Robyn James sits in windowframe of stone building
AT EASE: Robyn James, TNC conservation director in Melanesia, joined a 2018 international gathering of women to discuss ways to adapt to climate change in local communities. © Tim Calver

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Interview: Robyn James

The conservation director for TNC in Melanesia finds that what’s good for women is good for the environment.

Courtney Leatherman spent a decade as an editor for Nature Conservancy magazine. She now contributes to the magazine’s interview column as a freelance writer.

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Woman wearing lei looks on in the background as woman speaks in foreground
Looking On At a 2018 conference in Yap, Micronesia, Conservation Director Robyn James listens to women talking about environmental challenges they face. © Tim Calver

Nature Conservancy: A recent study led by one of your Nature Conservancy colleagues found that conservation projects achieve better results when they involve women in decisions. That echoes research in other fields—for example, studies have found that companies with more women executives and board members tend to be more profitable. How did you begin thinking along these lines?

Robyn: Promoting women has always been important for me, and I’ve just gradually made it a more obvious and deliberate part of my work. When I first started in conservation, I noticed that there was a lack of women. I saw women in administration and support roles but not as much on the conservation side of things. It was often lonely as the only woman in my work. In the Pacific Islands where I work now, society expects women to stay at home, and workplaces often see women as the helpers, not the leaders. Now we are changing that. I decided, with some other awesome women, to develop a gender strategy for our Melanesia program. Across TNC we’re doing more to get women involved. It’s an exciting change to be part of.

Nature Conservancy: As TNC’s conservation director for Melanesia—a region of the South Pacific—you work with grass-roots women’s groups to advance conservation goals. Have you found that women there relate to the environment differently than men?

Robyn: The women in communities that I work with are often more forward-thinking than many of the men. Although they are not generally included in meetings and big decisions, they’re the ones in the background, ensuring resources are managed so the children are fed and educated. They think about their kids and the community as a whole. On the other hand, the men often think more about the immediate cash benefits, not the long-term consequences of selling their resources. That is why women need to be included in decisions. 

“When I first started in conservation, I noticed that there was a lack of women. I saw women in administration and support roles but not as much on the conservation side of things. Now we are changing that.”

Nature Conservancy: That sounds similar to the West, where historically men worked for money while women took care of things close to home. Is there a similar division of labor between Pacific Islands men and women?

Robyn: Countries such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are still mainly subsistence economies, so most people rely on their natural resources for food and shelter. In coastal communities, men typically do the offshore fishing, while women do the inshore fishing, and the collecting of crabs, shellfish and firewood from the mangroves. We started a big project last year for women as “guardians of the mangroves.” Women potentially have the most to lose if we don’t manage mangroves properly. For example, we’re helping women use fuel-efficient cooking stoves. These stoves use less mangrove wood, and the women can measure the environmental and health benefits of that.

Nature Conservancy: You’re also working on inland conservation, with a focus on the impact of mining for metals in the Solomon Islands. I understand this is a new industry in that country. How is it going?

Robyn: The Solomon Islands is a poor country and the economy depends on natural resources such as logging and fishing. However, the country is running out of logs and now is looking to mining to build the economy. Although TNC doesn’t typically work on mining, we realized what an important issue this was. Women’s groups in remote areas, with no internet or phones, kept asking us about mining and what it would mean for them. They just didn’t know. Most people have never even seen a mine. They’ve never seen a picture of one. They absolutely don’t know what they’re signing up for. It kept me awake at night!

Nature Conservancy: What are they signing up for?

Robyn: Whenever a resource is threatened, women always suffer the most. Where these mines are likely to be situated is usually where the women are doing their gardening as well as collecting wood and fresh water. Women are highly affected by these developments, more so than the handful of men who may be signing the lease on behalf of the community.

Women Leading the Way Women and children of the Pacific Islands are on the front lines of climate change and most vulnerable to its impacts. Yet they are also leading the way with climate action in their communities.

