Conservation in a Time of Crisis
With Thanda Ko Gyi of Myanmar Ocean Project
Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of Conservation Realist! I'm Dr. Tara Sayuri Whitty and with me, behind my computer, is a remarkably cute ginger cat who is contentedly curled up and hopefully will stay that way as I record this. I thought I'd share this cute scene with you!
Back to business. Today's conversation is with Thanda Ko Gyi, founder of Myanmar Ocean Project and someone who I consider a good friend and who I really admire both in terms of the work she's doing and in terms of the person she is.
I do want to take a step back and mention that, despite last week's episode being about conservation marketing, I completely forgot to market this podcast! I'm not particularly concerned with this becoming wildly popular, but I am putting work into it and I know that the ideas shared are important and useful. So I would really love for it to reach as many people as it would be helpful for. If you would be so kind as to help me with this, please like, leave reviews on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, share, and I'd really love to see some conversations start on the Substack site. And I also appreciate the feedback I've been getting so far, mainly as personal messages. If you'd be so moved as to help with that, I'd really appreciate it. And of course, if you have the means and feel so motivated, donation via the link in the Substack site would also be appreciate.
So, with that out of the way: I want to tell you a little bit more about Thanda and her work. But first I need to give some context about what's going on in Myanmar. I do want to take this opportunity to give a bit of a trigger warning for my friends in Myanmar: we're going to be talking about the realities of the coup, and I just wanted to let you know because I know it's difficult enough living the reality, and perhaps you don't need to hear about it when you're just listening to a podcast on conservation.
This and the two episodes after this are going to be Myanmar-focused. The reason for this, apart from my personal tie to the country because I lived and worked there for about two and a half years, is that I'm absolutely appalled that the recent Time 100 list included the military dictator who's overseeing this brutal, brutal military regime there. He was included on this list of the 100 most influential people. Now I understand that Time says, "Oh, it doesn't mean that they're good influential, it just means that they're changing the world." But they don't really say that explicitly next to the people who are objectively having a bad influence on the world. And dictators kind of thrive on that recognition. And so I don't understand what the hell anyone was thinking putting his name on that list. Not only do people in Myanmar feel abandoned by the international community, but to add this - to turn their suffering into some kind of intellectual exercise about what "influence" means - is beyond out of touch. I just really feel that more people need to hear from the folks who are actually in Myanmar and to hear about what's being lost from this coup.
And I know we're talking about conservation, we're not a human rights focused podcast (though of course human rights intersects with conservation). But for you to see even in the realm of conservation how much is being lost - we need to get uncomfortable with that. So this is one reason I've decided to put 3 episodes on Myanmar back to back.
So, Myanmar, as many of you might know, was fairly shut off for decades under an authoritarian military regime. It had this brief period of relative flourishing in the 2010s. That's the time when I was lucky enough to start working there. It was a time of so much hope and excitement, a lot of new projects coming in, a lot of international support, a lot of great opportunities for people in Myanmar. It was really exciting to be there!
And then the pandemic hit, and Myanmar being not a wealthy country with very inadequate healthcare systems in place was hit hard by the pandemic. Not just in terms of the health impacts, but also what it did to the markets and livelihoods in Myanmar.
And then a year after that, in February 2021, the military staged a coup overthrowing the democratically elected government. The military remains in control to this day. There are just brutal, atrocious crimes being committed against civilian around the country, which is not necessarily new, but the scope of it is much greater.
Some of my friends there will somewhat lightheartedly call it "coup-vid" - for a country to go through a coup in the middle of a pandemic, the impacts to civilians, especially the most marginalized communities, have been severe.
So that's the context in which Thanda and the Myanmar Ocean Project are operating. Let's introduce Myanmar Ocean Project a bit. Thanda come to marine conservation not having any formal training in related fields, but she was an avid diver. She started volunteering with the Marine Megafauna Foundation. And from there, she saw the problem of ghost gears and decided to do something about it, and that's how Myanmar Ocean Project was formed.
