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The impact of Ethics and Empowerment on Community and Conservation

By Oliver Barnes 1 month ago
Categories Chiang Mai

To maintain current ethical and empowering practices within an industry it is often necessary to reflect on previous performances, and GVI have done just that. This helps to ensure we, as an organisation, are moving in the right direction.

From the recent Impact and Ethics Report (https://www.gvi.co.uk/the-impact-ethics-report/), we can track GVI’s progress towards upholding current ethical practices, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are a global call to action to improve peace and prosperity for people and the planet.

So how does this translate into the individual GVI bases?

Set on the side of a mountain in Northern Thailand, surrounded by dense rainforest and agricultural fields sits the GVI Thailand Chiang Mai base. It is here that we promote a sustainable and ethical elephant reintegration program. What this means is that elephants which would or could be working in a more arduous tourist venture, for example in camps, are relieved of these duties and now have the opportunity to live back in their natural habitat. Volunteers now observe GVI elephants wandering through thickets of luscious green shrubs and trees, happily eating their way through the hours of the day.

(Our young elephant Lu Lu in the forest. Photo by Jessica Danae Miller)

What does this mean in terms of SDGs?

One of our overarching objectives is to improve and promote ‘Life on Land’ (SDG 15), achieved partly by halting the loss of biodiversity. Whilst we have a multi-pronged approach to dealing with this matter, keeping the elephants in the forest is one way of promoting biodiversity as they are well recognised as being ‘ecosystem engineers’. This means, they can alter, modify, destroy parts of an ecosystem, making way for new ecological niches. Along with many other GVI bases across the world, we also incorporate practices such as biodiversity surveys to monitor and record the environment around us.

(The size of the images in the below graph portrays the number of biological surveys each of our conservation  bases conducted over 2018.The images are to scale with the amount.)

As well as ensuring and monitoring that the welfare of the elephant is maintained to a high standard, we engross ourselves in other aspects of the community too. The remoteness of the location means that we are fully immersed in the culture and play an integral role in the heart and soul of village life. We involve ourselves in the village this way because we want the community to feel empowered by the sense of ownership that they have in the project too. They are able to delegate any necessary activities or help guide us with ideas for project development. For example, we have helped to plant crops such as rice and corn and ran litter picking sessions among many other activities. Importantly, we provide English lessons. This helps to improve communication between volunteers and villagers. Our local staff also try to bridge any gaps in communication by providing Pakinyaw lessons to the volunteers.


(One of our volunteers teaching English to a student from the local primary school. Photo by Jessica Danae Miller)

The English lessons come in many forms; whether it’s the English classes and conservation curriculum at the local primary school, to evening classes at homestay houses or teaching the mahouts. By doing this we aspire towards SDG 4 by providing quality education opportunities, which fits into GVI’s larger narrative of delivering valuable education opportunities. By providing another language to the village we work against creating a dependency on us being here and instead build capacity for villagers to be confident in taking on future tourist ventures.

(Total number of stakeholders working towards SDG 4 per month globally)

The phrase attributed to Francis Bacon’s “knowledge is power” couldn’t ring truer in this environment and we work on the basis of reciprocal knowledge. In monthly meetings with the villagers we continue to offer out our services to all those who want English lessons, thus ensuring the decisions are directly driven by the community. Our local staff members understand the village more intricately than we do and so this is our opportunity to ask for their advice. This way, local staff can facilitate discussions with villagers about potential project development. Even outside of the village meetings we remain as open-minded as possible and respect the elephant culture that exists here; listening to our Mahouts should they have any input from their wealth of wisdom built up over years of living side by side elephants. This is in line with GVI’s 10 policies for ethics, e.g. “Locally Driven, Collaborative Projects: We aim to design all of our projects in collaboration with local organizations and communities and ensure that they are locally driven.”

(After completing their end of term test, the students pose with their certificates. Photo by Jessica Danae Miller)

What’s our future outlook at GVI Chiang Mai?

The premise of conservation is to protect, whatever it may be, whether it is individual plants and animals or whole ecosystems. And, as we progress further down the path of conservation, understanding its complexities, we see that conservation can only exist with the integration and support from those who live in the closest vicinity to that which is being conserved. We are here to listen, assist and facilitate what this community wants, and as our partnership flourishes, we hope that so too will the life around us. By having the community at the heart of how we develop, it creates a feeling of reciprocity and empowerment for all the parties involved.

What this report has highlighted is that this is also true of the SDGs, they are not stand-alone targets but are interwoven objectives. Here at Chiang Mai, we’ve taken the time to introspect on the relationship between us, the community and conservation and are proud of our achievements to date.

What the GVI Impact and Ethics Report proves is the real impact of GVI hubs on communities and conservation. We are more motivated than ever to continue to deliver that impact at GVI Chiang Mai.