By David Dannecker
Corrin LaCombe is the Brown Endowed Conservation Education Research Coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. She received a B.A. in Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, before attending Oxford Brookes University for a Masters of Science in Primate Conservation Biology. She has been a student in a Rain Forest and Reef Ecology program in Costa Rica, worked in Evaluation and Modification of Conservation Education Programs in Bangladesh, and is currently working on a human livelihood improvement and alternative initiative in relation to a conservation project at the San Diego Zoo. The goal of this project is to protect the critically endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkey in Vietnam.
In her work with the San Diego Zoo, Corrin focuses on interfacing with local communities to determine the challenges they face in order to collaboratively identify potential solutions. These solutions not only benefit these local communities, but also promote the protection of local endangered species and the health of local ecosystems. Corrin sat down with PROSPECT for an interview to share some of her experiences working as a conservation educator and perspectives about how anthropology and sociocultural factors play a role in conservation.
PROSPECT: You approach conservation from an anthropology background. What compelled you to follow that path?
LACOMBE: As I was looking at the current state of the world and realizing that many things were kind of headed in a downward spiral, I was trying to figure out where the heart of the problem was, and I started to think that it was humans — humans making choices all the time that didn’t seem to flow very well within the circle of life, with sustainability and with our future. I wanted to really begin to understand how things came to be this way and how humans got themselves into the positions and the predicaments that they are in and how they go about making the choices that they do in regards to the environment. So I thought that learning about anthropology, studying humans, human cultures, human evolution, human progression would be the best way to understand my audience enough to move forward in making a difference in that realm — how humans are interacting with the environment.
PROSPECT: So how do you use anthropology in the field?
LACOMBE: When I’m in the field, I use anthropology all the time. First of all, when you’re entering into a different country, you have to use your anthropological eye to notice the little things, what’s appropriate, what’s not; when you say something, how are they understanding you; thinking about language barriers, cultural differences; remembering traditions, and the power of folklore and mythology. All of these things are at the forefront of my mind throughout my process of conducting conservation research.
PROSPECT: How do you use anthropology to work with the local communities to identify what can help conservation initiatives, as well as the local communities themselves?
LACOMBE: Interestingly, I follow the cues that the cultures give me. A lot of the time you have to leave your own thought processes on what works and what doesn’t at home. I think one of the main things that I’ve learned is to adopt their teaching and learning styles. For instance, it seems that in Costa Rica sending conservation messages using honor and ancestry is very powerful. On the contrary in Bangladesh, conservation messages are usually conveyed from authorities using a ‘fear’ element, which is something I wouldn’t generally use, but when the Bangladeshis talk about conservation and utilize conservation messaging there is often, at least in my experience, a little bit of a fear component, like “If we don’t want a flood, we’re going to have to do something like plant trees.” And I find in Vietnam, from an anthropological perspective, the best way to launch conservation messages is ‘survivorship’; in order to survive and progress we need to do these things, and we need to do them at a communal level. So rather than coming in with any preconceived notions on how to launch or pitch or implement conservation activities or messages, I first listen to the people and learn how they communicate effectively in these fields and try to incorporate that into my strategies and strategic plans – with all the local guidance I can get, of course!
PROSPECT: How much correlation do you find between what endangered species need and what local communities need to face the challenges that they face?
LACOMBE: It seems that human issues and conservation issues are linked at the source. The point where human problems and conservation problems meet is right at the heart of it. I can’t really see where they are separated. If I had to guess, almost ninety percent of our conservation problems have a human dimension element inside of them. In many ways we can measure and count and analyze the biological data, but if we don’t confront the human dimension in our conservation threats, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to really solve the problem. So working with the local communities is a huge part of the answer to all of our conservation problems.
PROSPECT: What types of insights do the local communities provide when looking to solve conservation problems?
LACOMBE: The insight of the local people is amazing. The traditional knowledge and traditional practices and traditional understanding in many ways hold the key to our conservation solutions. For millennia many indigenous groups have lived in harmony with their local biodiversity and it’s often external changes that have changed the balance, or disrupted the balance between them and their local forest, and their traditional practices. And so harnessing some of that information allows us to understand what’s worked in the past, see where the mismatch occurred and try to bring as much of that back as we can, while also augmenting that information with scientific data. You put all that together and generally speaking you can get a pretty good mitigation strategy and plan to move forward. So it’s really that mix of the traditional knowledge and the scientific data. You put them together and you’ve got a pretty solid solution in most cases.
PROSPECT: Do you think it’s practical to plan conservation initiatives without looking at local communities for insight?