Ghost gears are fishing gears that have been discarded or lost, just somehow abandoned, and still have the potential to be catching animals or damaging habitat on the sea floor. So Myanmar Ocean Project works on that - they've organized expeditions of volunteer divers to physically remove the gear, but more than that, Thanda wanted to really understand the whole system around why the gear is being discarded in these places. Her work has focused on the Myeik Archipelago, and the reality is that the mainland - the only place that has the facilities for accepting waste or recycling it - is just too far for these boats to go. The cost of fuel to just bring a load of what is essentially trash is prohibitive. Her team interviewed fishermen and communities trying to understand what are the drivers of this problem and what are the solutions.
Now they're trialing these devices called "MOP Drops" and it's pretty cool. They're these drop-off stations on pontoons that boats can go to, and not have to go as far as the mainland, and drop off their unusable gear. If you want to donate to that, I have the link in the episode notes.
She's also been doing research on sharks and rays, and there's also the "Our Ocean, Our Home" project which is a collaboration making comics about marine life in Myanmar.
She and I first met at a workshop on Integrated Coastal Zone Management in Nay Pyi Taw which is the capital of Myanmar. She came up to me after my talk and was very enthusiastic about asking me questions, and was just one of those people who I felt, "well, obviously, now we're good friends!"
Some more context on things we talk about, for those who aren't familiar with Myanmar:
We mention Tanintharyi, Rakhine, Mon, and Bago, and these are basically states and regions in the country
She mentions Lampi, which is a marine protected area
Also, the Moken are one of the indigenous groups who live in the Myeik Archipelago
So our conversation was about the realities she's facing in doing her work in this pretty horrific context. This was a longer introduction than normal (you're probably like "Can we hear from Thanda already?"), but I did want to be sure to give good background for everybody.
This is a particularly fitting episode for our theme music, which is again by three Myanmar musicians, Soe Moe Thwin, Zyan Htet, and Min Min. Please enjoy.
Myanmar Ocean Project: http://www.myanmarocean.org/
MOP Drop - learn more and donate: http://www.myanmarocean.org/donate.html
Our Ocean, Our Home: http://www.myanmarocean.org/our-ocean-our-home.html
Soe Moe Thwin music: https://www.youtube.com/@soemoe6417
Tara: Thank you, Thanda, for your time today, especially after already giving a great interview to my brother for his podcast... I don't know how long ago that was, now. A couple of years ago.
Thanda: That felt like a different time. It was just before the coup, so it's like a lifetime ago.
Tara: You're in Yangon now?
Th: I am in Yangon. I am not spending as much time as I'd like at the field site.
T: There's some exciting updates from that, though! I wanted to talk to you for this podcast because I really want to bring more nuanced, diverse, and grounded voices to the broader conversation about conservation. I really am drawn to the work you do and to your story, because you came not from a traditional background and yet I feel like you're having a lot more impact than a lot of people who did come from a more formal, conventional background.
And you're working under highly challenging conditions. It would have been challenging even without the coup, even without the pandemic, but both of them together at the same time is a lot to handle.
Th: I think that word "impact" is something I struggle with. Because it is hard, and every now and then you pause: "What kind of impact am I having? Is it worth pushing this much?" When I'm calm, I tell myself, "20 years later, I'll look back and say 'you did great!'" But in the middle of it, sometimes it doesn't feel like that. Sometimes it's just like you're going through the motions because you feel the need to just push through it.
T: I think a lot of endeavors in conservation are long-term in complicated systems. It's hard to get those short-term "wins" and if you get those, there's always a question of how they last. I think for a small organization - how many people are involved in MOP now?
Th: Last year, I had an assistant. And then I have an intern that's been helping me with social media. I do have board members, it's just that they've never been heavily involved in day-to-day project dealings. They're more supporting paperwork and similar. That's the part that's isolating in a way, because it was already a little bit of an isolating field, but I drew inspiration and motivation from people in the field. But I think coming into the last 2 years, with COVID and the coup and the challenges, it just became really different. It doesn't always feel easy to talk about all of this with people outside the country anymore. It became a little more isolating in that sense. It wasn't just about the fish anymore.
T: And I definitely want to dig into that a little more later in the conversation, because there's a lot that those of us who are in the Global North can stand to sit with and think about a little more closely in terms of how we engage with our collaborators who are from the Global South, especially in countries going through particularly tough times.
But I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on how your own path to what you're doing now in conservation - coming in as an "outsider" though I don't like the idea of there being insiders or outsiders - how does that shape how you approach your work in the field?
