“In the past, we treated turtles like they were our enemy.”
I’m sitting on the wooden verandah of the ranger station at Haevo, a narrow black-sand beach in the Solomon Islands. Across from me sits Lynette Haehathe, one of the conservation rangers I’ve spent the past week with tagging leatherback sea turtles as they come up to nest. Shy and soft-spoken, her voice becomes more animated as she continues.
“All the men in the village would get out their axes and knives and they would kill the turtle. When the conservation started and we became rangers, we realized that the turtles were innocent… so I’m really happy to be a ranger to help save them, because their numbers are declining.”
Haehathe is one of the first women conservation rangers in the Solomon Islands. Last year, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) helped establish three women’s ranger groups at Haevo, Sasakolo, and Sosoilo. Together with their male colleagues, these women are helping to protect a critically endangered population of Western Pacific leatherback turtles.
It’s a historic accomplishment, but one that’s easy to underestimate. Women like Haehathe aren’t usually allowed to work in technical jobs alongside men. Changing cultural perceptions around gender is neither simple nor straightforward, and it can’t work without the support of the local community.
But the benefits to these women, and many others, are well worth the effort.
Why Conservation Needs Women
It’s late morning in the ranger camp. Haehathe and I returned a few hours ago from a full night’s work on the beach, searching for nesting leatherbacks. Below us, in the camp kitchen, I can hear the muffled sounds of some of the other women rangers washing dirty dishes and chopping vegetables for lunch. After staying awake all night, they’re still working. The men, meanwhile, are asleep.
It’s a situation common in Melanesian culture, where gender roles restrict women’s place in society. “The roles that women play are often domestic, they are at home with children, cooking, and other domestic-type work in the village,” says Madlyn Ero, who leads TNC’s gender equity work in the Solomon Islands.
Men hold the majority of the decision-making power in both homes and communities, and they dominate employment opportunities that require technical expertise, including work as conservation rangers.
“Right now, all of the conservation work goes to men, and only men,” says Jessica Haraputti, another ranger at Haevo. “We women have ideas as well, and we want the opportunity to work, like men. We want to be involved and have responsibility.”
Across the Pacific, women are routinely excluded from decisions surrounding natural resource management, including conservation, despite having deep knowledge of the natural world. Many organizations, including TNC, are working towards gender equity in their conservation programs. But achieving true and lasting equity isn’t as simple as mandating that women participate. It requires building programs in concert with local communities and adapting Western aspirations of equity with local culture.
Working the Melanesian Way
Haraputti and her fellow rangers started work in late 2022, but getting to that moment took years of preparation. “We have to work in a Melanesian context,” says Ero, “We need to have a lot of communication with the villages and gather everyone’s support. People in the village need to know what’s going on and feel involved, or it would harm the conservation work.”
Ero and her TNC colleagues run awareness trainings in the nearby communities that focus both on the conservation work — why leatherbacks are threatened, and how their community can help — but also on why and how women’s involvement is important.
“You have to understand that the concept of gender balance is new in our culture, and it’s an introduced concept,” says Judith Siota, Chairlady for Haevo’s conservation committee. “So when the funders want to give more money to promote gender equity, we have to explain that to people.”
Those discussions allow the community to voice any concerns early on, and help design a leatherback monitoring program that works in tandem with local culture and customs.
Ero works hard to normalize gender equity from the very beginning by requiring equal numbers of men and women at community meetings. Without a firm requirement, only men attend. “Having male TNC staff there to support the women to get involved is also helpful, because it visibly sends a message to the men [in the community] that it’s safe for [women] to be part of the group,” says Ero.
Changing Culture, One Conversation at a Time
In Haevo, one of the most pressing issues for the community was ensuring that women rangers had suitable housing.
“Culture-wise, men and women should not mix,” says Siota. She explains that it’s not appropriate for women and men to live together in the same building, or use shared bathrooms and laundry facilities. “It’s a very new situation for us, so we really have to think about how we can have men and women working together.”
TNC staff are working with Haevo community to build a second ranger station next door to the existing facility. Community leaders granted permission to use the land, and TNC secured additional funding for building materials. In the meantime, the women rangers are renting rooms in a house nearby when they’re on duty.
Separate living facilities will help make the men and women more comfortable, but it will also help alleviate the concerns of the ranger’s spouses. Some of the ranger’s spouses, men and women alike, have concerns about their partners working alongside members of the opposite sex. In small communities, gossip can easily lead to false accusations of infidelity, creating embarrassment for all parties and jeopardizing the conservation work.
Separate accommodation helps alleviate those concerns, as does structuring the ranger work schedules so that two women are always conducting their work together, instead of mixed-gender pairings. The current roster schedules men to work overnight, when turtles are nesting, and women in the morning shift to locate any nests missed overnight and check the hatcheries for evidence of predation.
Open dialogue with the community — and the women — continues now that the women’s ranger program is up and running.
After several weeks of work, hiking along the beach and kneeling down to gather turtle eggs in skirts, Haraputti and her colleagues ask if comfortable pants could be added to the ranger uniform. Melanesian women typically wear long skirts, but if pants were part of the official work uniform, they said, then it would be more acceptable from a cultural standpoint.
Our discussions with the women also highlighted that the current 10-day ranger shifts might be too long for women with families, so TNC staff are exploring alternate schedules that will allow the women to work an equal number of days, but in shorter shifts to allow them time for domestic work.
Ero says that one of her goals is to make ranger work more family-centered and family-friendly, so that rangers can bring their partners and children along while they work. “The aim is to build relationships, gather support, and create a sense of family amongst the rangers,” Ero says, “which will help cut down on the suspicion and jealousy.”
Expanding Opportunities for Women
After months of community consultation and training, nine women rangers are now working Haevo, along with four others at Sasakolo and three at Sosoilo.
They’re soaking up every opportunity to learn, working alongside the men to locate nesting turtles and collect data. “For each turtle that nests we fill out the data sheet, writing down the date, time, how many eggs she laid, and the numbers of her PITT and flipper tags. We record everything,” explains Anita Rosta Posala. “After she completes laying we relocate the eggs, inside a bucket, to a safe place in the hatchery.”
For many of these women, economic opportunity is just important as conservation work. “I became a ranger because it’s important to me, and also it’s an easy way to make some money,” says Haraputti. “For those of us that live at home, out in the community, it’s very hard to find a source of income.”
Most of the employment opportunities in the Solomon Islands are located in the country’s capital, Honiara, about a 10-hour boat journey from Haevo. Young women often have no choice but to stay at home, unemployed, until they marry and start a family.
TNC is looking for ways to provide other economic opportunities for women. Most Solomon Islander women don’t have their own bank accounts, which limits their control over their savings. TNC is transitioning to a direct-deposit model for ranger wages, instead of cash, and providing assistance to any rangers who need help opening an account.
TNC is also looking for ways to provide other opportunities for skills development, like sponsoring learning exchanges with other ranger groups in Australia and the Pacific Islands. Such opportunities would provide not only valuable skills development but also access to a passport and the experience of international travel.
“I am one of the first women rangers, and eventually, I want to become an expert on leatherbacks,” says Posala. “I’d like to get more training because I want to help train other women rangers in the country.”
After spending a week with these women, it’s clear that the most important benefit is one that can’t be quantified: they’re proud of themselves, and they’re proud of the role they’re playing to help other women.
“When they picked us to be the first women rangers, I was really proud to represent my village,” says Haraputti. “I’m really happy, because if I hadn’t become a ranger, I’d still be stuck at home, struggling. Now I feel free.”
You can learn more about Haevo’s women rangers, in their own words, in this story.