I was very happy to have a long talk last week with Pablo “Jong” Rojas.  Jong is responsible for the monitoring and evaluation at all the community MPA sites in the FishForever Philippines program.  He is responsible for providing local communities with tools and training so that they can monitor their own MPAs. Jong also has a deep knowledge about how to work effectively in local communities. I am sure that this is the key to his successful community-based programs today.  He also is amazingly positive.  Here is what we talked about:

Why do you do what you do?

Personal purpose. My father is a fisherman. As I was growing up, I remember how he would tell me about the abundance of the fish, how easy it was to catch fish, and how little time it took to catch them. Later, he told me how that had changed.

I decided that I want to help preserve the culture of fishing and fishing communities. I want to help change their lives in positive ways so they can prosper.

How did you get started in conservation? 

An example of the fishing culture are specific words like “hayuma” which means “mending nets.” It was also the name of the first organization I worked for as a community organizer. I spent time in the community to understand the human dynamics.

There is always resistance to change.  How do you get people to cooperate?

There is always one person who is an influencer in the community. That person can be an advocate for change. It is important to understand how that person works with others within the community.

It takes time to watch what is working and what still needs to be done. By putting people together in the room, we can find a synergistic way to work. One has to help them put aside other issues. When they cooperate to achieve a higher objective, everyone gets to eat fish.

Did you ever have a really difficult case?

Sometimes the barangay captains (local elected officials) are not supportive at the beginning because they come from a different political color. After talking with them, they usually understand it is not about political party. It is about doing the right thing for their community according to the legislative, executive, and judiciary powers they have. The last resort is to quote the national law, and then say, “Here is what we can do to help you satisfy this part of your mission.”

But one time early in my career, there was a mayor who was not supportive at all. He was very reactive and not proactive. So I worked with the person in charge of the resource management and finances to make sure that there was money in the budget. Then I worked with the secretary of the Sangguniang Bayan (municipal / regional council) who was a strong advocate.

We bombarded the mayor with strategies. We explained what would be the benefits for him. I learned to talk about the business side – if you spend this much, then you can showcase the municipality for tourism, investment, etc. In the end, he accepted our proposals. It was a success. He was very happy when he could show other mayors in the region what he had achieved in his community.

I also read books to help create ways to get to a win-win solution, and not to be afraid or be discouraged if my proposal is turned down.

Now you are focused on collecting and analysing MPA monitoring data from all of the communities in the FishForever Philippines program.  At the start of a new project, you often have to show people data that is bad news.  How do you manage this?

It is true that no one wants to hear bad news. They do not want to see data that shows a decline. First, we hold a community workshop, and I show them the data. Then I explain that it is only a picture at one point in time. It can get worse, or people can engage to stabilize or improve the situation.

We can show them what other communities have achieved so that they see the possibilities. However, we have to get them to the point that they agree to work together in their own community. They need to go from understanding the situation to an action plan.  And finally, they need to take ownership of the process and the results of those actions.

How else do you use the data?

Large sets of data can be very powerful.  We can use the data to communicate what we need and what our local communities need to our sponsors and to policy makers. I help get the right information to the right people at the right time.

Now you work a step away from the community.  How do you put in place a good monitoring program and do the quality management?

One part of the solution is to have internal preparation workshop and pre-training so that we can tailor everything for the community. For this, I have to rely on my colleagues who have more access to the community.

But the biggest part of the solution is “simplify, simply simplify.” I have developed two basic files.

One file is a logbook for the guards protecting the MPA. Many funding agencies and government units want to see the number of hours the MPA was guarded, the number of individuals involved in guarding, the number of violations, and so on. This logbook is kept and maintained by the local guards in their respective MPA guardhouses.

But if data is missing, how can I know that they understood the form or if they are collecting data? This is why I added a comment box so that people could explain the situation if they did not have any data to add to the form. Then I can understand the context.

We also train them how to summarize the logbook and include information that make it more useful. We tell them they need to explain how much time was spent doing other tasks that are part of taking care of the MPA. They note how much time they spent cleaning barnacles and other growth off of the buoys so they do not sink, replacing worn ropes, and removing things like ghost nets.

When they explain their activities at local or Sangguniang Bayan meetings, people see the value. All of the sudden everyone agrees that this activity needs to be funded. And the guards get recognition for their contribution to the community.

The other file is for the monitoring data. I call this the Data Management Tool. A simple spreadsheet that captures key performance indicators throughout the project. It is always tempting to collect as much information as possible, but that would be counterproductive due to resource constraints. What is important is to collect data that are indicators of the actions of the people in the community. If people are considered to be the problem, they are also the source of solutions.

Monitoring transects is a more complicated subject.  How do you simplify it?

I organized everything into training modules. I put it into language that fisherman can understand and relate to. And I also translate it into the local language depending on the community. Sometimes I use graphics for the underwater identification slates because not everyone knows the names or can read.

It is important that the people in the community own the process. The monitoring has to be introduced to the community at the right time with the right mix of people. The volunteers in the community need to be comfortable in the water, and they need to be keen to learn about fish and corals.

In the local training, I explain the entire process – how we gather the data, how we treat the data, and most important, how they can explain the data to other people.

There are certain “non-negotiables” in the methodology.  But we do a reality check at each community site and make adjustments if necessary.

The most important thing is to be sure that the monitoring can be replicated so that we have comparable results year-on-year.

For the “how to“ part of the monitoring training, we simulate all of the steps first on the ground, and then we simulate them in the water.  The initial training takes longer, but the quality of the results are much better.  Since there is no monitoring expert in the community, this style of training makes them autonomous.

Are you satisfied with the results?

Yes. I am now doing quarterly meetings with the sites – either remote via Skype or going to the sites physically. There is a time delay, but it is important that the local monitors can ask questions. I can ask them questions to validate the numbers.

Good results are not the end of the story.  Most important is that they have a personal appreciation of their reef. That means that their interest will be maintained in the long term, and that the management of the MPA will be on-going.

What is next for you?

I am working on a fish catch monitoring tool now to support the transect monitoring data. The template is very simple, and localized, so that individual fishermen can report their catch.

Like all new data collection systems, there has been a lot of variability in the data in the first testing phase. But we are making good progress so I am optimistic we will reach the right solution.

I am also looking at the possibility to offer dive certifications to long-time monitoring members as an incentive. They could then do the transect sections currently being monitored by our partner scientific institutions. This, combined with a simplified scientific method, would be perfect for data comparability objectives. I am still looking for funding support for my Divemaster and IDC.

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