We’ve all heard the somewhat antiquated but oft-quoted statement that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. As it turns out, this age-old trick is invaluable when tackling the challenges of community-based conservation. There are, of course, those who are already fired up and will jump at a chance to talk protected areas management and fisheries regulation. But for those community members who do not seek out conservation-themed events, four simple words all but guarantee attendance: “food and drinks provided.” This simple phrase works its magic across borders, generations, and genders, and it should not be dismissed for its seeming triviality. When you’re attempting to drum up support for conservation through community events, attendance is key. No one becomes a die-hard ocean champion over night but if you can bring people to the table with the promise of cookies and Kool Aid the future begins to look a little brighter.
During the first two weeks of August, I worked with the Helen Reef Program to put the “food and drinks provided” trick to the test. We launched the first ever Helen Reef Summer Fest, a two-week blitz of ocean-themed community outreach events aimed at enhancing awareness of and commitment to the work of the Helen Reef Program. While programming was primarily designed for youth under 18 years of age, more than 130 participants aged 4 to 60 years participated in our events over the course of the two weeks. Events included a conservation mural design contest, an ocean-themed trivia night, a basketball tournament, a screening of Shark Tale, and a Conservation Officer Appreciation Day (observed on July 31st, World Ranger Day). The Summer Fest culminated with a one-day Conservation Day Camp for elementary school kids. And, of course, cookies and Kool Aid kept everyone coming back for more.
Finding creative ways to engage the community while also remaining true to the organization’s mission and work can be a challenge. For example, no obvious connection exists between coral reef conservation and basketball. Yet, Palauans love basketball and we knew people would show up (even teenage boys!) if we organized a tournament. So, we planned a basketball shootout and asked each group to come up with an ocean-themed team name. I can’t say that anyone learned anything new about the benefits of coral reefs or the threat of climate change from our afternoon of rollicking competition but, if nothing else, it helped to reinforce the Helen Reef Program’s position as a truly community-oriented organization.
Other events offered more substance mixed in with the fun. Trivia has not yet taken hold in Palau and our ocean-themed trivia night was the first of its kind. It was a hit. Questions covered Palau’s national ocean policies, the history and current work of the Helen Reef Program, and traditional Hatohobei ecological and cultural knowledge. Our Conservation Officer Appreciation Day honored the Helen Reef Officers while also raising community awareness about their work, a core element of the program. The Officers conduct 24/7 year-round surveillance of the Helen Reef Marine Protected Area and, without their vigilance, the MPA would likely be protected in name only. Finally, our Conservation Day Camp was chockfull of educational fun and the kids enjoyed lessons and activities on coral reefs, marine debris and plastics, conservation, protected areas, and more.
Based on the turnout at our Summer Fest events, it seems there is significant community demand for events and opportunities to engage with the Helen Reef Program. Maybe it was the end of summer boredom that drove people to us. Maybe it was a desire to understand the conservation program better. Maybe it was the treats provided at each event. Whatever the reason, community members of all ages came together to share in a celebration and exploration of their reef, their conservation efforts, and their evolving identity as a community of ocean champions. I am hopeful that the newly invigorated Education and Awareness arm of the Helen Reef Program will continue with creative programming. In order to support their future efforts, some of my final deliverables included an Education and Outreach Toolkit, a simple ocean conservation elementary curriculum, and a Conservation Officer Program Needs Assessment.
The end of the Helen Reef Summer Fest also marked the end of my time in Palau. Over the course of the past two and a half months, I learned things I could never have learned in a classroom. Many moments were joyful (snorkeling with turtles), inspiring (meeting the President), and eye-opening (hearing stories from Marine Law Officers). Other moments were frustrating (adjusting to a very un-American style and pace of work), confusing (trying to navigate family feuds and local politics), and disappointing (realizing how malleable the truth can become when NGOs interface with funders). My time in Palau allowed me to peel back the curtain and see community-based conservation for what it really is. At its most visionary, it is about respect, hope, collaboration, and making the world a better place for all living things. In reality, it is often a slow-moving, disjointed process weighed down by politics, ego, and greed. As I move forward in my career, I hope that knowing these truths will empower me to be an effective conservation partner and enable me to avoid common missteps and pitfalls along the way. Many thanks to everyone who made this summer possible!