December 18, 2013
"We are all animals," Voices for Biodiversity states on its website. "It is we [humans] who are killing off other species at an unprecedented rate and it is likely that in doing so we will kill off ourselves, for, like it or not, we are connected to other species and, like it or not, we are part of the complex planetary web of life that sustains us all."
Bala Dada looking at the Kagoro forests in the northwestern Nigerian state of Kaduna, to which his family made an annual visit when he was young. Photo credit: Bala Dada.
Voices for Biodiversity accepts submissions in French, Spanish and English, in the form of feature articles, concept papers and even podcasts. It is supported by the nonprofit organization Perception International, co-founded by Waters Lumpkin and David Jiranek.
Tara Waters Lumpkin is voluble in her admiration for Voices for Biodiverstiy's citizen eco-reporters, and passionate about their mission to remind us that we are but one species on this, our shared, planet. She hopes someday to have editorial pods in different places around the globe so that stories in a variety of languages can gain an audience.
In this interview, she discusses how Voices for Biodiversity was developed, the considerable breadth of its reporting initiatives and how they recruit their "outlier journalists."
AN INTERVIEW WITH TARA WATERS LUMPKIN
Mongabay: What makes Voices for Biodiversity distinct from other news and information sites?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: Voices for Biodiversity is distinct in having as its goal the bringing together of ordinary people to be Citizen Eco-Reporters who share their stories. We also call our storytellers Outlier Journalists, not only because they come from far-flung places, but also because they are philosophical outliers, who begin with the premise that other species and ecosystems are intrinsically valuable in and of themselves. This means that our stories are fresh and are different from mainstream journalism and most environmental journalism, which see nature and other species as only having a utilitarian value for humans. An example of this viewpoint would be the term "ecosystem services," which insinuates that nature only exists to feed into an economic system artificially constructed by humans to serve us.
Mongabay: Who were your biggest supporters that kept you motivated and determined to make Voices for Biodiversity the program it is today?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: My key supporter has been my husband, Phillip Gibbs, who had to remind me occasionally that I have a relentless personality, particularly when I was losing steam. Working twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, with a virtual team (no face to face contact), without pay, for five years, quite simply demands a relentless personality. In addition, I now have depleted most of my savings in supporting Voices for Biodiversity financially and paying for my own living expenses. Clearly, my motivation has been driven by my passion for other species, my concern that the environmental movement continues to value other species only as they are useful to humans, my concern that the environmental movement is focused on energy and climate change and tends to ignore biodiversity, as well as my firm belief that people have been conned by almost every culture as well as every religion around the world to believe that they are better than other species, rather than seeing themselves as being embedded in nature side by side with other species. I believe that this failure of perception is perilous not only to the survival of other species but also to our own survival. It's time we wake up to the reality that our illusion of human self-importance is the root of all environmental problems and shift to an eco-centric point of view.
Tara Waters Lumpkin and her husband, Phillip Gibbs, in a bakkie or pick-up truck in Namibia in 1993. Photo credit: Tara Waters Lumpkin.
Mongabay: What were the biggest obstacles to setting up this project?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: There has been only one obstacle: lack of financial backing. Running the organization by using volunteers is how I've gotten around this issue, but, of course, this is an impractical management method. I dislike asking for money and sorely need a seasoned fundraiser by my side. And it wouldn't hurt to have a grant writer either.
Mongabay: Describe your target audience for storytellers and listeners. Are you surprised about whom this project has managed to impact?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: Our target audience is anyone who cares about the environment and anyone who is interested in the influence of culture, psychology, and perception on environmental issues. We tend to attract people who are interested in bio-cultural issues, so we find that many anthropologists are interested in our work as well as conservationists. College and graduate students are particularly attracted to our out-of-the-box philosophy and approach. Young people seem to like us too, particularly our photo essays. What did surprise me is the large number of people in their thirties, forties, and fifties, who have been attracted to our message. We thought they would be too busy with day-to-day life and would prefer to remain linked with mainstream environmental approaches. However, this age cohort has cheered us on and some of them have sent in their own stories. We also were surprised that as many men as women are attracted to what we do. We thought that women would be more attracted, given we are a softer type of journalism. I wonder if there is frustration with environmental media remaining overly scientific and not personalizing what is happening environmentally today, which, of course, is what we do well.
