Let the people speak

Rodrigo Oyanedel

“Learn to listen. Opportunity sometimes knocks very softly” - Anonymous.

 A couple of years ago, I decided to start a research project on a small-scale fishery in Chile that had a considerable illegality problem. As young and reckless as I was, I went against suggestions to work somewhere else: “It’s too big, too dangerous”, “You’ll never be able to get fishers to talk about it”.

So I started reading about the fishery. Words like “war”, “criminals” and “mafia” were common in the newspapers, covering the government’s efforts to “combat illegal fishing”. I grew slightly concerned. These fishers may be reluctant to speak with me. I mostly use social research methods, like surveys or questionnaires. If I couldn’t talk with the fishers it would be an insurmountable barrier.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I have just published the results of this research with Stefan Gelcich and EJ Milner-Gulland in Conservation Letters (find it here). We used specialised survey techniques, which are designed for asking sensitive questions about illegal or undesirable behaviour. The techniques can help to reduce biases and protect the identities of the participants. Our findings indicated that while there were high levels of non-compliance for one of the rules of the fishery (the quota limit), fishers were fully complying with other rules (such as gear or temporal restrictions). More interestingly, we found that fishers had organised themselves, and enacted their own rule to fish only three days a week. This rule was fully respected. We then assessed what motivates compliance. First, we found that fisher participation in rule-setting, and thus the legitimacy of the rules, determined which rules fishers complied with. Second, we found that personal and social norms determined how much fishers were going over their assigned quotas. Finally, we found that fishers with lower assigned quotas where those who complied the least.

Fishers 1
Photo by Rodrigo Oyanedel

The results of our study tell us there is much more to this fishery, and its illegality problem, than first meet the eye. Moreover, the combative narrative surrounding the fishery is misplaced, and may in fact undermine efforts to improve compliance. Letting fishers speak, share their motivations, and express their thoughts allowed us to break down the issue into analysable components, and propose conservation policies targeted to each of these components. Just listening helped us to uncover a vibrant and heterogeneous reality, which is not captured by simple generalisations.

Now, how did we jump from the uncertainty around the feasibility of this project to results? I want to share four key lessons:

  1. Adapt vocabulary: invest time in learning how people themselves refer to the issues you want to assess. A poorly crafted narrative can instantly close doors. For example, avoid specific words that might cause resentment.
  2. Take time to listen properly: fieldwork usually requires us to produce lots of outputs in limited time, but this cannot be an impediment to taking the time to listen to what people have to say.
  3. Be open: You will get answers that won’t fit your preconceived ideas of what you are studying. That’s ok: embrace it, never ignore it (that’s the whole point of doing research!).
  4. Give back: People will appreciate it, even little things, and it’s only fair since they spent time helping you. For instance, I went back to the field and organised workshops to present the results of my research. These were positively received and acknowledged, because it gave fishers a chance to participate in discussing the results of this research project. This blog is available in Spanish, so that I can spread it to fishers and colleagues for whom language is a barrier.
Photo by Rodrigo Oyanedel
Photo by Rodrigo Oyanedel

The title of this blog might sound naïve and simplistic; however, my experiences show that letting people speak, and having an open mind to listen, can be challenging. As scientists and practitioners, we tend to think we have many of the answers already. We read reports and papers with fancy methods and theories, and get blinded by our preconceived ideas. However, often the answers to the most pressing conservation problems lie with the people that depend on and interact with nature on a daily basis. All the effort we put in to educating and training ourselves as conservation scientists should prepare for understanding people, and then communicating our findings to inform other contexts.

We will come out to a different world after the Covid-19 pandemic. Many things will change, and hopefully this will include re-balancing our relationship with nature. Yet if we wish to re-building our broken connections with the natural world, we must let people speak. Let the hunters and fishers speak, let the people working in the wet markets speak, let the people engaged in illegal wildlife trade speak. It may shake our preconceived ideas and modes of thinking, but it’s the only way to co-create a better future. People and nature are intrinsically linked, and shutting our ears to people is to shut our ears to nature.


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