It began as a project to protect otters and other freshwater species. But it grew into a life-saving effort benefiting more than 1.2 million people, helping to ensure they had access to clean water and food.
The Tonle Sap Program is the latest accomplishment overseen by David Emmett, CI's Senior Vice President for the Asia-Pacific Field Division (and former Regional Director for the Greater Mekong Program). Work on the program earned David's team the 2011 Chairman's Council "Feet in the Mud" award, given to a CI project that exemplifies the organization's pragmatic approach to the development and execution of field models on the ground.
Tonle Sap is a freshwater lake and flooded forest region in Cambodia. In the wet season, this area swells to cover about 479,000 hectares (1 million acres). However, the possibility of hydroelectric dam construction, coupled with extensive deforestation, has severely threatened the lake region and its freshwater species population.
IN DEPTH: A Welcome Flood, Tonle Sap, Cambodia
"The project grew from conserving species by protecting their flooded forest habitat," David explains, "to include core elements of CI's new mission and vision. (The project) is grounded in freshwater conservation with clear links to food security and human health."
For example, CI works with the Cambodian government and local communities to establish community fish sanctuaries to protect the lake's biodiversity and benefit the local people. It also works to protect dry season ponds and place artificial reefs in deep water — all efforts that help support juvenile fish and prevent overfishing that threatens the food security of those who rely upon the lake.
CI has also helped to promote more sustainable forest management through the training of community rangers, improvement of patrolling practices, prevention of illegal fishing activities and appealing to the local government to enhance legal protection. By conserving priority areas today, this work will help people on the Tonle Sap protect against the increased flooding expected to come due to climate change.
In addition to setting up this framework, David's team has nurtured government relations to ensure on-going support of the Tonle Sap at the highest level. "Protecting the flooded forests provides food security for hundreds of thousands of people, as the flooded forests are the feeding and breeding grounds for fish that support the largest inland fishery in Asia, and the most productive freshwater fishery in the world," David says.
David credits teamwork for this success. "I was really proud of the Cambodian team for the way they have worked together to turn their program into a world-class example of conservation success," he says. "The project is strategically strong, has solid metrics to show success, and shows excellent opportunities for amplification."
Teamwork, innovation and persistence are factors that David hopes others in the conservation field acknowledge in creating their own successes. "Too many great ideas fail because people do not take the first step. Be brave, take calculated risks and push well beyond your comfort levels. But while doing this, be respectful of other people's cultures and opinions ... and help everyone in your team achieve their full potential. A good idea without a team that is willing and able to support it is never going to work!"
Africa: A First Glimpse into Food Security + Conservation
While the Tonle Sap program in Cambodia exemplifies CI's new mission, David recognized the vital link between human well-being and conservation in Africa long before he joined CI in 2003. After studying biology and earning a degree in zoology from Imperial College London, David took a teaching job in Malawi, Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world. Its population suffers from especially high mortality rates among children and struggles with food security issues.
It was in Malawi that David saw firsthand the battle between food security and conservation — the fight between the urgent need to eat now and the necessity of viewing conservation as a long-term requirement for stability in the future.
David admits that this conflict still presents him with some of the biggest challenges of his career. "I frequently have to overcome the frustrations of encountering people who look only for short-term gains for themselves, while seemingly ignoring long-term benefits to their country. This is the same the world over, but it is a far greater issue in developing countries that have a history of instability and poverty."
One visit to a local protected area with a group of schoolchildren highlighted the disconnect between the Malawian people and the environment. However, hope that future generations may preserve the area was evident as the trip progressed. "They lived nearby, but had never been there," David says."They had so many questions and showed such an incredible fascination with the natural history of their country."
David recalls this day fondly — even as he notes that the area had very few animals. "It had been decimated by local communities, mostly due to a need to provide food for their children," he says. "It became clear to me that the fate of the natural ecosystems of a country and the fate of the people living in that country, usually the poorest people, were inextricably linked."
A Deep Respect for Nature, Culture and Family
Malawi was David's catalyst to pursue a career in tropical conservation, but he has always been filled with a love for nature. Growing up in a small village outside Yorkshire Dales National Park in the U.K., David began appreciating nature at an early age. "We would sit in the garden and watch red kites, deer, herons, foxes and hedgehogs. I'd occasionally catch fish while observing badgers, kingfishers, woodpeckers, mice, and many other creatures that would emerge when no one else was around. This gave me the love of, and respect for, nature that I still have today."
Although David is grounded in his appreciation and respect for nature, he is continually pushing boundaries and creating new norms, both professionally and personally.
"I'm British, but my wife is Danish. We have a house in Sweden, and we work in Cambodia for an American company. It sort of makes sense, at some level!"
This eclectic commingling of the personal and the professional is in harmony with the lessons David learned from his well-travelled family, including his biologist father, who taught him "that the world is not something to be afraid of, that other cultures should be embraced, and that one should always push one's comfort zones."
Today, David passes on his appreciation of nature to his two young daughters. He also spends his free time fishing, painting with watercolors and writing stories that describe his experiences in the forest.
"I am inspired by nature. The open spaces of mountains and oceans. The vast expanses of wildernesses. To me, these natural landscapes produce feelings of wonder and awe," he says. "They produce in us a feeling of insignificance — feeling small in the face of raw natural beauty is something that I feel everyone should have the opportunity to experience. It's relaxing, it puts us back in touch with the beauty of our world, it reminds us what is really important, and it helps us to put our lives into perspective in a way that few other locations or situations can achieve."
LEARN MORE: Alexandra Cousteau Talks to CI's David Emmett About Tonle Sap Lake