Mongabay: Currently, this project has over one hundred stories recorded. How do you recruit these "Outlier Journalists" to participate in the project?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: Our Outlier Journalists come from all walks of life, and sometimes I have no idea how they find us. One of my favorite articles is by Nigerian Bala Dada, and he said he stumbled across us on the Internet. I also have personally used my extensive network of friends and colleagues around the globe to reach out and find storytellers. For example, I tracked down my Maasai friend, Moses, whom I met in Kenya back in 1980 and asked him if he might know of anyone who could write an article for us about the Naimina Enkiyio Forest (the Forest of the Lost Child) where elephant and other wildlife poaching is now on the upswing. He mentioned that Dr. Joyce Poole's organization Elephant Voices was working in the area, so I contacted her. She was excited by the idea of an indigenous person writing about the forest and what it was like to grow up by it, then see the changes the forest is undergoing due to deforestation and poaching. She connected me with Alfred Mepukori, a Loita Maasai, also known to Moses. Alfred was also a Citizen Scientist volunteering for Elephant Voices in summer 2013. I then contacted Alfred and suggested he write an article for Voices for Biodiversity. Our staff feels it's very important that local people write about what is happening to wildlife, habitat, and their own cultures, rather than experts or journalists from outside always telling their stories. Not only is it empowering to tell your own story, but other community members and schoolchildren are much more likely to be influenced and empowered by a story written by someone with whom they relate.
Alfred Mepukori examines the carcass of an adult male elephant, killed for its tusks, in May, 2013. Alfred accompanied a herder who discovered the carcass in the Naimina Enkiyio Forest, as a part of Elephant Partners – an affiliate of the Maasai Mara Elephant Conservation Initiative. Photo Credit: Daniel K. Mepukori
Mongabay: What are some of the impacts that publishing their stories have had on the storytellers themselves?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: The beneficial fallout from creating content for Voices for Biodiversity has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of our Eco-Reporters have gone on to publish in other magazines and, equally importantly, to become advocates and activists for other species, all because they had that first initial experience of being heard through Voices for Biodiversity. Being heard is a very powerful experience, particularly for those of us who have felt invisible. My own experiences of not being heard and being shushed by experts and traditional thinkers is one reason I created Voices for Biodiversity. In the U.S. we live in a culture where celebrities are heard, experts are heard, rich people are heard, and the rest of us are basically ignored—a strange approach for a democracy. Facebooking and twittering often make people feel even more ignored since little can be expressed of substance through these social media outlets. And if you think it's tough being heard here in the U.S., try being a woman, for example, living in one of the other countries where some of our Citizen Eco-Reporters lives.
Here's an example of a success story. Oriane Lee Johnston contacted me to brainstorm about visiting Africa for the first time. I happened to know that she loves horses, so I suggested that she volunteer for Mozambique Horse Safari. She did and then wrote about her experience. Next, she went to Zimbabwe and became involved in advocating for and helping create wilderness heritage projects and she also wrote Elephants in the Refuge for us. Oriane wrote in our volunteer comment section: "I never dreamed of being a writer or a journalist! . . . At the moment my contributions appear in four e-zines and this spring my first paid article appears in the print magazine Canadian Horse Journal. More importantly, the opportunity to bring visibility to the wilderness heritage projects in Zimbabwe by having the projects showcased to the Izilwane virtual community and general public who reads this e-zine is of enormous value in furthering their causes." Oriane's experience is not a special case.
Our goal all along has been to go beyond creating a cadre of Eco-Reporters and also create a community of people sharing their concerns for biodiversity and other species and acting as engaged activists.
