I remember watching the fishermen dock their boats after a long day on the water. The mood was somber, and there was sense of defeat. The fish, the fishermen told me, seemed to be getting smaller and scarcer with every season.
Theirs is a world where every day they must grapple with economic uncertainty and food insecurity. This is the looming specter that chokes the air of Selayar Island.
Selayar sits within an archipelago in the Flores Sea in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The island is eight miles wide and fifty miles long and surrounded by coral reefs, which are home to a rich variety of marine life. The land is a mountainous limestone, covered in dense forest. Selayar is adjacent to Takabonerate, one of the most cherished marine national parks on the planet.
The people of Selayar live in communal and devoutly religious villages, towns, and small cities that range from a hundred people to nearly twenty thousand. They rely on the coral reefs for fishing, local medicines, costal protection, and tourism.
The past few decades have been dreadful for them.
Climate change, pollution, and destructive fishing practices are wreaking havoc on the natural habitat, with catastrophic effects on their food system, economy, and society. Aid groups have been coming to Selayar for the better part of two decades to help various communities try to avert the impending collapse of their ecosystem.
The island is riddled with remnants of abandoned assistance projects. Broken solar panels, rusting desalination equipment, and vacant ports all serve as consistent reminders of aid that came and left.
“Foreigners come and tell us what to do. They come and leave solar panels. The panels break a week after they leave. Who is going to fix them?” reflected my Selayarese colleague (let’s call her Maharani). “They do not teach us anything. They do not listen to us. The entire world sends their trash here. The other villages destroy our reefs bomb fishing. Our children are going to starve.”
Selayar is a vivid but familiar example of the shortcomings of much previous development work, which offered short-term solutions but no lasting, systemic change. What would durable success in this context look like?
When we stepped back, we understood that our ultimate goal was long-term change for the Selayarese. And we had to acknowledge that as researchers, we were a temporary feature of the Island.
Recently, my colleagues and I at the University of Queensland, along with a team from the World Bank, were recruited to help develop an intervention aimed at improving sustainability, food security, and well-being on the island.
We knew we didn’t want to replicate the failures of previous efforts. When we stepped back, we understood that our ultimate goal was long-term change for the Selayarese. And we had to acknowledge that as researchers, we were a temporary feature of the Island.
A one-off behavioral intervention wasn’t going to do. We wanted the communities to grow stronger, more adaptable, and more resilient. To achieve this, we needed a bottom-up approach that empowered the Selayarese to make self-sustaining adjustments incrementally over time.
Specifically, our work, in partnership with the Selayarese, aimed to reduce food insecurity, protect the marine biodiversity, improve community well-being, and increase communal resiliency and adaptability. This translated into three aims:
- Reduce plastic waste and destructive fishing, while simultaneously promoting sustainable behaviors.
- Increase psychosocial (noncognitive) skills like self-regulation, persistence, and cognitive flexibility, as well as adopting healthier habits like handwashing, less smoking, and positive mental health strategies (e.g., positive self-affirmations).
- Ensure the sustainability behaviors and psychological skills gained through the intervention would endure after our departure.
After a series of scoping trips, focus groups, stakeholder consultations, and survey research, we developed and implemented in several villages on the island a program called My Future My Oceans.
The program targeted women, who were found to be the most important social agents in the community. The program was multifaceted, but key components were the community working groups led by local women. The objectives of the group sessions included discussing barriers to sustainable behaviors, setting goals for sustainable activities, learning how to communicate positively with one’s family, and how to self-regulate emotions.
We observed positive changes. Plastic waste collection increased, meaning less went into the ocean. Participants reported a higher sense of life satisfaction and improvements in their relationships. We observed increases in prosocial behaviors and communal problem solving. Most importantly, participants felt empowered to self-identify as environmental stewards and champions in their villages. These changes persisted for two years after the intervention (when we collected our final data). One village was nominated for cleanest village in the entire country shortly after our intervention (they had never before been nominated). We were pleased with our findings, but we weren’t necessarily surprised.
Communities facing multiple, complex threats, like climate change, pollution, and food insecurity, don’t need one-off interventions. As behavioral scientists, we must ask ourselves how communities can thrive years after an intervention ends.
The project produced desirable effects because it was never fully about the environmental outcomes; the work was about building a better future for individuals and their families. My Future My Oceans focused on building social cohesion, social identity, and resiliency. The intervention empowered women and communities to take hold of their future and gave them some of the tools to do so. In the end, Maharani’s outlook changed from one of outrage and hopelessness to one of empowerment and optimism. “Before the program villagers weren’t aware of the issues,” she explained. “They would tell us we should not care about land that was not ours. Now all the families work together to create a clean environment.”
There are calls within the field of behavioral science to tackle bigger, thornier problems. The lesson I take from working on Selayar Island is that as we do so, we must broaden our approaches. Communities facing multiple, complex threats, like climate change, pollution, and food insecurity, don’t need one-off interventions. As behavioral scientists, we must ask ourselves how communities can thrive years after an intervention ends. We must think about how we can help spark long-term change within communities. If we don’t, we will leave behind our own versions broken solar panels and rusting equipment.
We must remember that humanity sits at the heart of every scientific endeavor. We must never lose focus of the effect changing behavior can have to a community or an individual. Beneath the science of behavior change are real stories and real lives.