Challenges in Conservation and Fieldwork for LGBTQ+ Youth

There are many challenges that people can experience when they’re doing fieldwork or working on conservation projects, whether it be locally and overseas. But these aspects can have additional layers of complexity for certain groups of people.

In this post, I’m just going to focus on the LGBTQ+ community (of which I am a card-carrying member) but many of these issues are intertwined with aspects of gender, age, disability, race, & socio-economic status among others.

In this post I’m going to use the term “Queer” to refer to the LGBTQ+ community, but note that not everyone is comfortable with this term.

The first big challenge for Queer people is legal protection and criminalisation. There are still about 70 countries where same-sex activity is illegal and 11 where the death penalty is at least a possibility. Many of these inherited such laws from British colonial occupation, and there are varying degrees of enforcement.

Maps displaying these laws can be found here and here.

Whilst many countries do not criminalise Queer people, it does not mean that they are protected or safe. As reported by Stonewall, the statistics for hate crimes towards LGBTQ+ people within the UK are pretty staggering.

For many Queer people, going to new areas or countries often involves going back into the closet and not talking about your personal life. For me, a simple question of “Do you have a girlfriend?” can be difficult to answer. Do I say “No” or do I say “No, but I have a boyfriend“. This requires a risk assessment asking questions such as:

What will their reaction be?
Am I at risk of violence?
Will this have professional consequences?

Am I reliant on this person for transport or accommodation?
What will I do if they react badly?

And often the end result is that it can be much harder for Queer people to make friends and good work connections as they cannot be themselves.

Conservation and fieldwork can require people to stay in remote places for months on end without contact with the outside world. This time away can be especially difficult for Trans people undergoing Hormone Replacement Therapy, which may require regular injections only administered at the Doctors. The frequency of these injections can vary between daily to every few months and can be one of the many barriers to Queer folk joining conservation projects as most require a minimum commitment of a few months.

Additionally, even the basic access to healthcare in certain places can be risky for trans folk. Getting treatment for anything, whether it be Malaria or a broken arm, would require trans people to divulge their gender identity to health care professionals, which could put them at risk.

One of the last big barriers that I want to highlight is the lack of Queer representation within Science and Conservation. I grew up without any Queer role models, the only gay scientist being Alan Turing. And whilst Turing was a great scientist, it’s not really the fairy tale story you aspire to.

  1. Include your pronouns in your introduction, your social media accounts and your email signatures. Pronouns are what we’d like people to refer to us by, so for example, he/him, she/her, as well as gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them, among others. The reason that I ask you all to include these is that it begins to normalise that we should not assume people’s genders. And by normalising the display of our pronouns, it stops trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people being singled out for displaying their pronouns and being subject to online abuse. So it’s really an act of solidarity with the community.

    A quick side note to this point to say that we should also never assume that someone is straight just because they don’t seem Queer. It can take many years for Queer people to publicly come out, and even if they are out to their friends and family, they may not be out to their work colleagues. So with every interaction you have with someone, give consideration to all of the things that I have included in this post. Don’t assume their gender (use gender neutral pronouns like they/them – which can apply to everyone), don’t assume their sexual orientation (if you must ask about their relationships, ask if they have a partner, not a boyfriend/girlfriend), and bare in mind that asking about relationships can be a tricky subject for people who are in the Asexual or Aromantic spectrum. And lastly, just because a girl has a boyfriend, it doesn’t mean that she is straight – for many Bisexual people, their queerness is often erased by the assumption that they are straight.
  2. The rainbow flag is the universal symbol for the support of Queer people. By sticking a rainbow sticker on some of your field equipment, it acts as a subtle signal to Queer people that maybe you’re someone safe to talk to and that can be really valuable to Queer people in a new group setting.
  3. If you’re in the position to hire people or perhaps you need research assistants or volunteers, it can be worthwhile stating somewhere that this project is Queer-friendly and that you have given consideration to these risks. Not only do you attract some amazing Queer people, but you’ll also weed out all the non-Queer trash people.
  4. And lastly, if you can, cut out and be vocal against people who are anti-Queer or opposed to inclusivity in any way. Use your privilege as a straight or cisgender person to speak out!

