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WEAVING THE WEB

Raising Standards on the Web
A Conversation with John Shores
by Ron Mader

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FLICKR ALBUM: Shores System


John Shores is the kind of practical guru who has used both cyberspace and grassroots forums to discuss and question and develop practical forms of ecotourism, environmental conservation and community work.

The Challenge of Ecotourism written by John Shores was one of the first features in the print version of Planeta, the journal that preceded the Planeta.com website. John now has his own Ecotourism Home Page. Having corresponded with John for a number of years, it was with great pleasure that I was able to meet him in the fall of 1999 in West Virginia. and at a conference at Stanford University in 2002. Here is the transcript of our online December 2000 conversation about the Web, ecotourism, the Peace Corps and other topics.


What kind of work have you done in Latin America?

My love affair with Latin America began in 1972. With a Bachelor's degree in park planning in my hand, I joined the Peace Corps in response to a small poster on a bulletin board at the University of Michigan that said Peace Corps/Colombia needed park planners. For the next six years, I worked in first Colombia and second the Dominican Republic as an interpreter, park manager, trainer, and system planner. Both countries were initiating projects to expand their national park systems. My job was to help recruit and train staff, and advise the directors on adding new properties to the park estate. It was a fantastic opportunity.

In 1978 I returned to the US and went back to school. By this time Dr. Kenton Miller, considered by many to be the father of national parks in Latin America, was teaching at Michigan, so I returned to my alma mater and worked with him. After graduation, with a Masters degree in "Resource Policy, Economics, and Management" this time, I returned to Washington DC and worked for RARE, WWF, TNC, and as an independent consultant.

In 1989 I joined Peace Corps again as a natural resources specialist, but this time I was on the staff at headquarters in Washington. The job was much broader than anything I had hoped for. My boss agreed that I would not be used as just a Latin America specialist, so in the first 12 months of the new job, I made 18 country visits all over the world. Peace Corps was starting new programs in Central and Eastern Europe, and they wanted to have an environmental component. The Pacific Island programs were starting to warm to the idea of environmental education, so we ran a few workshops for teachers, education heads, and volunteers. And I even made a few programming and evaluation trips to Latin America and the Caribbean. Fortunately I didn't have to maintain that pace for too long. It was an exciting but an exhausting pace.

My academic training and my primary interest is still parks and biodiversity. Latin America gave me the opportunity to cut my teeth on park planning and system design. Peace Corps provided that grounding in community process and participation. Work with RARE, WWF, and TNC gave me a nice look at the NGO side of the coin. And most of my independent consulting work has been for the bi-lateral and multi-lateral development agencies (USAID, IDB, World Bank, etc.), which gave me some experience with official development assistance.

I see my experience as gradually filling a toolbox with useful tools. To the academic tools for parks and biodiversity, I added community development, NGO development, participation, gender, finance, environmental education, computers, the internet, and maybe a few other tools.


How did you begin to use the Web?

I have always been fascinated with tools and machinery. As a small child, I wanted to know how everything worked. So I took things apart... and usually got them back together, too. When personal computers hit the scene in the early 1980s, I was at Michigan and managed to get involved with the initiative to bring personal computers into the School of Natural Resources.

At some moment, everyone has probably complained about training manuals, but I happen to enjoy reading them. I want to know everything a computer can do, what all the applications can do, and how to use them. So reading training manuals was a no-brainer. With the manuals under my belt, I was beginning to help people purchase computers, install new hardware, and learn to use the software.

We actually had email before the Net. Many research universities were tied together by services such as the Merit Network. But you had to have an account at one of the participating universities.

Web use really blossomed in the early 1990s. The Peace Corps is just a tiny government agency, so it wasn't one of the early innovators. I set up my own private account on a local non-profit ISP in Washington DC, but was using it mostly to communicate with staff and consultants around the world who had their own private accounts. We kept agitating for email for all staff, but it took several years before Peace Corps was able to do this. In the mean time, I got more of my colleagues in the office on line through private accounts, and we built quite a network of the specialists in DC linked with volunteers in the field. Volunteers were setting up their own accounts, mostly with free services like Yahoo and Hotmail. Often I would know about something that had happened overseas before the higher-up staff in the country or in the United States knew about it, because a volunteer somewhere would email me.

Email totally changed the way we communicated. I could now have a sequential conversation with a number of colleagues scattered all over the world. We could plan trips, design workshops, develop training materials, and draft and revise documents -- all without ever seeing each other or incurring long-distance phone charges. So we increased the level and cycles of consultation and participation because the transaction cost was zero. More people, more iterations, more interchange. This added a richness to the process and to the products that we simply could not have achieved otherwise.

How did the Peace Corps use -- or not use -- computers and Internet technology?

