Edd Hind: Community Conservation on the Turks and Caicos

Edd Hind is a marine conservationist and social scientist based on the Turks and Caicos Islands. Here he’s trying to work out how a small island nation might meet the joint challenges of development, climate change, tourism and more, whilst preserving their unique environmental heritage.

Name: Edd Hind

Research: Marine conservation

Location: Turks and Caicos Islands

Twitter: @edd_hind

Bio: Edd is a marine scientist aiming to connect the biological world with social reality out in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

How did you come to work in the Turks and Caicos Islands?

Having greatly enjoyed working as a research diver in the Philippines in my late teens, I later found during my graduate and postgraduate studies that my true calling was researching the human communities that depend on the oceans for their livelihoods. For the last two years I have been Resident Lecturer in Marine Policy and Socioeconomic Values at the Center for Marine Resource Studies on South Caicos, one of about 40 islands in the archipelago nation of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI).

What does working at a remote field station involve, day-to-day?

I probably need to be more careful with what I post on Facebook, as my family and friends think I work in a tropical paradise, supping piña coladas and gazing out over turquoise vistas.

The day-to-day reality is very different. The Center for Marine Resource Studies is a field station of the School for Field Studies (SFS), a study abroad/Erasmus-style program where US undergraduate students gain academic credit that they can transfer to their home universities. I therefore spend about 80% of my time in my office devising and administrating the environmental policy course I teach. The other 20% of the time… my family and friends are right.

The fringing coral reefs, the vast salt ponds, the lush seagrass beds, and the dense mangroves are in my opinion the best outdoor office there is. I spend time in all these ecosystems conducting classes and fieldwork with the students I supervise. As the faculty member leading our social science research program, I’m also lucky enough to get to walk the historic streets of Cockburn Harbour (South Caicos’ only settlement) on a daily basis, conversing with its famously friendly island people.

ABOVE: Crystal clear waters surround the Turks and Caicos Islands. (photo: Edd Hind)
"Some of the research we have produced has led to the type of policy-change I dreamed of when I first decided to become a marine researcher."

What is your particular research area out in the Turks and Caicos?

As part of a small faculty you have to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master-of-many. I’ve been principal investigator on 11 research projects in just two years. But If I had to pick the one that I am most proud of, it is a long-term interview-based study looking at past, present, and future livelihoods on South Caicos. I do lead projects researching birds and seagrass, but people are the species that I study and they are harder to understand, less predictable, and more inspirational than any fish, mammal or insect.

Our small island is at a crossroads between a dwindling fishing industry and a stuttering tourist one, and resultantly local people are experiencing social, economic and cultural hardship. Reacting to this hardship, they have sometimes begun to engage in activities that are less environmentally sustainable, often because they see them as the only option. For example, a nascent ornamental shell industry is bringing in good money, but the shells it is targeting aren’t necessarily the kind that can be exploited for more than a couple of years before local extinction.

Fortunately, other islanders have great ideas such as fishers who want to start giving eco-tours of the wonderful marine ecosystems they know so well. We’re not trying to shape the islanders’ voices. We’re just writing down what they tell us so that policy-makers can understand and facilitate the mobilisation of valuable human capital.

It sounds like the islands are at a real turning point, where a few good decisions could help kick start a really promising future. Can you tell us more about the local people’s perspectives?

I’ve been running a two year study titled ‘Planning the Future’, which is aiming to document the career, social and cultural aspirations of the residents of South Caicos. Green development usually only occurs when local residents are content that their wants and needs are being met.

This might include them having access to the food their family needs or being able to enter the tourism career they dreamed of. By putting their aspirations on paper for the first time, we’re hopefully providing policy-makers with the blueprint they need to plan ecologically sound development that benefits the nation’s people. If people don’t buy in to the future planned for them by policy-makers, then they will make their own plans, which may be outside of the structures established to support sustainable growth.

So far, my students and I have interviewed islanders from all walks of life including youths, members of women’s groups, fishers, shopkeepers, developers and pastors. All have great ideas for the future of South Caicos and the Turks and Caicos government will need to listen to them if the island is to have a bright future. That’s why we will soon be presenting all of our research results to the government.

LEFT: Edd with a group out in the field. RIGHT: Edd with one of the mryiad of species in the waters surrounding the islands. (Photo: Jessica Ozan)
"Back up your data. Back it up again. And then again! Put it on a spare hard drive. Email it to yourself. Email it your mum."

So is eco-tourism starting to take off on the island?

Eco-tourism is a two stage process on South Caicos as currently there are no tourists, hence the stuttering start.

The first stage, currently underway, is the construction of clusters of villas by a US developer who fortunately has the people of South Caicos and the environment in mind. They employ local people and their finished buildings have low carbon needs and are sensitive to native plants and wildlife.

The second stage will be capitalizing on the presence of foreigners who purchase the villas. Their visiting their holiday homes will provide the alternative income stream that will support eco-tourism. Some fishers are planning to take the tourists out to free-dive for their own conch or lobster which the fisher will then cook up for them on the beach of an uninhabited cay. Others are planning to take the tourists on walking tours of the island’s historic town, also taking in the flamingo populations that live in the salt ponds left behind by one of the world’s most famous salt industries.

ABOVE: An incredible photo of a Spotted Eagle Ray. (Photo: Holden Harris)
"When life gets frustrating, walk 50 metres and look out to sea."

What are some of the highlights of your time working on South Caicos?

As a social scientist I shouldn’t say this, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say my favourite moments here have included being face-to-face on a recreational dive with a great hammerhead shark and making a sighting of the pretty rare migratory bird species, the red knot. It certainly beats transcribing three hour interviews!

I also adore being able to teach alongside my fieldwork. I’ve been privileged to work with some great students the last few years. Some of the research we have produced has led to the type of policy-change I dreamed of when I first decided to become a marine researcher.

Have you come across any challenges during your time working abroad?

The hardest thing for me from a work perspective is that my research subjects are also my neighbours. It’s very hard to remain objective as a social scientist when you know what sort of impacts your work may have on people you know well, especially when you suspect they might be negative ones. I try to overcome this by being very open with islanders about the potential outcomes of my research, but inevitably I occasionally get an earful from an angry fisher. However, I also get to see the positive impacts of my research first hand, and they are fortunately far more numerous.

From a personal point of view, the biggest challenge of working at a relatively remote field station is indeed the relative remoteness. I miss spending time with my family, my friends, and my cats!

ABOVE: Edd with a group from the School for Field Studies. (Photo: Amanda Greenstein)

And lastly, if you could share just a few pieces of advice with anyone interested in marine or community conservation in the Caribbean?

1) If you are a foreigner visiting a small island, don’t barge in with a research plan that is set in stone. Talk with local community leaders and interest groups and ask them if your plan is appropriate. I guarantee you’ll get more powerful final results.

2) Have one set of smart clothing for formal interviews and meetings, and only wear them when you need them. Salt, sand and sea ruin everything!

3) Back up your data. Back it up again. And then again! Put it on a spare hard drive. Email it to yourself. Email it your mum.

4) Make sure you are aware of policy governing research in your host nation. Many small island states charge for research permits and it is important you pay these fees to help support conservation in your host nation.

5) When life gets frustrating, walk 50 metres and look out to sea.

Thanks Edd!

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