Be vocal in your support of diverse representation within your field. Growing up, I never know of any queer scientists or conservationists, but with the growth of social media and the internet, I have found a really great community of inspiring people. In the past few years, I’ve discovered many countless organisations and people supporting Queer and diverse representation within Science, among them including:

500 Queer Scientists is a fantastic organisation highlighting over 1000 Queer Scientists.
Pride in Stem is a non-profit run by Queer people supporting Queer people within STEM.
LGBTQ+ STEM is a group improving LGBTQ+ visibility in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Alex Bond‘s blog was one of the inspirations for writing this post and I would recommend that all straight people in STEM read this post of his.
TIGER in STEMM is The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM.

And lastly, give thought to where you plan to do your fieldwork or research. Consider that what may be a simple action or interaction for you may stressful and dangerous, or illegal, for Queer people. Even the simple act of going to the bathroom that matches their gender identity in some places may be dangerous and illegal for Queer people.

No matter where you are working, perhaps read up on the local climate for Queer folk in advance and offer support if needed. Many risk assessments at places like Universities do not consider risks to specific minority groups. So I also recommend that you lobby your work or University or Organisation to update their risk assessments to include a section on specific risks related to sexual orientation, gender, age, disability, religion, race, among others. You can find this type of information on the Human Rights Watch.

Lastly, I cannot speak for the Queer community and I imagine that I have totally not represented some key challenges that some people face. My main hope is that this will get you to at least appreciate and acknowledge that we need to think more carefully about how our research or fieldwork may impose challenges for some people to participate in and to think about how you could improve that. This post is also very western-centric and I appreciate that I as a white western cisgender guy will have a very different experience travelling overseas or to remote places compared with a local Queer person in a country that criminalises Queer people.

I’m going to finish this post up by asking a couple of questions:

Based on all of these risks, should we work in countries that persecute Queer people?
On one side, we need to work globally to solve our planet’s problems, but this may put Queer people working in remote locations at risk. On the other side, there are of course Queer people and allies in these countries and we should support them.

From an educational perspective, consider if you need to run your overseas University fieldtrip in a country that persecutes Queer people, or can you do it somewhere which doesn’t put Queer Staff and Students at risk?

From a research perspective, if you are working in tropical montane forests like me (which span multiple countries), consider if you can undertake your research across the border in a country which doesn’t criminalise Queer people. This may be safer for Queer members of your research team and perhaps your scope of inference is still valid across the mountain range. If you do work overseas in a country which is dangerous for Queer people or you have Queer people on your team, perhaps find local collaborators who are inclusive and who you can talk openly with about these concerns.

If you have supervisory role to students or volunteers, they will often look to you for guidance when dealing with collaborators, so make sure to brief your students on whether a collaborator will be accepting of Queer people (any maybe don’t work with those who are not accepting). Otherwise the student may be very nervous about whether outing themselves as Queer person will jeopardise the relationship with the collaborator.

Should we continue to support people doing good conservation work or research, even if they have hold negative views towards minority groups? Of course there’s a large degree of cultural and religious differences within a country and between countries, but where do we draw the line?

Should we separate the science from the Scientist? Or the conservation work from the Conservationist?

It’s a difficult question, but I think that the answer is to always look for someone else who is inclusive to invest your time and money with.

And finally:

In short, my answer is no.

To solve our planet’s diverse problems, we need diverse solutions from diverse people. And to encourage this, we just need to make some small adjustments and just give a bit more thought to how certain situations may be problematic for others, even if they are fine for us. I truly believe that when conservation becomes more inclusive and intersectional, our efforts to solve our planet’s problems will be so much more effective.