Th: I started doing what I do, in terms of cleaning up ghost gear, because I was the only one seeing the problem consistently on the scale I was seeing it, because I was diving a lot. I did bring the problem to richer people and people in a position of more power, with things already set up, and people just sort of brushed me off. They just sort of said, "oh yeah, we'll do a beach clean-up."
Like, no, it's not just a beach clean-up - this is really bad.
And I was lucky to have conversations with friends who said, "Why don't you just do it yourself?" And then I thought, "Yeah, why don't I just do it myself?" And that snowballed.
The thing I was surprised to learn the most was, coming into it that way, I thought other groups with a lot more relationships with communities and media are going to jump in and support it in different ways. But it ended up differently, and I realized I had to figure it out myself. But I was also more free to approach it how I saw best. I was free to make relationships with communities however I wanted.
I still remember the very first expedition, worrying about all the logistics about diving, the boats, safety. And now the things that concern me are so different from that first expedition where I first thought it's all about the diving! Like, now I'm coming across kids as young as 12 years old working on boats, coming across people trading drugs and seahorses and bycatch, and the context of everything I am doing my work in... I just wanted to pick up nets, but it's become a lot more complicated.
T: Even the way we met was that you came up to ask me questions after I gave a presentation - and that's something I've noticed about you. You are really observant and eager to learn, and that might be part of you not having any preconceived arrogance that you know everything already. You're coming into this sector and you're just open to see what's actually going on. That's not something that I see all that often, actually. So it's nice to have seen you use it in your work and to have seen your projects to grow because of it.
Th: I think my excitement when I saw you first was, "ooh, a girl!" in the middle of the patriarchs - it was refreshing.
T: That was such a weird... Nay Pyi Taw is always kind of a strange parallel universe. We were in this ballroom with ridiculous flower arrangements and chandeliers, talking about Integrated Coastal Zone Management. But I really appreciated you actively seeking out connections and sharing experiences, and I think that's one reason why you've been able to keep things going under challenging conditions and expand what your project looks at, and get to these "MOP Drops."
Th: We've been making up songs with that name... maybe another time I'll share.
T: I'll have a musical episode. Do you think being a small organization has allowed you to be more nimble or effective, not being bound by large organization inertia?
Th: I would like a balance. I would like a full-time team to help me with accounting and paperwork, all of these things I'm now doing myself. Someone to help me with proposals and strategic planning, so I'm free to manage different aspects. At the same time, at least until now, I'm able to manage our team's relationship with the community we engage with. I don't think the same can be said about larger organizations. To me, it's important because I'm dealing with communities where they have not very nice perceptions of a few different organizations they've had dealings with. The fact that it's a small team allows me to still see what's going on.
T: That's one of the things I saw. I didn't do much work in Tanintharyi [region which includes the Myeik archipelago], but I was present at some meetings and observing interactions between some of the larger organizations and local Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). Even the larger organizations' bosses, based in Yangon and abroad, and their perceptions and decisions were disconnected from even local staff in the same organizations.
Th: Because the local staff, I think culturally, they don't state everything back as they should be. They filter it through what they think should be said, what they think should be heard, and that has a lot to do with a culture of saying yes. There's a lot of examples like that. And also if the international language skills aren't very strong, usually the person with the strongest language skills decides how it's translated. I see that unfold, and I go, "that's not what they're saying!" but that's what's being communicated. So there are a lot of nuances that come into how everything is being communicated.
I think my weakness would be I don't know how to speak "government." Every time I have to deal with a government department, it's just like "someone, just do this for me, I'll buy you lunch." I don't know what they're saying - am I supposed to read between the lines, or is what they're saying what it really is?
T: That's actually one of my weaknesses, too. Unfortunately, that was part of my job description while I was there...
In terms of engaging with the communities: you're from a different part of Myanmar than these communities, but I can see how it's beneficial that you at least speak Burmese and you're familiar with the culture. I was always hindered by the fact that my Burmese never got very strong because, sadly, I didn't have a lot of fieldwork. And I was relying on people to always translate to me. How do you think your experience working with communities is different than someone like me, for example?
Th: I don't think it would be a whole lot of difference. They might treat you differently because you're a foreigner. But I remember the anxiety of going to my first expedition site - "ok, we're going to this village," and I don't know anybody there, I don't know how they're going to receive me. I'm just showing up with a bunch of foreign divers, and I'm like: "no drinking, don't do this, don't do that."
