Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson

Co-founder and Programme Manager, Shallow Waters, Koh Kong, Cambodia

What does your job involve?

We’re a very small team, initially it was just myself and my now husband (Luca) who set up Shallow Waters, so we’ve had to do everything!

We run Shallow Waters as a social enterprise, initially it involved setting up the business, understanding what we need to do with accounts, how to develop the project and how to employ staff.

At the moment my job role involves co-ordination of the volunteer programme, all of the staff on the ground and our very small team in the UK. I field all of the emails, make sure that everyone is communicating clearly, and ensure reports are written up on time. I also look after our social media; because Shallow Waters primarily advertises online, social media is an extremely important part of communicating with our target market – 18-30 year old volunteers looking to make a difference and do something really interesting when they travel.

So I do a bit of everything! These days a lot of time is spent sitting in front of the computer, but in the early days of setting up the project I did a lot of work with the community and forging relationships. It’s a varied role!

Sarah diving

What prompted you to set up Shallow Waters?

Myself and my co-founder both studied conservation. I studied Ecology and Conservation with Wildlife Biology at undergraduate level, and I knew that I wanted to do conservation in the long-run. For my masters degree I moved into communications – because I’m very interested in communicating conservation issues to the public, and getting people engaged with the environment; both on an international level, with the power of the Internet, as well as at a local level, where people are living with these natural resources.

I studied Ecology and Conservation with Wildlife Biology at undergraduate level, and I knew that I wanted to do conservation in the long-run.

So I did a masters in Science Media Production. During this I got a bit fed up with sitting behind a computer and talking about conservation and the associated problems, and really just wanted to go out and try it myself. Both myself and my husband decided that we wanted to do community conservation, since that’s a really important part of the conservation world but it is so often neglected, mainly due to the problems of funding for small-scale projects. We tried to think about how to sustainably fund an initiative, and we decided that a business would be the best way to do that.

Shallow Waters was set up as a social enterprise which turns over a profit primarily for the research project. We had the opportunity to buy some dive equipment in Koh Sdach, Cambodia, and after researching the archipelago we realised that there was a large fishery in the area, with big issues of illegal fishing and a lack of community engagement. Importantly the government had earmarked it to be a marine protected area; however there was no way for that to happen unless an NGO moved in. So we moved in as Shallow Waters, and partnered with some national NGOs in order to make sure that it was always a Khmer-based movement and that local people are always in charge. And that’s how the project got started!

Did you have any problems integrating into the local community and becoming an accepted presence in the area?

I think that one of the things which made us secure in our conservation efforts was the fact that the population of the island is 95% fishermen, and they were very aware of the unsustainable fishing practices that were taking place.

There are a lot of Thai and Vietnamese fishing boats which come into Cambodian waters which is illegal, but there was no real means of enforcement. So the community were extremely enthusiastic, and we have been quite amazed by the acceptance that we’ve been shown. We were quite careful about how we introduced ourselves in the beginning, but once we’d lived there for a while and started slowly introducing our ideas, local people were very supportive and they are the ones that have really enabled the community fishery to be set up.

It really helped having a Khmer NGO presence so that they could explain what was going on. We now have boundaries for the community fishery which have been signed by the government, so the boundaries are officially recognised, which is a big step forward.

Like many developing countries, there is a lot of corruption. But now we’ve got links with the government in the fisheries administration, the community has been able to communicate the corrupt practices that are going on.

There are still problems and there always will be, but things are improving. As the community gets stronger is more empowered, they’ll be able to take more action. We’ve had a lot of support from both the community and the government.

Environmental education day

How is the initiative going now, are you pleased with progress?

The business side of things started in 2012, so we’re still fairly new, but everything is going really well. We’re getting more and more volunteers and we’re managing to spread the word a bit more now that Luca and I have returned to the UK – it was quite hard to network when living on an island 5 hours away from anywhere!

The community outreach and education side of the project is really taking off – our Education Officer and Expedition Leader have been working with our Base Manager Sea (who is Koh Sdach born and bred), and he has been an amazing connection with the community because he is absolutely passionate about marine life. He has been able to share his passion with the local young people and been fundamental in developing the ‘Green Protectors’ – a marine conservation youth group on the island. They’ve made a video about the problem of pollution on the island; there’s no waste management on the archipelago, everything goes into the water. The video tries to communicate these issues to both the local community and elsewhere – they’ve already taken it to Phnom Penh to an international school as well. They can spread the message in a way that we never could.