Oriane Lee Johnston at the Wasara ranch, a 6,000 hectare cattle ranch now home to three orphaned female elephants - Mungwezi, Chitora and Kimba. The Wasara ranch is run by Teresa Warth and her husband. Photo credit: Oriane Lee Johnston
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: Most of our storytellers are unique, because they are trying out something new for the first time, which has its own built-in uniqueness. For some creating content is initially a struggle. For others it is surprisingly easy.
The The Sixth Great Extinction written by Kira Johnson, who also worked for Voices for Biodiversity for a year as our Outreach Coordinator, is exceptional and remains on our home page as a key resource for all who come to our website. Jami Wright's article Lessons from Wolves, which studies the human aspect of wolf introduction, is interesting because it focuses on how humans are still resistant to having wolves in their lives. As she says, the wolf problem is a human problem. Our Managing Editor, Kathryn Pardo, has written innumerable high quality articles in her double role as our Staff Writer. Zoe Krasney has written about the Southwest, including a three part series about the Navajo Elders of Black Mesa, the release of the Aplomado Falcon, and an array of interviews.
One of the writers who pleasantly surprised me with her talent was Julia Osterman, who interned for us the summer of 2011. A rising junior at Yale University, she wrote a series of brilliant question and answer interviews with important scholars. Among those whom she interviewed were: Luke Dollar, Stuart Pimm, Lawrence Anthony, Lee Berger, and Spencer Wells. I've truly never met anyone her age with her talent for interviewing. Altaire Cambata, who was our Blog Editor in 2012, also produced well over ten articles ranging from an analysis based on her fieldwork on the global impact of climate change to an interview with Dr. Laurie Marker at the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Most of our storytellers have surpassed my expectations.
Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, was interviewed by Altaire Cambata for Voices For Biodiversity. Photo credit: Christian LePetit
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: Visits to the e-zine website (and, of course, our Izilwane – Voices for Biodiversity Facebook page) are from over one hundred countries around the world, including all of North America, most of South America, almost all of Europe, Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union, most of Asia including China, Australia and Oceania, and many countries in Africa. We always point out to prospective content creators that we publish photo essays, which cross language barriers. So, for example, if someone wanted to submit material but couldn't write in one of the three languages we now publish in (English, Spanish, and French), we suggest to that person that he or she create a photo essay and then our Managing Editor Kat Pardo and her stable of editors work to create a written story in English to accompany the photos. We work hard to publish anyone who wishes to be published. Our goal is self-expression for all who care about our theme. Of course, as I mentioned, in a perfect world, we'd have editorial pods around the globe and would publish in many, many languages.
Mongabay: What has been the reaction of conservation scientists to this project? How about governments?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: We've been very popular with conservation scientists and anthropologists, most likely because we meld the two disciplines, addressing the bio-cultural aspects of biodiversity and conservation. The fact that we work with ordinary people, not just academics, experts, and leaders, has appealed to scientists, who realize that getting the word out beyond academia and policy wonks is key to their own success. We've had a number of what we call "accolades " from scientists, conservationists, and nongovernmental organizations.
I'd also like to add that the website for the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity website states: "The world is now on a path to building a future of living in harmony with nature. In October 2010, in Japan, governments agreed to the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Targets as the basis for halting and eventually reversing the loss of biodiversity of the planet." The first Aichi Target is to: "Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society." We see Voices for Biodiversity as being an actor in "mainstreaming biodiversity" across society because we address the underlying cause of biodiversity loss: (1) A sense of powerlessness and lack of voice among those who care about biodiversity, and (2) A misperception by the majority, inculcated by cultures, religions, and our global capitalist economic system, that humans are more important than other species.
