INTERVIEW with Dr Tim Coles of Operation Wallacea

My biggest personal developments in conservation have come from my time working with Operation Wallacea, which began in Mexico in the summer of 2012. I first met Dr Tim Coles, the founder of Opwall when I joined the video team at HQ at the end of the research season, and happily I must have managed to impress him with a short film I called a ‘trailer’ for their new site in Mexico. Tim is unquestionably experienced in the real-world application of big conservation dreams – in fact one of my favourite things about him is his relentless pursuit of world-changing ambitions that – he claims – don’t even approach the guise of ‘work’ because he enjoys them so much. His sophisticated Oxfordian approach to this not-work has made him & all of his endeavours remarkably successful, bolstered by an environmental philanthropy at heart. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the OBE that Tim received a mere day or two after we first met.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

Most recently I joined Tim for one of his talks as he travels the country being an ambassador for his brand of conservation science, and we got a few minutes before the students arrived to catch-up in this semi-formal interview:


OK so the first thing I’d really like to know – and somehow I don’t think I’ve asked you before – is, how did you start Opwall – where did it come from?

Well it started with a grant from HSBC in Singapore, and they wanted a project that related to wildlife, and I took them a concept of using volunteers to survey remote areas. They funded a feasibility study and we looked at the Wallacea region; that was an obvious place to look as it has so many endemic species and very very few scientists have been there, so effectively if things were going to get lost, that was probably the place they were going to get lost in. So, we came back, wrote the report up – it was fantastically optimistic – and they actually said “Go and do it!” So we then had to learn how to actually bring students, and how to get these projects to work in the field.

So did they approach you, or was it your idea looking for somewhere to go?

It was my idea looking for somewhere to go.

Ah, so where did the idea come from?

Well it’s basically just a look around in Britain – we’ve got more information about our wildlife than anywhere else in the world. And the reason for that is not because we have more scientists, it’s because we have this army of volunteers that go out weekend after weekend, doing everything from click beetles to wintering birds, and producing detailed atlases. And it was really trying to use some of that effort and apply it to the tropics, where they didn’t have that sort of man-power available, to see if we could make a difference.

That makes an awful lot of sense. Did you have a lot of experience working with volunteers before you went into that?

Absolutely not, and that was the problem. Because I could see how we could get the science working well, and how we could get academics out to build projects, and get students to learn from them and so forth, but what we didn’t know was how to attract students. So that took some learning. I thought you’d just put an advert in the paper and lots of people would turn up, but they don’t. It has to be much more active than that.

Yeah it can be a tricky thing to do to appeal to students. So how far has it come? I mean, it’s come an awfully long way, but what are the greatest things that you feel that you’ve achieved with Operation Wallacea in the 18 years that it’s been running now?

Well, firstly making it fairly stable. We had 3000 students out last year, we’re now operating this year in 14 different countries, we’re funding 200 academics, we’ve co-funded 63 PhD students already, it’s clearly working. And the science outputs – 232 papers just from the last few years have come out of this program, including a couple in Nature, and some others in high-profile academic journals. They even used Opwall data at the COP20 meeting in Lima last year – when the Peruvians were asked to produce a dataset that demonstrated the effect of climate change, they used Opwall data. So the science bit’s working very well, and the conservation outputs are beginning to come as well. Remember the whole purpose of this is not just to produce papers for scientists, or a good time for the students in the field, the purpose behind it is to gather data in a form that can then be used in conservation interventions. So we’ve had some significant funding now from the world bank, and the Darwin Initiative and GEF and others that get projects going, and we have some really big projects just in the pipeline now that are just about to come to fruition.

Wonderful. Does that include the Carrageenan farming in Inodnesia? That’s one of the most impressive stories about Opwall that I’ve ever heard you tell, it’s a great, great achievement.
[NOTE: Carrageenan is a very basic component of almost every mass-produced product in the world. Go look at anything in your cupboard – it’s very likely got Carrageenan in it.]

We’re very nearly there now. The problem is, at the moment they’re growing seaweed on ropes around the edge of the island where we’re working. At the moment they get a terrible price for it from the middleman and essentially all they’re doing is growing it, drying it and then shipping it out to the Phillippenes to have the carrageenan extracted. We met a guy who is fantastic at developing plants and processes, he came down and developed a technique for extracting the carrageenan on-site using acids and alkalis. The advantage of that technique is that, firstly, he did it on-site, so then everybody got factory-gate instead of farm-gate prices, but also because the end result of it is an effluent which is NPK fertiliser, and that’s what they’re short of on the island. So he had a process that not only added the value of the process on-site but provided the fertiliser they needed for the island. We proved this at the lab-scale, the hold-up has been getting it proved at the pilot-plant stage, and that’s now happening. It’s currently being built in Sumartra, at a university there. They have funding for 11 full-scale plants, assuming that works, and that’s all going through a group in Indonesia that’s ensuring that anyone who’s granted a licence has to link it to protection of the reefs. Because remember this whole business started because we needed a method of being able to fund the buy-out of fishing licences on a reef to try and reduce fishing effort. So what we don’t want to do is just create a process that’s going to massively help seaweed farmers – that’s fantastic, but the whole purpose is to protect the reefs. And this provides the financial clout than enables you to buy-out the fishing effort.

