If you're smart, you've made the choice to stay at home the past few weeks…
Editor’s note: Last month I had the pleasure to interview Tara Waters Lumpkin the Executive Director of Taos, New Mexico (USA) – based Izilwane about her work to create a global online community sharing stories to connect humans with the natural world and help other species flourish.
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Bala Dada was stunned when he saw how many trees had been cut down.
“I was in awe, this time not by the mystery and magnificence of the forest but by how much of it was missing. A study in 2010 on changes to the Kagoro Forest has shown that at least 24 percent of the forest was lost between 1987 and 2005,” he wrote in a 2012 article for the website Izilwane – Voices for Biodiversity.
The development professional, a native Nigerian, was on a project to provide sustainable communication technologies, education and Internet access to several thousand people in remote areas of Nigeria when he came upon the destruction surrounding his ancestral village. Hungry timber companies had moved in after bribing government officials and ravaged the high plateau of its natural resources.
He needed a way to get the world out. He needed a way to speak to other Nigerians about what he saw and wanted the rest of the world to know as well.
Taos, New Mexico-based Izilwane gave Bala Dada a way forward.
“The power in this is not just that he was given a voice and a platform but that Nigerian youth sitting in a Lagos cyber-café can now see a local person expressing local concerns. Bala Dada is not an outside biologist. He a local,” says Tara Waters Lumpkin the founder of Izilwane – Voices for Biodiversity an online magazine dedicated to giving a voice to the people who are speaking up for biodiversity.
After a long career in international conservation and several years learning and working on somatic experience healing for traumatized people, Lumpkin saw an unfulfilled need.
“I became convinced that there was a need for people to share their stories about their experiences with other species and the environment in order to awaken us to our animal natures,” she explained to me in an email several days before we shared stories at the Taos Cow. “This would not only heal us, it could potentially heal nature and help other species. At this time, human beings are causing the sixth great extinction of species.”
Lumpkin spent a number of years testing this idea, first in South Africa with filmmaker Debra Denker and a wide variety of local citizens. It was there that the name Izilwane was found. It is a Zulu word for “animals”.
“Our goal was to help individuals from disparate backgrounds speak out and be heard on the issue of the need for human beings to relate more closely to nature and other species.”
Thinking that the internet was the best way to get the word out, the website for Izilwane went live in late 2010 staffed only by volunteers and funded entirely by Lumpkin.
“Our volunteers are key,” Lumpkin explained to me. “We have Kat Pardo as our managing editor since the summer of 2011. Robert Katz is our photography and video editor. He has been on board since the summer of 2010. We have a number of other volunteers but without these two, we wouldn’t be able to function.”
With sections in both Spanish and French up and running, in July Izilwane will make the official shift to its new name Izilwane – Voices for Biodiversity. “We’re at an important juncture to create a truly sustainable operating organization,” Lumpkin explained. “If we can grow our audience enough, we could move to sponsorships. We have no infrastructure so we can be mean and lean all the way.”
“I’m coming from the place where, people have to have a voice. One of the places we’ve been most effective is in helping people to tell their story. Yes, we help them with editing the piece but we also help them actually tell the story they want to tell.”
“See, people already pretty much know what they want to say. We just help to bring it out. And think about it, for a young writer or activist or a student, the Izilwane website is a great place to learn, get experience and start to build a portfolio of published clips.”
Lumpkin settled in Taos and based Izilwane there because of both the amazing outdoors as well as the challenges Taos represents.
“There is so much going on environmentally here. Look at what is at our doorstep,” she said turning and pointed at the Colombine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area. “And hey, if we can get this type of thing going in Taos, the we can do anything, anywhere.”
In the summer of 2011 Izilwane sponsored and ran the “Taos Youth Biodiversity Art Project” in Arroyo Seco. The project offered a free art course and focused on teaching young Taoseños the value of biodiversity. The result was the online gallery Children and Conservation: An Art Gallery from Nature. Other photo and art galleries from Izilwane have been published throughout the state and the country.
“I’d really like to see more local participation,” Lumpkin pressed.
It seemed true to me. What a wonderful opportunity Izilwane is for inspired students to get their voices out there, get some training and start building a portfolio of publications.
“We can’t pay our contributors right now but that is our goal.”
The story of American primatologist Paula Pebsworth and her relationship with Izilwane is a prime example of what Lumpkin and her dedicated volunteer staff hopes to achieve with the voices for biodiversity.
Pebsworth studies self-medication among primates. She got her start working with Madagascar lemurs about twenty years ago and then moved on to study chimpanzees in Uganda. After that, her curiosity took her all over the world seeing how our close animal relatives both tested potential food sources and discovered or passed down treatments for common ills within the population. Izilwane was key in helping Pebsworth get her discoveries to the general public. Then Pebsworth actually became the story. Thanks to Izilwane, a video about the researcher was shown this year in the Taos Shortz Film Festival and her important work is hitting a much more extensive audience.
“Izilwane is not just an E-zine. In fact, one of the struggles we face is that there is no language for what we are doing. We are creating a global online community focused on biodiversity. If we can change the perspective on humanity’s place in the natural world we will start to see big strives forward.”
Bala Dada seemed plaintive in his Izilwane-based appeal.
“Driving along the twisty dipping roads is not the same anymore and will never be, not in my lifetime, at least. Gone are the massive trees that formed a canopy over the road, gone are the monkeys scurrying across the road. Gone is the way of life of a people, gone are the dreams and memories of many generations.”
Lumpkins and the Izilwane volunteers are dedicated to breaking the reader out of the passivity that allows these tragedies to continue and to helping protect what was lost in places like the villages of the Nigerian plateau.
This article first appeared in the Taos News on June 8, 2013