Mongabay: Have there been opportunities for the Voices for Biodiversity project to collaborate with conservation efforts on the ground to either prevent habitat destruction or assist an endangered plant or animal species?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: Our Citizen Eco-Reporters have initiated, run, and worked with a number of projects that focus on assisting endangered species and preventing habitat destruction, such as Elephant Voices, Orangutan Foundation International, the plight of baboons in South Africa, the Great Salmon Tour, CAT in WATER, Save Our Salmon, conservation of the Fossa, Marching to Save Elephants, See The Wild, and many, many more projects. Voices for Biodiversity works actively to help these projects. For example, when Mo Heim and Joanna Nasar were initiating fundraising for their project CAT in WATER to document the vanishing fishing cat, they reached out to us and we gave them their first leg-up by running an article about their project, which helped them obtain funding.
Recently primatologist Paula Pebsworth teamed up with Voices for Biodiversity when she spearheaded creating a petition asking Starbucks to stop using unsustainable palm oil and when she began a campaign to boycott Starbucks because the company would not commit to using sustainable palm oil in its pastries. (Unsustainable palm oil production is destroying habitat for many species, such as orangutans, and is contributing to an increase in greenhouse gases.) Paula and her two children made a video about their upcoming planned trip from Texas to Starbuck's Seattle office. Along the way, they posted on Izilwane – Voices for Biodiversity Facebook page about their trip as they collected signatures. Starbucks, which positions itself as a socially beneficial and green company, refused to meet with them when they delivered their petition to its Seattle headquarters. Paula then redoubled her efforts and joined forces with Voices for Biodiversity Eco-Reporter Robert Hii, a leader in the larger fight against dirty palm oil. Robert wrote about palm oil and extinction for our e-zine. Managing Editor Kat Pardo interviewed him about dirty palm oil. And thanks to the hard work of people such as Paula and Robert, a breakthrough has recently occurred in negotiation with Wilmar, one of the largest dirty palm oil companies.
Also, because Voices for Biodiversity blogs for National Geographic News Watch, we've been able to leverage this privilege into helping our storytellers such as Mo Heim, Joanna Nasar, Paula Pebsworth, Robert Hii, Brad Nahill, and many others with their on the ground projects and advocacy and activist efforts.
In addition, Voices for Biodiversity has run one on the ground project. In summer 2011 three interns ran a Biodiversity and Art Project for youth in Taos, New Mexico. They also exhibited the children's artwork and made a film about the project, which was screened at the Taos Film Festival. In summer 2012 Voices for Biodiversity had two interns showcase the film Call of Life for free to the Taos community in conjunction with Southern Methodist University as well. We are always open to working with interns and volunteers who wish to conduct an on-the-ground project under the auspices of Voices for Biodiversity.
Mongabay: Has this project impacted conservation policies in countries whose natural biodiversity has been described by your storytellers?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: A large percentage of our Outlier Journalists are biodiversity or bio-cultural advocates and activists who are involved in on the ground projects around the globe. By getting the word out through Voices for Biodiversity, they affect policies indirectly by helping to create awareness and educate about issues. In some cases, by publishing local voices, we also create pressure that would not exist without our media platform.
Mongabay: What are some of the wildlife species that your storytellers have focused on? Do you feel that the disappearance of plants (i.e., habitats in general) or animal species have a greater impact on your storytellers?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: Our storytellers have focused on many different species, such as cheetahs, elephants, whales, wolves, the fossa, fishing cats, horses (wild and domestic), salmon, tigers, birds, monkeys, turtles, and more. Our eco-reporters also have focused on an equal number of ecosystems around the globe. Usually, our storytellers combine both species and habitat in their stories. And don't forget we also cover the human animal's role in many of our articles too.
Mongabay: How have your readers reacted to the stories found on Voices for Biodiversity?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: We've heard how interesting it is to experience a more personal view of people's relationships and perspectives on nature and other species. And readers have expressed appreciation that we train ordinary people to become Eco-Reporters. Our readers say they understand how being heard is in and of itself empowering for those who usually are not heard. Another interesting reaction came from a friend who told me that her grandchild requested that she read Studying Visitors at the Gorilla Exhibit each night before bedtime. In this story the author, an anthropologist, relates the tale of being hired to study human behavior at a gorilla exhibit. What a charming turning of the tables!