But I settled in very quickly, mainly because the community was so welcoming. I think there is often a layer of that social hierarchy of people holding their badge of "I work for this organization in this position," and none of that came with me. So I think maybe there was less intimidation with them trying to approach me to talk to me to suss out what I'm doing. That layer was gone. I knew very quickly I could take advantage of this. I didn't have to hold formal workshops to be getting information out of them. And that's not really how you get information out of communities anyway, because only village leaders get to speak in those and no one else is speaking. So in that regard, I was able to just be at a location and have that communication flowing.
T: That's really cool. That's such a good point, that with these formal workshops, there's not necessarily that many people in a community who are comfortable speaking up. And even if they personally want to speak up, there might be social pressure for them to not use their voices.
Th: That's the thing. My assistant and I have been doing gillnet surveys the past year. We've interviewed 100-something gillnet fishermen. The same survey is used in other countries as well, say Thailand, to understand gillnet loss rates. I listened to one of their presentations one time, and they said, "this is what they catch, this is what they throw away - it's not much," and I'm looking at it screaming "LIES! LIES!"
Maybe it's not necessarily lies. But the presenter is not showing the true numbers of what is being lost in the ocean and what is being caught, but it might be because he's a university professor or works in a governmental department. And the fishermen are not going to be truthful with you. With all of these things, especially in an Asian community where that social hierarchy plays a huge role, I was so glad that the assistant I trained is from the village and his parents are boat mechanics. He's super comfortable on the boat and the fishermen are super comfortable with him, they're cutting up dolphins in front of him. I'm getting so much information out of all of this because he's perceived as not threatening.
T: That's such an important realization. It reminds me at that same workshop where we met, I remember some higher ups - academic or government, I forget - they were just very comfortably saying very offensive things about community members. Like "they don't understand, they're ignorant."
Th: I've heard people say, "Oh, these Moken are stupid" or things like that. And these are people in positions of power that can make policies. I remember when I started, I was thinking, "Oh, I need to educate the fishermen," but then quickly: no, no, no. I don't need to educate them, I just need to help them find solutions. I need to educate people in positions to do something.
I went to a shark and ray planning meeting once, and some Yangon government person got up to speak and said: "Oh, it's actually a good thing there are less sharks because that way we have more fish to eat." He actually said that! And I was looking around, is anyone translating what he's saying back to the foreigners who are organizing this event?
T: Oh my goodness! And that's difficult because you can't publicly be like "that's wrong!" in the interest of being polite and respecting norms.
Speaking of government officials, as we've already mentioned, it's just past the two-year, very sad anniversary of the military coup. That's on top of the country already suffering for about a year from the pandemic. How has this affected this in your work, in your own personal bandwidth as well as the practicalities of what you're able to do?
Th: I feel like I've aged 20 years in the past two! I'm laughing about it now, but it's... it restricted, physically, what we're able to do, a lot. Suddenly you have no governmental body to engage with. And communities are suffering. Whenever somebody pushes for, "we want to make sure 200 community members come to the clean-up," I'm like "you can't demand this at this time. What are you even thinking, demanding this?" I'm working on it - I get triggered so easily.
In terms of funding, the pool has dried up. And even if there is funding, being able to withdraw and use money has become very challenging. So there's a few different aspects of all of this that made it difficult, on top of the fact that I still don't like writing proposals.
T: Right, conservation's already hard to keep working in if you're in a small organization!
Th: It's a few different challenging things. I did a shark and ray report in Rakhine in 2021, mainly because then it was the only kind of safe place I was able to travel to. There was a part of me that felt like I just wanted to be taken away from news of human beings being harmed, and then I think "I'm going to animals being harmed!"
Looking back now, though, I'm very proud of the work I did in such a short time. I was speaking to someone who said, "This is great work - it's valuable because there's not a lot of information in this aspect for this country." And I remembered: nobody knows that there were guns pointed at me during the trip, that I stumbled into an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp... I mean, knew IDP camps existed prior to all of this, but to actually physically be there and not realize you're in on until you're speaking to someone there... I've had a lot of experiences in the past two years that I was not anticipating in the scope of "I just want to pick up nets."
