Harry Hilser PhD

In 2014, SY’s Programme Director Harry Hilser embarked on a long and colourful journey to explore the relationships that local communities have with the natural world. Supported by The Wild Planet Trust and based at The University of Exeter, Harry focused his part-time PhD on connectedness to nature. He shares here a few words about the experience:

After a decade of living in North Sulawesi, I have come to learn how important the social sciences are for conservation. Environmental challenges are human behaviour challenges. I have spent much time trying to understand what nature means to local communities, the values that underpin these relationships and cultural drivers of behaviours and practices related to the natural environment. After connecting deeply with many different highly social communities, I became particularly interested in the links between the prosocial (the strong social ties and helpfulness) and proenvironmental (looking after nature) behaviours of rural communities in North Sulawesi.

Through an immersive ethnography (living as the local people do on all levels), I discovered rich insights about the cognitive and spiritual histories of the Minahasan and Bolaang Mongondow ethnic groups. I learned how belief systems and social norms control the expression of certain attitudes and values, and have been able to shine light on ways to nurture more positive relationships between people and place.

I submitted my thesis in January 2021 and successfully defended my research during the viva examination in March. The ethnographic study was such an incredible, immersive, and eye-opening experience, certainly one that will be with me always. It has truly enhanced our understanding of the socio-cultural conditions and the stories which underpin the local communities’ relationships with nature; thus offering insights into how we can work together with them to empower and enable them to become more caring and ecocentric. 

I carry such deep gratitude for all the wonderful people who shared their lives throughout this remarkable experience, and everyone who supported me and helped make it possible. I hope the findings of my research and the strategic theory of change developed as a part of the process will help strengthen SY’s conservation approaches and therefore offer a brighter future for the Yaki.

You can read Harry’s PhD thesis here. Note, it is quite a substantial document so perhaps just the abstract and a few ethnographic accounts may be of interest.

You might also like…

Yaki population surveys underway

With support from EPASS and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, SY are taking on the enormous task of surveying the population of Yaki...