LACOMBE: No. I definitely don’t. To conduct conservation initiatives at this point in time without speaking to and engaging with the local people is not productive as I see it. Conservation used to have a really strong ‘people out’ perspective. It used to be very predominant in the field and now it’s kind of turning towards including people. One of my favorite things to say is that the more people that we can get to fall in love with those local forested areas or those local ecosystems and the animals, the more people we can get interested in our conservation initiatives, the more individuals we have collaborating together to overcome these conservation challenges. It’s really a tough world out there and if conservationists think that they can complete these things alone, I think that they are a little mistaken. With the help of the local people and other people throughout the world, you’ve got armies of individuals moving towards these wonderful conservation goals, and I think that’s how we can be successful.
PROSPECT: Are local communities generally receptive to conservation as an idea? How willing are they to work with you as an outsider?
LACOMBE: This is a very great question and I think that it really depends. It’s almost entirely site-specific. How eager a local community will be to work with you depends largely on their experience with previous conservation efforts and previous conservation endeavors, as well as some of their traditional and cultural practices. Are they welcoming in their society to newcomers? All these things come into play when answering a question like that. I’m really lucky though; I’ve had great success in all of the communities that I’ve tried to work in. I think that part of the reason for that success is because upon first meeting them, it’s not about talking, it’s about listening. And if you spend enough time listening and truly hearing what the local people have to say, bonds develop and trust grows and that’s how you get a solid foundation upon which to move forward together in tackling the human dimension in conservation.
PROSPECT: Is it difficult to persuade the natural scientists that you work with to adapt conservation solutions to include the needs of the local communities? You mentioned that it’s changing to be focused more on including people, but in the past it has been more exclusionary.
LACOMBE: I think that the field of conservation biology or conservation in general is growing into this idea, but there are still a lot of hurdles and challenges sometimes, convincing some of the more traditional or natural scientists about the value of addressing the human dimension. But as the field of social science and conservation continues to grow and as we as members of this field continue to work hard to document and measure our successes and to learn from past lessons, I think we’ll continue to grow our case and show and share with the rest of the scientific world the value of an anthropological approach. We do have a lot of work to do in this field, but when conservation is conducted successfully with the local people, I think that’s when we really knock it out of the park and we really have big successes. Sometimes it takes a little convincing to convey the value of friendships and things like that. When you come back from a trip to the field and say “I made lots of friends and we discussed lots of different issues”, some scientists will kind of give you the “Hmm?” look and wonder how valuable that sort of thing is, but again the rapport and the relationships are the foundation, and only with that foundation can you move forward. So sometimes you have to ask for a little patience while you’re developing relationships with local constituents, but once we start to get the ball rolling, I do think people value conservation work within the human dimension, and as the field itself continues to grow, I think its value will be even more noted throughout the conservation world.
PROSPECT: So you think that this approach is something that should be adopted by other initiatives, or is it already starting to be adopted widely?
LACOMBE: I think it is being adopted fairly widely, especially compared to the past. And yes, I definitely think so. I think at this point it would be unwise to conduct conservation research without having a human element inside the project plans. These people live near these areas. They had relationships with these ecosystems and these animals long before conservation scientists even became interested in them, so not including them nowadays, I think, would just not be the right thing to do. Yes, I look forward to the future of conservation growing in terms of its inclusion of people in its conservation solutions.
PROSPECT: What are some of your favorite moments, having worked across language barriers and cultural boundaries? What are some moments that stand out?
LACOMBE: One of my favorites was the moment I got hooked on working in the human dimension of conservation, rather than rehabilitation. I had long wanted to rehab gorillas and chimpanzees and put them back out into the wild. And then I remember being in Bangladesh and I saw some Bangladeshi children going through a conservation education program, and there they were sitting with their hoolock gibbon masks on, doing the hoolock gibbon call and I just looked into their eyes and at their enthusiasm and I thought, that’s where it’s at, that’s where the change is going to happen, it’s going to happen when we begin to work together and learn from the local people and the children, that’s where I think the hope lies. And I changed my career path then and there from rehabilitation to education, because of the beauty and the innocence and the energy of those young kids, so that’s probably one of my favorites.
I also really like it when I’m in Vietnam, and I am very, very bad at speaking other languages, so I try to speak Vietnamese and I often say “Cám ơn”, which in Vietnamese means ‘thank you’. But I say it with such an American accent that people think I’m saying “Come on”. And before I know it, half the village is following me because they think I’m saying ‘come on’, but I’m really just trying to exit with a big old ‘thank you’. So you never know what kind of funny things like that are going to happen, but to be honest that’s happened to me more than once.
Most recently in Vietnam, I started to bring back photographs of the village people with their families and here we have a gift that costs about 29 cents to print and the joy that it brings to my friends in these villages in Vietnam almost makes my job worthwhile in itself. It’s a really beautiful exchange and it’s interesting to see how much value is in something so simple, and I love that.
PROSPECT: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to sit down with us to discuss your background, your career, and conservation in general. We really appreciate it.
LACOMBE: Excellent, thank you.
Photo courtesy of Corrin LaCombe via San Diego Zoo