Changing Our Behavior, Changing Our World

Aware of the importance of reef habitats to their fisheries, local communities in Raja Ampat have begun to patrol their waters against cyanide and blast fishing. This community patrolman keeps watch in his dugout canoe near their island of Batanta, Raja Ampat. © CI/ Sterling Zumbrunn

Aware of the importance of reef habitats to their fisheries, local communities in Raja Ampat have begun to patrol their waters against cyanide and blast fishing. This community patrolman keeps watch in his dugout canoe near their island of Batanta, Raja Ampat. © CI/ Sterling Zumbrunn

By Michael Matarasso and Lucy Yarnell

No matter who we are or where we live, we all affect the environment through our daily behavior. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the work we do, and the leisure activities we pursue affect the world around us—from coral reefs to farmlands, from sea turtles to ourselves.

Our own behavior is, in fact, the direct cause of many of the most pressing environmental problems we now face, including the status of sea turtles. Human-induced hazards, such as fisheries bycatch, direct take, coastal development, pollution and pathogens, and climate change, are among the top drivers of sea turtle population decline. Thus, embarking on a path toward sea turtle conservation is, in large part, embarking on a path to change human behavior. It is no easy path to tread.

Research and practice corroborate what most of us sense on a gut level: we humans are complex, as are the ways we behave. In any given situation, from our most habituated routine to our most spontaneous impulse, an intricate web of knowledge, attitudes, skills, alternatives, and barriers combine to influence our actions.

Despite this laundry list of factors, most of the conservation community’s effort to alter environmentally harmful behaviors has focused solely on increasing knowledge and changing attitudes. Although this work is often vitally important, research indicates that improving knowledge and changing attitudes alone rarely affect long-term behavior. No matter how much people learn or how deeply they want to behave differently, if significant obstacles such as high cost, gaps in technology and infrastructure, or discouraging policies exist, then lasting change will not take place. For us to achieve the long-term results we seek, we must better include the affected communities in strategic planning and strive for a more holistic approach to behavior change—one that addresses all of the factors that drive human behavior.

A model that has proved successful in confronting diverse conservation problems in equally diverse communities is the Targeting Behavior methodology. This technique is rooted in significant community participation. It generates strategies that not only increase knowledge and change attitudes, but also create the framework for people to overcome significant barriers and to make lasting changes in their behavior.

“Targeting Behavior” in Action: Raja Ampat

The Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat includes more than 1,500 islands of karst limestone, lush forests, white sandy beaches, and vast expanses of ocean teeming with some of the richest marine biodiversity on Earth. With 75 percent of all known coral species, more than 1,000 fish species, 5 species of sea turtles, and an array of marine mammals, it has been called the “Jewel of the Coral Triangle.”

The area is also home to a growing human population that is largely dependent on ocean resources for nourishment and income. Tourism is increasing, economic needs are on the rise, and pressures on natural resources are quickly mounting. Conservationists are concerned that unless current behaviors change, Raja Ampat’s unique marine ecosystems will be irreversibly harmed.

In March 2007, a group of community representatives, local authorities, and nongovernmental organizations met in Raja Ampat to develop an education and communication campaign aimed at supporting local conservation efforts. They used the Targeting Behavior methodology.

At the start of the week-long workshop, the team identified marine degradation from over-extraction and pollution as Raja Ampat’s primary conservation problem and prioritized six behaviors as the chief contributors to this problem: blast fishing, turtle hunting and egg collection, cyanide fishing, trash disposal, overfishing of certain species, and coral mining. Workshop participants explored these behaviors inside and out, thereby analyzing the root causes, effects, and groups involved. They evaluated new, sustainable practices that might replace the unsustainable ones, paying particular attention to the barriers that would need to be overcome for those alternatives to be adopted.

For example, the practices of sea turtle hunting and egg collection in Raja Ampat are deeply rooted in tradition as ways to generate food and income. Workshop participants therefore recognized that for these behaviors to change, local people would need alternative sources for both. Their solution was to include a plan to develop a sustainable piggery as part of the education and communication strategy. Now in its second year of operation, the piggery is a successful business that produces both organic meat and “biogas,” a fuel made from manure.

Raja Ampat’s “pigs-for-turtles swap” was born out of the 2007 participatory workshop, in which community representatives worked with other stakeholders to analyze environmental concerns and assess local needs. © CI/ Michael Matarasso

Raja Ampat’s “pigs-for-turtles swap” was born out of the 2007 participatory workshop, in which community representatives worked with other stakeholders to analyze environmental concerns and assess local needs. © CI/ Michael Matarasso

This practical pigs-for-turtles swap has been introduced alongside targeted marine conservation education that was developed directly from surveys of local knowledge, skills, and attitudes. This holistic approach to solving an environmental problem has made it possible for local behaviors and awareness to shift together, greatly increasing the likelihood that these changes will become permanent.

As a whole, the sea turtle conservation community has demonstrated its commitment to helping people around the world find ways of living in harmony with sea turtles. Through the deep involvement of local stakeholders, the targeting behavior methodology offers a way to channel that commitment into productive campaigns for behavior changes that can make long-lasting differences. The key is to remember that each community of people who live with and affect sea turtles is different, that each challenge is different, and that identification of the right solution begins with investing time in understanding why people do what they do.