Conservation Model Bridges Gap, Takes Flight in Southeast Asia
by Becky Jensen (’93)
In the summer of 2001, a young boy held a baby parrot for the first time as it flopped and squawked for more food. He slowly moved the dropper closer to the bird’s prehistoric-looking head as it wobbled, blind and hungry, from side to side. Like the story of the ugly duckling, the boy knew the scrawny chick would grow into a beautiful and clever lorikeet, a colorful parrot found in Southeast Asia and Australia. He also knew the vulnerable bird needed his help to survive.
So while other ten-year-olds were frittering away their summer vacations, Adam Miller (’13) was volunteering to hand-feed parrot chicks at a local pet store in St. Louis, and learning about their native habitat on the other side of the world.
By the time Miller was a teenager, he was a walking-talking encyclopedia of Indonesia, an island nation home to some of the best parrot diversity in the world. He learned that many of the Indonesian birds he loved were threatened by unprecedented rates of poaching and habitat loss.
Miller wanted to dedicate his life to avian conservation, but the counselors at his small, conservative high school discouraged him from pursuing a related college degree. “I was told environmental work was a nice hobby and not a way of life,” Miller says.
Against their advice, Miller went with his gut and visited Oregon State, Berkeley, and Colorado State University – all ecology powerhouses. CSU quickly rose to the top. “I toured the Warner College of Natural Resources and the zoology department and was blown away by the sheer number of people working in conservation [at CSU],” Miller recalls. “Right away I knew it was a perfect fit for me.”
During his first year as a Ram, he reached out to faculty and grad students offering to help with their research projects. Liba Pejchar, associate professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, was one of several faculty members who took the eager student under their wing. As a result of his initiative, Miller traveled to Hawaii, Panama, and Australia to study birds, bees, and toads with several research teams, and jointly published his first academic research paper as an undergrad.
In 2013, Miller graduated with a B.S. in Wildlife Biology, but the honors student struggled with what he describes as an early-life, versus mid-life, crisis.
“I started to wonder how much of my research was being used, and what good is conservation research if people aren’t using it?” Doing research for its own sake didn’t sit well with Miller. He wanted academic research and conservation practice to inform each other. As a researcher, he didn’t see it happening.
To make his crisis of conscience more complicated, Miller was going after a prestigious Fullbright research grant that would take him to Indonesia – a country near and dear to his heart since he was a child. He felt conflicted, so Miller changed his Fullbright application from a research grant to a teaching assistant award. Miller won the teaching position and considers the last-minute switch an important decision that would later influence his community-based approach to conservation.
As a Fullbright scholar, Miller taught wildlife conservation to high school students in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. In 2014, he earned a second fellowship to the American Institute for Indonesian Studies. Miller also volunteered with several Nonprofit Government Organizations (NGOs) focused on healthcare and conservation. After spending time on the NGO side of conservation work, he was convinced of the academic disconnect he suspected as a senior at CSU.
“It was so eye opening to see how things were happening on the ground,” Miller remembers. “I hope for the future of environmentalism that we bridge the gap between academia and NGOs. That gap is really keeping us stuck in the past.” Miller makes the case that NGOs need more data to see if a project is working, and researchers need more on-the-ground experience to design projects that are meaningful.
However, one on-the-ground conservation program caught Miller’s eye because it was working and it had the research data to back it up. Colleague Novia Sagita’s pilot project empowered indigenous women in Borneo. Under her incentive-based approach, environmental degradation had stopped, local income increased, and the community became self-sufficient. Miller approached Sagita about replicating her model for avian conservation and scaling it up in multiple areas around rural Indonesia. And with that, Planet Indonesia was born.
In 2014, Miller and Sagita cofounded Planet Indonesia International with another friend from West Kalimantan. The nonprofit is a social fusion of economic development and environmental work targeting low-income rural communities that are hot spots for illegal logging and animal trafficking.
“When you do conservation work in the developing world, you have to make some level of commitment to the community,” Miller says. “We have to show a really strong commitment to a community’s economic health before we even start talking about the environmental agenda.”
And not talking about Indonesia’s environmental crisis can be hard for a passionate guy like Miller, who realizes the island nation has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, the largest number of endangered mammals in the world, and some of the highest levels of endemism – that is, many species are only found in Indonesia and nowhere else on the planet.
Knowing the conservation clock is ticking, Miller graciously adds, “When people are involved in illegal trafficking or logging, you can’t judge them harshly. They are doing it to survive.”
Planet Indonesia not only helps rural villagers find other ways to survive, but to thrive … preserving biodiversity along the way.
The organization takes a four-step approach to sustainable development. First, village meetings are held to identify new livelihoods and sources of income, such as traditional weaving or eco-tourism, to replace the poaching and logging that used to feed the community. Next, Planet Indonesia provides the assets, such as looms or fruit trees, needed for the village’s new communal business venture(s). As village capital grows, a savings and loan program is developed for the community. And to ensure long-term viability, Planet Indonesia provides mentoring, skills training, and life coaching that complements community traditions and culture. Villagers drive decisions and own the process every step of the way.
Today, Planet Indonesia has a large environmental education program in high schools and the nonprofit employs 31 staff. As executive director, Miller is the only full-time staff member from outside of Indonesia.
Planet Indonesia is developing a mobile app that engages Indonesians in game-like data collection when they go to the market. While pretending to send texts on their smartphones, users collect standardized data on bird species, price, and origin, and can even view images to help identify birds while remaining inconspicuous to wildlife vendors. Members of the app community will receive educational push notifications and compete for prizes based on data collection accuracy and leaderboard standings.
“It’s not just about collecting data, it’s about changing mindsets,” Miller says. Reporting illegal activity in wildlife markets assists law enforcement and allows researchers to track the wildlife trade and species that are declining in the wild. Unfortunately, owning rare birds remains a status symbol in Indonesian culture. Miller is hoping the app will begin to shift mindsets from taking pride in owning rare birds to taking pride in protecting these national treasures.
Planet Indonesia’s app is one of 16 finalists, representing 300 applicants from 52 countries, in the 2016 Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge competition. As a finalist, Planet Indonesia will receive $10,000 and technical assistance to further develop their app, a chance to present their product to angel investors, and an opportunity to win the WCTC Grand Prize of $500,000.
The world is already taking notice of Planet Indonesia’s work and Miller’s leadership.
Miller was selected as one of the top ten leaders for Women’s Empowerment through UN Women, the United Nations entity to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. He’s recognized as one of 35 top young leaders in wildlife conservation by the International Federation for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Miller is on the advisory committee for the Indonesian Parrot Project, and he’s a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) where he sits on two working groups for songbird and hornbill conservation in Southeast Asia. In addition, Miller has published a number of articles in collaboration with some of the top scientists in conservation biology today.
And he’s only 25 years old.
Ultimately, Miller would like to create self-sufficient branches of Planet Indonesia in other areas of Southeast Asia. Although he has no immediate plans to go after his master’s degree, graduate school is definitely on Miller’s mind for the future. “I have a thirst to be back in academia. I just want to make sure Planet Indonesia is on its feet before I step away.”
He has a passion for field work in Southeast Asia, but says, “The western United States is where my heart is. A lot of my favorite professors didn’t do the straight academic track. They went and got real-world experience. I could bring that real-world aspect back to the academic table.”