Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Plain management

On a recent flight I was reading a story in the Economist about why certain banks made it safely through the credit crunch, while others suffered badly or didn’t survive at all (No size fits all, August 16th 2008, 11-12). The article concludes that what separates the winners from the losers is not models, but management. In the end, if the people at the top know what they are doing and can convey this convincingly to the rest of the organization, then the organization they lead has a good chance to make progress.

Just that afternoon I’d had a go at TNC’s reliance on models. My critique targeted my pet topic of ecoregional assessments, and how these had failed to be of much assistance in our conservation work in Indonesia relative to the amount spent. My conservation fellows—both former TNC staff—disagreed and maintained that it wasn’t TNC’s ecoregional assessments that were weak, but our inadequate implementation of those plans (read ineffective management).

There’s a lot of truth in that. A good plan in the hands of poor managers will go nowhere. But almost any plan in the hands of a good manager can be used constructively. Why? Because it’s not about the plan itself but the story he or she can tell about that plan, and if that story is good, they can convince anyone. The question then really becomes one of resources. How much funding do we commit to identifying, training, and hiring these super managers—ones that can carry a team, bring about success, and leap tall buildings in a single bound—compared to the money we invest in our plans? A quick and dirty estimate for the Indonesian forest program shows we spend about 5 times more on our top managers than on our planning. Hard to say whether that ratio is too high, just right, or too low because it doesn’t tell us whether the investments in either management or planning were well spent.

Scanning the successes and failures of conservation organizations, I see the ones with the truly inspiring and astute leaders as the ones really making a difference in conservation. The lasting conservation successes that I've witnessed in Indonesia had little to do with prescribed approaches to conservation, planning, or even availability of resources. Success came about when a leader understood the local context of a conservation problem, recognized a solution, and had the guts and stamina to implement it, even in the face of significant opposition. Such qualities are hard to find in one person, and maybe that’s why conservation success in places like Indonesia is so hard to find. Even big banks that probably outpay TNC top management by one or more orders of magnitude, get it wrong. This just shows how hard our job will be to find the right people to lead the organization. But it is a challenge that we have to take on.

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Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The difference between an ape with a stick and a fishing monkey

In late April a picture and news release was sent around the world of an orangutan overhanging a river and poking the water with a stick. One of the headlines run “Orangutan attempts to hunt fish with spear”. The story line was that this is the first time an orangutan has been seen using a tool to hunt. I quote: “A male orangutan, clinging precariously to overhanging branches, flails the water with a pole, trying desperately to spear a passing fish. The extraordinary image, a world exclusive, was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja, where apes are rehabilitated into the wild after being rescued from zoos, private homes or even butchers' shops.” And more (from the Daily Mail): “’Orang hutan’ means ‘forest man’ in one of Indonesia's many languages and our long-armed cousins do indeed show a remarkable ability to mimic our behaviour. This individual had seen locals fishing with spears on the Gohong River. Although the method required too much skill for him to master, he was later able to improvise by using the pole to catch fish already trapped in the locals' fishing lines.” To say the least, I am a little skeptical. For a start, it’s been a long time since I last saw anyone in Borneo fish with a spear. This is the kind of thing you see on “Survivor”, but not in the Bornean jungle. People are sophisticated here and use nets, hook, line and sinker, a little poison or electric shocks. Way upriver, where the waters are clear and shallow, people may use goggles and a short spear, but I doubt that’s where the orangutan picked up the alleged skill. Surely, the orangutan on the photo is doing something with a stick. Maybe it is trying to collect a floating fruit or dead fish, and yes, this could be referred to as tool use. But then again, these are semi-rehabilitated orangutans that have lived much of their lives with people and are now confined to a temporary holding facility in the middle of river before they can finally be released into the wild. They even star in very popular tv shows like Orangutan Diary and Orangutan Island. So, a little copying of human behaviour is not that surprising, they are our close relatives after all. My point is that I don’t mind some media attention for orangutans. But can we just stick to the facts for a change? Do, we really think that anthropomorphosizing orangutans will change the attitude of Indonesian policy makers and politicians, and improve the survival chances of the species? “Lookie here!, the orangutan can even do tricks….” Anyway... Now, if you do want to see fishing monkeys, why don’t you come and visit Lesan in East Kalimantan, one of the very few places on earth where primates actually do fish (see this link). And no speculation here; we have seen them do it. They catch live fish and eat them. And they don’t use a tool. No, they are much smarter, they use their hands. And they are very quick about it. What does it mean? Probably nothing more than a hungry monkey who is smart enough to extract nutrients from its environment. Well done monkey.

