Vera Burgi Interview | Thinking Animals United

February 2017

A TIDE OF HOPE

Vera Bürgi is Managing Director of OceanCare – a non-profit organization based in Switzerland and committed to marine wildlife protection worldwide. After studying the history of art in Lausanne and Zurich, Vera applied her communication skills advocating for the Tibetan cause, and in theater public relations, before joining OceanCare in 2003. Through her work at OceanCare, she promotes respect for the biodiversity and beauty of our blue planet.

How does someone who lives in a country like Switzerland which doesn’t see many immediate effects of environmental degradation, come to care about nature and its problems? Especially the ocean, since Switzerland is a landlocked country.

Switzerland is an extremely beautiful and diverse country. Its nature is breathtaking with water, forests, mountains all around us. It’s a rich country not only in terms of money, but in terms of natural landscapes. So there’s a very strong connection with nature. Maybe it also has a lot to do with the feeling of being connected with the natural world. At least that was my personal experience that led me to join OceanCare. For me it doesn’t matter if it’s the forest or the ocean – it’s all part of the planet.

OceanCare was founded by Sigrid Lüber, and her story started with an encounter with free-living dolphins. She was working in a completely different field, but then she and her husband went diving in the Maldives, and in the open ocean they encountered a school of dolphins. All of a sudden, surrounded by these amazing presences, she realized that she wanted to become an advocate on their behalf. Shortly afterwards, she founded OceanCare.

OceanCare has been committed to marine wildlife protection since 1989. Through research and conservation projects, campaigns, environmental education, and involvement in a range of important international committees, OceanCare undertakes concrete steps to improve the situation for wildlife in the world’s oceans. In 2011, OceanCare was granted Special Consultative Status on marine issues with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. www.oceancare.org

One of the principles of your organization is “small is beautiful”. I understand it’s not just an abstract concept, but a model that has proven to be successful. Many organizations, many non-profits may be interested in learning more about it.

In my experience, when you work united with just a few people, and you have the freedom, flexibility of sensing what needs to be done, what is the right place, the right time for things to happen, it makes you, in the fast times we live in, very adaptable. I think it only works if you have good people focusing on one shared vision. Which is precisely the case with OceanCare: we’ve been through a lot of processes, not always easy ones, but it was worth going through them. This is only possible for individuals who are not too concentrated on themselves, but have the ability to go beyond and work toward a common vision. It’s not easy for a small team, but if people can give their best, show their full ability, then even with five people you can do some incredible work.

OceanCare has an impressive record, but you can’t be working alone, just your small team. Who are people that help you, e.g. supply you with information from different regions of the world?

If people can give their best, show their full ability, then even with five people you can do some incredible work.

It’s a whole process that has a lot to do with credibility. If people know that they can trust you with information and that you will respect their needs, then it becomes possible to obtain very important information. Building such relationships of trust, of course, takes many years, you have to prove yourself. It’s a very sensitive field. We depend on the information we are receiving, so that’s something we stay very alert and attentive to.

We also make retreats, discuss our values, actively question ourselves on what our core values are. They are not just written on paper, they are essential in our everyday work. That’s why now, after nearly thirty years of expertise in ocean conservation and tireless work, OceanCare has a solid reputation and is therefore being asked to join networks and initiatives throughout the world.

Another thing people like about our organization is that we are building an ‘umbrella’ for many experts and projects working towards the goals we share. At OceanCare, we are not concerned if it’s us who get all the credit for the work we do. It’s not about us, but about the common vision that we have. I think that’s maybe what makes it attractive for other people to join in: they are not “suffocated’ by our organization, but become part of OceanCare as much as we are. We collaborate with over fifty independent partner organizations around the world in science, advocacy, campaigning and education. OceanCare can only be what it is through this incredible accumulation of potentials.

How do you involve the general public (if at all)? I know you have an interesting approach to that.

We, humans, are now creating problems for the environment at such a fast pace, on such a large scale, that the work organizations like ours do through international fora, research, and conservation measures is not enough, we can never catch up. You extinguish a small fire and get a big bushfire coming from another side. It’s important to do what we do, but to really move forward we need a paradigm shift. We need a different mindset, different values. There needs to be almost a revolution from where we are now. This doesn’t involve only decision-makers. We can’t delegate everything to decision makers or scientists. Generally speaking, we can no longer ‘delegate’ – each and every one of us has to be part of the transition. This is where environmental education becomes very important. It helps people to understand issues, to understand how important their voice and contribution is. That’s why, for instance, even with little children, who are very engaged, open, interested… we let them come to the office, we sit together, they get special attention, we take them seriously, and we let them know: what you can do is really good, really needed.

