While washing

Tomorrow my two week vacation begins. It’s been a long and tiring 8 weeks- usually by dinner I am so exhausted from writing notes and asking questions and listening all day long I have to collapse. Some days after transcribing interviews my right arm blocks up and I can’t type anymore.

Last night was my last night in Maite, and it was a perfect one. The weather was calm, the water flat enough for a sunset snorkel in the sanctuary. A quiet dinner after a raucous fiesta with Evelyn (the president of the association managing the sanctuary) and her husband Susano, my hosts for the last month. It was bittersweet.

Truth be told, I have had a hard time getting perspective on this all some days. I have been so wrapped up in the daily life- wake up at 3 am to the rooster’s cock-a-doodling competition, put in ear plugs and roll over, wake up ‘late’- at 6:30 everyone else seems to have been up for an hour or two. They have already bathed for the day and begun their work.

I have a coffee and breakfast. Maybe write some notes that had percolated while I was sleeping. I sit on a small stool next to the fire with Evelyn as she makes yet another treat, or continues the one she was working on until midnight the previous day. Wiping the dripping sweat from her forehead, she stirs a pot of rice and coconut milk to make a treat to sell at the local school. As the morning progresses, the other women she employs bustle about around her, and she hops from one task to the next all morning long. Cooking, cleaning, making business transactions, making phone calls, receiving visitors.

Back in the yard in the afternoon, we sit on the stools. The wash tubs are full of dirty laundry. Evelyn bleaches the whites and soaps the rest. She alternates dunking them in the soapy water and rubbing them between her hands. No wash board here, just a stiff bristled brush if you need it. And here is where she tells me stories. Here is where I learn about her life.

My eyes follow where she dumps the water underfoot on the concrete to where the drainage ditch around her house goes. It empties right under the sanctuary guardhouse, and the soapy water is dribbling from a bright orange pipe. The words are turning over in my head- I’ve spent more time inside the English speaking school systems than out, so it is a challenge sometimes to communicate complex ideas with non-native speakers. I have to think it through. Evelyn has a degree in aquaculture, and is intensely observant about the world around her. But can I have this conversation without being offensive? Without being judgmental? How do I find out what she knows and then communicate what I know?

“Do you have biodegradable soaps here?” I ask.
She looks up at me from her washing and her hands stop. “What?”
“Biodegradable soap… or washing powder. Are those available here?”
“Biodegradable- I do not know what is that.” She begins washing again as she listens.
“Um… because most soaps are chemicals.” (How do I find the easiest words for this?) And they don’t… um, they could damage the corals because they are not natural. Biodegradable soaps are made from… natural things so they do not hurt the marine animals.”
“No, we do not have.” Her face scrunches up a bit in a look of dissatisfaction. She lives on a small island that doesn’t have a proper supermarket.
“Oh. I was just wondering.”
“Maybe- they are expensive?”
“Yeah. Maybe.”

And that’s where it ends sometimes. Another note for the notebook- lack of education about how to conserve the environment and lack of access to biodegradable products can degrade the very reef the community depends on. The reef starts here at just the edge of low tide.  The entire community here is dependent on fishing as their primary source of protein, and the other primary source of livelihood is farming. Even though this is the island’s biggest spot for tourism, it’s not enough to employ everyone. So, what to do? For now, it’s just another concern to go on the list. For the future, it’s something that will float in the back of my mind when I approve a project proposal or run a workshop… or wherever life takes me. It’s one more piece of the puzzle.


Coming full circle with my results

This past year at U.W., I heard it repeated countless times that scientists don’t communicate well and don’t communicate enough with the public.  This blog has been my personal effort to buck that trend and to practice writing these “complex” ideas in a way that non-scientists can understand.  I also know that scientists learn ALOT while doing research that never gets shared with people, and that means nobody is empowered to do anything about it.  I think that if you are working in “action science” like me, your ultimate intention is to make the current situation better.  My goal is to improve marine conservation in the Philippines with this one little drop in the bucket, and the only way I can do that is by sharing my results with the people who have the institutional power and the capability to do conservation here.