Mongabay: What are your dreams for the future of Voices for Biodiversity? What's left to be done?
A gray wolf illustrates "Lessons from Wolves", a story on Voices for Biodiversity by Jami Wright. Photo credit: Jami Wright
The dream is simple. We want to create editorial pods around the world that create a richer, deeper, more dynamic community of people who believe, as we do, that we must embrace biophilia. We believe that in learning to care deeply for other species, we will learn to care for our own species.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about your journey in developing Voices for Biodiversity?
Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin: When I was very young, from age four to six, I lived in Frankfurt, Germany, where my father was stationed as an army medical doctor. He, my mother, sister and I would pile into the small white VW Beetle and travel: trips to the Rhine River where we'd board a ferry boat and cruise the river disembarking to visit castles; getting lost in the mountains of Garmisch, a mountain resort town in Bavaria; a trip to Elba and Venice, Italy; and an illegal visit to Yugoslavia, where my mother came down with an eye infection, which resulted in quite an adventure. I have no doubt that these early childhood experiences helped form my love for adventure, despite the fact that I was an extremely shy child who rarely spoke.
Upon returning to the U.S., my family settled down on a small horse farm in Northern Baltimore County. Here we raised ponies, whom we gentled and sold, had a large vegetable garden, and engaged in other farm tasks. During summer vacation and on weekends after completing our chores, my sister and I would disappear for the rest of the day on long walks in the countryside accompanied by several dogs and my orange cat, Leaf. We were rough and tumble tomboys who loved to walk in streams wearing rubber boots during thunderstorms, loved galloping our ponies through the woods and building forts in wheat fields (much to the local farmer's dismay).
I had always known that I wanted to be a writer, and so in college I became a Literature major with a focus on African, Latin American, French and Modern Literature. I took off my junior year at college to attend a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in Kenya. I fell in love with Kenya, its people, its wildlife, its wide open spaces, with awakening to the footfall of lions passing through camp at night and realizing ecstatically that I was not at the top of the food chain. I also became friends with several Loita Maasai, particularly a man named Moses, who grew up near the Naimina Enkiyio Forest (the Forest of the Lost Child) on the Nguruman Escarpment.
After graduating, I wrote ad copy for a radio station, was a professor in the department of Writing and Media Department at Loyola College, was a poetry teacher in the Maryland State Arts Council Artists-in-Education program, interned at the environmental newspaper High Country News, and completed a MFA in Creative Writing. In addition, I won a Maryland State Arts Council grant for a novel in progress, other literary prizes, and was granted a number of writers' residencies. During that time, I also lived abroad in Mexico, Ecuador, England and France, as well as numerous places around the U.S.
In my thirties, I returned to school to obtain a PhD in medical and environmental anthropology, conducting my fieldwork in Namibia, Africa, on traditional medicine and simultaneously working for the United Nations Children's Fund. Upon finishing my PhD, I received a WordWID (Women in Development) Fellowship and worked for a year with local communities in the Panama Canal Watershed guiding them to create an ecotourism blueprint. This was followed with a consultancy on the same topic for Conservation International in Panama. I then worked in 1999 in post-genocide Rwanda for the United States Agency for International Development on gacaca, an ethno-justice system. Disillusioned with gacaca, I did not renew my contract with USAID. I went on to found a nonprofit, Perception International, with a friend, David Jiranek. Its mission is to promote biological, cultural, and perceptual diversity worldwide.
David and I then initiated Perception International's first project, a shoot-back photography project for Rwandan youth at the Imbabazi orphanage in Gisenyi, Rwanda. When we first met the children, they had never seen a photo in a magazine. Through the Eyes of children: Rwanda Project has been extremely successful and the children's photos have been exhibited around the world. As young adults, these same children are now giving back by teaching photography to children in other schools in Rwanda. It was this project that taught me the incredibly empowering nature of self-expression and of being heard.