This post was created alongside a presentation that I gave as part of the Youth For Our Planet ‘Changemakers’ Conference from 3-4th October 2020. It was a fantastic conference filled with inspiring young people and I feel so privileged to have been included. See below for a recording of my virtual presentation:

Travel Diary: Sumba, Indonesia

As I’m writing this, I am supposed to be conducting my PhD fieldwork in the beautiful montane forests of Peninsular Malaysia. Alas, a global virus pandemic had other ideas and I’m stuck in the UK. Instead of batting off leaches, catching frogs and eating tasty food, I decided to write about some of my previous trips. 

Prior to starting my PhD, I was worked as an ecologist for an environmental consultancy in Singapore. It’s a bit of a long story how I came to that job, but that’s for another post. During my time at the consultancy, I was fortunate enough to work on some really great projects. This post is about my time on the Indonesian island of Sumba.

The company I worked for was hired to produce an environmental assessment for a project establishing community-run solar power grids in five remote villages on the island of Sumba. Indonesia has over 17,000 islands, of which around 6,000 are inhabited. I think that I’ve visited 14 or so of them: Bali, Bintan, Batam, Flores, Gili Laba, Java, Keramat, Komodo, Lombok, Moyo, Rinca, Satonda, Sumba & Sumbawa (plus Borneo – but only the Malaysian side). The island of Sumba is situated towards the eastern stretch of Indonesia and sits directly below the islands of Komodo and Flores.

A person standing in front of a mountain

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The rolling hills covering much of the island

In November 2016, I flew from Singapore to Jakarta (the capital city of Indonesia, on the island of Java) to meet the rest of the team and then took a small propeller plane from Jakarta to Sumba. We landed in the east of Sumba, at a small airport in the town of Waingapu, the largest town in Sumba. Waingapu airport at the time was just one small open-sided building with plastic seats scattered around the edge of the room. Bags were loaded off the plane and onto on a small trolley, which was dumped in the centre of the room. There can’t have been more than 25 people on the flight, so it was one of the quickest airport arrivals. After grabbing bags, we meet up with our local guides and hop into two 4×4 trucks – the only way to get to where we’re going.

One of our trucks and an example of a typical road

There are 13 of us in our team: 6 specialists from Jakarta, 4 local Sumbese guides, 2 drivers, and me. We drive down the road to our hotel in Waingapu, where we are met by local government officials for a project meeting. We all pile into the hotel’s meeting room for a 2-hour long project briefing – all spoken in Indonesian Bahasa. Unfortunately, my Bahasa is pretty minimal, but I manage to get out an introduction about myself and my role as the environmental consultant on the trip – something which I’d already written out to prepare myself. The specialists from Jakarta translate the necessary to me, so I was very happy to have them there, though it’s in these sorts of moments when I feel lazy about my lack of language capabilities. The meeting finally ended to much relief. As we are in Sumba during the dry season, the weather is a stifling 30 degrees. The meeting room had a couple of small table fans, but it was that temperature that makes you want to fall asleep. I’d been travelling since 3 am and I really struggled to keep my eyes open.

Limestone hills

The next day we fill the car with enough bottled water, coffee and instant noodles to last the 2-week trip and set off for the first village. Google maps says it’s a 3-hour drive to the approximate location on the east coast, but I think these calculations are based on the assumption of a normal road – which at the time we didn’t have. In the end it took around 5-6 hours to reach our first village. There was 6 of us crammed into a 4×4, hanging on as we passed along the bumpy gravel roads. It was one of the most uncomfortable car rides I’ve ever experienced, but the scenery was incredible. Rolling, rugged, limestone hill savannahs as far as the eye can see, in every direction. The starkness of it is breath-taking, with trees only growing in the valleys, where during the wet season small streams would form. We are over the eastern side of the island, which apparently is less densely populated than the more fertile western region. Sumba has a population density of 67/km2 with a total population of around 760,000. To add some comparison, neighbouring tourism hotspot Bali has a density of 750/km2 and a population of over 4 million people despite being half the size of Sumba.

