Putting communities at the heart of conservation

With responsibility for conservation programmes and partnerships in Madagascar, Mozambique, the Comoros, Belize and Timor-Leste, Frances Humber, Conservation Programmes Manager, Blue Ventures is the London-based ‘fixer’ who makes sure that projects are on track, looking after the critical behind-the-scenes work of providing technical support to staff in the field and managing relationships with funders. Having completed her doctoral research on artisanal shark and turtle fisheries in Madagascar, she is also overseeing efforts to improve fisheries monitoring through the use of smartphones by fishing communities to record catches.

Blue Ventures are champions of what they call ‘community conservation’, believing that local communities are in the best position to manage their fisheries and marine resources. With the help of Blue Ventures, Madagascar has become a pioneer in the development of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) in the Western Indian Ocean. In this interview, Frances shares her thoughts on some of the rewards and challenges of working in marine conservation.

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Frances Humber Conservation Programmes Manager with Blue Ventures.

Why do you think marine conservation is so important and what are some of the challenges that are unique to marine environments?

Frances Humber: Not to sound too flippant or broad, the ocean is obviously vast and you can’t see most of it! This is a fundamental difference to terrestrial conservation for example a deforested tract of Amazon rainforest speaks quite quickly to people and you can see what’s happening to some degree. If you’re trying to understand how to improve a fishery, how do you know how many fish or octopus are in the sea at any point in time? Often you can only count them once they’re already sitting in a boat.

Furthermore, there are huge areas of the oceans that aren’t under anyone’s ownership, and even those places where fishers go daily and rely heavily on for food and income, they don’t necessarily have any rights over them. 

For these two reasons, I think that’s why it’s such a big challenge. Oceans are so open to over-exploitation because half the time you can’t see where the boats are, you can’t see what people are doing, and you can’t see what people are taking.

So, how do you get people interested in something they can’t see? How do you generate interest in marine conservation as opposed to perhaps the more usual focus on land ecosytems and iconic species such as tigers, pandas etc.?

FH: Well, the marine world has its charismatic megafauna too, plus stunning coral reefs which probably first inspired many of us in marine conservation. But I think the bigger issue is how to generate more interest in the fisheries side how we’re all having a daily impact and that the choice you make when eating fish in the UK, could be having an impact on the fisheries and livelihoods in places like Madagascar.

Going back to the original question, and how you get people interested we always try to focus on the personal story behind a particular issue (eg. https://explore.blueventures.org/madame-kakoly). There’s often a more interesting human side to a lot of conservation that people don’t always read about – and that conservation is not always about stopping people doing something, it’s about trying to improve the way they do it (fish less, catch more!) and make their lives better at the same time. I think some of the people who we work with in Madagascar can tell very powerful stories about what conservation means to them.

What are you working on right now and what are the biggest challenges you face with it?

FH: My biggest challenge now is really looking at how we get things done. We’re going through a phase where we’re growing and we’re getting more funders, we have more staff, we have more ideas and conservation programmes. So, the biggest challenge is to ensure that we’re all pulling in the right direction and we constantly use our learning to improve how we do conservation and our impact. This means being stricter in the balance of day to day ‘fighting fires’ and taking time to take a step back and look at the long-term goal of a particular activity or programme, how we could be more effective, and encouraging others to do the same.

What it comes down to is how we can make sure that what we spend this precious time and money on is what is going to have the biggest impact for the community and conservation.

Before you started working in conservation, how did you imagine it would be, and how does that compare to what it is actually like?

FH: I think many of around my age started by doing a gap year project that involved marine conservation or SCUBA diving. The project was fairly ‘old school’, it was really focused on monitoring the reef and collecting data, and there wasn’t any significant community side to the work.

So after leaving school, I probably had this vision that being in marine conservation would be all about diving,coral reefs and what was happening in the ecosystem, but in reality, setting up a locally managed marine area (LMMA) in Madagascar, the least important part of the process is what’s going on underwater. It’s all about the other ‘push and pull’ factors – community interactions, local and national politics etc.

At the heart of most conservation projects are people. To get to a conservation outcome, so much of your time and focus is actually on people; so if you want to have that conservation impact, the amount of time you actually study a species or a coral reef could be negligible. You have to work with people and working with people is the route to achieving that conservation outcome.

Community involvement with projects is key. Photo: Blue Ventures.

Community involvement with projects is key. Photo: Blue Ventures.

What advice would you give somebody contemplating a career in conservation who may be discouraged by the enormity of the challenge and the feeling that one person can’t make any difference?

FH: I was thinking about that, it’s quite a tough one! In general, I think there is starting to be more of a change in attitudes towards the urgency of these conservation issues, but at the same time the problems aren’t getting any smaller whilst we wait for the attitudes of governments and people to change.

We need to remember to celebrate small victories and look for the positive stories that are out there. For example there’s a hashtag on Twitter called #OceanOptimism, with people trying to spread more of the good news stories. It’s important to stop conservationists from getting too depressed!

But I also think its quite arrogant to assume that one person can make a difference or whether you should expect them too! Key to successful conservation is creating and developing partnerships, with communities, local stakeholders and other NGOs. Developing links with people who you probably never thought you would as a conservationist such as businesses, private partners, lawyersall of these people can have key roles in conservation programmes.

It would be great to have more people with a passion for, or background in, conservation working in alternative careers so the sector wasn’t seen so separately. The objectives of most conservationists (put most simply as trying to improve the state of the environment without damaging livelihoods) are probably shared by a lot of people and could easily infiltrate through all businesses and sectors.

For someone wanting to get into conservation, how important are academic qualifications in a related field? Do you think they are essential?

FH: In terms of the more administrative side of the process, I know that if I’m sifting through CVs thinking about who might be good in a particular role, I’m still inclined to use academic qualifications as a first stage of shortlisting.

But beyond that point, experience and how people express themselves in an interview are more important. There are obviously benefits and confidence that come with having a good understanding of conservation or your particular field of interest, but there are many other key skills that are often underestimated.

Skills such as critical thinking, how to work in a team, people and project management are also really important, and a university degree may or may not expose you to these. So in short, it’s still a bit of a balance. There are a lot of important skills that you’re not necessarily taught, but the knowledge gained from education and experience can be the icing on the cake that gives you the confidence to make decisions at different levels of your role.

Blue Ventures staff in the field. Photo: Blue Ventures.

Blue Ventures staff in the field. Photo: Blue Ventures.

Is there any one thing that you wish you had known before you started your career in conservation?

FH: I think knowing that conservation does not necessarily mean science! You’re often pigeon-holed when you go to school or university, because you can only take a few A-Levels often focusing on Sciences or Arts for example. But actually, having a broader education, whether you incorporate languages or Business Studies, I think, is really useful, as well as trying to maintain that throughout university. 

Leading a successful conservation programme draws on skills ranging from human resources, finances, project management, communication, as well as conservation knowledge, and they all interplay into leading a good conservation project.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Project Manager