by Nancy Harris and Emily Cloyd
As the first speaker in the Women in Scientific and Environmental Professions series, Dr. Eleanor Sterling gave a presentation on January 29, 2002 in 139 Baker entitled “Conserving Biodiversity in Vietnam and Bolivia: The Need for Adaptive Management” that attracted a crowd of over 70 attendees. Dr. Sterling currently acts as Director for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she manages biodiversity projects in various locations including Madagascar, Bolivia, Vietnam, and Guatemala. Dr. James Gibbs, Sterling’s long-time friend and colleague, gave a short but effective introduction, stating that Eleanor “has what it takes to make conservation biology work all around the world.”
The focus of Eleanor’s hour-long presentation was split between the seemingly disparate nations of Vietnam and Bolivia. In fact, Eleanor emphasized the differences between the two areas from a biodiversity perspective: while the majority of Vietnam is vastly populated and “built out” leaving protected areas as small and scattered plots of land, Bolivia has plenty of ‘protectable’ land but no people to protect it. Population density is low, and thus there are few domestic scientists to collect biological information. The goal in both countries is to set aside reserves that harbor biodiversity. In Bolivia, however, better biological data must first be obtained. In both countries, conservation biologists are forced to make key decisions in the face of uncertainty.
The common objective of conservation biologists in developing countries, Sterling stated, should be to strive towards ‘adaptive management’ when making conservation decisions. One specific example cited was the need to develop material, such as textbooks in the country’s native language, which developing countries can use for education and awareness. Sterling also stressed the need to be wary of the spiritual, cultural, political and economic interactions that native people have with the landscape, and was quick to point out that what works on paper may not necessarily work in application. Interaction between scientists and natives is an important and necessary component for the program’s success.
Among the colorful pictures and innovative ideas of Sterling’s presentation, the increased contribution of technology to the field of conservation biology was made clear. GIS maps, camera traps, remote sensing data and GPS data were all displayed and/or mentioned as being advantageous tools that facilitate the decision-making process.
A common problem in both Vietnam and Bolivia, Sterling noted, is the view that once a decision has been made, the program must continue along the preplanned course of action. Through her continued efforts, Sterling hopes to turn this notion on its head; if an action fails, it becomes necessary to take a step back and come up with an alternative management strategy that works. For the most part, the route taken from point A to point B is not as important as getting to point B. This approach seems logical, yet perhaps it took a woman like Eleanor Sterling to make it work.