The Importance of Storytelling in Conservation Efforts

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By Toni Parras, Communications Professional, toniparras [at] yahoo.com

Since the beginning of my career, I have been asked to help organizations “tell their stories” and “get their stories told.”  What does that mean exactly? 

In every culture, stories are used to educate, entertain, and convey genealogy.  Whatever its function, storytelling is an art.  A good story is entertaining, moving – it can make us laugh, cry, ponder and, sometimes, lead us to take action.

With regard to conservation work, the purpose of storytelling is to make a connection with an individual on a personal level and deliver a message that resonates with them so that they are moved to take some sort of action.  The action can be as simple as seeking more information (for example, a fisher asking for an informational brochure about sustainable seaweed farming) to as radical as a change of behavior (a consumer foregoing unsustainably caught seafood in favor of more eco-friendly culinary fare).  Either way, people are not typically compelled to action unless motivated by a powerful force.  Done well, storytelling can be such a force.

To create a compelling story, you must have certain elements: a vivid sense of place, a character with whom the audience can empathize, and a conflict that needs resolving.  And, of course, some resolution to the story – either an outcome or a call to action.  In the following, I provide a simple step-by-step guide to creating a powerful story.  Just plug and play.  Good luck, and please let me know your results.

10 Steps to Easy Storytelling

(Note:  The following is intended for instructional purposes only.  The story used in the example is fictitious - it is used here simply to illustrate the concepts.)

Directions:  Write down two to three sentences for each step.  Use simple yet descriptive language and short sentences.  See sample text after each step.

1.  Setting

Describe where you are.  Is it a small exposed island or protected cove; is it surrounded by mangroves, mudflats, seagrass beds, coral reefs, or open ocean?  Are there mountains in the distance, are you close to a city or industrial plant - what is around you?  Imagine your reader is sitting at a computer in an office - bring them into your world. 

Example:

"Cayos Cochinos, literally meaning Hog Cays, is a chain of two forested islands and 12 small, sandy islets located 11 kilometers off the northern coast of Honduras in Central America.  The cays are surrounded by crystal blue waters full of coral reefs, seagrass beds and abundant marine life."

2.  Stakeholders

Describe who the people are that live here.  Make us care about them.  It is helpful to focus on one central "character" to make the story more intimate.

"The Garifunas, people of African and Carib descent, have fished here for nearly 200 years.  Francisco Garcia, a Garifuna elder, lives on the mainland but travels in a small boat with his 10-year-old son to the cays every season.  They sleep in makeshift huts on the exposed beaches and fish for days or even weeks at a time before returning home to their family of seven."

3.  Special attributes

What is special about your marine setting - what resources/key species in your community are utilized, prized, sought after, in danger?

"Snapper, hogfish and spiny lobsters used to be abundant in these waters…"

4.  Problem (conflict)

What are the problems surrounding your special resource(s)?

"…but industrial fishers have out-competed the traditional users of these resources with large boats and modern gear."

5.  Protagonist

Who is one person (or two people) in the community who decided to do something about the problem, and worked to get others involved?  What made your central character(s) take action?

"Francisco has fished these waters for many years and began to recognize that things were changing in the area - the reefs and fish were disappearing."

6.  Action

What did he/she do?  Where did they go for help - to the government, a university, or perhaps a non-government organization (NGO) working in the area?

"He got together with some other fishers and approached a local non-governmental organization (NGO) to ask for help."

7.  Approach/Interventions

What measures did they take? 

"Staff from the NGO conducted a marine awareness workshop for the Cayos Cochinos community, providing an introduction on basic marine stewardship concepts.  They also gave examples from communities in other countries in similar circumstances on their efforts to improve their resources.  After the workshop, Francisco's community decided to create a managed area within Cayos Cochinos waters and have a portion of it be a total no-take area.  Francisco was elected chairman of the marine management board, and was in charge of setting up trainings for managing and monitoring its resources.  He got the youth and women of the village involved as well, and thus set the stage for strong community buy-in of the protected area."

8.  Obstacles

Were there any setbacks or things that didn't work?  How were they addressed?  How did the community learn from these?

"Although the community commitment to protecting and monitoring the resources was strong, there was still encroachment from commercial fishing boats within the protected area.  Francisco considered approaching the national government to request that Cayos Cochinos be given legal protected status and provide boats and manpower for enforcement.  Although the community realized that they had to involve outside forces to be successful, they didn't quite know how to go about it. Again, they sought advice from the NGO and other entities that they had teamed up with over time."

9.  Current status

What is the status of the community and their resources now?  What plans do they have for the future?

