Martin is a visionary conservationist, with a unique view on how the world works, and how to make things happen. Having led a number of hugely successful expeditions to the very heart of Borneo, here he shares his advice for all aspiring conservationists.
Name: Martin Holland
Location: Central Kalimantan, Borneo
What gave you the idea and skills for your first expedition?
Good question! I was at university as a mature student.. my pre-university days were spent doing a lot of travelling and volunteering around the world, exploring my own interests and finding out what I wanted to do. I worked as a street fundraiser for a year and I loved it. All over the UK, speaking to people everyday about the environment and human rights, this taught me how to communicate and successfully fundraise – I helped raise over half a million pounds in that one year – and this job led to the management of various street fundraising projects.
I felt that I needed a degree to help me achieve my goals, so I started studying International Politics, but after a year gave that up and enrolled on a distance learning degree in Environmental Studies with the University of Exeter, alongside a full time degree in Marine and Natural History Photography at Falmouth University. Studying both degrees side by side, drew together my two main passions; the environment and science communication.
The seed for the first expedition really came, while I was at university. I came to my first Explore Weekend at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I knew I loved travel and I knew that I wanted a career in something that I found interesting and allowed me to travel and make a difference; to do work that matters. Explore, really fired my enthusiasm and helped me make contacts. Through this I was invited on a couple of projects where I worked on conservation media and film projects.
I ended up talking to the director of GVI to ask for advice, and he said the best thing he did at university was to run his own expedition. This idea sort of went to bed in my head for a while, and popped up six months later – why don’t I run my own expedition?! After a lot of hard work, I pulled together a team of fellow students, in 2009 we brought the team to Explore, and in 2010 we set off!
Well, actually, I was asking people to volunteer and make a significant financial contribution towards the costs!
I put up posters around the campus. They were the worst posters, in terms of design! What is said was basically ‘Do you want to come on an expedition? I’m looking for a team, we’re going to go somewhere, explore, do science, do media stuff ‘ and so on… From that poster I got 400 emails, which was 10% of the student body on campus!
I did a massive presentation, and tried to whittle that large group of people down. I made the expedition sound really shit, I said ‘we’re going to make you work really hard for the next 12 months, the expedition is going to be really really tough and probably not much fun‘ – to see who was still interested. After that, for those people still interested I organised group interviews, and from these interviews, took 20 people out to Dartmoor for the weekend, to see who could cut it. That was our original team.
The expedition was designed as a platform for professional development. We would all benefit from learning how to design an expedition; learning how to budget, fundraise, write grants, design research and market ourselves. We would all share that learning together, and we offered the expedition as a platform for other people to use us for creative projects. We had illustrators and film makers and they used that work on the expedition for their own projects too.
Originally we planned for 12 months, but it ended up taking 18 months to put it all together, so we had to delay the expedition for 6 months.
I think a lot of people would say fundraising is the hardest part. For that expedition we raised over £70,000. It was quite a big and expensive expedition, nothing needs to be that big or expensive to be useful. I wouldn’t say it was easy [the fundraising], but it certainly wasn’t the hardest thing – we just managed to get it right on the pitch.
Our aim was to take a multidisciplinary team to a very understudied area of threatened rainforest in Central Kalamantan, in the middle of Borneo, to do a biodiversity study, and the first inventory of that area. This included interactive media and satellite communications. We used a combination of science and innovative technology.
It was the combination of science, technology and interactive media that I think really excited people. The kicker, that attracted people, was the interactive media side of things. A company called Livewire Digital sponsored much of the technology that we used. We edited videos and images every day and uploaded them from the rainforest, we did live video links for the rainforest! At the time, that was almost unheard of. There were a couple of really big expeditions that were doing that at the Poles, but it was really new and for a bunch of young guys to be doing that from the rainforest, so it was a big deal.
We built the hype up really well before we went. We had already formed an audience ready to receive our updates once we were in the field. I think we worked really hard in the lead up and it paid off.
There is a growing awareness of the idea of conservation and the need to protect the environment. I think it’s really really exciting, that it’s starting to bubble up. It tends to be amongst the youth though.
Generally, however, there’s a lack of knowledge about the types of environment that Indonesia does harbour. I think people just aren’t aware, in Indonesia, that they have one of the largest and most important rainforests on the planet. Those that are aware, often view the forest as a resource to be exploited for profit and development, or as overgrowth, that just needs to be cleared to make the land profitable and productive.
One of the most important challenges will be developing a wider sense of national pride of these wilderness areas within Indonesia. In the same way that, in the UK, we have immense pride in our National Parks, any attempt to develop inside these would get shot down, they just wouldn’t get away with it. We need the same thing in Indonesia, for these fantastic places. That’s the next step.
