Saturday 19 October 2013

Frontier : Why You Should Be Ashamed

The Society for Environmental Exploration (Frontier)
50-52 Rivington Street
London    EC2A 3QP
United Kingdom


This is in response to the departure of the Principal Investigator at Frontier’s site at Utende, Mafia Island.

It is in spite of my presumption that this letter will not be read and almost certainly not responded to that I write it anyways.  I originally wanted to rebuke Frontier for its woefully unprofessional, bizarrely ignorant and quite frankly cowardly approach to the situation which had developed.  But with a little time to think, it occurred to me that your actions were less awful than they were sad, less absurd than they were tragic.  I’ve lived on Mafia for two months.  I’ve been listening, I’ve been watching, and I’ve been gritting my teeth.  I had to commit doublethink to prevent myself from realising – or just opening my eyes to the fact – that your company has become a lie.  Not a hurt-no-one, corporate marketing white lie, but a dangerous, pernicious, and perpetual falsehood that breeds injustice like mushrooms on manure.  It should’ve been obvious to me that you’d do what you did to your staff and volunteers, I should have seen it coming from miles away.  It was barely concealed in the shadow between your two faces.

Do you know what everyone on Mafia thinks of Frontier?  You can scratch out all the things that you tell those volunteers you’re so desperate to enlist: community development, conservation, research, and “environmental exploration”.  Each of these is a joke that gets few laughs among the locals – perhaps the Nutella-seller in Kilindoni or the bar owner in Utende think its funny, but everyone else appreciates the true substance of what your organisation has become.  Here on Mafia, Frontier equals a bunch of spoiled, undisciplined, loud drunks who are, by emulation or selection or accident, so pitifully bored and insular and self-serving that they can’t notice when they’re no longer welcome, if they even care to think of what welcome means.  Frontier equates to a company that hasn’t done any real research on the island for a decade, who couldn’t care less that the reports just stack up on dusty shelves in the marine park offices while corrupt officials think only of how much of the next $20 visitor fee they can pocket.  Frontier means English teachers who are welcome and sorely needed, but who lack the resources, training, organisation or staying power to make any lasting difference.  Frontier means a fenced-off, segregated square of Utende where the privileged westerners contribute absolutely nothing else save for lousy pay to a few local employees, the occasional meal outside the walls, and, of course, many, many trips to the bar.  Frontier here is the worst boredom there can be: the kind of boredom that is a choice.  A wilful, measured and unabashed decision to receive your own myth and do nothing in return.

And so what happens when someone comes in to try to change this, to return the focus to science, outreach, principles and good work?  You eschew the chance and sign off on vendetta.  You reward the bullies and punish the bullied.  You are either unable to perceive that the gossip you hear is indeed a concerted, backstabbing effort on the part of lazy, sexist reactionaries and ambitious schemers who despise and torment the few who attempt to do what Frontier says it does; or, you know it is all juvenile politics, you know it’s shameful belligerence, and you suspend fairness anyways so you can join the cool gang.  Maybe you calculate you’ll get better volunteer reviews this way, or perhaps just less of a hard time in your London office.  So you confirm what so many suspect: that Frontier isn’t really a not-for-profit research organisation, but rather a profitless gap-year business.  You take the easy way out.  You slip into the clothes of a coward and hope no one will check the label.

I think you know damn well why you should be ashamed.  It isn’t really because you did the wrong or unfair thing, which you certainly did.  It isn’t that you miscalculated personal attributes on hiring, misjudged relationships on site, or mistook the low road for a high one.  It isn’t even because you made a mistake which in the long run could, and in all likeliness will, make local operations worse and hang your gap-year financiers out to dry.  Rather, it’s because you’ve spoiled the opportunity.  20 years ago you built something positive here, something meaningful, significant and promising.  Whether the habit of time has eroded your original spirit, or ambition has rusted your nobler intentions, or sheer atrophy has cowered you into an extractive, money-making machine, still there are opportunities to redress the imbalance, and restore some semblance of dignity to what you do, or at least say you do.

You killed that.  I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, it won’t be the last.  Maybe ignorance increases with revenue margins, and betrayal gets easier to hide with corporate size.  But there are only a certain number of deaths your institution can sustain before everyone realises that you yourself have become the corpse they forgot to bury.