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5 Explorers Open Up About How Their Organizations Are Impacted by Coronavirus — and How to Keep Their Work Going

Our National Geographic Explorers work to conserve species, protect wild spaces and cultural sites, and support local communities—many by starting or working with small organizations that rely on tourism and volunteers for their success. We spoke with five Explorers about how their work has been impacted in light of coronavirus, and how they’re still finding ways to protect our planet and inspire others to join them.

As the founder of Wildlife Conservation Association, one of the ways Explorer Vanessa Bézy inspires more people to care about sea turtles is through hosting hands-on, educational events—like watching mass-nesting events on Costa Rica’s beaches. Her fellow Explorer, Ashli Akins, also founded an organization that works closely with the community: Her nonprofit, Mosqoy, aims to reverse the impacts of unsustainable tourism in Peru, including supporting hundreds of Quechea weavers through fair-trade markets. As the world has shifted with the impacts of coronavirus, Explorers like Vanessa and Ashli found themselves facing similar issues: How can their work keep going when tourism stops? How can they inspire action when they can’t run education programs or engage volunteers?

As part of our new series, Explorers at Home, we talked to Vanessa, Ashli, and three other Explorers about how the small organizations they have founded or work with have been uniquely impacted by coronavirus, and how they’re still finding ways to keep their missions alive. Here are their stories, including their advice for what people can do from home to help. 

Photo by Mike Graeme
Photo by Mike Graeme

Ashli Akins, anthropologist and founder of Mosqoy.

Tell us a little about you and your organization.

I have been working in the Andean region of Peru for the past 14 years, in collaboration with highland Indigenous communities. I founded Mosqoy, meaning “dream” in Quechua, in 2006. It was a response to a community conversation: Artisans asked me to support them in finding a way to better balance economic development while keeping their culture alive. Mosqoy aims to mitigate adverse effects of unsustainable tourism and development in the Peruvian Andes, while fostering economic and educational opportunities that nurture their threatened culture.

Why have you chosen to dedicate your work to this? 

It is what was needed at the time. I was 20 years old when I first traveled to Peru as a solo backpacker, but very quickly realized the realities behind the facade. I—as a tourist, in an oversaturated market—was not in fact making a positive impact, and began seeing the detrimental effects that unsustainable tourism and mass consumption can have on local communities, often without their approval. However, if we as consumers listen and shift our daily habits, we can indeed be agents of change, and become part of a very different, more sustainable and inclusive future. I did not intend for my backpacking trip to turn into my life’s work, but 14 years later, I am still here, and I would not regret a thing. This is home, this is my family. 

How has your work been impacted by coronavirus? What effects has it had on your organization?

COVID-19 has impacted Mosqoy significantly. In Peru, we have been under a strict, military-imposed lockdown for the past two months, which means we cannot leave our houses, let alone visit our remote partnering communities. Mosqoy operates a fair-trade textile initiative, a post-secondary educational scholarship program for youth in the region, and a sustainable field school. Our partnering weavers cannot leave their communities, we cannot currently sell their products in stores, and their textiles are their only income. Our field courses and youth program are also shut down for the foreseeable future. We are shifting to online sales and virtual tours, but the global economic situation is challenging, as people see textiles as souvenirs rather than an essential part of people’s livelihoods. In times like this, it is seen as marginal, yet for the women we work with, it is everything—their history, their future, their language, an escape from domestic violence, food on the table, their children’s education, their land.

A weaver works with textiles in Peru
Photo by Ashli Akins

Looking long term, how will these changes impact the work you’re trying to do? 

Cusco’s economy is 90 percent run on tourism, and for the foreseeable future, this will not return. I hope that, when it does, it will return in a more sustainable and conscious way that prioritizes community and the environment, since the land and culture here was becoming oversaturated with unsustainable and short-sighted practices. 

At Mosqoy, we need to rethink our structure for the next few years. We are a small grassroots NGO that does not have a lot of reserves. We are trying to find creative ways to support our partnering communities, both now and in the future. We are focusing on e-commerce for our fair-trade textile initiative and have begun designing virtual field courses and workshops for those who want to travel to remote Andean communities and learn from elders and traditional knowledge holders from the safety and comfort of their sofas. We have also just begun renovations of our student dormitory (which now sits empty as our youth program is on hold) to create a collective co-working and creative space that will provide opportunities for artists and culture-bearers in this time of need while economically supporting Mosqoy.

What do you wish the average person knew about your conservation work? 

What we may think is marginal is actually essential. Cultural heritage matters. The needs of Indigenous communities matter. Not just in times of peace and prosperity, and when thinking about souvenirs and your next backpacking trip, but always. We need to begin asking ourselves the tough questions about how we can be more responsible consumers of culture, and reciprocally support each other, now and in the future.

Mosqoy works directly with Indigenous communities to break down barriers between producers and consumers, and to begin shifting the conversation about values. We strive for global sustainability through local resiliencethrough shared stories of celebration and struggle, and through reciprocal knowledge exchange.

What can people do right now to help, from their homes?

