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Meet a scientist: the community connector

© Tammy Eger

Editor’s note: A 2017 survey found that 81 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. No, not a single one. At Conservation International, we have lots of scientists you should know. Here’s one.

Patricia Dunne is the director of applied social science at Conservation International, where she works to amplify the voices of some of conservation’s most critical allies: local communities. 

Conservation News spoke to Dunne about the power of storytelling, her expedition to Antarctica and why everyone deserves a seat at the table when it comes to protecting the planet. 

Question: What sparked your interest in the environment? 

Answer: When I was younger, I used to watch nature documentaries religiously — David Attenborough’s voice was basically the soundtrack of my childhood. I decided that I would become a nature filmmaker and eventually went to film school in Boston for my undergraduate degree. Obviously, I learned a lot about film production, but I also realized that I actually wanted to learn more about the topics that I was filming, namely nature. After working for a research institution and studying conservation biology, I found that my primary passion was understanding our relationships with nature, including how different groups of people interact with their environments and how power dynamics influence the design and success of conservation efforts. This is how I got into anthropology —the study of humans and cultures. 

Q: Wow — switching from film to anthropology must have been quite a pivot.   

A: They’re actually more similar than you would think. Filmmaking and anthropology are both about understanding and telling stories. Film and photography can help people experience a story in a very visual way. Social science — particularly anthropology — is more about understanding how cultures interact and change over time. At their core, film and anthropology can both be used as tools to ensure that people have a voice. As an environmental anthropologist, my work focuses primarily on understanding the relationships between people and their environment — and applying that understanding to the design and implementation of conservation work.  

Q: What exactly is an “environmental anthropologist?”

A: Environmental anthropology focuses on the relationships between humans and their environment, including understanding how these relationships evolve over time and how they differ around the world. Conservation is about bringing together communities, businesses, governments and other partners to protect the nature that they rely on. In order to succeed, you have to understand the social context in which you’re working. As Conservation International’s director of applied social science, I work with communities to help ensure that their vision and priorities are clearly integrated into conservation projects. This is the only way to make sure that conservation efforts are effective and long-lasting.

Q: Can you talk more about the communities that you work with? 

A: Communities are among our most important conservation partners. Conservation International works with local communities from all over the world — from Brazil to Cambodia. Part of my role is making sure that marginalized communities or groups — including Indigenous peoples and women — play an active role in designing and executing a conservation project. To understand a community’s priorities, we often organize a “needs assessment,” which involves visiting, interviewing and organizing workshops with a community prior to the start of the project. Designing projects that align with a community’s priorities is critical to facilitating their active roles throughout the project, and for sustaining the positive impacts of the project long after it is complete.

For example, in partnership with NASA, Conservation International has spent the past three years developing the Earth Observations for Indigenous-led Land Management (EO4IM) project. It aims to put technologically advanced monitoring and training tools in the hands of Indigenous communities around the world. Currently, we are piloting the EO4IM program with the Awajún people of Peru and the Achuar Nation of Ecuador — two Indigenous groups whose lands are increasingly vulnerable to encroachment from new migrant settlements, roads and illegal logging. To tailor this project to each of these particular communities’ needs, I worked with our geographers and our field staff in these countries to design on-the-ground needs assessments. Using focus groups, interviews and surveys, we identified the potential roadblocks that EO4IM could have, as well as the ultimate goals of these Indigenous communities. Even within a single community, there can be extremely complex gender and power dynamics, and differences in the ways that community members interact with their natural resources.  We have to take that all into consideration when developing a conservation project like this. 

Q: So your mission is to make sure that communities are equal partners in conservation? 

A: Exactly. Oftentimes, it’s the most powerful governments or businesses that are the greatest polluters, but they are also the ones controlling the narrative of what it means to be sustainable. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples use or manage more than a quarter of Earth’s surface and protect 80 percent of its biodiversity, despite making up only 5 percent of the population. Overall, Indigenous-managed lands show less species decline and pollution, and more well-managed natural resources. My job isn’t to tell local and Indigenous communities how to protect their land — clearly, they already know how to do that. My job is to ensure that we listen and respect their voices. 

Q: What advice would you give a budding anthropologist? 

A: Many anthropologists tend to analyze the world from the comfort of the ivory tower. There is a long tradition of critiquing conservation and development projects as an observer, which is important, but we also have a responsibility to use these critiques to make projects better. My advice to a budding anthropologist is to consider creating change from the inside by working as a practitioner. While external critiques are crucial to making conservation more effective and inclusive, we need people on the inside to apply this knowledge in practice. 

Another piece of advice: Step outside your comfort zone. Last year, I visited Antarctica on the Homeward Bound Initiative, a leadership program for women in science. This program requires you to spend a month on a boat in Antarctica with 100 other female leaders to discuss how you can influence sustainability and global climate action. Not only did this initiative inspire me, it offered a range of perspectives from women all over the world working toward the same goal: Protecting the planet. 


Patricia Dunne is the director of applied social science at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Patricia Dunne in Antarctica (© Tammy Eger)

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