Well Laid Plans

“You should take an adaptive planning approach, because nothing here goes quite according to plan.” With these auspicious—and likely understated—words, Jon Baines introduced me to a summer’s work with Marine Conservation Philippines in Zamboanguita, on the Filipino island of Negros. Jon is MCP’s Project Officer and, for the next three months, he’ll supervise my work as an intern and researcher on the organization’s community-based mangrove restoration project.

From June through August, I’ll take on a dual role with MCP. As an intern, I’ll assist with the project’s daily operations including mangrove planting and transplanting, community trainings, liaison with local officials, environmental monitoring, and all the administrative tasks I can handle. At the same time, I’ll be conducting social science research to better understand community perceptions of mangrove restoration and their own involvement in the project. These kinds of questions require ethnographic research methods, techniques designed to elicit local perspectives and identify social patterns. Combining an internship with ethnography will give me a fuller view of the project and ensure that my research is useful for MCP’s goals. It will also give me twice as many plans to make and, as Jon warned me, eventually to break.

So how do you make plans that can withstand the messiness of life in the field? One answer is context. The importance of local context is a tenet of community-based environmental management and a guiding principle for planning around the unpredictable. When social scientists talk about context, it’s a broad conversation encompassing a project’s cultural, economic, political and ecological circumstances. With so comprehensive a definition, understanding context and becoming a generalist in all things Negros has been my full-time job leading up to this summer’s work. So along with studying the structure of Negros’ mangrove forests, I’ve learned about local livelihoods, environmental law, the island’s history, Negrense cultural practices and the Cebuano language. My goal, of course, is to have enough knowledge to create a plan that makes sense for the local setting, but it’s also to build a strong enough knowledge base to recognize when those plans need adjustment—and, crucially, to have a good guess of what adjustments might work.

The Zamboanguita coast of southern Negros with Mount Talinis in the background, as seen from nearby Apo Island

For an example of how context can impact planning, consider the institutions that govern Filipino mangroves. While mangroves are managed by environmental officials, policies that govern mangrove exploitation fall under the Bureau of Fisheries and Agriculture rather than the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This means that mangrove decision-makers are mandated to work towards food security and agricultural production rather than ecosystem health—a fact that has major implications for the ways mangrove conservation can and can’t happen. Likewise, the long history of aquaculture and mangrove forest degradation in Negros has tipped me off to the local interests involved in mangrove protection and exploitation, the many forms of mangrove-based livelihood and the legal mechanisms that mangrove managers must navigate. Throughout the summer, I’ll elaborate these details and more on this blog, using posts to reflect on unexpected outcomes and unforeseen barriers, think through my next steps, and communicate the lessons I’ve learned.


That, at least, is the plan.