The sun was in my eyes

Eventually we reach the first village, passing down small dusty roads and over some challenging river crossings – luckily it was the dry season. We arrive in a small village and head to a nearby market to get some supplies. The market is packed with around a hundred people going about their business. As I get out the truck, I can feel a lot of eyes on me. I follow my team through the market and try to keep calm despite the attention. Everyone is friendly and waving at me, though it’s an uncomfortable situation for me as I’m generally not a social person. As we are walking through, a guy walks up behind me and starts talking English. The news that there was an English person had obviously filtered through to the guy in the village that could speak English. The guy is in his 50s and has a small shop in the market selling drinks and cigarettes. He invites me back to his shop, it’s a wooden shed type building with space for around 4 plastic chairs inside. I sit down and he offers me a can of coke, which I gladly take. He tells me about his history – I believe his father was involved with translation – and we make small talk. It’s nice to be sat down inside, slightly sheltered from the small crowd that has gathered outside. He makes me promise to learn to speak Indonesian Bahasa if I come back, and I say that I will. It’s something that I regularly think about and it makes me feel a guilty. It would have been really nice to have spoken to more people. As I leave, I try to pay him for the drink and he refuses. Throughout the trip, every single person that I met was generous and kind.  

The headman’s house

After the market, we drive to the village headman’s house. He is welcoming and greets us as we sit on plastic chairs in the shade under his porch. His wife brings us all coffee and we make introductions. I’m starting to get better at my small introduction in Bahasa, but if anything, it just gives the other person the impression that I can actually speak some Bahasa. This illusion is obviously shattered as soon as they ask me a question. Maybe I should have just pleaded dumb from the start. After coffee, I ask a colleague when we’re having lunch. He laughs at me and points in the distance – “there’s lunch”. Tied to a tree is a goat, sat down in the shade eating the few strands of grass growing around it. The goat was very much alive, so lunch was going to be a while.

The traditional peaked roof, though traditionally made of palm leaves

Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country – bar a few islands such as Bali, which is Hindu, and Sumba, which is Christian. Sumba was colonised by the Dutch and religion was spread by Christian missionaries in the 19th century, especially on the east of the island. The traditional Sumbese religion ‘Marapu’ is still regarded as an important part of their culture, despite the modern Christian influences. An example is the peaked rooves of some houses, which according to Marapu traditions are home to the spirits. As most of my colleagues were from Jakarta, a Muslim region, their food must be prepared in accordance to Halal practices – this means cutting the animal’s throat with a knife, pointing the animal’s head in a certain direction, and reciting a prayer. Since we couldn’t get any Halal meat, the deal was that we would slaughter the animals ourselves. We all stood in silence and watched as my colleague did the honours. It was pretty graphic, but we were dished up goat soup two hours later.

Mapping out the solar grid. The landscape was very dry and dusty.

After a day walking around the village and mapping out the solar power grid, we return to the headman’s house for the evening. We sit out on the porch drinking coffee and the headman passes me a wooden box. As I thank him, everyone bursts out laughing. Quick aside: the name for the Village Head is ‘Kepala Desa’, ‘kepala’ meaning ‘head’, ‘desa’ meaning ‘village’. A similar word already locked in my Indonesian vocabulary is ‘kelapa’, the word for ‘coconut’. Thankfully the Village Head had a good sense of humour and laughed at my embarrassment after realising that I had called him the Village Coconut. Laughter passes, so I open the wooden box to find a handful of dried plant inflorescences, or flower spikes. If you’re from the UK, we sometimes call these catkins. I am told that these are from the Piper betel plant, a vine in the Pepper family. These plants are thought to have medicinal value and are often chewed throughout Southeast Asia, though there have been links to mouth cancer. I am gestured to try it, so I reach for the smallest one. I am told that chewing them is thought to help clean your teeth after a meal and provide gum care, though you’re not to swallow it. It’s a strange taste, kind of like a peppery Dettol. We all spend the next 10 minutes chewing and spitting on the ground. It feels disrespectful to the host to be spitting on his porch, but everyone is doing it.