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Sunday, 18 May 2008

The crucial role of inspirational and powerful leaders in conservation

What makes conservation work? Among all the many questions that conservationists want answered, this one is at the heart of our day-to-day work. We invest endlessly, try countless strategies, develop the most intricate tools for planning and analysis, but our successes are limited—at least in places like Borneo where forests are still disappearing at an alarming rate.

Still the successes are there. They are often small, easily overlooked and they don’t even get that much attention. The Wehea area in East Kalimantan, Indonesia is one of them. I recently heard a story about the customary law leader of the Wehea people, Mr. Let Djitaq preventing the entry of illegal loggers into Wehea, despite their significant bribery efforts. Let Djitaq has been a driving force behind the crucial community involvement and support in Wehea’s protection. In fact, it seems that this one man was critical to Wehea’s success.

I know several additional examples from Kalimantan and other places in the world where conservation successes depended to a very great extent on the vision and commitment of only one or two people. Successes in those projects did not depend on large amounts of funding. But they were determined by a single-mindedness and a never-say-die attitude, with which not even the most forceful Bruce Willis movies can compete. (I thought of Bruce Willis after watching Live Free or Die Hard: “Matt Farrell (Justin Long, the computer guy): "You just killed that helicopter with a car." McClane (Bruce Willis): "I was out of bullets.")

This raises the question of how important such charismatic and powerful leaders are in conservation. A quick search in my trusted science databases on various combinations of “conservation”, “leader”, “leadership” revealed only one slightly relevant publication about leadership in the US forest service. Apparently, this issue is not much studied. I wonder why.

Maybe the cult of personage does not suit today’s scientific frame of mind from which much conservation thinking seems to derive. We do our thing, because we are confident that there is a need for conservation that should be obvious to everyone. After all the facts are there to see.

Or maybe we think that conservation success requires people with good management skills, good financial insights and a talent for lobbying, or those who can talk to the media and spin a good story.

We need to give this some more thought. What key elements do our inspirational leaders bring to the table? The ones I have met are all original and visionary thinkers. They know what they want and they know how to get there. And they can communicate this and make others listen. They understand the system in which they work and know how to manipulate it. And they all share a more or less spiritual love for the natural world.

They also have something else in common: There is generally little love lost between them and the conservation establishment.

I wonder whether we underestimate the role of inspirational and committed leadership? I think that we need to look harder for champions of conservation and honour their achievements. And we need to know more. What role do these people play in conservation success? How many projects would not have failed if the right leader had been in place. And where do you find such leaders? Can we test job applicants for senior positions for their visionary leadership abilities?

They may not be the easiest people to work with, and they may often disagree with us. Their single-mindedness knows no bounds and they will scathingly critical of shortcomings in conservation. But this may still not be a reason to keep out of their way. I believe conservation NGOs should stimulate out-of-the-box thinking, even if it works against us once in a while. We need those women and men who can stand up in front of a crowd and pronounce without blushing that "they had a dream”.

Our champions may be a lot more relevant in conservation success than we recognize at the moment. We don’t have a strategy for inspirational leadership. I think we need one.

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Thursday, 20 March 2008

Imagine this land without forest—modelling Borneo’s future

“Why should Indonesia not be allowed to use up all its forest resources just like countries in Europe and north America have done?” This is a question that I have not infrequently been asked in discussions here in Indonesia. Fellow conservationists as well as government people have over the years confronted me with this apparently fair suggestion. The point they were making is that in many industrialized countries, the loss of original forest cover has not led to general poverty, environmental collapse, and human suffering. Maybe they have a point.