T: I know even for the Gulf of Mottama Project and the Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab, we work with youths in Bago Region and Mon State. And we had to accept that we really had no way of engaging with the youths in Bago for a long time, because crossing those interstate lines was not feasible, and internet connection was really down for a while.
Th: Even if it is "feasible," I think especially for young people working, it's quite dangerous because they're the target for harassment. I get my phone searched every now and then, but I'm not a young 20-something boy that they're targeting, so I don't get harassed as much as they would. That's the thing that people need to understand: people on the ground are the ones who are supposed to be making the call about what is safe and what is feasible, and what is not. It's a fluid situation. I will take the opportunity if it seems safe to do something, but if it's not, I will step back. You have to just trust the person on the ground to make the right call and not push for more.
It's a swing between people still pushing for things and people going "we're not going to fund anything anymore because it's too complicated." And it's too much effort for people to balance in the middle and try to understand and accommodate. For a lot of people, there's stuff somewhere else that's easier that they could fund and still write pretty reports.
T: "Pretty reports." I love that.
This brings me to another thing I wanted to talk about. If you're comfortable sharing, I've seen you rant about snippets of conversations with external partners or donors - where someone said, "For the sake of my blood pressure, let's not work in war-torn countries."
Th: That was extremely insensitive. I think in normal circumstances I would have been angry and then brushed it off. But I forget that I am in this very volatile, tensed situation, that I'm working in this context, and that my emotions are building up on top of that and not on a blank slate. I need to allow myself to sometimes just sort of lose it!
I find myself in situations where I'm so angry with so many different things, and then a couple of months I look back and... oh, that was the week the activists were being harmed. [starts crying] And you remember, it's not always just about what you're angry at.
T: That's a lot to absorb. It's been heartbreaking for me over here seeing it, and I'm removed from the situation geographically and I'm not from Myanmar. I can't imagine how painful it is to see it when it's your home country and you're there.
Yes, you can say obviously that your reaction to these kinds of insensitive comments is influenced by this broader context. But that's also something that these external partners should be realizing. They should be EXTRA careful about what they say.
Th: I'm very quickly realizing... coming into this, you look up to these huge organizations that you think are empathetic toward people's struggle and they're making the world a better place. But that's just not the case. These are people just getting their salary, and most of the time that's it. They're just working for their paycheck. They know very little, they want to know very little about the communities they're engaging. That's a sad fact. That's just how the world is.
T: That was very disillusioning for me also as I delved more into that realm. You spoke earlier about how the communities have mixed - probably more negative - feelings about organizations they've worked with in the past, and that's why: there's this sort of removed, arrogant attitude that "this is something we can fix and impose our ideas on it, and we don't have to get invested in it emotionally ourselves as long as we have our pretty reports at the end of it."
I was so angry when I saw what that person had written to you. So... I hope you have something to say on this side, but: is there something that's been helpful that external parties, foreign collaborators or donors have been able to do?
Th: I will say this: there's been a few conservation women, yourself included [Tara does a cheesy big smile, Thanda laughs], that I've met that have been instrumental in making sure I still have work and still have opportunities, making sure I can still explore different things. And they're not people I've worked with before. Like the people I worked with for the comics - I haven't met them in person. They just said, "Hey, I think this would be a good idea, I want to help" and I already have an idea of what Myanmar needs in terms of education and then they step in helping with it. And it's the same with the projects I do with the kids with NUS (National University of Singapore) and the Youth Environmental Camp. The Singaporean wonderful lady kept asking, "hey, do you want to do this?" I don't think people realize how much this means to me, to feel like somebody's still looking out for me. It was the same with Mira, she was super supportive.
So, just as much as there are relationships that have made me angry, there are a lot of these wonderful ones that showed up to help me when I really needed it. I have to remember it's not all high blood pressure!
T: I'm really glad to hear that. I'd actually forgotten about the comics, because you've been doing so much, but the comics are so cool!
Th: That's the other thing. I've been so hard on myself. Last year, I had to do all these reports, and my father was hospitalized, and I go through these months where I'm completely spent. Every two, three months, I do need to take myself out to recharge. If I don't get to do that, it's like a deflated air mattress. It's just not working anymore.
