On July 25, 2020, the Japanese freighter MV Wakashio crashed into a coral reef off the coast of the tropical archipelago nation of Mauritius. More than 1,000 tons of heavy bunker fuel onboard spilled into the Indian Ocean and damaged much of the country’s marine wildlife. In response to the MV Wakashio oil spill, Mauritians showed an unprecedented willingness to donate their time and resources to limit this disaster as volunteers cleaned up beaches and assisted government and non-profit organizations’ efforts to evacuate endemic plant species to safer places on the island.

More than 9,000 miles away in New York, Vero Couttee was looking for ways to help. Mauritius is Couttee’s home, the place where she fell in love with birds and started her journey as a conservationist. She felt stuck and started asking herself questions like, “What can I do quickly?” and “What skills can I contribute to help out the cause?” 

“I tell stories through geographic information systems (GIS), so that was what I decided to do in response to the crisis," says Couttee. "My story map included the efforts to mitigate the oil spill and all the nonprofits that were accepting donations. As a GIS storyteller, you always hear that ‘you can empower communities through GIS tools.’ I did not fully grasp how powerful it was until I used it to uplift my community's voices.”

For the past ten months, Couttee has worked on mapping solutions focusing on climate, coastal conservation and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). As a fellow in the Dangermond Fellowship program, Couttee’s technical and storytelling abilities assist Audubon’s scientists and policy experts to advocate for solutions that meet the needs of birds and people. Throughout her fellowship and deeper exploration of Esri StoryMaps, she has assisted and led multiple GIS projects like Climate Watch Boreal and Audubon’s Affinity and Employee Resource Group hub that add new meaning to ‘empowering communities through GIS tools.’ 

Ever since she started her conservation career ten years ago, Couttee has faced obstacles. Though she grew up on Mauritius, Couttee admits she was not always exposed to its beauty. Growing up, she remembers degraded habitats and the lack of healthy outdoor spaces in her community. During her time as an undergraduate at the University of Mauritius she discovered some of the most ‘magical,’ native ecosystems left on the island, but she also began to notice another issue plaguing the larger conservation movement in her country: the lack of community involvement in the conservation efforts and decision-making process. 

More often than not, in Mauritius the ‘experts’ informing policies, lawmakers, and management companies were European expats. And the very few scientists and conservationists on the ground, doing the research and overworking themselves in the field, were Mauritian. Couttee was not trained to control or influence environmental policy decisions; moreover, she says that the environmental management portion of her degree was structured in a way that glossed over the definitions of environmental policies without discussing its real-world application. That is why she made it her goal to pursue a master’s degree that coupled her interests in biodiversity and conservation with policy. In 2018, after more than five years of applying to scholarships and programs worldwide, Couttee got that opportunity when she received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue her environmental advocacy interests at the University of Albany. 

Bird banding at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve while pursuing her master’s degree in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Policy at the University at Albany in 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Vero Couttee

“A lot of my fieldwork in Mauritius and the neighboring Seychelles Islands was influenced by policies, lawmakers, management, and all these things that I was not trained to understand. There was also a cruel lack of critical thinking around the impact of policies, which for me was a deliberate attempt at maintaining the status quo while turning a blind eye towards environmental injustice,” says Couttee. “When you listen to local communities or someone from a place that has tremendously suffered from anthropogenic destruction, you give them power. If you are putting so many barriers in between people that actually want to do the job and care for the environment, this field is never going to make any progress.”

Couttee navigates the conservation field as someone who sees the necessary intersectionality between empowering communities and humanizing GIS. One of her top priorities as she concludes her Dangermond fellowship is to continue her work in these areas and ‘question systems in place.’ As she waits to hear back from other fellowship programs, Couttee will simultaneously ‘fly solo’ and launch an independent, EDI-focused project management consulting business. The inspiration behind the aspiration to do both—be an independent consultant and pursue full-time opportunities—comes from a realization she made when creating the MV Wakashio oil spill story map: “Making an impact starts and ends with me.”

"Once you are given a chance to be part of something bigger, you can become an active stakeholder that can influence decisions. This is what I mean by my goal of empowering marginalized communities,” says Couttee. “I always felt that the only way for me to have an impact was to be part of an organization. When the oil spill happened, I had an outlet to tell my stories, I want that for everyone in a similar position. I want to put tools in communities’ hands and let them build their own platforms the way that best serves their community needs.”

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