Behind the Science with Matt Brown

Matt Brown is conservation director for the Conservancy’s Africa program. Matt works with local partners and communities to plan and implement conservation projects.

The Nature Conservancy is known as a science-based organization. Forget the stereotype of white-coated researchers peering endlessly into microscopes, though. Our scientists certainly know their way around a lab or an analytical report, but their defining characteristic is action.

When fieldwork beckons, our scientists take off faster than a migrating warbler. They battle through bad weather, pesky insects and some things that are just plain gross. recently spoke with Matt Brown, conservation director for The Nature Conservancy’s Africa program, about his experiences in the field.

Read on for Brown’s behind-the-scenes insights into the highs (local communities) and lows (biting ants!) of working in conservation science. What do you love most about your job?

Matt Brown: I love that I am exposed to many different projects across east and southern Africa. While many of The Nature Conservancy’s high-level conservation goals are similar across the five countries where we work in Africa, each project is still unique in terms of size, culture, partners, access and so on.

There are community conservation success stories in every location where we work — and what I love most about my job is learning and sharing those success stories with all our partners to improve marine, terrestrial and freshwater conservation results on this vast continent. What’s the weirdest/most disgusting thing you’ve had to do in the name of science?

Matt Brown: One night in western Tanzania, my bed was attacked by siafu — biting army ants — while at the field station we work out of in Mahale National Park on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

In a matter of 10 minutes, millions of siafu had entered the house through an open window and covered every surface — tables, beds and even my power cord — in search of food. There was an infant sleeping in the house and we awoke her instantly and successfully removed the biting ants from her arms and legs — the speedy siafu had already invaded her crib.

Like a fire drill, we all safely evacuated the house and let the ants do their inspection. After an hour, the hungry ants had found a few crumbs of food, but decided it was better foraging in the forest — so they left. Thank goodness! We swept out the lingering and lost ants and crawled nervously back into bed. This occurrence is not uncommon and is a great reminder that even the little creatures can be a powerful force when they gain critical mass.
If you were stuck on an isolated preserve with one person, who would you want it be and why?

Matt Brown: My initial reaction is one of survival. I would want to be isolated with a Hadza, Himba, Saan or Maasai person who knows exactly how to survive in the bush — how to find roots and berries to tide us over until we were “unstuck.”

But the truth is that these people are close by in almost every place in Africa. Local community trusts are managing the biological diversity for current and future generations. No matter where I go, I am never truly isolated from the local people.

So rather, I would want to be remote with the country president so that he or she may see firsthand how local communities depend on healthy natural resources and ecosystem services for their survival. It is the lack of understanding at the top that impacts so many pathways to success. And while rural leadership and capacity building is critical, without enabling policies, enforcement and transparent support from the national government, our work will only go so far.

My hope would be to help the president understand how important these community-based conservation efforts really are and to improve policy and support for revenue sharing at the local level.


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