Conversation sparks conservation: an interview with Blue Ventures’ Chief Executive, Alasdair Harris

It is no coincidence that conservation and conversation are anagrams.

In our age of insta-information and digital decisions, it’s easy to mistake boardrooms and computer screens for the birthplaces of conservation projects. But spend 30 minutes speaking with Dr Alasdair Harris, Chief Executive of multi-award winning NGO Blue Ventures, and he’ll quickly remind you that it’s conversations – with local communities, across sectors and between regions – where successful projects are really born.

Out of the blue

First imagined during a conversation with a friend in Freddie Mercury’s bar in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Blue Ventures grew out of a need to create permanence and follow through in conservation.

“Many conservation researchers will argue in their funding proposals that the elegant research they’re proposing will be converted seamlessly into policy or handed over to an institution,” says Harris, who was troubled that the money he and fellow university students raised to run an expedition and collect data to inform conservation was spent without strengthening local partnerships and institutions. “But I believe we’d be disingenuous if we didn’t accept that this is typically wishful thinking, and, all too often, quite insincere in terms of the ability of research alone to effect any meaningful change.”

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“In so much of the tropical developing world, where most of our biodiversity is facing its most serious threats, there simply isn’t the institutional or civil society capacity to deliver on the practical recommendations generated by conservation academia. And while these recommendations may be very good for propelling our careers as researchers, it’s often fanciful to assume this advice will ever permeate beyond the ivory tower unless we choose to climb down and actually do something about it.”

Enter Blue Ventures, an organisation that – 13 years, six countries and 120 staff after being envisioned in Tanzania – still looks past what many conservationists see as barriers, to turn conversations into long-term change for coastal communities and tropical fisheries.

Making conservation tourism work

By offering tourists once-in-a-lifetime educational adventures participating in field research, Blue Ventures generates revenues to support staff in remote tropical coastal regions. “When supported by a social enterprise, we’re able to ensure our efforts continue for as long as they’re needed alongside the community that we’re accompanying on a journey in conservation,” says Harris.

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Conservation, at its core, is about human relationships and those relationships can’t be ephemeral – they’ve got to be sustained over time. Tourism in conservation can help build those relationships by making sure there are people in those very remote places all the time, continuing these conversations, and taking on board all that is learned.”

Blue Ventures’ approach to conservation tourism is successful because the organisation is committed to credibility, legitimacy and permanency. Sadly, the same can’t be said for all organisations. If you want to contribute to conservation through tourism, it’s worth researching carefully, remembering that counting species doesn’t always mean conserving them, and choosing an organisation that values long-term change over short-term profits.

Want a career conserving biodiversity? Bring diversity.

As Chief Executive of an organisation that values conversations, and with operations now in Madagascar, Belize, Timor-Leste, Mozambique, Comoros and Indonesia, it is no surprise that Harris recommends building people and communication skills for a career in conservation. These include the ability to articulate ideas clearly and succinctly, write and speak in plain terms that different audiences can understand, and relate to and talk to communities with empathy.

“You can’t run an organisation or mobilise broad-scale behaviour change by only knowing how to conduct a biodiversity assessment,” Harris says, likening a conservation sector populated largely by biologists with narrow technical skills to trying to bring about social change with an army of web designers.

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Demonstrate initiative and make your CV a little different, he urges, emphasising that Blue Ventures welcomes applications from people who don’t have formal degrees. “We’re not looking for people who have paid their way through postgraduate studies. If you’ve got enough money and time to burn to enroll in an over-priced taught masters, then why not put yourself on a flight to Mauritania and drop by to help a local organisation there – or even helping your local wildlife trust: demonstrate us that you’re capable of acting independently, identifying a problem and developing a coherent strategy to fixing it.”

If you’re considering starting your own NGO, it’s important to know your why – being sure to distinguish a need and niche for a new organisation from the vanity projects and conservation romance that can surround field work. “Forget about romance in this sector; just remember it’s the hardest work you’ll ever do,” Harris admits. “Even if your wildest dreams come true and your start up becomes a functioning organisation delivering real results, then that’s when the real commitment starts, because then you’re obliged to see it through; it becomes a living breathing entity. Ask yourself: are you willing to persevere come what may?”

Rewriting the ‘rules’

If your passion is biodiversity surveys, Blue Ventures is probably not the organisation for you. Of course, they conduct biodiversity surveys, but most of the time they’re focusing on rewiring conventional thinking of conservation, working from aquaculture, fisheries and carbon to health, gender empowerment and reproductive rights.

This progressive and human-centred approach to conservation is what makes Blue Ventures successful. “When you can build a real relationship with a community, you have an opportunity to initiate conservation projects in directions that are more courageous, locally relevant, more nuanced and ultimately more likely to be effective than if you’re just driving in from the outside with a lot of funding.”

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Despite drawing an unusually high proportion of passionate and morally-driven people, conservation is not immune to corporate demands and competition. Pressure to obtain available funding, meet commitments and satisfy donors can lead to poorly designed projects and ‘paper parks,’ says Harris. Meanwhile, the growing expectation that conservation should pay for itself (i.e. provide environmental, social and economic benefits rather than cost money to set up parks and support marginalised communities) can easily mislead donors.

With such fierce competition for funds, smaller, forward-thinking groups often struggle to compete, says Harris. “A few very loud voices crowd out the disruptive innovation that is taking place at the fringe. There’s often no seat at the table for the community-based organisations and local leaders we support, who are doing really exciting things but rarely get heard.”

Instead of chasing targets and reach, Harris focuses on the human interactions underpinning conservation. “Everything we achieve is accomplished through relationships built on trust, local knowledge and local leadership. We must remember this if we’re going to succeed in moving conservation forward.”

Explore Blue Ventures’ website to learn more or follow the organisation and Alasdair Harris on Twitter: @blueventures and @aarhh. You can also read an interview with the organisation’s Conservation Director, Dr Frances Humber, Putting communities at the heart of conservation.

For more on entrepreneurial conservation approaches, check out Five ways to advance conservation entrepreneurship in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

All images courtesy of Blue Ventures.

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