Going North to get South

Monday 21. November 2022 | By: Alan Deverell

Sometimes you need to travel in the opposite direction to get to your destination.

Having grown up in the UK, opportunity always seemed to lay to the south, if only because the climate was bound to
be better. For me anywhere north of London evoked images of snowy wastelands and freezing temperatures.

So when I announced to my wife that I was off to northern Iceland to study Coastal and Marine Management, her immediate thought was that I had completely lost my mind.

But the decision to come and study at the University Centre of the Westfjords turned out to be life changing. It certainly transformed my career path. From having had zero experience of working in conservation, after graduating from UW, I found myself running a project to support a large national park in the middle of the Congo.

At least I had found my warm climate. The only trouble was after 15 months of studying Coastal and Marine Management, I was about as far from the ocean as it’s possible to get in Africa. What’s more, I hadn’t taken a single module on managing wildlife or anti-poaching techniques, let alone how to deal with armed rebel groups.

Still, I needn’t have worried. Those seemingly endless seminars on ecology, environmental, economics, politics, policy and the management of natural resources put me in good stead. It turns out the principles of conservation are pretty much the same whether you’re dealing with the seas around Iceland or the open savannahs and dense forests of Africa.

In the course of this first project the most important lesson I learned about conservation is that it’s all about people. After all, left to its own devices nature will just do its own thing. Add people to the mix and then you begin to have problems. But just as people are the cause of the problems, they are also the solution. So it’s only when you address their concerns, needs and aspirations that there is any chance of protecting the natural world.

This is the approach I have taken in my work ever since. After three years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo I ended up working in a number of different countries in Africa. The focus of my work has always been the same; providing support to wildlife authorities and local communities to preserve and manage their own resources. This has taken any number of forms from training rangers in biodiversity monitoring to drawing up management plans with park authorities to implementing community development programmes.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that any success was always achieved through encouraging others to find their own solutions; by ensuring that everyone had a voice; and acknowledging the fact that local people will always know more about their environment than I ever will.

With my latest project I’m once more back in the Congo. Maiko National Park in north east DRC is an exceptional place. It is one of those rare tropical rainforests, teeming with biodiversity that has not yet been decimated in the rush for natural resources; mainly because of its remoteness and inaccessibility.

However, this huge park of ten thousand square kilometres is facing enormous threats from illegal mining, poaching for bushmeat and the presence of armed groups. Hopefully it is not too late to save the forest and its iconic wildlife.

Fauna & Flora International, with a grant from the Bezos Foundation, is currently implementing a new five-year project to help manage the park so as to address these threats. Which is where I come in, as part of the team helping to lay the foundations for the new project and ensuring that the structures are in place for it to achieve its goals.

It will be a long road, with many risks and no guarantee of success. But if we are to preserve crucial ecosystems like Maiko we have to support local people and authorities to manage these natural resources - for all our sakes.

And for me, although I still haven’t managed to get any closer to the coast, I’m glad to be making use of all that invaluable education that I acquired at UW. Of course the climate helps.


Alan Deverell graduated with a degree in CMM from UW in 2011. He and his wife really took to the Westfjords and have a second home in Flateyri now.