As a Sri Lankan marine biologist, I have often found myself challenging stereotypes. At the beginning, some of my fellow Sri Lankans questioned my choice of career path. Despite coming from a tropical island with jurisdiction over eight times more ocean area than land area most people had never heard of, let alone met, a marine biologist. Historically countries like mine used the ocean as a space of extraction and not protection. Studying to become a marine biologist was not, and still is not, possible in my island home. After this declaration and one degree down, I made my first discovery and was ready to launch my marine conservation career. Young and naive I did not understand that the road ahead would question my capabilities based on where I came from rather than my ability to drive change.
My “eureka moment” was an aggregation of blue whales and a floating pile of whale poop. My textbooks and professors had all told me that blue whales, like all large whales, undertook long-range migrations between cold feeding areas and warm breeding and calving areas. Here I was, five degrees above the equator, and the fact that the whales were pooping was an indication that they were actually feeding in these warm tropical waters, contrary to everyone’s expectations. It was exciting, so I immediately wrote to experts in the field for guidance and support to launch the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project. The responses in a nutshell: “This sounds like an exciting discovery. Please apply for a research permit so we can bring our teams out to study it.”
I was shocked, but adamant that no matter how long it took, I would be the one to kickstart this work. In the end, it took five years—and my life savings.
This was my first experience with “parachute science” or, as some might call it, “colonial science”—the conservation model where researchers from the developed world come to countries like mine, do research and leave without any investment in human capacity or infrastructure. It creates a dependency on external expertise and cripples local conservation efforts. The work is driven by the outsiders’ assumptions, motives and personal needs, leading to an unfavorable power imbalance between those from outside and those on the ground.
I have been talking about the need to end parachute science for years now, starting with a keynote at the International Marine Conservation Congress in 2016, many efforts in between and, most recently, at a U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development planning meeting where I reminded private foundations of their role in ensuring this does not continue. I was seeing a shift in thinking, but it still didn’t seem obvious to many that if we are to protect the vast majority of our planet, we need the vast majority of our world’s population onboard and working together.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the world shut down. I saw researchers and conservationists panicking that they could not get to their field sites across the world; that their multiyear data sets would have a gaping hole; and, finally, that if they had ensured that they trained local partners on the ground to do the work, then their data collection would have continued. Did it really take a pandemic for us to realize this?
If we acknowledged that working anywhere other than our own home country is a privilege and not a right, and if we all looked to learn and share equally and were equally equipped to do research based on the needs on the ground, then we would be better off than we are right now. This not only prevents pandemic-related data gaps, but far more importantly, it ensures the protection of those species, ecosystems and communities to which we dedicate our lives. Being inclusive is important to me. When I die, I do not want the work to end, because that would be a waste of my life.
As the world remains in some form of lockdown or other, with travel restricted for the foreseeable future, this period highlights the need for strong, on-the-ground partnerships if we are to succeed in our conservation efforts. I know there are many who work outside their home bases who do so in equitable ways. At Oceanswell, my nonprofit organization, we have worked with or currently collaborate with Shane Gero from the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, Larry Crowder from Stanford University, Shah Selbe from Conservify, Elizabeth Stephenson from the Marine Conservation Action Fund at the New England Aquarium and Claire Collins from the University of Exeter, to name a few individuals who share our belief in building equal partnerships for marine conservation success.
They are not the faces of the project, but they are an important part of the system that supports those on the ground to grow and lead. These partnerships are important and sustainable and also two-way. I am more concerned about the partnerships that lack this thinking, that seek to fulfill personal needs rather than those of conservation.
Seventy percent of our coastlines are in the developing world, but representation at the global stage is disproportional. The harsh truth is, if we aren’t being inclusive and equitable, we aren’t going to move the needle on the things that really matter, the things that are integral to our very existence, and we will continue to fail. As humans continue to destroy habitats and explore the last wild places, we can look forward to more frequent unintended consequences like pandemics and perhaps even global lockdowns. Building the mechanisms that would enable us to continue the important work of conservation no matter what, should be our priority. So, if we truly want to save our oceans, never forget: every coastline needs a local hero.