Kerstin Forsberg (Director, Planeta Oceano)
Early this year, while I was attending the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, I heard about a newly discovered virus that could rapidly spread into a devastating pandemic. A friend told me about the outbreak; I had no clue how my life was about to change.
For more than a decade, I have been working to scale-up the efforts of Planeta Oceano (www.facebook.com/planetaoceano) that engages coastal communities in marine conservation through research, education and sustainable development initiatives. To achieve this, my specific work these recent years has been to balance my activities on the field with a schedule packed with international meetings. Although I had always strongly questioned my travel footprint, these opportunities had certainly strengthened our conservation impact. After the meeting in Davos, I returned home to Lima, Peru, and started planning for my next conferences while envisioning my work for the year ahead. Yet, abruptly, all my events were cancelled; my daughter’s first-grade classes changed to home-schooling and I found myself under a strict lockdown without the possibility of leaving home, which has so far lasted for over seven months.
Our flagship Manta Ray Project encompasses fieldwork and data collection and is greatly supported by Earthwatch expeditions and international volunteers. But, the project was put on hold due to travel and tourism restrictions. Suddenly, as the leader of a small non-profit, I began my continuous challenge of balancing home-schooling with fundraising, team management at a distance, and continuing to implement impactful initiatives without being able to go out into the field. Despite budget constraints, I fought to keep supporting our core staff, hoping that these challenges would make us stronger.
While we are fortunate that our team and families are healthy and safe, with an already fragile medical system, Peru has become one of the most heavily affected countries by COVID-19. The economic impact of this crisis has been devastating for almost everyone, perhaps even more so for small non-profits across the globe.
Although the lockdowns were sometimes initially referred to as a measure to support the recovery of nature by decreasing habitat perturbations and emissions, the truth is that the pandemic has only underlined the environmental challenges we are all facing at several levels.
In terms of waste and pollution, the increase in protective gears and masks has led to an increase in unmanaged waste disposal flooding our streets, rivers and our oceans. According to the BBC, elastic straps from face masks have been found entangled with fauna, and campaigns calling for the responsible disposal of face masks highlight the need to cut these straps to prevent wildlife entanglement as well as utilize reusable and washable masks whenever possible.
Single-use plastics were already a huge concern even before the pandemic, with plastic pollution causing severe challenges to our ecosystems’ health. In many cases, the pandemic has further incentivized the use of more plastic packages, as people opt for more take-out and delivery services and avoid goods bulk bins, amongst others. For example, the initial strict lockdown in Peru had paused the county’s recycling systems, creating a challenge for adequate waste management and local recyclers.
But, even beyond these easy-to-see environmental impacts brought on by consumer behaviours, the environmental agenda has been severely challenged this year.
Previously, everyone thought that 2020 would be a “super-year” for the world’s oceans with many critical events planned, such as the 2020 United Nations Ocean Conference. Yet understandably, lockdowns postponed events, international negotiations, and decision-making. Environmental organizations worldwide have been confronted with challenges in attaining their goals, with reduced incomes, the reduction of personnel, and project delays. Furthermore, reduced enforcement has opened the door to illegal practices such as illegal fishing or hunting.
Soon after I started my quarantine, I received calls from fishermen in northern Peru reporting on the illegal harvest of giant manta rays, a species we had worked hard to get legally protected. Mantas were now being exposed to furtive capture due to limited government enforcement caused by the country-wide lockdown.
In short, a combination of all challenges we have faced during the pandemic has decreased our global capacity to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources,” as stated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14 or SDG 14; as well as our capacity to support all other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a healthy ocean (an approach referred to as SDG 14+).
With this, I would like to highlight the importance the oceans have on every person living on this planet. The oceans are our planet’s main life support system; it regulates our climate, provides over half of the oxygen we breathe, sustains livelihoods and food security, and makes our planet habitable. We all depend on the oceans, even if we have never seen them.
Thus, it is critical that we all understand our impact on the oceans and the oceans’ impact on us; in other words, that we all become what UNESCO calls “Ocean Literate” (oceanliteracy.unesco.org/ ). However, our oceans have been continuously exposed to threats such as over-exploitation, pollution, climate change, have notoriously been under-explored, and investments in ocean resilience are far from what one would expect for the planet’s main life-source.
With marine environments and local livelihoods at greater risk due to challenges arising from the pandemic, it has also become clear that minorities, vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, such as small-scale fishers, women and youth, amongst many others, have been further exposed to the previously existing inequality gap.
As we move forward, all of us must understand that a healthy ocean is critical to achieving the SDGs. Likewise, through a “blue” approach, all other SDGs can greatly contribute to our oceans. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, achieving climate action for the oceans (SDG 13), incorporating ocean literacy in quality education (SDG 4), and improving local sustainable fisheries for economic growth (SDG 8), among so many others.
As we rebuild our nations from the pandemic, it is more important than ever to invest in a Blue Economy and recovery. If we fail to do so, it will increase environmental challenges and inequality.
While under lockdown, I suddenly found myself witnessing how countries could potentially risk fragile environments as they struggle to rebuild their suppressed economies. I observed how an existing port near one of Peru’s most iconic Marine Protected Areas, the Paracas National Reserve, was intending to store and transport ore concentrate near and within the reserve, an operation that could potentially affect local ecosystems and livelihoods, as reported by Fortune magazine. In a coalition with others, I soon embarked on a new pursuit: trying to protect the Paracas, hoping to promote a sustainable blue-green recovery.
Implementing conservation efforts in these uncertain times has certainly been challenging globally as well as at the individual and organizational levels. However, we need to strengthen our environmental efforts now more than ever. All of us should ensure sustainable consumption and lifestyle patterns and behaviours; funders invest in ocean resilience; decision-makers note the critical need of a sustainable blue recovery. It has become clear that the loss of nature can contribute to the proliferation of pandemics. The current global crisis is a reminder of our society’s dysfunctional relationship with nature.