Without sounding pompous or pretentious, I’m a leader, that’s my role. As the head of a small charity my role is to lead that charity towards a vision, and to get up every day and have that vision in my mind, and to make sure we’re working towards it. Leadership, as far as I’m concerned is effective communication of a vision.
If we look at the last twelve months, maybe a quarter of that is in the field, the rest is a combination of traveling, going to meetings, managing teams, designing projects and yes, working behind a laptop – the same stuff that lots of people with proper jobs do, answering emails!
Yeah, the only difference is sometimes when I’m in the field. On an expedition, I probably have the worst job.
It can be incredibly stressful, because ultimately I’m responsible for the running of day-to-day activities, making sure everyone is fed and healthy, ensuring the kit is all-together and that the scientists have everything they need. And yes, if something goes wrong, if someone gets hurt, it’s down to me.
It is incredibly exciting, interesting and challenging and you grow a lot as an individual, but it is very stressful. The first expedition I led, it probably took me a year to get over the emotional stress.
It’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I don’t know who said that, but they’re right. It’s just hard work and grit. Whatever field you’re in, athletes, business people, successful artists – there’s the odd few that get lucky, but for everyone else it’s just the ones that have stuck at it and kept going.
Since that first expedition, we’ve been running around cool parts of Kalimantan and building relationships with villages and NGO’s. What we’ve been doing is almost research, I want to keep researching the topic as we still don’t have the answers – after decades of failed conservation, how do we do something that works? How do we protect Indonesia’s rainforests?
What started as Heart of Borneo Project will become a part of a new charity called Beyond Conservation. The reason we chose that name is because it defines our 50 year vision of a world where humanity has evolved, culturally, beyond the need for conservation as we know it today. A world where we’re putting the long term health of our shared ecosystems above short term profits, because we know we’re dependent on them and that it’s in our best interests. A world where we’re reforesting, re-wilding, re-introducing, and have become net contributors to the health of our planet instead of the force of devastation that we’ve become recently.
There’s no way that things are going to get better in the next 5 years, but things are changing, and if we don’t change soon, the impacts of climate change will start to force our hand.
I believe that the tide will turn within the next 20 years, so we need to protect as much and learn as much as we can in the mean time, while also starting to lay the cultural foundations for the moral, social, and even spiritual arguments for sustainability to really take root. A 50 year vision of that world, a world beyond conservation, is inspiring not just because it sounds nice, but because it’s achievable.”
The next expedition is currently called the Sanduki Pinnacle expedition. We’ll be aiming for an amazing geological formation in a really remote part of Central Kalimantan. It’s a rock pinnacle, it looks like limestone, but we haven’t been up to it yet to touch it.
We’ll have a team of scientists, in research base camps around the pinnacle for three months, collecting biodiversity data on mammals, birds, invertebrates and more. Towards the end of the expedition, we’re going to bring two world class rock climbers in, one Indonesian, one international. They’ll make the first ascent.
We’ll film all of it and make it into a documentary. The science is important, but we can use the expedition and the rock climb as a way of engaging people. Especially in Indonesia , where we want to create that sense of pride, value and ownership over this rainforest.
The Borneo Hub is an idea for which now is the perfect time. Whenever I mention it to people, they say why hasn’t someone done that already?! That’s why I know it’s going to work.
One of the big challenges that the environmental movement faces, is collaboration. There’s a few reasons for that. A lot of NGO’s are reluctant to share their information and knowledge, and that’s a real shame. But also from a capacity point of view, it’s difficult to collaborate, it takes a lot of effort.
The Borneo Hub is going to be an online database of mapped information – structured in layers and referencing each other.
What does that mean in practice? It means you’ll be able to go online, with all information completely open access. For example, you could bring up the distribution of the clouded leopard, you could overlay national park boundaries and then palm oil concessions. It will be able to give you a great overview of the situation in Borneo.
It’s about becoming greater than the sum of our individual parts.
What we’re looking for at the moment is volunteer researchers. We have dozen already, split into teams, researching different topics around the major threats to forests in Borneo. In six months time we hope to be ready to demonstrate a proof of concept, and launch a Kickstarter campaign.
Firstly, go to the next Explore Weekend. Network, network, network like mad. If you’ve got 30 seconds of someones time, make it count; have something to say.
My second piece of advice, would be to play the long game. Commit to it if it’s something you want to do. If it doesn’t work out immediately, it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It isn’t easy, some people get lucky straight away, most of us don’t, so stick it out and keep persevering.