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Making the Decision: When I decided it was a good time to get back in the field

by Lucía Ruiz (2019 Fellow)

These answers are being written while I do my first fieldwork in more than a year, sharing experiences from the core of Mexican community-managed forests: Oaxaca to the world! The emotions I feel can barely be described. It is true that spending time in touch with nature benefits you. I wholeheartedly wish a pandemic like the one we are facing nowadays does not keep us ever again from visiting the natural wonders our bodies and souls need (and have been craving) to be healthy.

What were the pros and cons that your organization considered when deciding that it was time to go back to the field?

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mexico has not gone back to the field entirely. Decisions are being taken on a monthly basis considering the traffic light monitoring system set by the government (red, orange, yellow, and green). The remainder of 2020, after the pandemic was officially declared in March, WWF shifted to home office-based work. It wasn’t until the first quarter of 2021 that some activities were allowed, and since then, each case is evaluated based on the risk for the person doing fieldwork and the people who will be part of the fieldwork. If local communities are to be visited, a special letter must be sent to the community to make sure they agree and feel comfortable with the planned activities.

The biggest benefit of not having done fieldwork during the most difficult months of the pandemic was making sure that no one was exposed as a result of their work. For the first few months, neither staff nor WWF-funded organizations were allowed to do fieldwork. By the end of 2020 some activities were allowed for local organizations, and this was fundamental for on-going projects.

In the first six months of the pandemic, the biggest challenge, and many times a cause of enormous frustration, was not being able to work hand-in-hand with local communities and waiting for the traffic light to change color in the states where our fieldwork is conducted. Virtual communications have complicated the momentum created before the pandemic with the projects. Additionally, developing trust and addressing complicated issues like finances and governance of Community Conservation Enterprises (CCEs) becomes a huge challenge.

What factors drove the decision to return and do fieldwork?

The main factors include the traffic light monitoring system, the health vulnerability of the staff doing fieldwork, health services available in the communities to be visited, and case-by-case situation assessments in which risk was analyzed for local communities. COVID-19 tests have also been a common denominator for field visits that require being in touch with remote communities. Another factor that was considered after the first quarter of 2021 was the urgency to deliver results to donors based on annual planning and scheduled activities for each project. Adaptive management has been fundamental: for some activities, we have talked to the donors and agreed to slow down the pace and also space out some of the activities to make sure that fieldwork is not done simultaneously by all staff.

How was the return implemented? (Biosecurity considerations, community engagement, partners support, family considerations and reactions)

The return to fieldwork has at all times been on a voluntary basis. Staff is encouraged to stay home if they do not feel safe doing fieldwork. Currently, one of the most important issues that WWF has highlighted is mental health and the importance of people feeling safe and consulting with their families if it’s a safe option to do fieldwork. This has also resulted in considering family structures as one of the most important considerations.

Additional to fieldwork measures, WWF Mexico has gone semi-virtual. Beginning in mid-March of 2020, home office was implemented. This new method of operation has brought us closer not only with our family and friends but also with the people who collaborate with us by considering all available options of communication.

How has the pandemic impacted the income generation projects you are involved with?

Fortunately, our organization has not stopped as a result of the pandemic, and we have noticed more interest from donors to invest in environmental or wildlife-related organizations/projects. An example is a growing interest in tackling the illegal wildlife trade and the conservation of vulnerable ecosystems. In this context, WWF has been able to support income generation projects throughout the pandemic to make sure local productive activities are not stalled.

For income generation projects—specifically one we are developing in southern Mexico called “Seeds of Change” funded by IKEA Social Entrepreneurship and implemented by WWF jointly with a local organization named Mbis bin—the biggest challenge has been maintaining the momentum for CCEs we are supporting. Most of their income was decimated due to the pandemic, and the fieldwork we were developing was halted throughout all of 2020. The little work we were able to develop was done through phone calls or virtual sessions, which was very challenging due to connectivity issues but also because working with communities is complicated when not having face-to-face sessions.

To cope with the economic downturn, what strategies were used for the conservation-oriented enterprises you work with? What strategies were implemented by WWF to support the income generation projects in your portfolio?

Constant presence and communication have been fundamental to ensure that CCEs feel constantly supported by WWF. In this context, the WWF network developed internal activities to discuss alternatives, including:

  1. WWF Mexico developed a system to help the Indigenous People National Institute (INPI) map COVID-19 cases in municipalities that have high rates of indigenous population. This tool was used by the Coordinating Centers of Indigenous Peoples (CICC) to have updated information and provide advice, as well as channeling support in the event of possible cases of infection.
  2. The Beyond Tourism Innovation Challenge, led by WWF Regional Office for Africa, in association with the Luc Hoffmann Institute, WWF Norway, and the Africa Leadership University, is an attempt to further reach out to partners on viable ideas to address the dependence of current conservation model on tourism and the opportunity to develop alternative income models through a conservation-finance model that is less dependent on tourism and hunting.
  3. A hackathon, in which more than 50 offices of WWF participated, was done to develop innovative solutions on how to build back better in Protected and Conserved Areas. The hackathon helped develop an innovative portfolio of economic incentives to build back better livelihoods in and around Protected and Conserved Areas after COVID-19. Through a design thinking approach solutions were ideated and prioritized to identify market tools that can help address current livelihoods and local economies challenges, create connections among partners that can lead to new collaborations, and contribute to the discussion of IUCN’s WCPA Task Force on COVID19 and PCAs.

Additionally, WWF has taken the mission to integrate innovation at its core to boost projects that integrate a design thinking approach and increase capacities in local communities.

Once in the field, what did you find and what resilience-type lessons you learned?

The main finding was that, although many of the CCEs saw impacts on their income, the work did not stop, and local income generation was maintained, even if it meant very low income. The most affected CCEs were those that are connected to regional, national, or international value chains, as those income fluxes were severely affected.

Some of the projects WWF Mexico works with include remote communities that depend on subsistence agriculture. These activities allowed them to produce enough food to meet local needs. Also, it was very clear how so many families we work with still depend heavily on remittances and were able to cope through 2020 by having this additional income from abroad.

From the resilience you found in your projects, what lessons you took for yourself that you think are useful for the community of Kinship Conservation Fellows?

The main lesson is that CCEs are resilient and will always find a way to survive through hazards, including pandemics. In this context, the main findings would include:

  1. Develop a protocol for going back to the field when the organization decides it’s ready.
  2. Ensure that even if fieldwork needs to be halted by your organization, phone calls or virtual interaction is maintained to make sure communities maintain the interest in the projects and advance trust with local stakeholders.
  3. Local partners and organizations are fundamental to maintain presence on the ground.
  4. Have emergent funds to support communities, strategic allies, and government agencies develop studies and monitoring systems based on the best science available.
  5. Constant brainstorming sessions with your organization/office and partners to develop ideas on how to support local conservation community enterprises.

Lucía Ruiz is Biodiversity and Finance Coordinator at WWF-Mexico

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