CITIZEN SCIENCE

We believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to value and care for biodiversity. We have taken up this idea in our work with the private sector by developing and implementing an innovative approach to biodiversity monitoring and management. This approach is based on citizen science which involves non-specialists in the collection of scientific data.  There are growing numbers of examples from around the world where citizens are involved in projects which collect observations about biodiversity around them, thus making an important contribution to scientific knowledge of a particular species or area.

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 Conversations with women in a palm oil plantation about biodiversity

In production landscapes, such as palm oil concessions or mining concessions for example, biodiversity monitoring and management is almost exclusively confined to the specialists, usually outside consultants and scientists.  Whether this expertise comes from local universities, consultancy organizations, NGOs or international experts, they all have two things in common: 1) they are generally expensive; and 2) they conduct occasional surveys only and spend limited time in the field (a snapshot in time). Back in 2004, one of Borneo Futures founding members, Erik Meijaard, was working in collaboration with a timber concession in East Kalimantan as part of project improving sustainable forest management. During this process, however, Erik had one of those lightbulb moments where he realised that spotting wildlife was not limited to those who were actively searching for it. He decided to ask the truck drivers on the concession whether they ever came across wildlife during their shifts. Of course, as he had expected, they reported many opportunistic sightings. Upon this revelation, Erik attempted to implement a program in which workers in the concession reported all wildlife sightings they observed on their shifts. The program was successful for a period, but without Erik there to encourage the system, the incentive fell to the wayside.

 

Fast forward a few years to 2011, Rona Dennis, another key member of our team, took Erik’s idea to the next level and created the ‘Flora and Fauna Observation System’, which she designed and implemented in an international mining company on Borneo. The primary hurdle was of course convincing managers that the system was of value to the business, but also convincing workers that their observations were valuable and important to the company. Many workers believed that their limited knowledge of specific species deemed their sightings not worthy of reporting. In order to promote engagement, despite an individual’s perceived view that they were incapable of producing valuable reports, Rona created a simple data entry system whereby staff could upload species observations, photos of the sightings along with essential data such as time of sighting and GPS coordinates, which could later be analysed by more experienced members of the team. Rona and her team spent many hours on the ground raising awareness and understanding about the value of the system amongst managers, contractors and employees, which ultimately resulted in high uptake and enthusiasm for the system. Such up front awareness raising turned out to be a key aspect in the success of the system.

 

The program, called the Fauna and Flora Observation System started in this mining company in 2012 and still runs to this day, despite a change in ownership. The immediate benefit of the system was clear in the increased annual species records building on established species lists from biodiversity surveys by specialists.  Others benefits not apparent when Rona started the system was the increase in awareness at all levels in the company about biodiversity in the production landscape and the importance of conservation, with many employees remarking that they weren’t aware that they worked in such a rich, biodiverse landscape. This means of data collection was also seen to raise the profile of biodiversity management across the company. The task suddenly became everyone’s responsibility which both increased accountability and allowed companies to ensure that everyone understood measures, plans, and procedures regarding reducing detrimental biodiversity impacts.

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Example of the type of information available when worker observations are integrated into a GIS

Aside from increasing awareness about the importance of biodiversity, this program also gave the company enhanced insight into human-wildlife interactions.  From this method of data collection, teams were able to more accurately assess biodiversity-related risks, such as snake encounters. Using this example, the company were able to deal with such encounters much more proactively and efficiently, both by creating targeted, relevant procedures, and educating employees about snakes, including which species were venomous, how to act in a situation where a snake is present, and the correct protocol of dealing with snakes and snake bites.

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Snake awareness induction based on observations from workers

In 2019, keen to apply the system in other types of production landscapes, Borneo Futures implemented the “fauna and flora observation” system in a palm oil company in Indonesia. After a one-week hands on training course delivered by Borneo Futures, the system was well embedded in this palm oil company across the six geographically diverse estates that they manage across Indonesia. The benefits of this low-cost high impact system are already apparent to the company with high level support from the company including from the CEO and the Board of Commissioners.

 

We believe that incorporating citizen science techniques with established methods such as traditional surveys and camera trapping offers conservation managers greater insight and flexibility in understanding impacts and threats, particularly in production landscapes. This low cost, low tech method has generated high returns, and consequently, gained a lot of recognition in the companies we work with. We are continually looking for innovative ways to improve operationalization of the system. We aim to implement this method in as many of our projects as is feasible and urge other organizations to consider a similar approach.