Peace Corps was using a minicomputer/terminal system for word processing of reports in Washington DC when I came back from overseas in 1978. There might be four terminals on a floor, and people had to sign up for a time-slot to use the machines. At least it was better than typing and retyping with a typewriter. There were a few Compaq portables around. This was the model where the keyboard snapped in place to cover the 6-inch screen. Luggable, but hardly portable. Since the office where I did some consulting work needed transportable computers, they ordered a few IBM-compatible desktops and a few heavy laptops. Then Peace Corps chose Macintosh as their standard computer. That must have been in the mid-1980s. My office continued to use legacy Leading Edge Model D desktops for a few more years after I joined them in 1989, but eventually we got Macs too.

Recognizing that most volunteers come straight out of college, and that most college students have Internet access, Peace Corps started its external web page -- http://www.peacecorps.gov -- primarily as a recruiting tool. I was chomping at the bit to get an intranet site set up to supply information to staff and volunteers in the field and promote broader exchanges, but the agency was very reluctant to put up an intranet. In fact, only recently did it finally come on line, after many years and several earlier attempts and frantic late-night shutdowns. The largest stumbling blocks seemed to be the office of communications and the office of general counsel. Finally their fears were assuaged and the intranet is up and running. At least that's what I'm told. Earlier in 2000 it was still limited to people inside the building in DC. I hope that by now it has become a global intranet for staff and volunteers wherever they may be. In the medium-term I could see it being open to all sustainable development practitioners. But that's many more years away.

The World Wise School program, which links schools in the US with volunteers serving overseas, has used web, video, CD, ICQ, and different live-video-over-Internet systems to increase the exchanges between volunteer in one country and a teacher and classroom somewhere in the US.

One area where we never succeeded very much was the idea of email discussion lists for topics such as agroforestry, environmental education, ecotourism, parks and biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, youth and environment, and any other topic in which volunteers are working. I envisioned this as a way for volunteers in different countries to exchange ideas and experiences, and for staff to monitor and advise as needed. These would be different from the public global lists on these topics, because many of the challenges of projects in Peace Corps are unique to Peace Corps.

For example, a volunteer is only on the site for two years. So we'd need to link them in, warm them up, and support them in internet time -- and that might be different from the normal pace of life in a rural community.

Volunteers usually do not have internet access in the towns where they work. They have to travel to a regional city, or wait until they get to the capital before they read their email. That creates a delay in their correspondence, but it's still usually a smaller delay than international snail mail to these towns.

Some volunteers with better computer skills have been asked by the agencies where they work to help set up web pages or email. And many of the volunteers are asked to teach English and computer skills, especially word processing. These are seen as basic skills that will be needed for the economies developing in these countries.

Is there a difference in reaction to people reading your essays, say The Challenge of Ecotourism online as opposed to in print?

I have received hundreds of email requests for the full text of the ecotourism paper via email and only a handful of requests via the snail-mail route. So electronic distribution made a world of difference in distributing the paper. It has been published now in a handful of print-format journals and newsletters, and that has prompted a few more email messages from readers. I don't think anyone has ever written a snail-mail letter in response to the paper (although usually only the email address is given), so the mere fact of electronic publication may have automatically moved correspondence into the electronic forum.

Planeta was instrumental in publishing that article and giving it coverage. I submitted it for discussion at the workshop on ecotourism that we held as part of the IVth World Parks Congress in Caracas in 1992, but it became clear that the coordinator was going to write and publish his own work, rather than compile or even summarize the deliberations and submissions from the workshops. So I announced the paper on a few travel lists and then you kindly summarized it on Planeta. That really launched it to the wider audience, worldwide.


Do you have any suggestions of how people can make better use of the internet in terms of promoting ecotourism and conservation in Latin America?

I would think that there is still plenty of potential for sustainable development activities on the internet. The important element is to get on the internet. It doesn't have to be expensive or require a vanity domain name. Just get a presence started. Four activities come to mind...

(1) Advertising services, end-products, and facilities: We need to make it easy for travelers to go green. So associations of ecotourism promoters need to band together. This might be on a state-wide basis in the US, or a regional basis in medium-sized countries, or a national basis in a smaller country. Then get the appropriate division of government or the chamber of commerce to host a website with a directory of all the green offerings. The WV Division of Tourism seems to be performing this function. They also plan to have the directory searchable via their toll-free 800 number. I would think that the Belize Ministry of Tourism would host such a website directory. Costa Rica probably already does.

(2) List your email address in all advertising and respond promptly to all inquiries.

(3) Sign up for appropriate lists. I don't want to see everyone co-opting discussion lists for advertising, but entrepreneurs should definitely monitor the Q&A that's happening on the lists. Lurk if you must. It's a way to keep an ear to the ground.

(4) Use the Internet to communicate with recent guests. Ask all guests for their internet addresses and send them periodic updates on the facilities and products and services that might be of interest.


SPOTLIGHT ON JOHN SHORES

g Chasing Biodiversity
g The Challenge of Ecotourism


AUTHOR

Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.


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