An Interview with WiseOceans… Melissa Luna from Playa Viva
This week we chat to Melissa whose love of marine life and travel led her to realise that it was the human dimension of conservation that fascinated her. Melissa gives us plenty of great advice including how important getting involved is. Melissa certainly reckons that spending a great deal of her twenties “floating around”, i.e. volunteering, diving, and just exploring was all worth it as has led to where she is today.
Name: Melissa Luna
Job Title: Social and Environmental Officer
Organisation: Playa Viva
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
There isn’t one particular moment or experience that inspired me to pursue my career in marine conservation; in reality my career is constantly evolving just as I am, as I shift frames of mind and better understand where I’m most effective. It took a B.S. in Chemistry, multiple SCUBA diving certifications, and lots of international travel to realize that what fascinated me most about conservation was the human dimension. The reasons for the destruction and degradation I witnessed while traveling and diving in various parts of the world was always tied to people–to the social, economic, cultural, and political fabric of the countries in which these people lived.
I went on to pursue my master’s degree in that very subject (the nexus between people and conservation), but I didn’t think too far ahead as to what I would really “do” with it. I knew I wanted to work with communities. I knew I wanted to work “on the ground” in the tropics, near the sea. So, I ended up focusing my studies in graduate school on the social-ecological dimensions of marine conservation projects in the tropical developing world. Because of this, I’ve done some really interesting projects in the Philippines, Belize, and now Mexico.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
As mentioned before, what I always knew was that I really wanted to work “on the ground” overseas. It has been a priority of mine for quite some time — I wanted to be and live in the thick of it and not work from a desk in headquarters, feeling really detached from the work that’s happening far away. So, I’ve always tried to network and seek out as many opportunities as possible overseas (this doesn’t mean, however, that I never had to spend time working from one of those desks). What it did mean was that I spent a great deal of my twenties “floating around”, i.e. volunteering, diving, and just exploring. It was all worth it.
- How did you land your current job/position?
Back in 2015, a year after finishing my master’s in marine conservation, I was volunteering for a small conservation NGO in Belize when I was trying to decide what to do next. My interests at this point had really begun to shift toward the human dimension of conservation in general, not necessarily specific to the marine environment, although that’s where I began. My father, who works in sustainable tourism, told me about someone he met (David Leventhal, my now boss) who owned a boutique “regenerative” hotel in southern Mexico and that they did a lot of the things I’m passionate about: marine conservation, mangrove restoration, permaculture, and community development. He put us in touch, and the rest is history. David and I wrote up my job description together which was to–more or less–create a monitoring and evaluation program for Playa Viva whilst at the same time helping to further develop their existing community and environmental programs.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
The part I enjoy most is (predictably) working with the community. I’m fascinated to know more about them and in what ways a hotel like Playa Viva can serve. Playa Viva isn’t your normal hotel; it’s a pretty unique operation with a lot of room for flexibility, growth and change with the evolving needs of the area. Also, having an office steps from the ocean isn’t so bad either.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
Definitely. There’s a lot! Not to mention the ongoing environmental restoration work in mangroves/waterways and regenerative farming, we’ve just started running nutritional cooking workshops in the community and doing a kids yoga class, which feel super impactful. I also have an amazing team of volunteers who are all helping to further along our environmental and community development work. Our Turtle Sanctuary Coordinator has done an amazing job at working with the turtle sanctuary volunteers from the local community and building their capacity to be more effective environmental stewards. I have a “farm to table” intern and another sustainable agriculture intern that are doing amazing projects such as narrowing the gap between our farm and kitchen, building the capacity of our kitchen staff, working with local organic producers and start community gardens. Lastly, I have a volunteer doing a supply chain analysis of the seafood served at our restaurant (seeing if it’s “sustainable”) AND helping me with our social impact assessment (the hotel’s impact on the community). All of these feed into our community development areas of economic development, health, and education (including environmental awareness). Although we’re not out there taking water samples or doing fish counts, a hotel like Playa Viva can have a big impact on such a small community. We’re consuming resources, our beachfront is also the nesting grounds of sea turtles, we buy seafood from fishermen, and we’re actively trying to change environmental attitudes in a place where litter is ubiquitous and pesticides are used everywhere to grow food. I think all of these are examples of the many ways of how we are/can impact people’s lives as well as have a direct effect (hopefully for better and not for worse!) on the environment.
Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
I knew this was needed, but maybe not the degree to which it is: perseverance. This line of work isn’t easy no matter what — you hear a lot of doom and gloom on both the ecological and social side, so the work can get disheartening. However, being clear about what motivates to do what you do and the ability to persevere in all kinds of difficult situations are your most important resources.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Don’t let yourself get too discouraged at the fact that there’s so much work to be done and so much help needed, but it’s often difficult to find work in the niche you want to contribute to. It’s frustrating, but it just means you have to look for opportunities in all the unexpected places.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Get out there! Experience as much as you can. Figure out what you like and what you don’t like. There are so many ways of getting involved in helping to protect our seas and the people who depend on them. I never thought I would be working with a more terrestrial focus now — sometimes you forget how interconnected everything is. So, I would say, look in the places you wouldn’t normally look for opportunities (e.g. with me, I never thought to look at eco-hotels!). Always remain open and more importantly, be patient.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
I hate to be that person, but really it’s the bigger stuff I’m drawn to… especially cetaceans. Something about how they also can’t breathe underwater but still live there makes me feel like I’m not so crazy for wanting to be on, near, or under the water all the time. The slogan from one of our conservation partners down in here in Mexico (Whales in Guerrero Research Project) is “We’re all mammals here!”
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
Thanks Melissa not only for the super advice but also for reminding us that marine and terrestrial environments should not be taken in isolation and how vital the human dimension is in conservation.
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