How do soap operas, puppet shows, nature tours, and other low-cost activities add up to measurable environmental protection? Well, that’s an interesting story.
In the Mexican state of Chiapas, elementary school children stare in wonder as a brilliantly colored bird standing six feet tall walks into their classroom. On the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, preparations for dinner are put on hold as thousands of women (and more than a few men) gather around their radios to follow the latest episode from one the nation’s most popular soap operas. In a Central American rainforest, a guide explains to a group of eco-tourists why the spirit who protects the birds of this forest placed a curse on the mockingbird. And as night falls in all of these places, the environment breathes a little easier.
In over a dozen ecologically-challenged regions around the world, a small environmental group called RARE Center for Tropical Conservation is fighting back with one of the most powerful tools available: storytelling. In the process, RARE is racking up quantifiable victories in preserving forests, protecting water quality, and removing species from local endangered lists. In the organization’s most recent annual report, RARE modestly asserts that it succeeds by enabling local peoples to benefit financially from environmental protection – and this pragmatic strategy is indeed critical to the group’s success – but it is unquestionably the power of story that energizes RARE’s work in each locale.
If Smokey Can Do It.
The gargantuan bird in the Chiapas classroom was actually a local conservationist dressed in the multicolored plumage of the resplendent quetzal, a popular species in this region. RARE trained the costumed performer to tell school children the story of the bird and the habitat it needs for survival. The strategy, explains RARE’s President & CEO Brett Jenks, is to personify the environment in a single creature (not unlike Smokey the Bear). Given a little personality and the right script, this lovable mascot can then lead the locals down the path of active environmentalism.
In Chiapas, “Arcoiris” (meaning rainbow) the quetzal has helped rally 50,000 locals to protect the state’s environmentally rich El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. In the Caribbean, the parrot “Jacquot” has dramatically increased the population of St. Lucian parrots and, in turn, protected acres of forests that provide habitat for the once endangered species. And at the Sierra de Manantlan Biosphere Reserve (also in Mexico), “La Coita,” the Mexican trogon, has inspired local farmers to change agricultural practices that cause forest fires. The resemblance to Smokey, it appears, is more than a passing one.
Pleasure, Pain, and Family Planning
Overpopulation exerts pressure on all aspects of the environment, a problem that is accentuated on island nations such as St. Lucia. To relieve these pressures, RARE knew it was essential to reach large groups of women, and to do that, RARE borrowed a page from those women-reaching masters at Procter & Gamble. In 1997, RARE launched “Apwe Plezi” (meaning “After the Pleasure,” from the Creole proverb, “After the pleasure comes the pain”) a radio soap opera that played out in melodramatic 15-minute episodes broadcast twice a week for three years.
“We don’t sell family planning in the show,” says Jenks, “but there are people in it who either wish they had visited a clinic or are moving through decisions where such a suggestion would help them out.” And there is no question that the listeners of Apwe Plezi are getting the message: the annual number of births on the island decreased 13% between 1997-99, and Planned Parenthood reported that the number of new family planning users had increased 32%.
I Know Why the Mockingbird Sings
If you look at how RARE helps local people set up ecotourism operations, it’s easy to view these programs exclusively through the lens of economics. RARE teaches English to native guides so they can speak the language of the most lucrative potential audience. RARE will also help them design nature trails that can become revenue-generators (for guided tours) while making minimal impacts on the visited ecosystem. But RARE goes a step farther by teaching the guides stories they can tell that help make the forest come alive for its visitors.
Matthew Humke, who runs RARE’s Nature Guide Training Program, shares one such story. “One day a mockingbird who was in charge of waking up the sun with his songs did not wake up on time. That was all he had to do, and it was the mockingbird’s fault that the sun did not rise and the animals of the forest overslept. The spirit that protects the birds got mad, and as punishment the mockingbird now has to sing for many hours, and that is why you can hear them singing in the forest at any time of the day.”
One year ago, the December issue of free-range thinking opened with this advice: “Even if you have reams of evidence on your side, remember: numbers numb, jargon jars, and nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart. If you want to connect with your audience, tell them a story.” Today, I submit the success stories of RARE Center as proof of this assertion. No matter where they live on this planet, human beings always have and always will crave stories. Before they can act, they have to listen, and if you want them to listen, tell them a story.
To learn more about RARE Center (launched in 1973 as The Rare Animal Relief Effort) visit them on the web at www.rarecenter.org.
United We Dine?
Since September 11th, the American punditocracy from left, right, and center has poured out millions of words in attempts to capture the zeitgeist of this extraordinary time. To my mind, no one has gotten closer than the Hilton Hotel in Reno, Nevada. While I was driving past this hotel on my way to a meeting in Lake Tahoe, I saw the following messages on their huge electronic billboard: “God Bless America” followed a heartbeat later by, “All You Can Eat.”
Further Reflections on Story
The more I read about how we acquire information and make sense of the world, the more I encounter insights such as these:
Much has been written about how the events of September 11th have unified us as a nation, but I don’t believe love of country or hatred of terrorists are enough to explain this phenomenon. The fact that we are all part of the same unfolding story, one that is shared across breakfast tables, in elevators, on checkout lines and in chat rooms, may be the single most unifying factor. Certainly, we are all asking the same questions: “What role do I play in this story?” “What will happen next.” And the question that drives all stories: “How will it end?”