It gets super challenging. I am very grateful with people that have supported a lot of the work I still do, and the fact that I have done more different projects the last year than when I started under the "good years" ...like 2019, I thought I was busy because I'd just started, but I was just handling one big project throughout the whole year. Now there's lots of little things I'm trying to manage.
T: It's really impressive to me how much you've been able to do. I see these updates and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, Thanda is doing so much - she's unstoppable!" It's been astounding to see, to be honest.
Th: It doesn't feel like it, but that's nice! I think I'm too focused on what I can't do and not what I have been doing, and I think that's why I haven't really celebrated. I will.
T: I hope you take the chance to do that, because it is definitely deserved.
It's difficult to see, as you said, that swing between extremes of foreign responses to the coup in terms of what projects they feel they can support on the ground. I think it's almost more important to support local conservation groups because the government agencies aren’t functional now.
Th: I think there should be more support. If can prove that I'm capable of completing something with actual impact, it shouldn't be "we can support the government so we're not supporting anyone." I wish I had the money right now to be training divers - that's another thing, how long before we can have foreign divers to help with these clean-ups? I am so grateful for my assistant, but I wish other than the work he's doing for me, I wish I could be training him for so many other things. I will be going around squeezing people for funds eventually. But if I were a big organization, I'd have more funds. I'm envious of that sometimes. I'm constantly struggling to fund different things, which is why I also think about impact: how meaningful is the impact that I have on the community or the ocean? Is it - not "big" enough, I don't know what the right way to measure it is - if I just made one person's life different, is that enough, or do you need to make a difference for the whole community?
T: That's an amazing question. I think the kind of work that you're doing, which has a lot of thoughtful community engagement, and a lot of youth-focused engagement, is really a good way to have sustained impact. The trainings I did with the Myanmar team when I was there in person: I couldn't teach them everything I've learned in my ridiculous number of years training as a researcher in the matter of months I had to work with them. So it was basically: how do I leave these people who are trying to learn from me with things they can use and apply broadly? I don't need them to know specific scientific technical skills - I'd rather have them be able to think of a system like we've talked about with your work looking at the gears (why are people abandoning their gears, what are the alternatives, how do people feel about it, where are they coming from), and understanding that is important.
And the work you do with youth - you're inspiring them to care about their oceans and coasts, and teaching them about real problems, and that impact is going to snowball more than you could anticipate.
Th: I hope! Even in good, normal circumstances, I imagine this is stuff every conservationist struggles with: "what sort of impact am I having?" I do want to really invest in sustained local solutions. It's not just "this will exist as long as the donor money is there" (that's not the solution). It has to be a way where they can look after it themselves and it is set up that way. I do try to think of things in those terms when I'm trying to plan something.
T: I think that's really insightful and something that a lot of highly trained conservation professionals don't get, unfortunately. It's like, oh, we have money for this project, we're going to do all this great stuff and we're not going to think about what's going to happen 5 years down the line after we're gone.
Th: I was forced to think about being abandoned already one year into setting up an organization. It's a good way to learn to think about: how long is this going to last? What afterwards? What structural support are you putting in place?
T: It's too bad that those realizations come under such stressful conditions, but they are critical to think about.
One thing that surprised me coming into Myanmar, and still now, is how little work has been and is being done on the coastlines. You guys are really operating in a very difficult set of circumstances and it's really important that you're able to do what you're doing because there's so few of you!
Th: Everybody sort of coming into this say, "there's so little information in this!" Yes! Maybe you should keep supporting us!
T: You could do interviews among pretty any stretch of coastline and learn so much that hasn't been recorded yet. It would be fascinating and really exciting under different circumstances, and there still is that element to it, but the reality is: how are people going to be able to do that now?
So I know this is a large, fairly open question - and maybe it depends on your mood today - what's your outlook for the future of marine conservation in Myanmar?
Th: I'm only thinking as far as the next 6 months. I can't really think that far on some level. Having said that, I've engaged with more young people in the past two years than I had before. I am extremely encouraged by the bright, ambitious minds I come across. At the same time, it's very quickly followed by sadness that all of their opportunities are taken away and they're all struggling now. So in that context I don't think I'm detached enough to see or plan 5, 10 years down the track. I like to think it will be better. It will definitely be better, it's just a matter of how quickly we get there and how much of it I get to see.