Let’s have a closer look. When I was attending university in the Netherlands, a lecturer once pointed out that the country’s biodiversity was likely at its highest ever in the 16th century. After several thousand years of tampering with our swampy lowlands, regulating water levels, (over)-grazing certain areas, and enriching others with manure, the Dutch had created a rich and highly variable environment with many micro-habitats for ecological specialists. At the same time, our increasingly international trade links would soon see the country emerge as one of the richest in the world. By that time, few natural forest areas remained in the Netherlands. Only when the micro-management of landscapes was taken over by larger scale processes and an increase in mono-cultural use of agricultural lands, did our species diversity really start to decline.

I know a lot less about the USA, or other industrialized countries, but a similar pattern of deforestation and economic development seems to have taken place in many other parts of the world. A fair working hypothesis would therefore be that deforestation leads to economic growth and to increased species diversity. But after economic development leads to homogenization of developed landscapes, I guess, in most places species diversity subsequently declines.

So, how does this work in Borneo. This vast island, was until recently covered from coast to coast in tropical forests. We know that this wasn’t always the case, and that more open, savanna-like landscapes also occurred on this island. But that aside, can we really say that for Borneo to have maximum biodiversity, all of it should be covered in forest. And more, importantly for those Indonesians asking me questions, what percentage should remain forested for maximum economic productivity on the island.

Interestingly, we don’t really know much about this. As conservationists, we are trying to push the point that forests provide crucial (yet unquantified) environmental services. We are suggesting that the many known and unknown (e.g. future medicinal use of plant chemicals) values justify retaining these forests, rather than converting them to highly profitable monocultures like oil palm or fast-growing trees for paper production. But how much of that is true?

Why do we actually know so little about the economic potential and biological as well as cultural diversity that an island like Borneo could have in various stages of deforestation? Is the situation so complex that we cannot even start modeling impacts of deforestation? Surely there is a lot of detailed information from case studies.

I am playing devil’s advocate here (at least from the point of view of those that support forest conservation), but it would be a very useful exercise if we could model the economic potential of Borneo with or without trees. And how much species diversity would be retained under different scenarios? And what would the value be of its remaining environmental services?

For a group of people that are trying to push the idea that nature is worth a lot of money, we actually have very little to say about what those values would actually be. Isn’t it time that we come up with some hard answers?

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Saturday, 15 March 2008

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and the magic of conservation

Okay, I admit it, I do watch a lot of children’s movies. Apart from giving me a good excuse to spend a few precious hours with my daughter Emily, I do like their simplicity, the simple lines drawn between good and bad. I also like the magic in these movies. In these films a nice, straightforward world is created, without many of the complexities in films for grown-ups that keep me thinking a long time after the final trailers have rolled off my screen, and give me bad sleeps.

The other day, I watched Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. This film with Dustin Hoffmann as Mr. Magorium, the 243 year old owner of a magical toy shop in New York, works with the nice idea that you can create any sort of magical world as long as you truly believe it to be possible. After the film, it struck me that conservation has much in common with that theme (that was a pleasant thought that didn’t keep me awake).

Working in the depressing world of Indonesian forest conservation you often find yourself wondering why we even bother. There are a few small successes in Indonesian conservation. But a lot of programs that I and many others have tried to develop over the last few decades have resulted in failure. We haven’t saved many significant areas of forest. We have not really reduced the population declines of any species. We probably made a difference here or there, even by just being there. But, man, it’s been an effort, and the tangible results are few and far between.

So, why do I still bother. One of the reasons is that, against all odds, I still believe that we can actually do something positive in this country, for its wildlife, for its people, even for its economy. I believe that something magical can happen. That people start making sense of their lives and how these relate to their surroundings. That humanity lives up to its potential and starts to develop lifestyles and behaviour that balance people’s needs with those of the environment.

This may all sound a bit too 1960s, but having that belief actually keeps me here. The day that I wake up and convince myself that I will not be able to do anything useful in Indonesian conservation, is the day that I will pack my bags and go home. I fear that day, because without belief it is easy to turn into a depressed cynic. And what use would that be to anyone?