Piper betel flowers

After finishing work at the first village, we move on to the next. As we are driving there, I learn that we have been invited to stay at a ranch owned by someone related to the local ‘king’. Traditionally, the social system of Sumba was based on a caste system, with everything from kings and nobles and slaves. Officially, these ranks no longer exist, but my team tell me that this man has a very high social status and is likely to still have slaves working on his cattle ranch. As we drove to his ranch, I could feel that everyone was a bit nervous. The man greeted us on arrival and after introductions we ate dinner with his family – it felt very formal. He lived in a nice house with leather sofas and a flat screen TV – a stark difference to what I’d seen the last few days. He was a tall man with an intimidating regal disposition and spoke with a deep, calm voice. After dinner we moved outside to the garden, where we sat on plastic chairs under the shade of a tall fruit tree, which occasionally dropped plum-sized fruits on to us. As it started to get late, I could see everyone looked very tired, but no one wanted to be the first one to excuse themselves to bed, out of respect for our host. I was struggling to keep my eyes open but was sitting directly in front of our host so didn’t want to make a bad impression. At some point I must have fallen asleep for a few seconds as I woke to everyone laughing at me. With that, the host made a comment about it being late and we all went to bed. Later on, my team thanked me for being the one to fall asleep.   

The golden hour

To reach the remaining villages, we drive along the eastern coastline to the southern tip of the island. We stop for a break and look out at the open sea. If I started swimming south from this point, the next land mass I’d reach is Australia – about 700 km away, or about the distance from the tip of Cornwall to the top of Spain. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is at that perfect angle, the ‘golden hour’, where everything looks beautiful. To add to the magic, a group of horses gallops along the beach far in the distance like some stereotypical bank advert. Then out of nowhere, a herd of water buffalo run past us and wander down the beach. Pretty cool!  

Water buffalo

The rest of the trip goes well, we visit the remaining villages and spend a day or two at each. On the way back we pass a small cashew orchard. Cashew nuts are weird. If someone had shown me a photo of how cashews grow, I would have said it was fake. A single nut grows out of a cashew fruit like a creepy toenail. I tried the fruit and it tastes like a mix of cashew and pear, but the texture is fibrous. We continue the drive back to Waingapu, the northern airport town. As it gets dark, we stop at a small fisherman’s jetty on the coast to look for a restaurant. We end up having what was probably the best seafood dinner I’ve ever had. All throughout this trip food has been pretty good: from the goat soups to all manner of curries and rice dishes. One thing I love about Indonesia is their ‘sambal’ – a type of delicious crushed chilli paste which everyone seems to have their own special recipe for. Sumba was no different and it was great to visit so many different villages and try all the different styles of sambal. I feel very privileged to have been on this trip, especially as I didn’t have to worry about logistics for once – I just sat back and enjoyed the view out of the back of a cramped 4×4.  

Still not sure that cashew nuts are real

Research Assistants Required!

Unpaid Opportunity (Accommodation and Food Covered)

I’m a PhD Student from the UK researching frogs in Peninsular Malaysia. I am need of a research assistant to help me with fieldwork between 1st April – mid-November 2020. I cannot afford to cover flights but can cover accommodation and food during fieldwork. I’m looking for someone with an interest in herpetology and experience in tropical forests who can stay for 2-3 months minimum.

Details:

We’ll mostly be staying at hotels and research stations (not too extreme), though there is the possibility of some camping later in the year. Daily activities will involve forest recces, night and day transect surveys, digging and checking pitfall traps.

Contact:

Please email me at C.W.Butler(at)soton(dot)ac(dot)uk with details of your experience and when you’d be available. Email me with any questions and for further information. Thanks!