Nature conservation in Dutch Caribbean

A sense of security plays an important role in the decision to contribute to nature conservation. Stacey Mac Donald conducted four years of research on the influence of social and political changes and the (post) colonial context on nature conservation in the Dutch Caribbean. On 17 May she will defend her thesis ‘Life in Paradise’.

Stacey Mac Donald was raised in Curaçao. As a young girl, she imagined herself working for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-NL). But she never dared to dream that it would become reality. Growing up on a small island, the world seems very big and far away. I had no idea that I could achieve this.’ But while doing her PhD research on Bonaire, she was approached by WWF-NL and asked to help them. By now she has a job there as a project advisor, advising on community engagement in nature conservation activities on Bonaire. People always talk about the brain drain, the young generation that goes abroad to study and doesn’t come back. But I feel I have a responsibility. I want to do something. My heart lies with nature and nature conservation. So this is a very nice outcome.’

Psychology versus anthropology

Stacey has no background in anthropology. When she was 17, she came to Leiden and followed a bachelor in Educational Sciences and a master in Social Psychology. Within psychology you learn to think in pigeonholes a lot more. People get a label or have to fall into a certain spectrum. Not just clinically, but in attitudes and norms and values. There is little room to look at many factors at once in a measurable way in a single study.’ The need for it to be measurable and statistically demonstrable has always been something that struck Stacey. ‘It is of course not one factor that influences behaviour. What I find very interesting about anthropology is that it gives you much more space to look at the whole story from different perspectives.

Social bottlenecks in fisheries management

Stacey looked at the social and political changes on Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire. During her research, WWF-NL asked her to map out which social bottlenecks were present in the fisheries management on Bonaire and to come up with specific solutions. Her assignment was to find out under which circumstances it would be possible to engage fishermen in an organised way to develop sustainable fishing. Stacey worked closely with the fishermen and helped them, among other things, to set up the fishing cooperative Piskabon.

Reputation of nature conservation on the islands

Nature conservation on the islands has the reputation of being “Dutch” or “Western”. The colonial history of the islands and feelings of ‘re-colonisation’ that arose after the islands were integrated as a municipality into the Dutch Kingdom in 2010 makes it difficult for conservationists to find much local support for actions to protect the environment. Not because they don’t consider nature protection important, but because they prefer not to be associated with certain forms of nature protection. Especially forms that have a direct impact on changes in local customs and habits. Stacey: “If you want to set up successful conservation activities, you have to be aware of cultural sensitivity and other social and economic needs. If you exclude people or speak harshly to them, it usually doesn’t work.’

Involve fishermen in your activities

This was visible on Bonaire. ‘Fishermen are fishermen for a reason’, Stacey says. ‘They want to be left in peace and enjoy the freedom of the sea. But on the other hand, they also notice that fish stocks are declining and that life on the island is becoming more difficult and more expensive. The NGOs and the government find it difficult to involve the fishermen. Past attempts to set up a cooperative have failed. Stacey: ‘For a long time, the fishermen had no voice in this debate. A practical problem is the language, for example. All official government correspondence is in Dutch and international organisations communicate in English, while most fishermen only speak Papiamento. That already puts them at a disadvantage.’

Stay within your span of control

There is much discussion in the field about who should take responsibility. The sea level is rising. Is that the fault of the islands? What is the impact of local fisheries? The experts are also very divided on this issue. That makes it difficult to find consensus on what should be done. Stacey: ‘What I tell the fishermen, but also all the other inhabitants of the islands who are concerned about nature, is: stay within your span of control. We are not going to solve the entire climate problem, but we can make ourselves resilient. Make sure the coast is not fully constructed, keep the mangroves healthy and do not destroy the coral reefs through pollution or with your anchor. Many people feel powerless because the problem is so big, but by focusing on your sense of responsibility, everyone can contribute.’

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