Yesterday I presented my preliminary results to the CCE staff, and tomorrow I will present to the agriculture and fisheries government staff, as well as others involved in coastal resource management on Siquijor, including the presidents of sanctuaries.  There will be people from all over the island, not just from the communities where I worked.  While I don’t have any statistics and numbers to give them, and I haven’t finished transcribing all the interview recordings I have, in reality, I think most numbers bore people.  So my presentation is mostly concepts and stories of my observations, and ultimately, trying to showcase how these women are challenging our gender stereotypes and making the case that women need to be included intentionally in coastal resource management.

I have already spent 26 days on Siquijor Island gathering data and am about to spend one more week there.  The things I have learned here have really blown my mind… I had no proof of how women were participating in MPA management here, and very few ideas of what to expect.  A month ago, the best I hoped for was that maybe women were bringing coffee to men while men were up all night guarding the sanctuary… I am happy to say that the role women are playing is much, much more significant than that.  I have no incentive to keep my data secret like many scientists do- most of the funding for this research has come out of my savings, except a $500 grant from the Wendy Graham Fund through U.W.- so I will share it tomorrow and will continue sharing it with whoever wants to know (and probably some who don’t).  If what I share is useful or empowering to just one person, I have done what I set out to do.

Wish me luck and not-too-sweaty hands!


Redefining field science

5 guys made quite an impression on me.  They are the Research and Monitoring Team (ReMoTe) of Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCE), the NGO I am collaborating with here.  CCE is a recognized leader in marine conservation and I had the privilege of seeing one reason why firsthand.


The guys sleeping everywhere and anywhere

Not only can the guys be so flexible as to sleep anywhere- be it above the rumbling engine of an overnight ferry, in the back of a truck in the pouring rain, or on the cold linoleum floor of an office (I didn’t sleep so well that night…) they are out “in the field” as we like to call it, fighting the good fight.


Though they do spend a fair bit of their work time in the office in Cebu, the guys also travel one week of the month to do social and ecological surveys of certain communities.  They don’t just go out diving anywhere; they are monitoring places where CCE has already helped people establish a marine sanctuary.  If you know how the fish and corals are doing, then you can decide if any management changes need to be made. For example, if you could tell by a certain pile of shells, or a damaged coral, that people have been exploiting what should be protected, then you can step up your enforcement efforts.  This is a really valuable tool for the people who manage the sanctuaries, as well as a tool for CCE to see how the projects they have invested so much in are doing.


The really unique thing about these surveys is that it’s not just the biologists doing the work.  This is science; natural science and social science, and it involves totally normal people, like fishermen and community leaders.  This is NOT normal.  It’s not even “acceptable” by some people’s standards for science.  I wasn’t even sure how I felt about it beforehand; but now I see how brilliant it is.

Dive slate with collected data

These surveys are called “Participatory Coastal Resource Assessment” because the staff gives lectures to locals on how to gather data about their coastal resources. The lectures cover multiple topics- how to assess mangrove abundance and growth, fish abundance and sizes, coral reef health, etc.  That’s the ecological assessment. And then everyone goes out and collects the data so that we can all get a better picture of the current state of the resources.  Then we can look at trends over time, and see where new housing and development is reducing mangroves (juvenile fish habitat) and increasing erosion, which may account for decreases in fish abundance or increase in murky water/siltation.


Three days later, after dive surveys, mangrove walks, and hours of interviewing local resource users, we had a map.  We actually had many maps, big satellite images blown-up and labeled with our new information.  Each sticker in the water represents fishing gears that are used in that community, and each sticker on the land represents concerns that the locals have.

Mapping community fishing gears and concerns

This process is brilliant because it is in part science, but it is also a community investing their time and energy into gathering data and then reflecting on the state of their resources.  This is true empowerment, and very necessary.


