ensconced in plastic Corona beach chairs, glued to our computers. A truly accurate depiction of the life of a scientist!

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Meet the Author

Katherina Audley
Katherina Audley has participated in whale research projects around the world since 1997. Since 2013, she has led a cooperative research, ecotourism and environmental education program in Barra de Potosí that reaches 100,000 people each year. Katherina received National Geographic Conservation grants in 2015 and 2017. Find out more about the Whales of Guerrero Research Project at: