In Langscape Magazine Articles

A New Approach to Bilingual Marine Conservation Science Education | The Collaborative work of Caribbean Communities and Marine Conservation without Borders

by Thomas Dean King

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The Garifuna community is the only one allowed to fish in Cayos Cochinos, Honduras. Mario Flores Aranda is promoting sustainable fishing, using a line loop for live capture so that undersize lobsters may be released unharmed. Photo: Antonio Busiello, 2015

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Marine Conservation without Borders (MCwB) is a nongovernmental organization that translates scientific ideas into oral languages that currently lack words to express such concepts. MCwB’s Executive Director, Robert C. “Robby” Thigpen, has built a network of collaborators among a diversity of linguistic communities and conservation advocates throughout the Caribbean. MCwB draws on this network in its journey to develop a more authentic, relevant, and effective marine conservation education curriculum. This story will focus on how Robby came to recognize an issue with how conservation science education is approached in the Caribbean and what MCwB is doing to address this need.

The story begins in Belize. Robby first visited in 2004, interning with the Northern Fishermen’s Cooperative Society. He brought a blend of marine biology and cultural anthropology, integrating knowledge and methods from each discipline to learn about and from the fishers and the ecosystems from which they draw their livelihoods. “Carrying out my investigation in this manner allowed me to learn from the traditional ecological knowledge of these fishers,” Robby says. “These shared learning experiences gave me insight into things about their families, local fishing mechanisms, and the education system that I could not have otherwise learned.”

Returning to Belize frequently to visit the fishing families he lived with and worked among, Robby has watched the children in these families grow up; the school-aged children he knew are now having their own families, and those who were infants are now in school. One of his favorite ways to pass the evenings was helping his host families’ children with homework. It was from this vantage point that he learned about the education system. Robby began picking up on difficulties they had with some assignments. The challenges were not the difficulty of the subject matter, but instead related to language differences between home and school, between the language people use to talk and that used in textbooks.

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Zaida Majil and Robby Thigpen study an early draft of the Treasures collection in Kriol. Zaida, now in her 20s with her own children, helps MCwB with ethno-translating of Kriol. Photo: Robby Thigpen, 2009

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During this time, he also noticed that there was little conservation science in the schools’ curriculum, and marine conservation science was nearly absent. For a region that is defined by its proximity to and dependence on the Caribbean Sea, it was clear this was a need to be addressed. Robby became singularly focused on bringing the language of science and concepts of conservation to the languages of Belizeans’ homes. He found that other people agreed with his observations. This was the start of the expansive network he has built, and through it, he has confirmed his concerns with people in communities from Mexico’s Yucatán to Honduras to Colombia. He also found that academic research on the issue supported what he was hearing from MCwB project collaborators.

One thread in this research suggests that people tend to reject new information when it is presented in a secondary language, especially when they perceive a negative bias and when that bias reflects poorly on their language or culture. Simply put, people tend to reject what they don’t understand, especially when they see themselves poorly represented. Students who are more comfortable in their mother tongue may be perceiving language exclusion from a monolinguistic curriculum as a negative bias, thereby not engaging with subjects in the classroom or even rejecting the content outright.

“Garifuna people communicate better and more accurately and effectively in their own language; therefore, [not having materials in Garifuna leads] to confusion and misunderstanding of the message about solutions to these natural resources and environmental issues.”

— Rony Figueroa, Garifuna American Heritage Foundation United; MCwB Editor

Moreover, students are very unlikely to take these “foreign” concepts home to their parents or siblings. As a result, students (and parents) may develop a resistance to the lessons being taught. The result is low engagement and lack of ownership or connection with fundamental concepts supporting biocultural diversity conservation goals. Parents and adults working as fishers may share a tendency to reject new fishery or environmental regulations — not because they disagree with the goals or rules themselves, but because they do not understand them when not presented in their home language. Without understanding and engaging in the issues threatening biocultural diversity in their communities, opportunities to identify locally appropriate solutions may be lost. This is worrisome because food security and livelihoods depend upon healthy marine ecosystems, the basis for sustainable fishing and tourism.

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Garifuna children swimming at Cayo Cochinos, Honduras. Photo: Antonio Busiello, 2015

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So, what is to be done? At MCwB, we think there is a better way to develop curricula for linguistically diverse classrooms to make learning more accessible and, in the process, promote greater engagement and understanding among students and communities. First, MCwB aims to make marine conservation science concepts accessible by developing books in local languages with relevant examples highlighting livelihoods and ecosystems with which students are familiar (landscapes, animals, fish, and plants). This approach provides a secondary benefit of promoting the goals of biocultural diversity. Putting local languages in school curricula contributes to language and cultural preservation and engages students by elevating their languages and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to an equal place with national languages of instruction (LOI) and associated knowledge of conservation science.

“Western science concepts can be difficult to understand. [What MCwB is doing] is a better way; it takes our local knowledge and treats it like it is important.”
— Hilario Poot Cahun, Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo; MCwB ethno-translator

MCwB’s mission is to bring conservation science to people in and on their own terms so they may more easily understand it and use it in their lives. This approach provides Indigenous and historically marginalized language groups new tools to foster civic engagement in conservation issues. MCwB’s initial program, Treasures of the Caribbean, is a series of lessons designed to teach conservation science concepts in a bilingual format tailored to communities with Indigenous, Creole, and Afro-Caribbean languages.

Treasures of the Caribbean book cover in Kriol for Belize showing fishing boats mooring in Belize River near the Swing Bridge, Belize City. Photo: Robby Thigpen, 2012

To develop these books, we rely on two types of contributors: ethno-translators and TEK experts. Using local specialized skills and knowledge helps ensure the final products are derived from the communities who will use them. The bilingual format presents one home language paired with a national LOI. Getting the translations right is the most difficult part and relies on a process to create neologisms (new words) for conservation science concepts in the home languages. Drawing on Robby’s network, we build collaborative working groups for each book. We look for people from each geo-linguistic area to participate as ethno-translators and TEK experts.

Creating authentic and relevant neologisms is important because they are what bring together TEK with scientific concepts in the home language. Robby explains that “these fishers know these systems intimately,” but “their traditional ecological knowledge does not always fully account for new and persistent negative external pressures.” TEK and scientific knowledge are more powerful together. By bringing them together, people can begin seeing them as equally important perspectives in understanding locally defined issues and problems. In this way, our work functions as a leveling mechanism, flattening historically unequal relationships by explicitly placing communities’ TEK and home languages on an even footing with national languages and institutions.

The Treasures project is providing a way to blend local TEK with scientific knowledge through well-designed and authentic bilingual curricula so that students can discuss conservation in their home language. The process produces a culturally relevant and more accessible translation. When learning is relevant and accessible to students, they are better engaged to understand the concepts and interact with the subject matter.

“It allows us to embrace our language and understand and comprehend these concepts as if they were our own. Learning from a book made for a Kriol audience will be great. There won’t be any barriers for not understanding.”

— Celeste Castillo, Student, University of Belize, Belize City; MCwB Ethno-translator

Mangrove Ecosystems book cover in Wayuunaiki for Colombia; Aminta Paláez Guariyu and Alvaro Andrés Moreno Munar, ethno-translators. Photo: Madison Heltzel, 2018

When people see and experience their home language presented on an equal footing with the dominant LOIs, it establishes a relationship and sense of ownership to the concepts. Our project collaborators emphasize ownership and how they are empowered when they see their mother tongues represented alongside “official” languages.

Rony Figueroa of the Garifuna American Heritage Foundation United expressed these values while editing the Mangrove Ecosystems book in Garifuna: “I feel positive, empowered, and proud . . . It’s inclusive,” adding, “It will help [us] take ownership [of these concepts] in the effort of conservation, and it will entice more Garinagu to get involved . . . It will give the Garifuna people a sense of ownership.”

“I self-identify with the project because the project takes into account the culture and language of the Garinagu and our knowledge of the sea.”
— Elmer Mauricio Enríquez, Úara Garifuna; MCwB Ethno-translator

By representing home languages in school, people feel as if they are being invited to participate. They may be more open to engage in discussion because they see how it can be done in their home language, in many cases for the first time.

UNESCO’s policy paper If You Don’t Understand, How Can You Learn? summarizes research on learning gaps for students in multicultural communities where many children speak a mother tongue that is not the dominant LOI in classrooms. The paper emphasizes the importance of developing “linguistic diversity within educational systems” and documents three challenges in this endeavor to improve learning outcomes. MCwB’s approach meets two of these challenges — curriculum development and the provisioning of teaching — head on and, at the same time, mitigates the problem of teacher recruitment.

Maya/Spanish dictionary of terms, flora, and fauna; Hilario Poot Cahun and Felicita Cantun, ethno-translators. Maya Fishermen from Sarteneja, Belize at Northern Fishermen’s Cooperative, Caye Caulker. Photo: Robby Thigpen, 2005

Curricula development is the primary focus of the Treasures collection. We plan to facilitate distribution through our website and in targeted outreach to communities. Teacher recruitment is a need because it is difficult to find qualified teachers proficient in Indigenous language materials. While MCwB is not equipped to place teachers across the Caribbean, our bilingual materials mitigate the need by making books that use multiple languages accessible.

Consider Livingston, Guatemala, where the LOI is Spanish. Livingston is home to Maya and Garinagu people, whose home languages are Q’eqchi’ and Garifuna. Imagine the difficulty of finding teachers proficient in two of these three languages, much less in all three and with subject matter experience in biology, ecology, or another subject. Now imagine the students and teachers having conservation science curriculum in bilingual combinations of Garifuna/Spanish and Q’eqchi’/Spanish. A local teacher proficient in one language with basic experience in one or more of the others may lead a class in their own primary language while the students follow in the language with which they are most comfortable.

“I think it helps because people feel you really are talking to them . . . to their hearts not just their minds; also it facilitates understanding even more. . . . It is another tool to reach out to people in a way that respects their home language and makes them more ready to internalize the information.”
— Silvaana Udz, The National Kriol Council of Belize & Ming Chuan University, Taiwan; MCwB Ethno-translator

The challenges our project contributors shared about biocultural diversity conservation issues facing their communities centered around two main themes: moving from awareness to action and negotiating difficult choices between traditional and commercial livelihoods. Although people have awareness of conservation issues, they do not take consistent action to eliminate or mitigate the risks and threats to biocultural diversity in their communities.

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Commercialization of traditional livelihoods and development of new livelihood options make for difficult choices for people looking to earn a wage and put food on the table, to say nothing of seemingly mundane things like how to dispose of their trash. The challenges also cut deeper, as these issues emerge at the intersection of cultural traditions and economic opportunity, where people experience conflict within themselves and with one another when making livelihood and conservation decisions.

Rony Figueroa explained that people are aware of the need to protect the environment, but they feel constrained by tough choices. This is especially acute for the smaller fishers and their traditional livelihoods, who must deal with resource scarcity in the face of industrial commercial competition: “There is no information in Garifuna language on how to protect and nurture fish and fishing. [There is a gap in] knowledge on how to protect and harvest conch, lobster, etc.”

While the books comprising the Treasures collection are a promising contribution to biocultural diversity conservation, they are not a solution in themselves. The books in our Treasures curriculum are tools to help communities help themselves. They are a foundation to make information and learning more accessible so that people are better equipped to engage within and across community and language boundaries to work together in finding and negotiating solutions. With new tools in their language, people might be equipped to move from awareness to action and feel they can be part of the solutions rather than feeling stuck in the daily struggles of living with the consequences of others’ solutions for them. Our hope is that our efforts will germinate more robust and vibrant community action, whereby people may be more empowered to engage in issues of biocultural diversity to find solutions on their terms — solutions of, for, and by the people who need them most.

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Trash disposal is a big problem throughout the Caribbean. Crocodiles, seen here feeding on trash left behind Ambergris Caye, Belize, have become dependent on human refuse. Photo: Miriam Boucher, 2015


Thomas Dean King serves on the board of directors of Marine Conservation without Borders. He has worked in the Northern Lagoon of Belize with the fishermen of Caye Caulker, where he explored the interdependency between the management of two common pool resources vital to the community’s resilience: the lobster fishery and the provisioning of credit to members of the fishing cooperative.

To learn more about and support Marine Conservation with Borders and the Treasures of the Caribbean projects, visit https://marinefrontiers.org/ where you can meet our international team of collaborators, read about the projects, and explore ways to get involved.


Further Reading

Ellis, C., Thierry, G., Vaughan-Evans, A., & Jones, M. (2017). Languages flex cultural thinking: Cultural perception in bilinguals. Bilingualism, 21(2), 219–227.

Nair, S. K. (2015). Mother tongue in the discourse of primary education: A cognitive approach. International Journal of Mind, Brain & Cognition, 6(1–2).

UNESCO. (2003). Education in a multilingual world (UNESCO Education Position Paper). Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001297/129728e.pdf

UNESCO. (2016). If you don’t understand, how can you learn? (Policy Paper #24, Global Education Ministering Report). Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002437/243713e.pdf

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