This detailed information allows each community to really see the state of their resources. What I heard during the social surveys were actually quite concerning.  The locals being interviewed talked about how there continues to be destructive fishing methods, even those that have been outlawed- like cyanide use (which kills corals but allows them to take live fish- mostly for restaurants in China), and how fishers from other communities are coming into “their” waters (there is no legal basis to exclude them, though).  In one community, there was a story about how they had set up oyster and crab aquaculture, but the guy who was guarding it one night took all the animals for himself and sold them off.


What can I say to that? Some days, I can only be a witness to these things and in the end, I am powerless to help the immediate situation.  So I sat and listened and absorbed it all so I can learn from them and repeat their stories for them. These heart-wrenching accounts are not the first I have heard, but they are the reason why I am trying to figure out how we can better conserve our resources- not to protect coral for an intrinsic value, but because so many people’s lives and livelihoods depend on the production of the ocean.


I am impressed by the guts the CCE guys have to do this over and over again and to not be broken down by the devastating destruction of the ocean they all clearly care for.  They are fighting the good fight.


What’s love got to do with it?

What’s ironic about this entry, for me, is that the whole four days I was in Baybay, Leyte, I was keeping my eyes on the women.  And though I met a few polite women involved in coastal management, I didn’t find a compelling female leader or a story to tell about any of them.  But I did find Sir Jorge.  He may be just formally known as the leader of Coastal Resource Management in Baybay, but he is nothing short of a purely inspirational leader.  I suspect he knows what he’s got.  He’s been using it to get people on board with conservation for years, even though he is not originally from Baybay.  I think it’s really important to use everything you have when you are up against commercial ships illegally fishing in local waters, cyanide fishing killing corals, and a high level of population growth right on the already crowded, impoverished coastline.  Now that I am thinking about it, leadership can be a really efficient way to gain support for conservation movements.

It’s funny, really, how quickly I recognized Jorge’s powerful presence as a leader.  I had just been woken from a pretty deep sleep I was enjoying in the ferry, and then we had walked off the boat, at 3 am, in the pouring rain. I had no idea what was about to happen, and I’m sure I was a bit of a zombie-like, sweaty mess with the usual frizzy hair.  But as I received a firm handshake, a kind welcome, and a smile from Sir Jorge, I knew I was meeting someone important. I was with five CCE staff, and you could hear it in their voices- hear how much they admire and respect him.

I knew instantly, he was the leader in this joint.  Sure, there’s a mayor, and she was very polite and all that.  But Jorge is the one who I bet can get people to do things they might not rather do.

In Jorge I saw resilience, passion, and hope.  I could actually watch his easy, sincere smile calm people down as they rallied around him.  They focus intently when he talks and give him the utmost deference.  In fact, the first group picture we took in Baybay, with the CCE staff and community members, didn’t have Jorge in it.  We had finished taking pictures when he walked in the room, and alas, everyone was up in arms, saying that he had to come join us because the group was not complete without him, and we had to do retakes.

Guess which one is Jorge!

I spent some time in the Coastal Resource Management Office with Jorge and Company.  He was writing drafts of letters to government officials by hand as he chatted with everyone.  I didn’t get much one-on-one with him, so I took the opportunity to ask a few questions.  I asked how he faced his challenges, and he said “It’s love! I just love the people, and I want them to know that I am always here for them.”

I think it’s more than love, though.  A local professor sat next to me, and she clearly adored Jorge as a long-time friend.  They recounted how a few years back, he had tried to retire, and she (and others, I presume), wrote all kinds of letters to the government to make a fuss about how important he was to their local efforts.  So, he gave in, and here he still is today, working hard to face the challenge that is conservation in the developing world.

There you have them; the ingredients of Jorge’s leadership.  Intentional optimism. A heart of service to the community.  Long-term commitment. And an abundance of love.

So, here’s an idea to consider. How can we develop better leaders around the world to move conservation forward? We need more people like Jorge, even at the local level- no, especially at the local level. Now I realize… that is exactly the kind of women I am hoping to find in the next 8 weeks.