WORDS can punch harder than a fist. Or two. When I was an active researcher, statistics guided my writing. Now, as a journalist, I still collect evidence, but I walk with extra respect and caution.
Five years into this (financially pitiful) career, I’ve learned one thing: A good journalist talks less and listens more. So I do just that. The other way round is bad.
A talk given 23 July at the International Congress for Conservation Biology, Kuala Lumpur, reminded me of the above.
(Photo: Nadine Ruppert presents findings of her SPO Movement survey. Credit: YH Law)
When primatologist Nadine Ruppert started her talk, she said she was nervous because she was a last-minute addition to the ‘Conservation Optimism’ session.
“She must be joking,” I thought from the back of the hall. I had seen her ace panel discussion and seminars.
Basing it on evidence
Ruppert was talking about her private initiative, the Sustainable Palm Oil Movement (SPOM). Launched in May this year, SPOM campaigns for evidence-based discussion and education about palm oil.
Facing an audience of about a hundred or so people–most of whom would be proud to call themselves conservationists–Ruppert again said she was nervous.
“Palm oil is a very complex issue.”
Okay, she had many reasons to be nervous. How might her audience react?
Many people hold rigid and fierce opinions about palm oil. I’ve heard from fellow journalists of some Western media editors angling for bad news about palm oil.
And in Malaysia where 39% of the world’s palm oil is produced, the ‘Love My Palm Oil’ campaign‘ strums nationalistic strings that might make locals think twice about questioning Malaysian palm oil lest one appears traitorous.
Ruppert said she co-founded SPOM because she realised that many people have a “black or white view of palm oil, rather than a balanced view”.
She felt that palm oil polarised people. And this was borne out by an online survey her team runs, that shows just how deep that polarisation cuts across its almost 500 respondents.
One question in the survey asks if boycotting palm oil would contribute to environmental conservation and sustainability in oil-palm producing countries.
I estimated the response breakdown from Ruppert’s chart at the conference. While about 70% of Malaysian respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, a similar proportion of non-Malaysian respondents agreed or strongly agreed with it.
Such contradicting views might explain why palm-oil producers (especially in Malaysia and Indonesia) feel misunderstood and wrongly blamed by the others.
One Malaysian minister had reportedly called for more funds to research the benefits of palm oil in order to “counter a worldwide misperception and campaign against it, especially those in western nation”.
After Ruppert’s talk, the first question from an audience member illustrated the perception divide: “Please explain ‘sustainable palm oil’. I don’t understand. Isn’t there deforestation…?”
Ruppert answered by first acknowledging the importance of the question, then explained ‘sustainable’ in the standards set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Palm.
Ruppert’s survey also reveals that the majority of respondents agree on one thing: consumers can help improve environmental conservation and sustainability in palm-oil producing countries.
So people believe they can help the environment; they just can’t agree how.
And how do we get disagreeing people to agree? Sincere communication on equal footing and not patronising, of course. And we know what communication should be: talks less, listen more.
I reported on illegal logging in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. I interviewed the people who have been logging a national park for decades. I sat with them and learned about their families and their many odd jobs.
I didn’t ask, “You are destroying the forest. Why?” I knew that wouldn’t end well.
Instead, I asked “What is a tree to you?” or simply “Why do you log?” I waited for their replies.
Patience and empathy goes a long way for a journalist. It might be the only way. Unless of course, you don’t aim to go far.
Perhaps it’s the same for conservationists?
Macaranga reported on the International Congress for Conservation Biology, July 21-25, 2019, Kuala Lumpur.