You can buy conscious and sustainable products (like our fair-trade textiles!) online, from the safety of your sofa. And you can begin thinking about where your clothes, accessories, and food comes from. Get to know who made your scarf, what materials your rug is made out of, where your avocado was grown. Learn where your money is going. 

And when making donations, choose small. The little grassroots NGOs need the support right now, and the money will go more directly to communities. Most programs have easy, cheap, monthly membership programs like ours that make such a difference in this time of need. And follow them on social media (like Mosqoy’s Instagram!). 

Vanessa Bézy, marine biologist, founder of the Wildlife Conservation Association, and part of our Early Career Leadership cohort, a program supported in part by American Express.

National Geographic Explorer Vanessa Bezy measures a turtle
Photo by Carlos Clemente

Tell us a little about you and your organization.

I am a 2012 National Geographic Explorer who strongly advocates for the protection of sea turtles at the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica. I founded the Wildlife Conservation Association (WCA), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting wildlife conservation through scientific research, community engagement, and immersive educational experiences that inspire sustainable living. 

Why have you chosen to dedicate your work to this? 

I have been working with sea turtles in the area for the past 10 years and have seen first-hand this incredible phenomenon and how awe-inspiring it is to witness. In 2015, I was on the beach when Costa Rica made international news for the mismanagement of sea turtle tourism at my site. After that experience, I felt responsible to ensure sustainable tourism and sea turtle conservation are promoted here and that this important site receives the recognition it deserves.

How has your work been impacted by coronavirus? What effects has it had on your organization?

Our on-site research and educational programming have been impacted the most, but we took this opportunity to develop our citizen science, social media, and educational programming online. Funding is one of the other major challenges we face, since our organization relies primarily on tourism for income, donations, and volunteers.

Looking long term, how will these changes impact the work you’re trying to do? 

Our organization will likely be most impacted by limited funding, but on the other hand we have been able to build an audience and reach more people. So for the long term, I think this will make our organization stronger and draw more attention to wildlife conservation issues. 

What do you wish the average person knew about your conservation work? 

I would like the average person to know how special this site is and the importance of protecting it. This is one of the few sites in the world that have mass-nesting events of sea turtles, and it is one of the most important sites for the olive ridley sea turtle.  

What can people do right now to help, from their homes?

Follow on social media, and donate to, plan to volunteer with, or visit a conservation organization! 

National Geographic Explorer Keri Brondo with reef leaders from BICA Utila
Photo courtesy of BICA Utila

Keri Brondo, anthropologist who collaborates with the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA). She tapped BICA’s Executive Director, Edoardo Antúnez, to weigh in on how the organization is being impacted.

Tell us a little about you and your organization. 

I’m a Honduran biologist from Tegucigalpa. I have worked in conservation for the past 12 years. I moved to the small island of Utila in the Bay Islands, just off the north coast of Honduras, to work for the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA). BICA is a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 1990 by residents of the Bay Islands, Honduras in order to initiate and coordinate efforts in protecting the islands’ natural resources. Given its fragile ecosystems and important biodiversity, the Bay Islands were declared a National Marine Park with the efforts of organizations including BICA. We are part of a co-management figure along with 13 other governmental and non-governmental institutions. Our main objective is to protect and conserve the natural resources and their users. 

The organization does a lot to protect and rebuild the Bay Islands: research and monitoring, environmental education and community outreach, community development, and protection and surveillance. 

How has your work been impacted by coronavirus? What effects has it had on your organization?

Our organization runs with funding from international agencies, tourism, and volunteers. Most of BICA’s programs involve the community, including tourists that live on the island for short periods. The current situation leaves the organization with the minimum to operate. At the moment, our visitor center is closed and will be until further notice. The environmental education program can’t be run at schools since schools aren’t open, although we are looking for alternatives. At the moment, the organization is on full saving mode and trying to apply for different relief funds. 

Fisheries are being affected because there are fewer people buying fish. The Utila Cays hosts 20 percent of the artisanal fleet for the Bay Islands National Marine Park, which are being affected because there’s less work for them, thus increasing the pressure on other natural resources. 

Looking long term, how will these changes impact the work you’re trying to do? 

Utila is an island in which the main economic activity is tourism. Utila is one of the world’s diving destinations and perhaps, there will be less impact of divers upon the reef, but we can’t disregard the negative impact this will have on the local inhabitants’ life quality. Food security is very little, and people will rely way more on the natural resources for subsistence. Utila is home to endemic iguanas (Ctenosaura bakeri) and endangered marine turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata, Caretta caretta and Chelonia mydas) that have a lot of pressure for food already as well as the fisheries. 

Edoardo Antúnez collecting data on benthos for the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment
Photo courtesy of BICA Utila

What do you wish the average person knew about your conservation work? 

That we speak out for our wildlife and our community. The protection of our natural resources is key to a sustainable world. We actively protect the reef, its associated ecosystems, and its wildlife through marine patrols and night beach patrols during turtle nesting season, but we also try to create awareness and reach out to the community and the world through environmental education. We also have helped collect data on the Mesoamerican Reef’s health, which is translated into report cards that can be understood by all audiences. All the information collected goes towards the management of the biggest marine protected area in Honduras.   

