Nature-based Solutions II: Why working with local communities is essential, or, Look for Abuelita Marta.

Big stones in Al Baydha, 2016

Just over 11 years ago I found myself in the middle of a desert in Makkah, living in the office of a local magistrate, surrounded by dust, mountains, and goats, and in the process of integrating myself into tribes of settled bedou who had never before met an American or a non-Muslim. I was 3 months into cofounding the Al Baydha Project, though prior to my arrival much of the groundwork had already been done. Through the leadership and patronage of HRH Haifa al Faisal and HRH Nouf bint Fahad, we already had the approval of the Governor of Makkah Province, Makkah Municipality, and the local magistrates. We had a starting budget. With the political and financial matters mostly attended to, this made site selection and getting the tribal leaders onboard extremely easy. What we did not have was the support or trust of the bedou; the people who the Al Baydha Project intended to benefit.

In that early period, one of my primary objectives was to gain the trust of local people, recruit a team of them to work with us, and start prototyping a system that would restore the indigenous land management system of Arabia — the Himma.

There are 1001 stories I could tell about my years there in this process, but i’m going to leave it just to a couple, and then build out what these stories mean for those of us in the regenerative economic development world.

Sheikh Marzouq al Jahdali helped me to recruit the first working team. We visited 15 different households, and asked each one to send a man of working age. They were promised a salary and lunch every work day. 14 men showed up for the first day on our site — and when I had explained in my broken local dialect what we wanted to do and started up the mountain, the first one behind me sat down, and all the rest sat with him.

“This is going to be very hard work isn’t it?”

“Yes”

“Well I don’t want to do that. I’m out”

And with that, 10 of the 14 left. Four men stayed: Khamis al Jahdali, Ayed Munir, Khalid al Aduani, and Abdurrizaq al Aduani. I think they stayed because of the pull of a salary, the appeal of a local job, and the novelty of an American man in the middle of the Saudi desert. Each of them adopted me in critical ways, and the five of us built our team over the next 3 years to include some 130 local tribesmen. Today they are some of the closest friends I have.

Abdurrizaq and me, 2014.
Al Baydha Project Team testing out an earthbag gate we built summer of 2011.
Cause you can never get enough before/after shots: this is after the first rainfall of watershed work we did in the mountains, Jan 2011.
And this is almost the same angle, after 9 years of flood retention and the seed bank building up. Nov. 2019

I won’t go too much into the rest of the story, but I do have a video that as of this writing has over 750,000 views going into the results:

One takeaway from Al Baydha is how important it is to work with local communities in this kind of work. Many people give this principle lip service, but it is my impression that very few people know how to do it, or actually mean it when they say it’s important. So i’ll come right out and say this:

Al Baydha would have been a complete failure without the buy-in of the local tribes. The buy-in of the local tribes is why it was as successful as it was.

There are a million reasons why integrating local communities into ecosystem restoration or regenerative development projects is absolutely essential, from local ecosystems knowledge, to political capital, to understanding local conflicts and local history, to being able to understanding local prices, to having connections with local influencers, to knowing who to avoid.

But this reasoning goes far beyond how integrating local communities is useful to a project — that’s actually the wrong way to think about this. And that brings me to the story of Abuelita Marta.

One of the projects we’ve recently launched is Delgadito, a mangrove reforestation & seagrass restoration progres in Baja California Sur, Mexico. It’s taken us 2 years to get the permits for these projects, but during that two years we have also been developing strong relationships with local fishing villages.

RRC’s head of Latin America Christian Bertachinni meeting with members of a fishing village in Delgadito.

The local fishing villages are in dire straights. Their catch has decreased 90% in the last decade and they are facing collapse. Usually when fishery depletion occurs, communities turn to other activities such as mangrove deforestation, poaching, fishing illegal species, and ultimately they pack up and move to the cities (which comes with its own set of problems). We interviewed dozens of people in part of our early community engagement, all of whom we asked, “do you see a future for your children in this community”. Only one said yes: Abuelita Marta. Here’s what she had to say:

Abuelita Marta, overall badass and mangrove steward. Check out her t-shirt.

I have fished here for 32 years; I have gone out to sea to work nets, to pick up lobster traps, to fish by hand with line, and to sleep outside at night, too.

For this region to move ahead, we have to be stewards. I would like to be taking care of nature, of ecosystems, of the mangroves, which are so important. By stewarding the fish, stewarding the sea, it can recover.

Fishing can be improved by implementing closures — by stopping the catch of lobster or fish for two or three years. Then there will be more production. This way the new generations can make a living — by respecting natural resources, respecting the closures, and limiting the catch.

This is where the typical thinking around project development needs to shift. Most people when they think of international development think about outside companies or entities bringing solutions to troubled places. And that is true in many cases. But what I have learned in over a decade of this work is that local people understand their problems far better than an outside consultant, or an international NGO, and most of the time there are individuals within these communities who have already identified powerful solutions.

What Abuelita Marta described above was the poverty-degradation trap and one of the best solutions out there for resolving the tragedy of the commons. When a common resource is depleted — a fishery, a forest, a hunting ground, a pasture, etc — these common resources need rest to recover, and that rest increases production. She’s never studied economics or Elinor Ostrum, and if i used the phrase “tragedy of the commons” or “poverty-degradation trap” she wouldn’t know the phrases. But she’s living it — she understands the problems intimately and already has the answer.

But what Abuelita Marta lacks is access to finance, project management experience, political capital, access to land, and it’s likely her own community does not recognize the value of the answers because, after all,
¡she’s just Abuelita Marta!

If she put together a pitch and sent it to the Emerson Collective or the Ford Foundation or MacKenzie Scott, would it go anywhere? Of course not. She doesn’t know how to put a pitch deck together. She doesn’t have a high school diploma, let alone a university degree. She doesn’t have that access. So her solutions remain unexplored, unexecuted, and the poverty-degradation trap continues apace.

The team in Delgadito, who in the two weeks after we secured permits for a mangrove and seagrass restoration project, planted 25,000 mangroves. They’re amazing, and we’re honored at RRC that they have chosen to collaborate and partner with us.

This is why RRC makes partnering with local communities such an important focus of our predevelopment phase. We have a powerful set of tools and systems to deploy in degraded coastal areas, through our regenerative seawater agricultures. But when we work with local communities on how that system fits into already identified solutions, when we put in the time and energy and resources to develop trust, and to come to solutions together, when we respect their agency and understand their needs, we get much more successful projects and are able to deliver serious impact across the economic, environmental, and social spectrum.

Here’s the kicker: There are Abuelita Martas all over the planet. We have a handful of them on our teams across 4 countries already. My Abuelita Marta in Al Baydha was Abdurrizaq and Khalid al Aduani. They are people who understand their community’s problems, and who have real solutions, but don’t have the power, resources, or experience, to make those solutions real. In the predevelopment phase of our projects, we look for them. We hire them. We develop solutions together. We help elevate their status so they’re recognized as local leaders (if they aren’t already). We follow their lead on local issues. And then together we work to transform degraded land into regenerative economies and restored ecosystems.

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