CONSERVATION CONVERSATIONS

Cherise Acker, Senior Field Officer EWT Threatened Amphibian Programme, cherisea@ewt.org.za

“How well we communicate with each other about nature and environmental affairs will affect how well we address the ecological crisis’’

(Meisner, Environmental Communication: What is it and why it matters, 2015)

We use environmental communication to express our attitude towards the environment or to share information on environmental affairs. Whether it is sharing knowledge through a zoology lecture at university, signing a petition to stop the manufacture of single-use plastics, or even through the act of being a vegetarian, these are all forms of environmental communication. Environmental communication, just as any other form of communication, uses verbal and non-verbal forms, and the selection of these will determine the outcome of the communication process. In an article written by Mark Meisner (2015), he states that communication shapes how we see and value the world. In this light, environmental communication should create meaning for people on environmental and conservation issues, thereby driving actions that enhance more conscious living and mindfulness towards all living things.

The EWT’s Threatened Amphibian Programme has developed an Environmental Communication Strategy to ensure that our conservation messaging regarding the value and importance of frogs and reptiles leads to a positive shift in public attitudes towards these creatures and their habitats.  The foundation of this strategy is based on designing “conservation conversations” tailored to the context, culture, and concerns of target communities. An example of a conservation conversation package would be using satellite imagery to show changes in a community over time and relating how these changes impact living conditions.  Figure 1, satellite imagery compares the changing landscape in Adams Mission between 2005 (left) and 2020 (right).

Figure 1:Satellite image comparing the density in Umlazi and Isipingo in 2005 and 2020.
Figure 2: Spatial distribution in 2005 of housing in Adams Mission (Left) which is sparsely distributed as compared to Adams Mission in 2020 on the right which is densely populated.

This comparative visual tool promotes dialogue by demonstrating the increase in population size and density over time, and discussions are held on the consequences this may have on living conditions in relation to space availability and quality of resources such as water. Satellite images (Figure 2) and photographs (Figure 3) show the state of living conditions in densely populated neighbouring communities, demonstrating the environmental and social implications of our increasing population. This comparison assists in building a visual reference to the possible future living conditions of the Adams Mission community if unrestricted and unsustainable development continues.

These tools enable dialogue that contextualises environmental impacts such as poor water quality, limited land availability for food security, increased flood risk through wetland destruction, or reduced availability of natural resources such as plants commonly used in medicinal treatments

Figure 3: Comparison of environmental state post heavy rainfall where Isipingo (left) was flooded because of degraded ecological infrastructure while Adams Mission (right) was not affected by floods as the ecological infrastructure is intact.

We track the conversations through sentiment analysis to determine how people feel about the context of the conversation, and we have found that in areas where ecological integrity is higher, for example, in Adams Mission, there is a more positive sentiment, as compared to the conversations held in areas with poor ecological integrity, such as in Isipingo (Figure 4).

In addition, our knowledge-building strategies within the formal education system incorporate demonstrable concepts based on contextual circumstances. For instance, asking learners from a school to bring in a water sample from their local river to test the quality (Figure 4) builds a greater understanding of the causes of poor water quality than if a person just told learners that the water quality of their local river is in poor condition. This interactive process allows people to feel a part of the outcome and allows for feedback to determine the level of understanding, interpretation and acceptance of a message.

These two examples of our conservation conversations allow for developing a co-constructed message based on contextual evidence by all persons engaged in the conversation.

In today’s world, where there are a host of environmental voices speaking about a huge range of different issues, we must hold productive conservation conversations to ensure that collectively the environmental communication results in a shift in attitude as well as action towards a more sustainable society that embodies consciousness towards and for the world around us and all its inhabitants.

Figure 5: Learners conducting a water quality assessment of the Isipingo River.

References:

Meisner, M. (2015, November). Environmental Communication: What is it and why it matters. Retrieved June 08, 2021, from The International Environmental Communication Association: https://theieca.org/resources/environmental-communication-what-it-and-why-it-matters