Conservation Jobs: from grass roots to Government with Abi Blandon
This week we’re talking to Abi Blandon – Marine Assessment Scientist from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) who also volunteers for Honko Mangrove Conservation and Education. She tells us what it’s like to work in two different conservation jobs – from grass roots to Government – and shares her careers advice.
Why do you work in conservation?
I grew up in the countryside and spent most of my childhood running around orchards, so I’ve always felt close to nature. Once, in primary school, we had to do a debate exercise where we pretended a factory was being built on a local protected area. I was totally enraged by this idea, but the teacher made me play the part of the factory owner because he wanted to challenge me a bit. So I guess I’ve been environmentally minded from an early age – it was a natural step to want to work in wildlife conservation.
What conservation jobs do you do?
My day job is at the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), which advises the UK Government and devolved administrations on UK-wide and international nature conservation. I work as a Marine Assessment Scientist, which involves assessing the state of the UK seas in order to report this to Government. In particular I work on coordinating the development of a number of benthic habitat indicators that we can use for this assessment. It’s a big task to say the least but the work is a great combination of policy and research.
I also work on a voluntary basis for Honko Mangrove Conservation and Education, a Belgian NGO based out in south-west Madagascar. Honko only has a small office in the village where it works in Madagascar, so I approached the charity offering to help with their internet outreach, given how hard it was to have reliable internet connection out there. I set up their Twitter account and now help run their social media, posting Facebook albums, job vacancies and pushing fund raising campaigns.
What is Honko Mangrove Conservation and Education?
Honko works in a small area of south-west Madagascar to conserve the local mangrove ecosystem with the ultimate aim of developing a truly locally sustainably managed coastal area. Most of our work centres around empowering the local community to manage their own natural resources. As well as spreading awareness of conservation issues through schools and mangrove planting events, we work with the community to develop alternative livelihoods so they can decrease their reliance on the mangrove ecosystem and improve their living conditions.
Since it was founded in 2007, Honko has had many successes. Honko helped to reform the local natural resource management group VOI Mamelo Honko in 2010, and helped them gain a full land management concession from the Malagasy Government for the mangrove forest. This has led on to the development of laws banning charcoal production within the mangroves, and recently some fisheries closure areas that have proved very successful. Honko also helped to set up a Women’s Association to encourage the local women to sell their woven handicrafts to tourists for additional income. And the most recent success is our ecotourism project where we have trained local guides in English, French and bird identification so that they can guide tourists around the mangroves. For this we won the Best for Wildlife Conservation at the World Responsible Tourism Awards last year, a great achievement for such a small organisation, and evidence of the great work Honko has done.
What’s it like to work in conservation in grass roots org vs a governmental body?
Grass roots work has much more of an immediate impact, so can be extremely rewarding, but equally very frustrating when things don’t go your way. It is very unstable so you need to be ready to be flexible and innovative and to learn quickly on your feet. Working for a governmental body feels slightly more distanced from the “action”, but the impact of your work can be on a much larger scale. There are many more stakeholders involved, which can mean the work moves slower. But even though the day to day routine may feel a little less exciting than grass roots work, when you look at the bigger picture, you can get the same kick out of doing the job.
What key steps in your conservation career you have taken?
I wouldn’t have said any one step was key, where I am now is definitely the result of a number of different experiences and decisions. During uni summer holidays and when I was unemployed, I made sure to fill my time with relevant volunteering. If you fill your time getting some work experience, some of it is bound to help in an interview or application! I was lucky enough to get a voluntary job out in Madagascar after uni, helping to run a volunteer conservation programme, which was a great stepping stone into a paid job just because of the sheer number of skills it put on my CV. When I knew certain skills were missing, I would find ways to gain these – when I was interning for UNEP-WCMC, I asked to learn some GIS on the side which ultimately helped me get my first job at JNCC.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t be afraid to show initiative and ask to be involved. When I approached Honko offering to help out with their social media, I never thought that I would end up representing them at the World Responsible Tourism Awards in London! Of course there will be people, organisations and research groups that won’t bother to reply, but persistence is a virtue – there is nothing wrong in showing that you’re keen. And when you do get an opportunity, show your enthusiasm, skills and professionalism. Conservation is a very small world, so it’s a good idea to make a good impression on everyone you meet.
How can someone get involved with Honko?
For those of you wanting to gain some conservation fieldwork on the ground, Honko runs a volunteering scheme where you can be involved with projects ranging from mangrove monitoring to environmental education, and research topics such as apiculture, aquaculture, gender roles, geography and even language teaching. This is a great opportunity to see what it is like in a small NGO working in a remote (and stunning!) location, and to contribute something substantial to the local community. For more information about the programme, visit our website: www.honko.org and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/honkomangrove/?fref=ts) and Twitter @HonkoMangrove.