“Community education and sensitisation meetings are considered integral for conservation projects such as ours," explains Edward Aruna (Eddie), project leader with RAP-SL, an SOS Grantee working to save Sierra Leone's sea turtles from over-harvesting, human disturbance and climate change.
“We can provide tools and knowledge and we can impart a vision of a more sustainable life along Sierra Leone’s coast. But that vision has to be a shared one – how those meetings take place is just as important as what we talk about."
When Ebola Virus Disease broke out in Western Africa including Sierra Leone, Eddie had to adapt project plans. “Our activities were limited to head office,” he explains. "So the team focussed on producing the planned communications materials we would need to engage with coastal communities on sea turtle conservation and climate change adaptation instead."
Fortunately, no Ebola cases were reported from the coast during the outbreak. Consequently, by April 2015 the team was ready and equipped to head back into the field. Assembling the materials and the team members, Eddie targeted two influential communities including Chepu on Sherbro Island – the headquarters of the local chiefdom – and Moot on the Turtle Islands – another important local town.
During the downtime six months previous, RAP-SL’s personnel had produced 156 t-shirts, 400 nest marking boards, 25 copies of a Draft Fisheries Bill and purchased 600 coconuts as well as 1,000 planter bags to help with nursery tree planting.
The fruit trees would help prevent erosion and provide shelter, food and fuelwood for locals, it was hoped. In addition, the team distributed a range of materials including desktop computers, solar lamps and writing materials to the primary schools in both towns.
"Giving out the right message along with the materials was critical," explains Eddie. This included who delivered the message and how people participated in the tree planting activities too, for example.
The team comprised facilitators from the local District Council of Bonthe, the local chief, senior scientific members of RAP-SL and a lecturer from Milton Margai Teacher’s College. Each could play a role in addressing different agenda items.
One step involved equipping the beach monitors with the training and tools to mark and record turtle nesting sites, while another session focussed on the tree planting exercise. It is hoped that the maturing coconut palms will help minimise beach erosion as well as benefit the turtles with improved nesting sites.
Meanwhile, the mature palms will provide shade and food on nesting beaches that will incentivise locals to help with monitoring nesting sites and protecting eggs from harvesting.
"It was critical that the communities understood these trees were theirs to manage and not RAP-SL's property," explains Eddie. So the team took great care to clarify and explain the role of the coconut palms to the project, the benefit for the turtles and us, and differentiate those from the benefits to the communities.
That began with discussion and continued with group planting sessions where villagers were invited to help RAP-SL plant out the young plants receiving a small tip in reocgnition of their contribution.
“These meetings were the appropriate forum for discussing things that affect us all and were followed up with one-on-one meetings about specific implementation activities."
Sharing information about laws and the project’s progress while providing a forum for discussion is so important to achieving our conservation objectives. "We are trying to change behaviours – we cannot simply tell people what to do!"
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