As an intern with CI’s New Caledonia program, Lily Clarke recently spent five weeks in the French territory in the South Pacific. Today on Human Nature, she shares her experience.
On the small crescent-shaped island of Ouvéa in New Caledonia, punctuality is an obvious foreigner. It is not numbers that define the day, but the men and women, young and old, walking colorfully beside the road; the plumes of smoke revealing the coconuts being burned into copra; the meetings closing with harmonious tunes.
Since 2002, CI has been working with communities — primarily of indigenous Kanak heritage — to protect New Caledonia’s unique, valuable and highly threatened forests and lagoons. I was here because I wanted to understand how a global conservation organization works on a local scale. I also wanted to understand the difficulties and rewards of working in the “field.”
For the first few days, I had a rough time. Coming from a culture where timeliness is close to godliness, it was hard not to look at my watch every 10 minutes when an 8:30 meeting with Kanak tribal elders had not started by 10. We finally learned that the meeting was canceled because two of the leaders were not able to attend.
Why hadn’t they called? Did they not think it rude to keep others waiting? I often wondered these things during my 10 days in Ouvéa. Two meetings were canceled in one week. We spent hours waiting for people to show up, to finish talking and to reschedule. It was funny at first, but the lack of punctuality became frustrating and I soon found it difficult to take anything seriously.
I wanted to remind them (in my broken French) that sea levels are not going to wait for all the elders to be present at a meeting and decide on a community management plan before rising another couple of millimeters. The over-hunted coconut crab will not rapidly reproduce simply because its dwindling population has been identified as a problematic issue. It seemed to me that nothing would ever get done on an island where people have no respect for time.
But I soon realized that I had been nearsighted and overeager. Ouvéa has a way of humbling people who are too concerned with time. After several days in this place, I began to see that the lively local people — who were borne outside of the Western context of time, who know the island’s scents and textures, and who challenge conventional notions of progress — are the ones who can connect traditional culture and conservation.
Marjorie the sculptor was one of my favorite radiant characters in Ouvéa — a woman who is subtly blazing a path that intertwines art, conservation and tradition. She carves sandalwood and guaiac to tell stories of people and animals and to highlight the importance of the tribal culture and its dependence on nature. She says there is life inside the wood; her job is just to find it.
Marjorie sees potential in the intersection of conservation and development in Ouvéa. She is also part of the tourism committee for New Caledonia’s lagoons, which are protected as a World Heritage site for their unique beauty among the world’s natural wonders.
In addition to native New Caledonians like Marjorie, there are also foreign conservationists who are committed to protecting Ouvéa’s ecosystems for the benefit of its inhabitants. Many young people feel threatened by these outsiders, preferring to work with people who have roots on the island and who intimately understand their personal connection to everything around them.
At times this distrust of outsiders can be frustrating and discouraging. However, it is extremely important to respect the boundaries of people’s comfort and to find a way to work with them on their terms.
The only way for an outsider to sustain a relationship with the people on the island and support conservation is by collaborating with tribal leaders. Maël, CI-New Caledonia’s marine and seascapes expert, does just that. With patience and loyalty, Maël obtains the blessings and goodwill of the people before charting a definite course of action for the protection of vital ecosystems on land and at sea.
Maël has made headway with his mission. He is a familiar and well-liked visitor on Ouvéa. He is friends with the scuba instructors, drinks kava with important leaders and has special permission to rent a house on the island from one of the clans.
Unlike many of the people I have worked with, Maël is never in a rush when it comes to working with the islanders. He is so committed to this project that he is not willing to damage his relationships with local leaders in any way. Maël will wait hours for a meeting that never happens and, after making several phone calls, will simply smile, full of hope for the rescheduled meeting next month that he won’t even be able to attend.
“You just have to embrace the island style”, Maël says with confidence. My friends and I have dubbed this island style “Ouvéa Cool.”
Maël returns to the island from his home in Sydney several times a year, never quite sure if he will finalize community management plans for a new marine protected area. He sees even the most uneventful days as productive. “Even if we didn’t have the meeting today, those guys know we want to work with them. They know that this is really important, and if we are willing to wait, they will be more willing to listen.”
For the past couple of years, Maël has been working for CI on several projects in Ouvéa. When he talks about the island, the coral reefs and the lagoons, he becomes animated, and his excitement is contagious.
He explains how important it has been to work with all 21 tribes on the island to identify key cultural sites, including taboo areas and traditional marine protected areas, in order to sustain the natural areas that are most important for people. His biggest challenges at the moment are collaborating with all tribes on a management plan and finding support in the younger generations.
Maël and Marjorie are both inspiring conservationists, as are dozens of others I met on the island. Thanks to the ambition and dedication of these amazing people, Ouvéa is moving closer to a future with a vast diversity of fish, a thriving population of sharks and turtles, and healthy local forests. In a place where “Ouvéa Cool” rules, slow and steady wins the race.
Lily Clarke was an intern for CI-New Caledonia during summer 2013. Her internship was supported by the Trott Foundation. Read last week’s blog from a CI intern in Peru.