Interview by Melissa Normann, Rainforest Alliance
“Conservation is an experiment; we don’t know exactly what will work best in different circumstances. That’s why we have to draw on each other’s experiences, so we don’t needlessly waste time or money.”
The Eco-Index is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2011. To help mark this exciting milestone, we talked with the Rainforest Alliance’s Diane Jukofsky, who conceived and launched the project and has overseen its growth and success for the past decade.
Question: How did the idea of creating a portal of conservation projects come about?
Jukofsky: Two years after the Rainforest Alliance was founded in 1987, I was one of two staffers who moved to Costa Rica so we could establish our first projects in Latin America. As we traveled throughout the region in the 1990s, we met dozens of dedicated and inspiring conservationists. Chris Wille, now our chief of sustainable agriculture, and I raised some funds that supported our giving communications training workshops to NGOs. What we heard over and over again from them was that they were frustratingly unaware of what other conservationists were doing in neighboring countries, or even in their own countries.
Back then, email and the Internet were brand new. But it quickly became clear that the Internet offered the ideal space for conservationists to come together and share information about their work with their colleagues, the media, government officials, and stakeholders. The Web was becoming increasingly available to everyone, and we saw that we could establish a permanent library to document the community’s efforts to save biodiversity. We believe the Eco-Index can actually improve conservation projects by allowing free access to creative ideas that have had strong results, as well as the lessons learned that will help others avoid missteps.
Q: How did you begin collecting this information when the project was just starting?
Jukofsky: Once we had some seed funding in place early in 2000, my colleague Nuria Bolaños and I worked with a web designer to create a mock-up of how we wanted the Eco-Index to look. We created a visual presentation that we emailed to our colleagues and then scheduled telephone meetings with them to take them through the presentation and explain our vision.
Remember that the Web was still a fairly new tool, and it was often a challenge to even explain what we were trying to do. Fortunately, by then we had quite a few friends and collaborating colleagues in the region who trusted us. So one-by-one, we collected project questionnaires and began building our database.
We were determined not to launch the website until we had at least 50 projects, which happened quickly, so it was clear right away that the Eco-Index was going to be a powerful source of information, in English and Spanish
Q: The Eco-Index now has more than 1,000 conservation projects profiles in its database. What has been the key to its success?
Jukofsky: From the very beginning, we dedicated a good deal of effort to ensuring that the information in the Eco-Index was of the highest quality, easy to access, and interesting to read. That hasn’t changed over the past 10 years. We still edit, fact check, and translate carefully. From the very beginning, every piece of information was in English and Spanish, and we soon added Portuguese. It was unusual 10 years ago to find completely bilingual websites.
The Eco-Index was established in reaction to a specific need expressed by our conservation colleagues. We still do periodic surveys with them to make sure we are continuing to serve our key audiences.
Q: How has the constantly increasing array of online tools and the advent of social media changed and benefitted the Eco-Index?
Jukofsky: We’ve strived to make sure that the Eco-Index has stayed technologically relevant in the past 10 years, while working within the constraints of a limited budget. We’ve created online discussion forums and included Google maps of project locations on profiles. We’ve also created popular Facebook and Twitter accounts, which we’re really excited about, as it gives us another platform that allows us to interact with our audience, as well as with people who are aren’t conservation professionals, but who are interested in learning more about conservation.
Q: Do you think that conservation can be practiced from the Internet, through communications tools and social networks?
Jukofsky: Virtually sharing information and experiences can certainly inform the work of conservationists and improve awareness and understanding of their work and thereby increase support, but it’s not a substitute for “muddy-boots” field work.
Q: Conservationists are facing new challenges, both locally and globally. Have you needed to adapt the Eco-Index to meet these new challenges?
Jukofsky: Actually, I think the challenges are much the same for conservationists as they were ten years ago. We may be using different words to describe them, but the main issues are still related to how human beings can conserve biodiversity while pursuing our livelihoods and improving our quality of life. Ten years ago conservationists were well aware of the threats posed by climate change, but today more funding is available to help people adapt to and mitigate global warming. So today the Eco-Index is building an impressive library of information about how conservation groups are responding to the threats posed by climate change.
Q: What have been the key challenges in the past 10 years?
Jukofsky: Fundraising has always been our key challenge – it is very difficult to secure funding for communications projects, as many donor portfolios are focused on funding field-based projects. We’re extremely grateful for the support we’ve received from dedicated donors like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, and the Spray Foundation.
Today it’s so common to go to the Internet and find answers to nearly every question you could think of asking. We’re all sharing information now…over-sharing in some cases! But not long ago, many conservationists were rather reluctant to talk about the results of their work. They didn’t want to go on record about how much funding they received for a project or who the donor was. They often treated research results and statistics as proprietary information. Today the conservation community is much more open about sharing lessons learned, understanding that just because a project didn’t work out exactly the way it was envisioned, it doesn’t mean anybody failed.
Conservation is an experiment; we don’t know exactly what will work best in different circumstances. That’s why we have to draw on each other’s experiences, so we don’t needlessly waste time or money. The Internet has enabled many communities to work more closely together, and I like to believe the Eco-Index was – and still is – a prime catalyst for getting conservationists to join forces to save life on Earth.
Q: What are the future plans for the site?
Jukofsky: In the next year, we’ll redesign the front-end design of the Eco-Index. We’re also looking forward to continuing our partnership with the Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative where we add and update migratory species conservation projects on the Eco-Index, and manage the WHMSI.net website and its WHMSI Pathway sub-section, which matches priority migratory species conservation needs with the projects and tools available to meet them, including Eco-Index project profiles.