We organize lectures, invite speakers, we have a website, we’ve become very active in social media; we cooperate with travel agencies to help them with guidelines for sustainable travel; we work a lot with the media. We have in-depth information on ocean conservation, so a new version of our website that has been launched last October is almost like a library on the very broad field of ocean conservation. It’s also a petition site. In everything we do, we are always guided by a bigger vision.

What is very common in our time is that with all these glossy magazines, rich people, and celebrities, many of us tend to think: “These people are important, they are the real movers and shakers, they are different from me, and I’ll never become one of them.” We can be their spectators, they are like kings and queens, and we are their ‘people’. For me, this concept is wrong. I believe that every single one of us, every single person has some tools, has a gift, holds a key to something valuable, and we need all those keys to work together. We have to empower people so that everyone is able to join in. Then people start to offer what they have to offer.

We can’t delegate everything to decision makers or scientists. Generally speaking, we can no longer ‘delegate’.

Let me ask you about the way you frame your messages. One of your landmark victories was when the Japanese whale meat market plummeted after OceanCare published a study about the toxicity of the meat from marine mammals which represented a major health risk to the Japanese public. You used only factual data, no sensationalism, and achieved a remarkable result. Is it part of your strategy to rely primarily on facts and very rational arguments?

Yes, as much as we can. It’s not the only approach we use, but we try in general to move as far away as possible from controversy, from painting a black and white picture. This is also why at international fora, one of our strategies is to let people save face – which is extremely important in the case of Japan, for instance. If you smack people in the face with your arguments, they harden in response. I would do the same, so I understand them. We have to find ways to move forward on the basis of mutual respect. This allows to make one step after another in a good direction. We know that the Japanese are very sensitive when it comes to food, their demands, and tastes. It’s very bizarre for them to think of these animals as being poisoned by what we dump into the oceans. We used this fact as an argument to stop killing them. If you think of the conditions the oceans and marine life are in, we should go beyond simply expressing empathy and stop dumping things into the ocean.

We started stressing more and more that we depend vitally on the oceans.

“OceanCare” can be interpreted both as “people caring about oceans,” and the oceans somehow “taking care” of us, being a nourishing environment, a basis of life. When will we, collectively as humanity, learn to view the ocean this way?

I think we are in a time when a lot of fragments are starting to come together. The blue economy or the green economy – this is what you have in mind, probably. There is a shift that we all sense is happening right now. The conditions are ripe to move forward, to use the energy that is within us really. It helps us to self-organize and act at the height of our potential. I think there’s a lot of movement in that direction, and we are starting to see, to feel the consequences. The issue of Climate Change is having a tremendous effect. It is getting people to move and to realize in their everyday lives that these are not just words, not only a hypothesis, but we are now experiencing an extreme shift. It starts to enter our consciousness. This is a good time to think of, as you said, “ocean care”, an ocean that takes care of humans…

…and is a major source of life for them.

Right. Our motto is “For healthy living oceans” – in our communication with the public we started stressing more and more that we depend vitally on the oceans, as a source of water, a source of life.

Seeing everything that is going on with the oceans, what helps you to retain a degree of optimism about their future?

There’s one thing about me, I don’t know the reason myself – I’ve always been optimistic and had a vision of what I wanted to see happen. But it’s also a choice: not to give in to negative thinking. With such a short life, with so much that I’ve been given in life, living in Switzerland, in a stable country, with the education I have, with the opportunities open to me, also as a woman, to have this free life, to be able to do what I feel is the right thing to do. With all that, it’s a conscious choice that I don’t want these resources to be wasted. Instead, I put them to work toward the change that I want to see in the world. There’s no guarantee that I will see what I want to see, but I am doing my part.

Today we are starting to understand what is about to happen. There are some studies and the wider audience may also be interested in films – for instance, I strongly recommend Tomorrow, I think it’s a wonderful film…they all point out that we have only about twenty years to rethink and change the ways we affect the environment, and if we don’t, we have eighty years before the climate spirals out of control, and we won’t be able to do anything about it, which is mind-blowing. We are coming to a point where it will be too hard for us to cope, too much for us to take if we are stuck in negative thinking. So that’s where previously unthinkable ideas start to catch on because they are like anchors in these challenging times. People need them. And the unthinkable, happily enough, in all its beauty, is now starting to happen. There’s a lot of evidence of growing awareness. There’s a movement that has a potential to change a lot for the better and to make us happy.

Another source of my optimism is the natural world itself, more specifically the world of plants. Beside my work with OceanCare, I like observing and studying plants, feeling this order behind their infinite variety and intricate ‘designs’. When you go deep into nature, you start to see that it has a certain order that is inherent to it, even at these times of extreme chaos. Nature’s ability to self-organize is a source of much hope.

Previously unthinkable ideas start to catch on because they are like anchors in these challenging times.

144983677032472Interviewed by Nik Makharadze, freelance writer living in Moscow.

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