Before moving with her family to Suriname in the 1960s, Annette Tjon Sie Fat spent her early childhood on the small Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Electricity was scarce, running for no more than five hours each evening; only primary school education existed; and each resident collected their share of rainwater in cisterns.
But most importantly, even with the island’s limitations, each member of society learned how to make their small community function.
This early childhood experience gave her an initial understanding of how small communities “tick.” This knowledge is just one part of a long and diverse range of experiences that has given her a deep understanding and appreciation for working with communities and implementing developmental change, a crucial part of her role as the Executive Director of Conservation International’s (CI) Suriname program.
IN PHOTOS: Suriname Expedition
On the Path to Conservation
Growing up in both St. Maarten and Suriname was a result of her parents’ heritage; Tjon Sie Fat’s father is a second generation Chinese in Suriname, and she refers to her mother as a “pirate’s mix” from the Caribbean. But it has been her professional journey that has truly led her down many paths.
She began her career as a teacher focusing on English language and literature and soon became a translator and interpreter in Suriname, working in government services for over fifteen years and starting her own translation company.
It was her passion and long-time experience working on behalf of women and children’s rights that eventually led her down a different path—to a position in the UN as an advocate for Development of Women. This new path eventually encouraged Tjon Sie Fat to pursue her Master’s degree in Development, Participation and Social Change at the University of Sussex in Great Britain.
Her time working in the villages in the interior of Suriname led Tjon Sie Fat to recognize that conservation and sustainable development play a large role in the overall social development of a community.
“It was impossible to focus only on human development, since human beings are part of a much wider, intricately woven whole. Anything that changes one little piece of that whole influences everything else,” she says. “In fact, you cannot go about trying to influence change if you do not look at the complete picture. So, conservation and development became inseparable to me in my work trying to achieve change in and with communities. I took this with me when I came to work for CI in 2002.”
IN DEPTH: Discover CI's extensive work with communities around the world.
With her tireless work at CI, Tjon Sie Fat really enjoys her free time walking, which she calls her “thinking time.” To de-stress, she does yoga and tries to garden as much as possible, though she admits, “you would not think I do it if you saw my garden! I just do not seem to have enough time to really garden anymore!”
Although demanding, ensuring that conservation be an effective part of the big picture is a fulfilling but constant challenge. There are lessons to be learned even in successful projects, such as a three-year project with the Trio indigenous group in the remote south of Suriname.
"The Trio project created a lodge and tourism products, but also taught us that in working with remote communities, a three-year project cannot possibly create and strengthen the capacity of people who have never managed any tourism business to professionally run a lodge at the end of the project.”
Even though the project overall was a success, “looking back,” Tjon Sie Fat admits, “we needed more time to discuss among ourselves and understand first how development and conservation interconnect before we developed a project with the community.”
“Yet, now that the [Trio] project has ended, and I see how the community members who were trained are able to express to outsiders what they want for the future of their community and their lodge—I am proud and optimistic about how we can proceed. Sometimes you need a little time to back away from a project to see the outcome better and to give the community some breathing space."
Understanding how small communities and individuals can make a difference, she is encouraged by “the knowledge that even very small successes on a micro-scale eventually help conservation outcomes, even if they are not immediately visible.”
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