Written by Johanna Depenthal //
An observer on a moonlit spring night in 1964 on the coast of the South American country now known as Guyana might have been surprised to spy a tall, young British man moving silently and determinedly down remote Shell Beach. Also patrolling the beach, though with a very different aim, were groups of indigenous Arawak men who had come out by canoe from the country’s interior to provide meat for their families. Holding center stage, however, and drawing both parties from their beds were the slow-moving female Green (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtles who nested on the beach in droves.
The young British man would, in coming decades, become recognized as Dr. Peter Pritchard, the world’s leading turtle scientist and conservationist. 45 years later, I walked down that beach with Dr. Peter Pritchard, and with Audley James, an Arawak leader. Their official partnership in sea turtle conservation was, by this point, nearing 20 years old, making the Guyana Sea Turtle Conservation Society one of the longest-running conservation programs in South America and one unique for being run by local indigenous people.
I was 14 years old then, and 10 years later find myself starting a master’s program in Environmental Management with a concentration in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. My main interests have shifted from turtles to tropical forests, but my commitment to conservation, Dr. Pritchard-style—more formally known as community-based environmental management—remains the same. Community-based environmental management (CBEM) is a method of conservation based on the principle that the people who live near—and most depend on—natural resources are the most unique positioned to rightly use and protect them. Though this is a commonly acknowledged concept today, it was unique in Dr. Pritchard’s early years, when the strategy for protecting wildlife focused mostly on keeping people away from them. Dr. Pritchard’s unconventional and highly successful conservation strategy grew out of his appreciation of the humanity and dignity of his beach neighbors:
There were slaughtered turtles everywhere. And I thought, “This is wrong, we’ve gotta pass some laws to make this illegal, and have vigilantes to stop people killing the turtles.” And then I met the people who were killing them, who were Arawak Indians, indigenous people, very courteous, very pleasant. In no way were they like “dangerous poachers,” they were like people who were out to get some food for their family. So I realized, this musn’t be confrontational, because that’s just going to… I will lose, I will leave the country and they will say, “Thank God he’s gone.” But I decided to make friends with them, and promised to raise some modest amount of money for a salary for them, if they would ostensibly work for me, but really working for themselves, in turtle preservation and protection, and patrolling the beaches and making sure their own colleagues are, very politely, deflected from killing the nesting turtles too. (“UCF”)
Dr. Pritchard treated the Arawak turtle hunters like people and quickly found that same courtesy extended to him by Audley James, his son Romeo de Freitas, and others. The turtle hunters invited Dr. Pritchard to their tents for coffee, and soon began treating him as an equal by considering a nesting turtle “dead” to them if Dr. Pritchard reached it and tagged it first. Discussions between the scientist and the hunters soon led to the discovery of common ground in shared hopes for a future where turtles would still nest on Shell Beach, which later blossomed into a formal conservation program worked within the hierarchies and cultures of local communities even as it protected endangered species and collected world-class population data. This, to me, is the heart and soul of a just conservation system: working alongside local people who have become friends in humility as they work together to protect valuable resources for mutual benefit.
My goal now is to follow in Dr. Pritchard’s footsteps. After working alongside Dr. Pritchard as a volunteer from the age of 12, throughout multiple trips to Guyana, and until I left for college, I have a model for how truly community-based environmental management can work. Now my task is to get the technical training I need to be as successful in it as he was. I am learning more formally about CBEM through specific courses and through an additional class on facilitating stakeholder meetings and leading conflict management and resolution. In an increasingly technology-based world, I am learning how to use ArcMap for analysis and representation of spatial data, and how to use coding languages such as R, SQL, and Python in statistical analysis. In other classes we talk about natural patterns in landscapes and how understanding them helps us design stronger, more effective research designs. The friendships I make with my classmates allow me daily practice in the skills of listening, communication, and trust-building which, as Dr. Pritchard and Audley James demonstrated, are so crucial to the tropical forest conservation work I plan to begin within the next few years.
Working in the sciences makes it easy to reduce systems to their constituent parts, to see things as a result of natural processes, or through a mechanistic lens. As I earn my Masters degree in Environmental Management, I’m eternally grateful for the scientist who taught me to see people as human, and for the turtle hunters who demonstrated that it’s possible to build a more just world on that foundation. Thank you, Dr. Pritchard!
“UCF Global Perspectives – Peter Pritchard.” Interview by John Bersia, uploaded by the University of Central Florida, 18 Feb. 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZbsQyalwCo.
Johanna Depenthal is a Streetside Conversations co-founder and Outreach Coordinator. To make her ecstatic on any given day, contact her about writing for an upcoming theme. Despite having (mostly) left the world of turtle conservation behind six years ago, she can still recall the scientific names of the world’s seven sea turtle species. Publicly acknowledging Dr. Pritchard’s role in her life as a mentor, friend, wanna-be uncle, and scientific parent is in itself an act of justice, as is acknowledging her debt to Audley James, whom she had the privilege to join on a few of his thousands of late-night sea turtle nesting patrols.