"The local NGO and other partners of the Cayos Cochinos marine managed area helped Francisco and the management board devise a management plan, build their capacity to manage and monitor it, and gain the skills necessary to be able to hold a dialogue with the government.  After years of negotiations, Cayos Cochinos was legally designated as a protected area.  Commercial fleets are banned from fishing there, enforced by the Honduran coast guard.  Continued monitoring indicates that lobsters and snappers are slowly coming back.  While there are still some incidents of poaching, the overall situation has greatly improved.  Francisco travels to other villages to talk about his community’s experience with managing their marine resources and helps others to get started."

10. Pictures

Everyone knows that a picture says a thousand words.  Adding photos will go a long way to help get your story across.

Final Story!

Using these steps, you should be able to construct a simple yet illustrative story of what is happening at your site.  It is a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, and includes good guys, bad guys, the central conflict, obstacles and challenges, and the resolution. 

“Cayos Cochinos, literally meaning Hog Cays, is a chain of two forested islands and 12 "Cayos Cochinos, literally meaning Hog Cays, is a chain of two forested islands and 12 small, sandy islets located 11 kilometers off the northern coast of Honduras in Central America.  The cays are surrounded by crystal blue waters full of coral reefs, seagrass beds and abundant marine life.

The Garifunas, people of African and Carib descent, have fished here for nearly 200 years.  Francisco Garcia, a Garifuna elder, lives on the mainland but travels in a small boat with his 10-year-old son to the cays every season.  They sleep in makeshift huts on the exposed beaches and fish for days or even weeks at a time before returning home to their family of seven.

Snapper, hogfish and spiny lobsters used to be abundant in these waters but industrial fishers have out-competed the traditional users of these resources with large boats and modern gear.

Francisco has fished these waters for many years and began to recognize that things were changing in the area - the reefs and fish were disappearing. He got together with some other fishers and approached a local non-governmental organization (NGO) to ask for help.

Staff from the NGO conducted a marine awareness workshop for the Cayos Cochinos community, providing an introduction on basic marine stewardship concepts.  They also gave examples from communities in other countries in similar circumstances on their efforts to improve their resources.  After the workshop, Francisco's community decided to create a managed area within Cayos Cochinos waters and have a portion of it be a total no-take area.  Francisco was elected chairman of the marine management board, and was in charge of setting up trainings for managing and monitoring its resources.  He got the youth and women of the village involved as well, and thus set the stage for strong community buy-in of the protected area.

Although the community commitment to protecting and monitoring the resources was strong, there was still encroachment from commercial fishing boats within the protected area.  Francisco considered approaching the national government to request that Cayos Cochinos be given legal protected status and provide boats and manpower for enforcement.  Although the community realized that they had to involve outside forces to be successful, they didn't quite know how to go about it. Again, they sought advice from the NGO and other entities that they had teamed up with over time.

The local NGO and other partners of the Cayos Cochinos marine managed area helped Francisco and the management board devise a management plan, build their capacity to manage and monitor it, and gain the skills necessary to be able to hold a dialogue with the government.  After years of negotiations, Cayos Cochinos was legally designated as a protected area.  Commercial fleets are banned from fishing there, enforced by the Honduran coast guard.  Continued monitoring indicates that lobsters and snappers are slowly coming back.  While there are still some incidents of poaching, the overall situation has greatly improved.  Francisco travels to other villages to talk about his community’s experience with managing their marine resources and helps others to get started.

Final Tips

Use of acronyms

Not everyone is familiar with certain acronyms and their meanings - no matter how familiar is it to you or how often it is used.  Therefore, the first time an acronym is used in a story, it should be preceded by the full name, with the acronym in parentheses after it.  After the acronym has been introduced in this fashion, it is okay to use just the acronym for the rest of the story.

Use of Local Terms

It is important to remember that not everyone is familiar with your local terminology.  Using local terminology is great for giving local flavor to your story, but it must first be properly introduced.  Therefore, the first time a local term is used, it should appear in italics and should be followed in parentheses by a short explanation of the term.  Example:  “Qoliqoli (traditional management area in Fiji)…”  After it is introduced in this fashion, it is okay to use the local term only for the rest of the story.

Currency

Even though the world is more global now than ever before, not everyone is familiar with the value of many local currencies.  Therefore, local monetary values should be followed in parentheses with its equivalent in a widely-recognized currency.  This would typically be the U.S. Dollar or the Euro.

Now you try!  And please, send me your results or feedback – I always like a good story.


Toni specializes in helping organizations improve their efforts through sound communication and evaluation; exploring innovative approaches to creating awareness, influencing behavior and evaluating efforts; and incorporating information design, photography, video and storytelling into marine management, conservation and education efforts. Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect upon any bodies with which she may be associated.

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Comments

I stumbled across this blog post because I am writing an article that includes a mention of the Cayos Cochinos. Great article! I appreciated it both for its mention of the Cayos Cochinos, and for its excellent writing tips, and I shared it on twitter. (@traveler0603)

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