“We are facing a moment of truth. We have an opportunity to listen – and that opportunity to listen will not happen again in our life time.”
These are not the words of wisdom from a political leader or a famous philosopher. They come from a marine acoustician rushing to study the effect of the coronavirus – and the ensuing drop in ocean traffic – on the underwater world.
Many other overlooked voices, in both the natural and human realms, are now being heard. We see the most vulnerable members in our societies suffering disproportionally from both the health and economic consequences of the pandemic; many are pushed to the edge of poverty after just a few weeks of lockdown. In contrast, we are soothed by the suddenly omnipresent chants of birds and by wildlife apparitions in the middle of our cities and towns; those voices also reminding us of what has been lost or could be lost.
Among all the suffering and disruption, many recognise that this pandemic is also an opportunity to listen and learn. And as we start turning slowly towards reopening our lives and economies, many hope we can use this pause to imagine a healthier future for the planet and its inhabitants. Yet as we turn again to action, what if much of what we needed to do was to continue to listen?
One of the hopes of these studies in ocean acoustics is to confirm that marine species like whales call less, and the complexity of their conversations decrease, when things gets noisy. At Earthworm, we work more often on land than in oceans. We dive into vulnerable landscapes that suffer from human activities, being deforestation or soil degradation. But there too we have witnessed how our loud ways and ideas sometimes silence the knowledge and wisdom that is already there.
The region of Aceh Tamiang in Indonesia is part of one of the most diverse and beautiful tropical ecosystems on Earth – the Leuser ecosystem. It is the home of endangered Sumatran elephants, tigers and orangutans. It is also a gigantic carbon sink. Standing in the forest there, human voices are easily overcrowded by the concert of birds and insects of all kinds. Earthworm works here because human activities are now competing with the forest. This region is also one of the poorest in Indonesia.
Palm oil companies as well as smallholder farmers have been progressively expanding their activities on the edge of the forest. International and local NGOs have raised the alarms. A number of global companies have stated they would not buy from producers that are deforesting. The local government has been torn between the need to create jobs and, encouraged by foreign donors, to protect an invaluable resource for the planet. Since 2016, Earthworm has been attempting to stand in this landscape and listen to all those voices.
Together with representatives of all the different actors, we have sat together and openly discussed competing needs. We have looked at maps and brought satellite technologies to gather factual data and monitor the impact of our actions. We have partnered with the local government to include sustainability concerns in the land-use planning process. Until then, none of those actors had a chance to sit together and look at the problem both holistically and through the eyes of the other. This multi-stakeholder process has been invaluable.
Similar approaches are becoming more common in other critical landscapes around the world. The idea is that rather than acting in silos on issues, well-meaning actors should coordinate their efforts in geographical areas and look at problems holistically; so that forest protection, soil regeneration, water management and poverty alleviation are looked at as a whole by communities, government, NGOs, companies and others. This is a wonderful and a much-needed evolution in thinking and approach. Yet, it is only part of the story.
Earthworm came to this region of Aceh Tamiang through palm oil supply chains. With support from international buyers, we worked to implement ‘No Deforestation’ and ‘No Exploitation’ policies with dozens of local companies. We spent time in their plantations, also listening to the local communities they were affecting. We worked with hundreds of smallholder groups to understand how they could produce more sustainably while better accessing markets. But more than anything, what this work did for us was to progressively establish our presence on the ground. We became part of the landscape.
We often imagine that all we need for both nature and humans to thrive is to somehow draw better and cleverer plans. Decision-makers design sensible maps and policies, local actors follow. We do need that kind of leadership. But for those plans to be well-designed and for their implementation to be effective and sustained, we need something more elusive – true understanding and cooperation on the ground. For that and for the top-down bottom-up connection to happen, we need to be part of the landscape and listen.
True listening is hard, especially when one comes to help. It is difficult not to come with judgment when you face the person holding the chainsaw, and you care deeply about the forest. It is hard not to think you have just the solution this farmer needs to increase the productivity of his farm so he does not have to clear more land. More often than not, the actors on the frontline have the solutions. What they miss is someone ready to spend time with them. Someone who will help them be heard and supported by the other players in the landscape and by key sponsors (national and international buyers and donors) outside it.
Deforestation in the Aceh Tamiang region has decreased by 60 percent between 2016 and 2019. You could say it is the outcome of well-designed multi-stakeholder processes. You could say it is thanks to new powerful mapping technologies. Or the growing pressure of brands and governments concerned about the climate. All of these matter. But we like to think that what ultimately makes those changes possible is that we are together learning to listen to the voices in the landscape.
The opportunities to pause and listen are always there for us. They existed before this pandemic and will continue to exist after. May we now seize them.