To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, Landscapes News is publishing a series of stories honoring women with a laurel for their dedication to improving the landscape. In this profile, Landscapes News contributor, Koen Kusters writes about Maggie Muurmans. Check Viewpoint all week for more laurel recipients.
Maggie Muurmans has spent a lifetime fighting on behalf of sea turtles, dedicated to the conservation of natural habitats on both land and sea.
Over the years, she has received many accolades for her work in Central America and Indonesia, including awards for protecting the giant reptiles from egg poachers.
Muurmans is grateful for the recognition, but stresses that conservation is never the work of just one individual. She believes real and long-lasting impact can only be achieved through working with local communities and governments.
Muurmans, who studied wildlife management at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, started her career at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the channel island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy in France – taking care of gorillas and orangutans. Eventually, she realized she wanted to work with animals in the wild.
She set out for Central America, where she worked on a project for the Endangered Wildlife Trust to protect nesting sea turtles on one of Costa Rica’s pristine beaches. The experience taught her that nature conservation cannot be achieved without the involvement of local people.
“Any project to prevent poaching of sea turtle eggs will fail without the buy-in of local communities,” Muurmans said, describing the tenuous nature of unenforced wildlife protection.
After several years in Central America, Muurmans moved to Pulau Banyak, an archipelago of tiny islands off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. There too, endangered sea turtles were threatened by egg poaching. Using insights and lessons learned from her sojourn in Costa Rica, she developed a locally driven ecotourism project, turning the turtles into an economic asset for local communities.
After years of working tirelessly on the islands – training local people, dealing with regional politicians, engaging tourist operators, to cite a few examples – the project had grown into a sustainable enterprise, entirely run by local people.
In 2010, with the project standing on its own legs, Muurmans decided it was time to move on. She accepted a job offer from the Centre for Coastal Management at Griffith University in South East Queensland, on the Eastern coast of Australia.
Because of her experience working with local communities, she was asked to become the “coastal community engagement program coordinator,” which put her squarely in a role as intermediary between the City of Gold Coast Council and local communities along the shoreline.
“In essence, working with communities in Australia is not different from working with communities in Indonesia or Central America,” she said. “The issues are often the same: There is tension between communities and local governments rooted in misunderstanding, and this leads to conflicts.”
It is the same everywhere, Muurmans said, citing a recent conflict she witnessed among local people as demonstrative of the need for better collaboration and communication.
“We worked with a group of enthusiastic local people to plant trees on the dunes to prevent erosion,” she said.
“They spent their free Saturday under the hot Australian sun planting seedlings on the dunes, only to find that all the seedlings were pulled out a couple of days later. It was the work of their neighbors – people who were afraid that the trees would block their view to the ocean, and that the value of their house would go down.”
Most Australians live on the coast, and an enormous tourism industry puts the coastal ecosystem under a lot of pressure, she explained, adding that the government needs to work with local communities to protect the coastal ecosystems and prevent erosion.
Over the years, Muurmans learned that effective nature conservation requires action on multiple fronts, and collaboration with many parties.
“Working with the sea turtles, I came to realize that protecting one species is useless if the environment they live in is degrading, so I widened my focus to include ecosystems,” she said.
“Then I realized that getting things done with communities requires the involvement of local governments as well. It’s not as sexy as a sea turtle, but in my work with the local government I can make a much greater impact, by creating a bridge between local communities and policymakers, addressing local environmental issues.”
Although she is no longer in charge of the sea turtle project on Pulau Banyak, Muurmans still goes back as often as possible – not to run the show, but as a friend of the community.
The islanders offer her a warm home, just as they do for the sea turtles.