Rejected...the realities of a local conservation champion

Munib Khanyari

This piece gives voice to “Local Conservation Champions”, people that are incredibly passionate and motivated to conserve their natural spaces and species, but may not, due to various reasons, be in the “mainstream” of research and conservation. Munib Khanyari writes from their perspective, helping us understand the myriad challenges and disadvantages these champions face, not least when applying for conservation grant proposals. The piece ends by outlining some promising solutions.

“Thank you very much for your application. This year we received more proposals than anticipated. The committee thought your proposal was very competitive, nonetheless, due to limited funding, we are unable to provide you with the grant this year. We sincerely hope that you apply again next year.” – These are lines that we, the so-called “upcoming young researcher and grassroots conservationists”, see all too often.

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This is a photo of 6 “Local Champions” that I have been fortunate to work with. They are from Kibber Village, Himachal Pradesh, India, which is situated in the heart of the Trans-Himalayas. They have devoted their lives toward research and conservation of snow leopard, their prey, and their landscape. They work for the Nature Conservation Foundation (http://ncf-india.org/).

 

Well of course we are going to get rejected! We aren’t as well-groomed as the other researchers who are fortunate enough to have a formal education, their supervisors support, and peers’ guidance.  But where in the application is there room to write about the two part-time jobs we work just to make ends meet? One drains away our weekends, and the other drains away our weekdays’ sleep. Together they drive us to near depression, and feeling suicidal at times. Where in the application is there room to write that we eked out each section of the application in the tiny 30 minutes we had on the last metro home, barely keeping ourselves awake. We ate each meal from the take-out to save time and had bananas for several of them, just because they are cheap, healthy and quick! And hey, we did this not because we can’t manage our time, but because that’s all the time we have! We believed those 30 minutes could actually make the difference… 

What were we thinking?  We can actually get that elusive grant? We are small town boys and girls, barely able to string sentences together in English, a language we must master if we are going to make it. But where in the application can we write about the most wonderful ideas we have about community-building and sustainability, but alas the only languages  we can articulate these ideas in is in Kashmiri, Farsi, Swahili or Quechua?

Even then, we know we can make it. For the two hours that there is electricity in our town, we make sure nothing comes in the way of us charging our laptops (the third-hand ones which that researcher left behind as a gift). Uncle Harish’s shop down the corner is the only place with a somewhat reliable internet connection. We sit on top of its roof; mind you it’s not comfortable, but we have no other choice. And as the wind creeps in and thunder clouds break into rain, we must rush away and stop. The grant’s deadlines don’t respect our realities unfortunately. We are navigating between the loss of connectivity and loss of a father, for whom we didn’t have the money to treat his long-term ailment. We tell ourselves, we must persevere. We promised our long gone father, that the reason we gave up on our government jobs, ones with a steady salary, is because we were made for greater things, things beyond just ourselves.

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These local champions have to take extreme risks to conduct the research that forms the basis for the subsequent conservation for snow leopards and their mountain ungulate prey. Here two of them are seen installing camera traps to monitor snow leopard populations in a precipitous gorge.

We feel ashamed putting in our resume that we are survivors of conflict, refugees torn away from our homelands. That we cook three times a day because our mothers are too tired from working as a daily wage labourer. How can we put in our publication list the fact that we convinced the whole village to stop hunting the songbirds that were beginning to disappear? Where in the application can we put the fact that we made it into the local newspaper (no, not a scientific journal unfortunately) as the kids that were responsible for the closure of the illegal mine?

 

Solutions: listen 

We muster the courage to take the bus to the nearby city, the only place we can get a graduate degree. Even if we pass the entrance tests to the subjects that we were never fortunate enough to have been taught, we realize, no one’s heard of the college nor will they ever hear of us! But, hey world, you know what? The more you keep rejecting us the more we keep accepting ourselves… And you know, one day, one day we will make it! We don’t want much from you, all we want from you is to listen: 

Wouldn’t it be nice for granting agencies to not only set grant deadlines but also set a framework where experienced grantees, especially the ones that have sprung from similar backgrounds as us, hold mentoring session in our local communities, in our languages? In today’s world of technological advancement wouldn’t it be lovely for grant agencies to allow grants to be written in languages other than English? Or for a matter of fact, do grant really have to be “written” at all? Could we not just speak them? Because, that is all I can do! Could we be more inclusive with the way we measure success in a grant proposal? Why is being reported in a local newspaper for an honest conservation win not as effective as a scientific publication? Shouldn’t national and international funding recognize the disadvantage our realities put as at and have specific funding for us? We know many of you are doing so and we are eternally grateful to you, but is that enough? We are extremely thankful for all the generous people who put their money out there to make this world a better place. We plead you to not just judge our applications, but come live our lives… in our villages, in our forests, our mountains, our coasts, and judge for yourself if we are worthy enough to be the true custodians of our lands. We are the local champions who have the trust of our communities and understand their realities.

Paradigm shifts happen only when we collectively agree that a change is needed and then do something about it!

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