In 2001 my work and travels were halted when my mother became ill with cancer at age sixty-five. She and I were both deeply attuned to nature and animals. Before dying she said to me: "Make sure you take care of the animals." She was not referring only to her own dogs, cats, horses, donkey, and bird, but to all animals. I promised, but it would be eight more years until Voices for Biodiversity was born.
After my mother died I became certified as a somatic experiencing practitioner. Somatic experiencing is a body-centered treatment for trauma based on the study of animals in the wild. I'd become interested in trauma in post-genocide Rwanda, a thoroughly traumatized population, and I had my own anxieties and traumas to work through. I also continued as President of Perception International, conducting a health needs assessment in Kham, Eastern Tibet, and helping produce a film about the emergence of a Vietnamese-American healer as she travels around the globe meeting other traditional healers.
I was more and more drawn to work with animals and in 2006 I returned to Kenya after twenty-six years as an Earthwatch volunteer to study elephants in Tsavo Park with scientist Barbara McKnight. Elephant poaching seizures rose dramatically in 2006 and have continued to rise since then, most of the ivory going to Asia. I realized after working in Tsavo that my talents lay in combining my skills as an anthropologist and writer/journalist to help connect people to other species and the global ecosystem. This was how I would help animals and fulfill my promise to my mother.
Tara Waters Lumpkin meeting with community members in Tsavo, Kenya, in 2006. Photo credit: Tara Waters Lumpkin.
In 2009 after a challenging health problem, I went to South Africa and conducted fieldwork accessing how best to move forward combining my writing and anthropology skills. I interviewed people from all walks of life about their relationships with nature and other species, from shamans to scientists, Afrikaners, Zulu, Xhosa, San, and Shangaan, men, women, and children. In the field I had planned to return home and write a book about my experiences about what I'd learned. But books written by one individual, I realized, rarely created a movement. I wondered if I could build a community of people who joined hands across the globe to speak out for other species. What if this community shared stories? I envisioned a digital community of Outlier Journalists, working as Citizen Eco-Reporters, sharing their stories through a variety of media forms, such as writing, photos, videos, and podcasts.
So with no background in digital media, never having used Facebook or Twitter, with no financial backing, no full collaborative partner, and while living in a small town in impoverished rural Northern New Mexico, I leapt off the proverbial cliff and set out to create an online magazine that would share stories to connect the human animal to the global ecosystem. I named the e-zine "Izilwane," which means "animals" in Zulu. Later the online magazine was renamed "Voices for Biodiversity."
It is now five years since the birth of Voices for Biodiversity and its digital community. To date, we have trained over one hundred Citizen Eco-Reporters around the world who have shared their stories about biodiversity and human relationship with biodiversity, both positive and negative. Voice by individual voice, our community is re-defining what it means to be a human animal in relationship to other species. How, we ask, do we connect to other species? By first connecting with our own animal nature and accepting it, we answer. Then we reach deep inside and search for a story about our experiences with other species and nature and share it with each other.
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(05/16/2013) Despite outsized media and political attention to climate change deniers, climate scientists long ago reached a consensus that not only is climate change occurring, but it's largely due to human actions. A new study in Environmental Research Letters further strengthens this consensus: looking at 4,000 peer-reviewed papers researchers found that 97 percent of them supported anthropogenic (i.e. human caused) global warming. Climate change denialists, many of them linked to fossil fuel industries, have tried for years—and often successfully—to undercut action on mitigating climate change through carefully crafted misinformation campaigns.
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(12/04/2013) The montane rainforests of East Africa are little-known to the global public. The Amazon and Congo loom much larger in our minds, while the savannas of East Africa remain the iconic ecosystems for the region. However these ancient, biodiverse forests—sitting on the tops of mountains rising from the African savanna—are home to some remarkable species, many found only in a single forest. A team of international scientists—Michele Menegon, Fabio Pupin, and Simon Loader—have made it their mission to document the little-known reptiles and amphibians in these so-called sky islands, many of which are highly imperiled.
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