But for the time being, I am not ready yet. I want to stay a little longer in the children’s movie called conservation, where I and my NGO colleagues collaborate in a shared sense of believe that things will get better. That doesn’t make us na├»ve. But it does differentiate us from the political and business sectors where such idealism is, although not absent, certainly much rarer. Someone from the private sector told me some time ago to “get a real job”. I thought about that a lot and realized that such “a real job” is exactly what I didn’t want.

Let me play a little longer, like a few weeks ago, when I conducted a brief survey in a large plantation for pulp and paper production. We know that up until 25 years ago, the area contained virtually undisturbed rainforests, where orangutans were common and even a few Sumatran rhinos still roamed. Now they are mostly monocultural plantings of Acacia and Eucalyptus feeding the world’s hunger for paper. In the area, there is also Kutai National Park, where much of 200,000 ha of forest has been logged-over, burnt, and its species hunted or collected to near extinction levels. Recent proposals seem to suggest that a significant part of the park will be degazetted because of other economic interests of local communities and businesses that conflict with the conservation status of the park.

I don’t know what we can achieve in this area. I don’t know whether Kutai National Park can be saved. I don’t know whether companies and government in the area are truly committed to engaging in forest and wildlife conservation. So, I don’t know whether we are just wasting our time.

But in the end, I still think that we should work there. Because not all hope is lost and we do have a vision on how some key habitats and species can be maintained.

So, yes, we do believe in miracles. And we know that without our belief there will not be a miracle. So, “Hiho Hiho”, and back to work we go. For another day in Indonesian conservation.

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Saturday, 15 December 2007

What general practitioners, football coaches and rocket science have to do with conservation

Science plays a small but crucial role in conservation. It helps us to develop practical approaches to preserving biodiversity, ecological integrity and environmental values. We do this by identifying threats, work out the cause-effect relationships underlying these threats, and then clarify the means to counter them. In a more general context, conservation science guides our strategies, policies and management.

The results of scientific research should be to conservation what stars are to celestial navigation; when the skies are clear, the stars inform us whether we are heading towards our goal and how fast we are moving. And if we’re clever we could work out whether we’re on the right ship. The problem is often that our skies are far from clear. Conservation problems are complex and we rarely get a clear view of where we are heading and how to get there, let alone whether we are using the right tools.

People talk about something not being rocket science. Maybe this was a valid concept a century ago, but now rocket science is a lot more simple than conservation science. Conservation scientists who are trying to work out how to get to a conservation goal have to deal with ecology, politics, business and economics, social science, anthropology, environmental science, psychology, earth sciences, and a bit of legal studies thrown in for good measure. All these factors interact in often unexpected ways and understanding how to best intervene to reduce a threat is not easy. Compared to that, getting a rocket into space is peanuts (not sure where that expression came from—peanuts?). Just check the respective failure rates of rockets and conservation and you will get my point.

With so much complexity to deal with, how is conservation science trying to cope? Because of the scale of the problems, conservation scientists tend to be specialists on certain aspects of conservation problems. Most of us have backgrounds in ecology or other biological sciences. When faced with other science aspects of conservation we improvise as best as we can. Sometimes that works and sometime you end up writing really crappy economic analyses, like I did the other day. So when we need assistance from other science fields we ask a specialist for help. A weakness of that system is that you end up with a compilation of specialist input but not necessarily a good overview of the whole problem or anyone who understands what all the information together really means.

Lacking overview wouldn’t be a problem if we had rigorous measures in place to tell us how we were getting on. But most often we don’t, and once we decide on a certain heading or approach, we stick to it, often until it is too late to change course. For a parallel, think of medical sciences without general practitioners. Or a football team without a coach. The general practitioner should be able to tell us whether that nasty headache is just because we had too much wine the previous night, or because of that persistent neck injury, or something quite a bit nastier. Based on experience of the human body and its common failings, the practitioner will refer us to a specialist who will then try to deal with the core cause of our headache. Or if our team keeps losing games, we need a good coach to point out that if only that winger would go deep more often, link up with the accurate passes from the left back, thus drawing in the opponents defence, and freeing up our centre forward to go for goal.