What can people do right now to help, from their homes?

Follow us, BICA, on Instagram and Facebook. You can also become a member at www.bicainc.org

A weaver works on a loom
Photo by Janni Albano

Ellie de Castro, archaeologist who works with the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement.

Tell us a little about you and your organization.

I’m an archaeologist and 2016 National Geographic Explorer. I’m part of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMo), an NGO that works towards the conservation of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the culture that produced it.

Why have you chosen to dedicate your work to this? 

I started volunteering with SITMo five years ago for Handi, a heritage learning project that brings Ifugao children to their own heritage sites. I’ve simply stuck around since then! I love how the organization feels more like a family, as most of the volunteers are related to one another—this makes everything messy but also super fun!

How has your work been impacted by coronavirus? What effects has it had on your organization?

We run a weaving center and that is one of the primary sources of funding to support our conservation efforts. The coronavirus has pretty much halted all our sales, so we’re still trying to figure out how to keep things running so that the weavers (our aunts and grandmothers) have income to support their families during this period. We’ve also shifted most of our operations to relief efforts, using the Indigenous Peoples Education Center that we run as a call center to find and distribute aid to community members affected by the pandemic. 

A weaver in the Philippines
Photo by Ellie de Castro

Looking long term, how will these changes impact the work you’re trying to do? 

While there are articles about the organization online, we haven’t really invested in putting our work on the internet or creating digital programs since a huge number of the people we work with don’t have access to the internet. However, these changes have made the importance of having an online platform clear to us as this is now our one of our primary means of connectivity to our networks both within and outside of Ifugao!

What do you wish the average person knew about your conservation work? 

For us, conservation is a way of life and is about creating pathways for traditions and ways of life to continue existing. We don’t expect things to stay stagnant, we just want the traditions that are so close to our identities to carry on.

What can people do right now to help, from their homes?

They can learn more about the work that we do, check out our weaves, connect with and support us!

Rebecca Smith, primatologist and primate project leader at Fundación Para La Tierra.

Rebecca from Scotland leads the Primate Project at Para La Tierra. At the Forest Nueva Gambach she studies the capuchin monkeys in the Forest and is working on her PhD on Conservation Science. Nueva Gambach, next to the Atlantic Forest San Rafael in Paraguay.
Photo by Stefanie Heitmueller

Tell us a little about you and your organization. 

Fundación Para La Tierra is a not-for-profit conservation organization founded in 2010 under the mission to protect the threatened habitats of Paraguay through scientific research, environmental education, and community engagement while training the next generation of conservation scientists in ecological research techniques. I am a 2018 National Geographic Explorer, and I have been working as the Para La Tierra onsite primatologist since 2013. I study the behavioral ecology of the hooded capuchin in Paraguay’s Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest, one of the most endangered terrestrial habitats in the world. 

I am working towards using this information to create an action plan for the conservation of this habitat, using the capuchin as a flagship species. I also supervise students studying the urban populations of black-and-gold howler monkeys in Pilar, southwest Paraguay, and teach environmental education in rural schools surrounding San Rafael National Park.

Why have you chosen to dedicate your work to this? 

Paraguay is such a spectacular country, and it is so often ignored by the international scientific and conservation communities. The capuchins are a charismatic species, and there is very little known about its behavior and ecology, especially in Paraguay. I want to be able to contribute to saving the Paraguayan Atlantic Forest, which is teetering so close to the brink of complete destruction, and help spread the word both nationally and internationally about the conservation issues in this country.

 Rebecca and Karina from Para La Tierra sets up a camera trap at Nueva Gambach, next to the Atlantic Forest San Rafael in Paraguay.
Photo by Stefanie Heitmueller

 How has your work been impacted by coronavirus? What effects has it had on your organization?

COVID-19 has had a major impact on our organization. Our main source of stable income is international tourism and students who come to carry out their own biological research projects with us. This has completely stopped due to the travel bans.

Aside from the challenges of finding alternative funding, a lot of our work has also been stopped. Schools in Paraguay have been closed, and there is still no indication of when they will open again. We cannot visit any of our field sites (particularly the primatological field sites, as we could not risk disease transfer to the wild primates).

Looking long term, how will these changes impact the work you’re trying to do? 

We are all hoping that the challenges and changes that are a resulting from COVID-19 will make us stronger. We are adapting to a world that works remotely and are working to open up remote learning opportunities. The situation will also hopefully serve to bring those of us working in conservation together, to lead a stronger and more unified fight protecting nature.  

What do you wish the average person knew about your conservation work? 

That it is both very, very hard and very, very rewarding. It is not a slow process but something that requires dedication and determination. The best way to achieve long term success is collaboration and teamwork.

What can people do right now to help, from their homes?

Engage with Para La Tierra’s social media campaigns. Donate to organizations like Para La Tierra, who are struggling to find alternative income to stay open. Book a trip to Paraguay when the world begins to open again!

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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