T: One thing that I really loved about working there was the young people - they are so fired up to do something! It was so exciting to be there during that brief flourishing, where so many opportunities were opening up and pretty much anything you could think of in coastal conservation was something new and exciting, something that would really pave a new avenue. It has been really hard to see that kind of shut down, but the young people I interact with there are still so driven. There's that passion there.
Th: Both the kids I work with now (I mean, they're in their 20s) - the boy, for example, he's just so keen to learn more, to be given more opportunity. I remember trying to interview a few people for this position, and there were people who worked for larger organizations who were more qualified on paper, but then they also wanted to be paid the same way they were paid at a larger organization, and even I'm not getting paid that way! But the ones I work with, they're like "I want to learn more." They don't mind the fact that I can't pay very well.
At the same time, I don't mind having rich, white, gap year kids coming to volunteer because they can afford it. But if I'm working from kids from villages whose parents have to fish for a living, I want to make sure I actually pay them properly.
That's part of the reason I struggle to grow. If I let more people volunteer, maybe I could do more, but if I'm having them work for free, I'd like to make sure they're learning as much as they could. But then that would mean more management from my part. It's easier for me to delegate the tasks between who I can pay and myself. If you're managing a team of volunteers, you really want to make sure they're getting something out of the experience. That's a whole other management aspect. I don't think I have that in me right now.
T: That's a lot of work. That's putting more focus on the teaching side of it, and you want to pay attention systematically to what kind of skills they are gaining and what kind of experiences are they being exposed to. I totally understand not wanting to burden a volunteer with admin tasks, which is often where a lot of the help is needed. I've also felt the weight of: we've trained so many enthusiastic young interns. It's not right for them to keep going on a low intern salary, but there are not enough jobs out there in this sector for them to have a career. So I've also felt that sort of moral weight of "Oh my gosh, I was part of getting these youths into conservation!" and they've spent months and years building skills in it, and... we're applying for grants, but at a certain point, I have to sadly shrug my shoulders and say, "hopefully you can come back to conservation at some point where there's more opportunity." But I understand people having to leave to get other jobs.
Th: I do try to tell people who are like, "oh, I wanted to study marine biology but I have to study medicine," and I will remind them that conservation is not just about saving fish. You can be working with the community, you could be doing other things to save the ocean, to not get discouraged that they're not directly working with fish guts or whatever.
I remember the first time I visited Lampi after the coup, I was so heartbroken to see how it is. I could see the gold mining happening, could hear the sound of trees being cut with electric saws, every evening. The one place I used to think was really nice is all in shambles, people were drunk, there's drugs. That was the only time I felt like, why am I doing this? I should be doing something else if I really want to have an impact for conservation or the community.
T: That's tough. But I think one of the reasons you've been able to get so much done, on top of your own personal traits of being driven and dedicated and working hard and having good ideas, is that you did start with a very focused area. You started on ghost gears. There's so much connected to that, but having that focal point and branching out from that might help you stay a little grounded. Because if we're all trying to work on everything at the same time, we'll all be spread thin.
Having that kind of courage to focus on one area and then trust you can have a meaningful impact there, and then trust that it will contribute to overall a better picture for conservation and communities.
Th: I've see opportunities to do a lot of other things within the fieldwork - I see a lot of bycatch happening, a lot additional things that could be touched on. But then, until I can grow my team properly, I don't think I should be pursuing all of them... well, maybe one or two...
T: Just hearing you talk about the bycatch, I'm like... I wanna look at your notes!
Th: The dolphin bycatch is very regular.
T: I would love to pick your brain about that at a future date! Thank you so much, Thanda. I really appreciate you taking the time and talking about difficult things. I just want more people to know what's happening on the ground in Myanmar. We're just talking about one slice, the conservation sector, and how it's been affected by the coup. There are obviously more serious issues. But I really feel like the conservation community - at least those of us based in the Global North - tends to be pretty naive about the realities facing our colleagues in other parts of the world. So it's really important that you've shared some of your reality. Thank you.
Th: Thank you for letting me speak. I don't know if I'm very coherent a lot of the time.
T: I got a lot out of it! Take care and I'm sure we'll be in touch about possible projects or just catching up sometime soon.
Th: Yeah! Thank you!