Despite difficulties, this year has hopefully opened our eyes to things we need to learn and improve, while showcasing things we used to take for granted. My own lockdown experience has allowed me to reframe the way I think, question, and act. It has taught me lessons on resilience, both at the personal and organizational levels, as I work forward for sustainability.
Creativity is Key
For over half a decade, my team and I have been working to engage local fishermen in leading community-based giant manta ray ecotourism, thus helping to increase the value of this vulnerable species’ life rather than harvesting them. This majestic and harmless species, reaching up to 7 meters from wing tip to wing tip, is vulnerable to extinction globally.
Although mantas were previously hunted in Peru, our collaboration with local communities, partners and government officials led to the legal protection for this species in Peru, an effort that supported the development of local ecotourism. Building upon our collaboration with the local fishing industry, fishermen would take tourists out to swim with giant manta rays. It has contributed to citizen science and the monitoring of this species in addition to supplying fishermen with an income and a livelihood.
However, with tourism suddenly cancelled, our efforts and progress immediately collapsed. I could only feel the need to search for new alternatives for this program, perhaps even beyond what could be initially recognizable.
Since then, we have been seeking to design an innovative online platform where anyone from around the world could potentially connect with those fishermen and learn about mantas, a service we hope to launch very soon. In this process, we have noted how this platform could be replicated to other areas and further help increase resilience and income of the low-income communities that depend on the ecotourism.
Similarly, we soon started tapping into technology platforms we had not fully used before. During this lockdown, our in-person workshops turned into radio campaigns and our school activities into national and international webinars for all. Our fieldwork with fishermen was replaced by an online forum that expanded information exchanges with fishermen sharing their stories of sightings and releases of threatened species.
These processes have shown me how challenges can open one’s mind to new possibilities and creations, and wider opportunities and engagements. In many cases, challenges can press creativity beyond boundaries, leading to even greater results.
Leverage Power of Networks
Although many global events were challenged or postponed, the global ocean community still proved to be strong and resilient, with many discussions now taking place online. During a webinar I attended during the lockdown, I learnt that what we really need to practice and refer to more is physical distancing rather than social distancing, as collaboration is even more important at the current stage we are living in. When I heard this, World Ocean Day (June 8) was two weeks away, and I found myself returning to a dream I had for some time: creating a video with young voices from across the world, showcasing the importance of the world’s oceans.
Despite the short time frame, I reached out to international friends and partners, inviting them to join and collaborate on this video. In only two weeks, we united 102 children’s voices from 44 countries for our World Ocean Day Video that we posted on YouTube. The video features the children calling for a “new normal” for our planet and asking adults to build a world that respects nature. Children explained the importance of the oceans and nature for their health and life, and the actions that they expect to be carried out by adults as they rebuild society. Some of them mentioned: “this year has been difficult for us,” “we have been patient,” “we want to grow up in a planet that is different,” and “now you have a second chance, please don’t let it slip away.”
This video represented a greatly needed message of hope from our children. They trust us to give them a renewed world and we cannot let them down. Furthermore, this effort also showed how we can always take a step further to fully leverage our networks. Convening so many voices in such a short time showed the power of what we can all do together.
Look through Positive Lens
Building upon Planeta Oceano’s ten years of work in marine education, in the past couple of years, we started framing our ‘Connecting Schools’ initiative, which aims to scale-up our educational efforts by bringing together youth from different countries and communities through online technology and community action. Our program is focused on guiding the youth through a series of modules in which they learn and research about coastal and marine environments and the local challenges faced by these environments.
Participating youth are guided to design and implement a youth-led initiative that aims to contribute towards solutions while gaining experience in project development, enhancing critical thinking skills and environmental leadership. Throughout this process, the youth are paired with peers conducting the same program in another geographic locality. Peers learn from one another and develop fellowship, collaboration skills and global citizenship so critically needed for our shared oceans.
With distance education suddenly being the new norm, establishing our Connecting Schools model became even more relevant and timely. Although technology gaps are still a pressing issue in many locations worldwide, given internet access at home, students can connect across borders, recognizing how we all share the same oceans.
We are confident that this initiative can help contribute to ocean conservation, provide skills for youth professional development, and support peace education. As we now look forward to growing this new initiative, I notice how our current challenges can become opportunities. Although we can all fall, we have the strength to stand stronger.
Celebrate the Simple
Despite the current environmental challenges, I am optimistic that collaborations, innovations, and commitments throughout the world will move forward efforts for a more sustainable, resilient, and healthy oceans. I am excited, for example, for the upcoming UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development ( www.oceandecade.org ), which will take place from 2021 to 2030. As a mother of a young girl, I look forward to the next decade of Ocean Action and what this will greatly mean to my daughter.
One day during my lockdown, I was attending an online meeting for this UN Decade with my daughter home-schooling beside me. As this was happening, I realized that spending more time at home has allowed me to further value what is most important to me as a person, appreciate every single detail of the environment surrounding us and build this into my life and work; to focus on what I previously overlooked and allocate time to write, analyse and be strategic. It has also helped us value our efforts’ human component, as we engage with others who are also at home. All these personal connections and learning processes will certainly benefit our work in conservation. Likewise, our work in conservation will continue to enrich our own individual experiences.
Ultimately, this lockdown has shown me how humanity took many things for granted before the pandemic: our resources, surroundings, and communities. At an incalculable global cost, what we have all gone through will hopefully shed light on things we now need to change. Although this year has been particularly challenging for conservation and the environment, I hope that coping with the challenge will only make our efforts stronger by helping us build resilience and gain perspective.