That’s the phenomenally cool part of it – that everything wins from it. Do you have any other such examples of really tangible conservation victories?

Yes, I think using all the information that we have at these sites and putting it together for some of these carbon-trading schemes. So, for example, in Honduras we’ve just packaged all the information together on the biodiversity, on the carbon-value of the forests, and on the societal impacts. Once that’s verified – that’s the process we’re currently going through – that can then be sold on the open market and it’s worth $3.5 Million per year, for 20 years, so that’s $70Million. That money’s going in to protect the forest, but also primarily to create income for local communities, linked to them protecting their forest.

And that couldn’t happen without students doing the work – impossible.

It’s a brilliant way of doing it; at the core of all this is that we can’t really protect Nature and biodiversity without protecting the people that live alongside it. That’s one of the most fascinating elements of conservation in my opinion, it’s the way to get the most people involved and on it’s side.
That brings me on to something I really want to ask you, and that’s what do you think is the greatest obstacle, the greatest challenge for conservation globally, in general?

Wow, that’s a tricky one isn’t it. Well, I think it’s people not realising this connection between local people needing a financial connection, needing a financial benefit from protecting their forests or their reefs or their species – they’re often very proud of them, but if you can’t feed your family then you’re going to go hunting or you’re going to go fishing, or you’re going to cut down the forest or whatever. And so, I think one of our big successes was in Indonesia, where we tried village contracts. Essentially the whole village agreed there would be no logging, no hunting, no change to the forest boundaries, and in exchange they got investment in businesses. So if they continue protecting the forest, they continue getting the investment; if they stopped doing that, the investment stopped. So there was a very clear connection. Now, we started that in Indonesia as a World Bank project, and it’s now been finished for 7 years, and that forest is still 0% cleared. 7 years on, there’s no reason why they can’t go in there, but there’s a financial incentive for them to not do it.

That’s wonderful. Are you looking at implementing a similar kind of thing elsewhere in the world?

Well that’s essentially what we’re trying to do in the rest of the forests in south-east Sulawesi. We’ve got an application in for that, and of course the Honduras project works exactly the same. People need a financial benefit. If they don’t have that financial benefit you can’t expect them to protect the forest. We didn’t did we – look at what happened in Britain and America – we didn’t do it.

Do you think there’s still a great driving for people in Britain to conserve the natural world or have we gone too far into being disconnected from it?

No I think there’s a massive drive here for people to protect their environment and to want to help on stuff like this. It’s just getting the message out and knowing that it is possible to go out there and do this sort of thing, and make a difference.

Brilliant. Something that we’re coming up to in a couple of weeks is COP21. What would you most like to see come out of that? What does the world need most of all to come out of people getting together and deciding how we’re going to save the planet?

Well, pretty well what’ve I’ve said before really. I’d like them to see this relationship between communities in poor, rural areas having a financial benefit from protecting their biodiversity.

How about in first-world applications, in terms of divesting from fossil-fuels and making people see that that is actually a very tangible, a very financially-beneficial way to go. How easy is it to get people to change their ways if you give them a financial alternative? Is there a lot of habit?

Well quite often they would actually like to protect their own forests, they’re proud of them, it’s just that they don’t have the financial incentives or even means to do that. So often you’re pushing at an open door. When we did this thing with the Indonesian villages, the biggest problem wasn’t getting them to accept it, the biggest problem was when I’d go to a village and they’d say “Fantastic, we’ll do that. We’ll stop all of our people logging – and we can stop the guys from the next village cos they’re causing havoc!” And we’d say “No no, please don’t do that” otherwise they’d start a war between villages. We were pushing at an open door, they wanted it, things were very clear for it. And I think you’re going to find that in a lot of places.


So there you go – there is hope. I’m very grateful to Tim for this interview, and for giving me such a great start in the world of conservation; something that I hope we will be able to continue for years to come. If you’d like to know more about what Opwall do, or how you can become one of those students that help them make such a difference, visit


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