Instead, conservation science often ends up with lots of specialist information: orangutan populations are dwindling, poverty is being reduced, oil palm prices are booming, the next governor’s election are coming up, people here don’t care about orangutans, and soil erosion is affecting coral reefs and ecotourism. But how do we usefully combine this to answer the simple question of what it takes to save some orangutan habitat? Which factors are actually important causes of particular conservation headaches? Should the focus be on economics, politics, psychology, or ecology?

I am neither a great fan of general practitioners, nor of most football coaches, and suspect that they get by on hunches and intuition rather than solid scientific analysis far more often than the public would want to know. But I actually suspect that conservation scientists are not all that different. Most of us address in our research a small fraction of the total problem, and may get a small answer but rarely if ever the full picture. How to resolve the issue is not clear to me, but good education is part of it. Most conservation courses still have a strong focus on the biological aspects of conservation. But these are only a small part of the total story. A good conservation curriculum should address all the science issues mentioned above, targeting students with broad thinking abilities and good strategic insights. I am not aware of any such conservation courses existing in the world—but please prove me wrong.

Going back to the general practitioners parallel, I hope that we won’t be seeing the same trends as in the medical sciences. Throughout much of the world in the last few decades, there has been an increase in the number and type of medical specialists, matched by a steady decrease in general practitioners. Among the reasons for this are the long working hours, the relative isolation of solo general practice, and the lower pay compared to that of most specialists. So let’s make sure that we reward our conservation generalists with a good, performance-based, financial compensation and pleasant working conditions. Let’s make sure they can speak openly to our senior management or make sure that they are senior management. And let’s pamper them a bit, because in the end their input will make or break our conservation work.

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Friday, 24 August 2007

The art of science

I always thought that the old Greeks knew what they were talking about when they lumped their sciences with the arts and put them under the patronage of one deity, Apollo. Although, in Greek mythology, Apollo is considered the god of the arts, archery, and divination, he is most often associated with the cultivated arts of music and medicine. And his role as the leader of the Muses establishes him as a patron of intellectual pursuits.

Since those early days, the arts and sciences seem to have each gone their own way. Many consider the two to be essentially different, not in the least because one is often thought of as serious, a little grey, and weighty, whereas the other is supposedly light, colourful, inspirational, and creative. But are they really that different?

I have had this discussion many times before with friends and colleagues and so far most have disagreed with me. But I am stubborn. My point is that the sciences just like art are creative. The painter has a palette with basic colours and endless hues in between. Any idea or vision is given shape and texture on a canvas. And then it’s art, either good or bad. The musician has a choice of instruments, basic keys to follow and a few blue notes to chose from. Give it some rhythm and there will be art.

So what about the scientist. Our palette is every written or otherwise recorded thought and all available data. Our brush is a range of methods that lead through hypothesis to tests and conclusions. And our canvas is a few pieces of paper with which we can reach our audiences.

The creativity lies in the use of a mental razor with which we cut up old believes and ideas. Throw in some data, old and new, and hopefully we end up with a new insight that is bigger and more meaningful than the sum of the individual parts. When I get to that point, I feel very creative, I am very happy and then I move on to the next project.

Fellow researchers as well as artists have argued with me that the scientists are hampered by their scientific method, whereas artists are free. I am not so sure. I believe that scientists like Darwin or Einstein were great, not because they followed the scientific method, but because they were able to make huge leaps of imagination, and formalize these through a process of scientific analysis and reporting. Whatever they did and however they did it, in the end they created beauty.

My scientific ambitions are not quite in the league of the illustrious duo above. But under the guidance of Apollo and his muses I certainly see a role for myself and other scientists in TNC to create some clarity in murky conservation waters. And whilst at it, in a good mood, and on a role, I feel as much an artist as any self respecting painter, sculptor, poet, singer, and dancer. I might even be cheerful about it.

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