While many might consider an excursion to Fiji a dream vacation, Abby Zylla hopes the time she spends there this year and next generates some world-changing ideas.
The 23-year-old Martinez resident and recent University of Georgia graduate earned a $20,000 Fulbright scholarship to conduct a 10-month research study on the South Pacific island chain. She leaves Monday.
"I'm looking at community-based sustainable development initiatives, particularly eco-tourism," said Zylla, who majored in anthropology and minored in geography, women's studies and religion.
"Fiji is renowned for its community-based conservation programs. But at the moment the largest economic growth factor is tourism. So a lot of small, rural communities are becoming interested in participating in tourism."
Zylla said the goal of her study is to learn how Fiji communities combine economic development with environmental conservation while preserving their cultural traditions.
"I'm trying to come up with some sort of way of institutionalizing this idea of balancing economic development with cultural and environmental sustainability," she said.
The seed for such a research project started to germinate during Zylla's trip to Fiji as part of a study abroad program in the summer of 2008. Zylla lived with villagers in Waitabu, on Taviuni Island. She made such an impression that the village chief named his granddaughter after her.
To the villagers, Zylla is Abby Levu (Big Abby) while her namesake is Abby Lailai (Little Abby).
"I have a really strong connection to that community," Zylla said. "I'm really looking forward to going back."
Exotic locales are nothing new to Zylla. She grew up in Malta and Pakistan before moving to Martinez, where she attended Riverside Middle School and graduated from Lakeside High in 2005.
Zylla believes her travels and the influence of her parents developed her humanitarian values. Her father, John Zylla, is a linguist and teacher, and her mother, Ruth Garrison, is the education director at Augusta's Unitarian Universalist Church.
"I like to look at the human aspects of environmental conservation, which I think is left out of the picture in a lot of conservation organizations," she said.
"A lot of them tend to present black-and-white situations."
By learning how Fiji residents implement conservation efforts while bolstering their economy, Zylla hopes to win international support to continue such grass-roots efforts in other countries.
Once she completes her study, Zylla intends to continue her education with the hopes of earning a doctorate in cultural geography and one day teach and work with nonprofit conservation groups.
"I've always been driven toward environmental conservation work," she said. "I'm also really into anthropology and cultural geography, so I find ways to tie those interests together."
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