As deep as the ocean: the interconnectedness of peace building and marine conservation. The perspective of a Peace Fellow during the times of COVID-19.
So, here I am again. It’s 2 pm in Dili, Timor-Leste. I just rushed back from a squeezed-in 20 min lunch break to sit for another awe-inspiring three hours glued to my computer screen. This is not how I imagined this experience to be, yet here I am. COVID-19 has turned my entire life upside down and the Rotary Peace Fellowship is no exception. What was supposed to take place in 2020 as a resident three-month intensive networking, leadership and professional development opportunity at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand is now taking place virtually in the familiarity of the Blue Ventures office in Díli.
I am the Country Manager of Blue Ventures in Timor-Leste. As the primary country representative, I provide vision, strategy and leadership for Blue Ventures’ growing marine conservation, fisheries management, alternative livelihood and ecotourism programmes in Timor-Leste. These initiatives aim to empower coastal communities to manage their marine ecosystem effectively, enriching local livelihoods and sustaining healthy marine environments for generations to come.
Leading the busy country team and organisation means that I usually don’t have many opportunities to stop and reflect. This fellowship is offering me this opportunity: the new delivery format is now stretched over a full year and for the first four months for three times a week, I close the door to my Timorese colleagues and invite global study pals into my office – virtually of course!
Thus far, I have been enjoying every minute, absorbing the new insights like a sponge. We are a very diverse cohort of 19 hand selected Peace Fellows from 16 countries and our lecturers call in from around the globe. Many of us, myself included, aren’t local to where we are now living and working, bringing in a myriad of perspectives. To accommodate the extreme time differences, our regular live classes are held in two separate groups. For most of us English is our second or third language so having video calls with poor internet connections has already been challenging, but against all the odds we are starting to form close bonds.
Juggling work, study and life to accommodate these additional 15 hours a week is difficult logistically, but the rewards are huge. One of the Thai programme organisers mentioned that previous fellows always gained weight in Thailand during the in-residence delivery of the programme because of all the delicious Thai food they ate. This year, although we haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Thai cuisine, we are gaining in other ways – it’s only week four and I already have the feeling that my brain has swelled and my head is heavier due to all this new knowledge.
We started with a bang, focusing on trauma and stress transformation. This gave me a completely different perspective of the events of the past year. Being based in Timor-Leste, I’m used to working in a post-conflict environment and monitoring the safety and security situation – any conflict has the potential to escalate rapidly. However, nothing prepared me for COVID-19 and the response we immediately had to develop.
Back in March 2020, I had 48 hours to close half of the country programme, hand over many of my in-country responsibilities to the most senior Timorese staff and get seven international volunteers and five international staff (including myself) out of the country before all the borders around us closed and commercial flights stopped – with one suitcase, leaving everything else behind without saying goodbye. The panic that was felt back then in my team and in the community, is difficult to describe today. Thankfully, nothing escalated to uproars and riots and in fact, the opposite happened. Due to the Government of Timor-Leste’s swift response, the country has protected itself from wide-spread community transmission and the threats to food security and livelihoods are being managed. Like the rest of the population, we grew closer as a team and adjusted to the ‘new normal’, proving to everyone that our geographically dispersed team (working across six different countries!) could still exceed in delivering our strategy, which was mostly due to the remarkable resilient leadership of my Timorese colleagues who remained in the country and led our COVID-19 response.
Reflecting on this almost a year later makes me realise that we cannot just steam ahead taking the new normality for granted – we must acknowledge that the world is in an acute crisis and this may cause significant trauma. In Timor-Leste where I have been living on and off since 2015, the crisis is mostly visible in the ocean; climate change, plastic pollution, dwindling fish populations, population growth, scarcity of livelihood opportunities, and loss of traditional practices. In a post-conflict country still recovering from years of colonialism, violent occupation and civil unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic is adding another level of threat and complexity to an already fragile society of thousands of small-scale fishers.
This week’s topic in the fellowship programme is ‘from theory to practice’ – it suddenly clicked why I made it through this highly competitive selection process and secured a spot in this prestigious programme. What I bring to the fellowship is my practical expertise. I have spent one and a half decades working in local and central government, INGOs and at the community level, often closely alongside the corporate sector. Blue Ventures, where I’m working currently, has a truly community-led approach and while my position of Country Manager doesn’t allow me to sit with the community members at the beach in the sand as often as I used to, I am designing programme activities that allow my team to do this. Just last weekend, I spent time with a local fishing family to test out their newly established homestay business, immersing myself in the daily realities of fishers when the sea is rough and food is scarce. I can offer plenty of practical implementation examples in my discussions with the other fellows.
For me this Peace Fellowship is more a leap ‘from practice to theory’. It’s offering me another set of different lenses so that I can see something that was always there but I never saw. We are reflecting on systems thinking, something I’m very familiar with already (just look at a marine ecosystem!) and are trying to identify the ‘critical yeast’ (not the critical mass) – the small group of active people who are catalysts for the wider change we want to see. I even learnt a very useful, new English word: ‘coddiwomple’, which means to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.
In parallel, I tried to work on my social change initiative (SCI) – a new component of the fellowship. I set myself the ambitious target to design and implement an initiative that combines my various interests and passions in one holistic way. I’m intrigued by the concept of ‘Blue Mind’ by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and his studies showing how being near, in, on, or underwater can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. Driven by Dr. Nichols’ studies, as well as the urgency of our climate crisis and the threat to coastal communities of internal climate-induced displacement and with it the loss of their indigenous practices and wisdom, I want to lead an initiative that will create empathy and inspire action. My goal is to connect and mobilise people through their shared affinity with the ocean and the effect it has on them through a platform for exchange and learning where indigenous coastal communities are the teachers.
By creating an emotional connection, I am hoping to inspire a lifestyle change, a values shift, and compassionate creativity with potential to create a movement that celebrates indigenous worldviews, challenges existing behaviour and thinking, and may contribute to changing climate change and ocean policies. That’s no small undertaking but with the support of my cohort and my newly extended network of social change makers I am confident that I am coddiwompling in the right direction.
My sincere gratitude to my sponsoring Rotary Club in Mangere, Auckland, New Zealand and my referees who supported and encouraged me over the past four years to apply for this fellowship. And a heartfelt thank you to the committed team of social change makers and ocean ambassadors at Blue Ventures for backing me while I slow down to speed up.
Birgit Hermann – Germany/ New Zealand/ Timor-Leste
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30