Did you know that every second breath you take is filled with oxygen from the ocean? More than 70 percent of the planet’s surface is covered with water and every living being is relying on it. But when it comes to the marine environment, a lot of species are in danger.
With humans continuously releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean is becoming more acidic and poisonous for marine life. Animals eat plastic and still die from hunger or because their organs get pierced. Climate change and pollution are just two of many reasons, why marine conservation programs are essential.
We sat down with Ian Mills, Founder of French NGO People and the Sea, to talk about his personal journey into marine conservation.
What inspired you to found “People and the Sea”?
Looking back now, I don’t think there was anyone particular moment when the decision came about… it was more of a process, or evolution, that led to the creation of People and the Sea (PepSea as we now affectionately call it!)
If I had to pick out particular influences or inspirations there would be a few I would mention.
The first would have to be the role that diving plays in my life. I have been diving for almost 25 years, and a large part of my professional life had been within the diving industry. This was driven by a love of being underwater, and a passion for all the experiences it offered. There was no end to the amazement that the underwater world could show you – there are always new places and new things to see and encounter. And that drive has not faded one bit to this day.
However, with this, I came to understand that marine habitats all over the world are stressed and under increasing pressure. This should not be news to any of us, but it wasn’t just from reading it in the news – I could see it with my own eyes on some of my favorite dive sites – more waste in the water, degraded reefs, bleaching events, unmanaged tourism, and reduction in the abundance and diversity of life I expected to find.
These two factors were an inspiration for the creation of People and the Sea. It seemed almost natural to continue my work within the diving industry but to apply it in a new way that sought to protect and conserve the marine environment.
Another key moment that I think determined the choice of location was our experience with Super-Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. At that time I and my partner Axelle (also the co-founder of People and the Sea) were on the island of Malapascua when the typhoon hit. The experience left a mark on both of us and we decided to leave the island as we were with our 10-month old daughter. But the devastation that we witnessed, on a place that we had come to know by that time, had a lasting impact on us. While I don’t think either of us acknowledged it at the time, to me it is now clear that being there at that time was what made the future choice for the location of PepSea.
What are the main goals that your organization aims to achieve?
It’s difficult to keep that answer brief! In short, we want to support the coastal communities of Daanbantayan (the Municipality in which we work) in achieving collaborative and sustainable management of their marine environment. I think the keyword to point out there is ‘support’. This is critical for us – our job is not to decide what should (or shouldn’t) happen. The Filipino people are quite capable of doing this, and indeed it is their right to make these choices. However, all too often, there can be a lack of knowledge, linkages, resources, and collaboration to make things happen. And it is these gaps that we aim to fill.
While we understand that this is a long road, we are committed to seeing it through. It is also for this reason that we have worked so hard to establish strong links within the local community, the local government, and all the other concerned stakeholders. We have always felt that in to have the impact that we hope for, there must be a relationship based on trust. From there, we can approach the development of programs and initiatives that work to promote the ‘ownership’ of marine resource issues by the people who rely on them most.
How can volunteers help to support your team?
That’s an easy one! It’s all about attitude.
We take the time to have a heartfelt conversation with all people that apply to volunteer with us. We are convinced that this is an essential step, as it allows us to learn more about each other. This ensures that we are a good match for each other and that expectations (on both sides) are set out. Some of the most frequent questions I get asked are ‘what experience do I need?’ or ‘how will I be able to help?’. The answer is simple – you do not need any previous experience. If you come to join us with a positive, ‘can-do’ attitude – you will provide real value to the project. It’s all about your energy and enthusiasm!
We have a whole host of projects running at all times – both on land and in the water. Where necessary and required (and this is, of course, the case when diving), we will provide the training that volunteers need. But we never assume a prior level of knowledge – it is our job, and our commitment to the volunteers to give them the tools they need to be able to make a meaningful contribution. Again, all they need is a keen attitude, and a willingness to apply themselves.
How would you describe the social impact of the volunteering experience?
Significant! We would consider that we are failing as an organization if that wasn’t the case. I feel this question has a strong relation to the one that follows. We have always been dedicated to making the impact within and for the community to be the measure of our success. This is equally the case for the volunteers. An expedition should not be about coming to the Philippines, to find yourself surrounded by western staff, and other volunteers from your home country! It should be a cultural exchange and an opportunity to immerse yourself in a new place, a new culture – to make friends that you will not find elsewhere! And most of all, to work alongside members of that community to support them in making a change for the better.
One of the first things that a volunteer will do upon arrival with us, is to be taken to their homestay – the local family who will host them for the duration of their stay. Time and time again, our feedback from volunteers tells us that among their warmest and most lasting memories of their expedition is the time they shared with these families, and the way they became more than just a visitor for that time, but a part of the family! Of course, there is more to the Homestay Association that we established than this. It provides a significant additional income for the families and has proven to be a powerful conduit for engaging members of the community to address local environmental issues.
The Philippines are a famous destination for volunteering abroad. Why should volunteers choose your program over others?
That’s quite a hard question to answer because there are other projects very similar to ours, and I know very well that they are all doing great work. So I guess the question here is what do we think are some of the strengths of our project.
One of the first things I would mention is our link to the local community. From the beginning, we have made it our mission to work alongside the people of the island. Even the location of our office (in the heart of the main village – away from the main tourist resorts and dive centers) was a conscious decision to reflect that desire. And we have stayed true to that ever since. Our volunteers get the opportunity to work alongside members of the local community in all the projects we run, and to really understand the difference that our work can make to their lives.
We run a wide and diverse set of projects: fisheries monitoring, homestay association, solid waste management schemes, marine habitat monitoring, COT control programmes, reef structure creation, seagrass and mangrove monitoring, permaculture and community gardening initiatives, GIS habitat mapping, household and resort level composting, summer camps and weekly eco-clubs to name only some! In all of these, we have made an effort to bring the local community and stakeholders into the process to work alongside them in achieving meaningful results.
This wide range of projects that we have established also holds another benefit for our volunteers. We have seen that our volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, nationalities, and ages, and more importantly that they bring with them a diverse selection of previous skill, qualifications and experience. We see this as an opportunity to be taken – why shouldn’t we take advantage of these skill sets and find ways of applying them to issues on Malapascua? The flexibility of our operations on-site enables us to adjust projects to volunteers, allowing them to use their skills in a meaningful way.
Finally, what are your personal highlights to visit the Philippines?
The truth is, I haven’t visited a large number of tourist destinations in the Philippines! While I have spent a lot of time in there, the vast majority of it has been spent on Malapascua (or the surrounding area), working on all things related to People and the Sea. What other locations I have visited have mostly concerning networking for our project, and looking at other organizations and how they work within their respective communities.
If I had to pick out the places I liked the most from what I have managed to see, it would be the untouched areas of Bohol, or the mountainous Province of Billiran (a largely undiscovered place). Aside from that, I am reliably informed that the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea offers truly world-class diving – although I can’t say that from personal experience. Yet!