Capacity building through birds – An interview with Mathieu Charette
“I had a yellow rain jacket that was just white with guano, and I learnt pretty quickly that I had to close my mouth when looking up”.
They do not teach you everything in school; sometimes the field turns into your school. Mathieu Charette, an ornithologist from Montreal, Canada, and director of the Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society in Belize, talks us through some of the lessons he has learned from his career in the field. Should there be a change in focus for conservation?
What inspired you to work with birds?
“My passion started when I was young, spending a lot of time outdoors. With my family, particularly with my dad, that would take me to a lot of National parks. I was probably nine when we were walking and there was a Common Tern colony, maybe 40 birds and they flew right above my head and that, I don’t know what it did there, but something clicked.”
Talk us through your first experiences in the field.
“The first ten years of my career were as a seabird biologist. I was going to islands for months at a time with one other person, we got dropped off in the helicopter, and they bought us a box of food once a month, and we would just be with seabirds, puffins and terns etc.”
“I did a master’s at the University of New Brunswick with seabird biologist Tony Diamond, who is renowned in the field. During this time, my passion for birds developed into a career. It was a very stinky job, but I had some amazing experiences.”
How did you then transition from seabirds to working deep in the Central American jungles?
“About ten years later I decided to restart my education with a PhD researching king vultures in Mexico through the University of Quebec. I was working for two years in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula where I really fell in love with the ecosystems.”
“Unfortunately, my PhD fell through due to different reasons. I came back to Canada looking for my next step, where I met Vanessa, an old colleague of mine and now my business partner with whom I founded T.R.E.E.S and Ecorana Environmental with.”
“We just met up and went for a walk, she had been doing consulting work as a herpetologist after doing her master’s on the chytrid fungus (A fungus wiping out frog populations worldwide) in Costa Rica. Her work had become very office based, so we were like “Hey, let’s start a field station!”. Next thing you knew we were on a plane to Belize, to check out how we can make it work.”
The Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society is a wildlife ecology research and education center in the jungles of Belize. As well as hosting students and scientists from around the world, sustainable community development is at the forefront of the center’s work.
Was there anything insightful you discovered when starting your own project?
“Well, the objective of TREEs was really to gain more knowledge about the species present and living in the Maya mountains, and then doing some long-term monitoring, because Belize, like a lot of developing tropical countries, was plagued with parachute science.”
This term, sometimes referred to as ‘Colonial Science’ is the practice of researchers, usually from wealthier countries, extracting data and samples from less wealthy regions without acknowledgement, collaboration, or benefit of local stakeholders.
“People were coming down for a Masters or PhD collecting all their data, extracting all that, and then going home writing a couple of papers and, and not even sending any of that information back to the country where they were posted” and not teaching locals any of the skills they are coming down with.”
“We were told very early on to “Please don’t do that”. So, our idea was, how do you combine collecting data and doing this great conservation work, but then also giving back to your host country? We found that the best way for us to get back to our host country was to educate their youth, especially into those programs where the individuals can really benefit personally.”
What was the wake-up call that allowed you to see beyond personal research projects?
Many conservationists around the world focus on research, primarily as this is an accessible funding route for both individuals and projects. However, a focus on research does not always lead to applied conservation action or community engagement in the field. Mathieu explains how his priorities have changed in his work.
“We need to look at our inputs and outputs, where can our energy be used best? There’s a lot of money spent that can be better spent somewhere else. I asked myself where my biggest impact could be; there’s a million bird researchers and publications being pumped out and being put on shelves never to be looked at.”
“Some papers will have a high conservation value, but it’s seeing the situation and then evolving through it towards action. When I was starting the banding stations with the local community I realized that my impact as a conservationist would be much higher through education than as a researcher.”
“To me, that’s my passion now, it’s not just about the birds anymore, it’s really getting young locals into our profession, for them to then be able to run their own projects and find how to make their own impact. It’s about building capacity so that locals can tap into this field and benefit from it.”
What is your focus right now?
“At least for me, It’s becoming more about land conservation and education. I am hoping that through education, more people are going to want to conserve or even regenerate land, which is one of the biggest issues right now. It’s really all about capacity building.”
“Capacity building is our focus right now. For example, we’ve put time and energy in to this one Maya woman that is now leading our bird banding and has about 35 community bird banders under her, and they’re all moving up as well. And so that I would say is our main mission now, getting that data, but using it as an educational tool to build capacity within communities.”
“For me, I am interested in helping start the same kind of initiative with first nations in Canada but these kind of conservation-based capacity projects are all around the globe. Currently, there’s a lot of potential for capacity building across all the Caribbean islands. Birds Caribbean is currently doing an amazing job with this.”
Capacity building is the process of developing and strengthening the skills, processes and resources that organisations and communities need to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing world. In the field of conservation, capacity building within communities can improve sustainability both financially and environmentally.
How can early conservationists make the most of their experiences?
“From what I have seen, the ones that benefited the most, [are] open to not just their projects but getting involved in everything going on around them.”
“If you get invited out on a walk with biologists always say yes! This is what gives you the big picture of conservation but most importantly allows you to grow your network. Everything is intertwined and connected so getting involved with all aspects gives you that understanding.”
“It’s not always an easy field. The money isn’t always equal to the amount of effort you will put in. I feel this is changing and I hope there is a time where conservation biologists are going to be paid their worth. If you’re starting off in your career, you might have to accept that you will have to do some volunteering, or you’re going to have to pay a little bit for some of those experiences.”
“It’s a mindset. It’s a way of life. I think that once you’re into it, it’s immensely gratifying. The people that you work with, you become very tight with, and they will stick with you for your whole career. That’s something that I’ve seen in myself, but also my mentors.”
What would your message be for early career conservationists reading this?
“The planet needs you, and it’s going to be extremely rewarding. I’ve never regretted it for a second. And everybody that I know that is into it, feels the same way. It’s just getting more and more important with these younger generations. Don’t give up, it’s not always easy, but in the end, it’s really going to pay off, you will end up where you need to be.”
“Another important thing for young, but all conservationists, is staying positive. It can feel gloomy sometimes, but change is possible and as long as we have likeminded people that keep pushing for conservation, change happens, at small and large scales.”
“It is important to keep that in mind and watch out for too much negative media attention, there are many good stories out there that are very motivating and keep me going. It is easy to get overwhelmed and burnt out so stay positive, surround yourself with other positive conservationists and read good conservation news.”
Want to learn more about Mathieu and his work?
Find out more about Mathieu’s work and dive deeper into the different projects that take place at the Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society in Belize as well as EcoRana. They can even help you plan your trip to this awesome place!
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