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Nature Conservancy: What can they do about it?

Robyn: We’ve been working with women on an awareness program about what a mine is: what does it look like, how long will it go for, what are your rights. We train community facilitators, who have now reached thousands of people. It’s been very successful in helping people understand what mining will really mean for them so they can make informed decisions. We also held a national forum on mining and made sure women from across the country were able to participate. I was then invited to help develop the Solomon Islands’ national minerals policy, which passed early this year. We put in all the resolutions that the local people came up with, word for word. It’s a real example of grass-roots people shaping national policy. I am really proud of that.

Nature Conservancy: What elements of the policy did the local women’s groups contribute?

Robyn: Women were sick of being excluded from these important decisions. So the new policy states that there should be no decisions around mining unless agreements are signed in public and at least 50 percent of those at the table are women. This is to ensure one chief cannot make a decision or sign the land away for a whole community. The policy also includes strict environmental regulations that will help women retain access to fresh water and healthy fisheries. When the policy was passed by the national parliament with all these conditions intact, I was just so excited that women were having such an influence.

Woman stands smiling in greenhouse with plants budding around her on all sides
Feeding a Community Bernadette Kadannged, a community elder in Tamil, uses this nursery to teach children how to grow food on the island of Yap. © Tim Calver

Nature Conservancy: You helped guide those talks in Melanesia, but you have also faced equity challenges in your own career. What was it like being a woman in conservation when you first began working?

Robyn: I’ve worked in conservation for pretty much my whole career, starting as a wildlife ranger in a very remote part of the Australian Outback. I was often the only woman in our field teams. First I worked on a crocodile survey. [Later] I had to drive thousands of miles checking commercial kangaroo hunters’ permits. They have these great big shipping containers full of tagged pelts, and you have to check that they’re not getting too many females, that they’re killing the commercial species. The whole time I was one of the only women, so I was very conscious of the ways I was treated differently.

Nature Conservancy: How so?

Robyn: Most of the men were fine, but from some, the jokes and constant innuendo were annoying. And we just weren’t expected to be as capable as the men. One example I remember very clearly: We did a rifle training course and the guys just assumed that another female colleague and I would be hopeless at it. So, I said to my colleague, “Let’s sit at the front and concentrate really hard and just do whatever the trainer says, just really focus.” Some of the guys weren’t concentrating and making out it was all very easy, but we kept our cool and kept listening and learning. I then shot a nearly perfect target, almost without error, and one guy said, “Ah, that’s just a fluke. I bet you couldn’t do it again,” and so I did it again, and I kept hitting that target. I must admit, it felt good.

Nature Conservancy: Did that change the men’s attitude?

Robyn: Not massively, no. There were some nice guys who were excited for us, but others? I think all of this change takes quite a while.

Whenever a resource is threatened, women always suffer the most. Where these mines are likely to be situated is usually where the women are doing their gardening as well as collecting wood and fresh water for their families.

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Nature Conservancy: Speaking of change taking time, you’ve spent the better part of a decade regularly making a difficult multiday journey through the Pacific islands and back to your home in Brisbane.

Robyn: Most of my trips involve  flights on small planes, landing on grass airstrips. We then travel by small boats to fairly remote areas or villages. It can be quite an adventure in rough and rainy weather. I have had some fairly hair-raising trips.

Nature Conservancy: What keeps you going back?

Robyn: I love bringing together different people—women in villages, executives from mining companies, government ministers—to reach a common goal. The women I work with, and many of the men, are family to me now. We are very close. I feel I can make a difference as part of a team. Just by virtue of where I was born, I was lucky enough to go to university and I have access to all this information at my fingertips. This knowledge and privilege give me power that I want to share. I’m no better than anyone else. I really believe that people need to share what they have, whether it’s knowledge or power to make a difference!

Courtney Leatherman spent a decade as an editor for Nature Conservancy magazine. She now contributes to the magazine’s interview column as a freelance writer.