Aila Keto

Aila Keto (pic from

Aila Keto was born near Tully, North Queensland, in 1943.  At that time Tully was quite a multicultural town, being a centre where many immigrants settled to find work. Aila’s parents were both Finnish, and they were members of a Lutheran church, which played both a religious and a community support role for the family.   Aila says she liked the singing and socialising at church, but the “sermons didn’t go well with her”.    She eventually decided in her teens that the central dogmas of religion were no longer credible for her.

Her father had wanted to be a sea captain in Finland, but his eyesight became a barrier.  He set off to Australia for a holiday to overcome his abject disappointment but seven years later finally invited his forbearing sweetheart to join and marry him.  Aila’s mother had been a pharmacist in Finland, which was quite rare in those days, but in Australia joined her husband in cane farming.   Aila says her mother had a huge impact on her life, nurturing her curiosity, her talents in art and music and encouraging her academically.  Aila’s mother “maintained her own scientific interest in things”, and was an avid shell collector, scientifically studying, cataloguing and exchanging shells with collectors around the world.  Often scholars from overseas visited the home.  The extract below describes one important visitor, and how the natural environment she lived in influenced her future passions.

Aila was the youngest of the family, with 2 older brothers.  The family spoke Finnish at home, and Aila spoke Finnish better than English when she started school.  She attended a very small local primary school in El-Arish, and then boarding school in Herberton.  Aila describes leaving for boarding school at 14 as the time that she “started her independent life”.  Aila remembers herself as a child “being able to cope with most things thrown at her”, particularly after her early childhood with two somewhat robust brothers.

After high school, Aila went to James Cook University, initially enrolling in pharmacy, and then broadening out her range of science subjects, with zoology in particular capturing her imagination.  James Cook University had just been set up at the time, and Aila describes her university teachers as engaged and inspired, and supportive of her interest in “understanding how life worked”.  They recommended that she transfer to Queensland University to study under eminent biochemist Professor Edwin Clifford Webb, which she did, and there she was overwhelmed with excitement at the new ideas and information that she was absorbing.

Aila’s mother died from cancer at the end of her first degree when Aila was just beginning her Masters.   She and her father took a year out to stay with family in Finland.  On her return, she finished her Masters and then a PhD, while tutoring at University to supplement her scholarship.  was The distinguished plant scientist Dr Hal Hatch, the discoverer of C4 photosynthesis, was an important person for Aila when doing her Honours on a CSR scholarship.

Aila met her husband Keith, who is also a biochemist, at University, beginning a personal and work partnership that endures strongly to this day.  Aila’s interest in conservation was growing while she was completing her PhD, and she and Keith ran two very successful “symposia on survival” in the 1970s on the great extinction crisis that the earth is facing. They were inspired very much by the seminal works of people like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and many others at the time.

Aila had her son when she was in her late 30s.   Aila describes herself as being so immersed in her career until that time that she never considered whether she should have children.   When her son was born, she took time off from her work, always intending to go back to research and teaching.   But during this time off she became involved in conservation activism, after reading widely and becoming alarmed by the dire threats to her beloved rainforests in North Queensland.

Other huge influences on Aila were visits to Australia by eminent US scientist Dr Peter Raven, and leading British environmentalist Professor Norman Myers who took on mentoring roles and further impressed on Aila a sense of the extraordinary in the natural world.  “I felt that I owed something to life, to nature, to do all I could to protect it”.

While she was still at home looking after her son, Aila and Keith formed the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society (ARCS) in 1982.  In the extract below, Aila describes the early days of the ARCS, the influence of John Sinclair as a mentor, and how the couple supported themselves in their environmental work.

Aila has now been president of ARCS for nearly 30 years.  I asked how her leadership role had changed over that time.

“We’ve had to be pretty eclectic. In the early days there was more leadership involved with coordinating other organisations. The Joh Bjelke Peterson days were very difficult – the government was hostile to conservation – our phones were tapped, I was followed – it was not possible to have collaborative relationships with that government. We had to develop up a position of strength in media savvy and negotiating skills.”

“But in the last 15 years, we have not had many unsuccessful campaigns.  The forest industry had a change of leadership, and their new leader approached us to try something different, and together we’ve tried to pioneer a more collaborative approach.”

In the extract below, Aila describes the collaborative relationships she has helped develop with the forest industry and the grazing industries.

Aila describes her partnership with Keith in running ARCS as an equal one, with each of them having different but complementary skills.  They are not able to employ regular paid staff, but each of them spend all their time, work and personal, involved in researching, studying and advocating for issues that are important to the Society. The membership is deliberately small so they do not have to put more of their energy into administration to support ever-growing members’ needs.

Aila and Keith manage their home/life balance by sharing all the household duties – we’re “barely out of each other’s sight”, she says, and Aila sees them as very fortunate to be so compatible in all their interests.

I asked about the impact of his parents’ activism on their son Matthew.  Aila says he had a very different upbringing from other children – no weekend sport, not going on regular holidays – “because everything centred on conservation”, but he also had the opportunity to see special places and meet a range of interesting and committed people through his parents.

Aila has had no formal training in leadership, although she says she would have loved to have done some.

“Instead of going to training, we hunted out the best people to advise and help us, and we’ve had extraordinary assistance from people all around the world, who’ve been extremely helpful with advice and support, and indeed become friends. I also found my many years on the Australian National Gallery Council a great training ground.”

When I asked about role models, Aila said “it has never ever occurred to me to emulate anyone”  but “we come across lots of people I admire greatly – for example Peter Stanton, a former head of the Parks Service in North Queensland, who, like a Delphic Oracle, advised me to either recognise, or create windows of opportunity, saying you’ve got to run like the wind when you’ve got them, because they don’t come often”.

I also asked about some of the challenges of leadership.  Aila responded:  “I’m really a very private person – I’m not a party-goer, and sometimes you’re thrust into situations where you feel a bit awkward.”  Aila has been asked several times to stand as a political candidate, but has always refused, in part because she recognises the huge commitments that politicians need to make to their constituents.

Aila and Keith work every day, often from 6 am to past midnight, and rarely have holidays – “there isn’t room for activities like, say, going out to dinner or to films, …we do such a lot of research….”.

Aila says “People sometimes interpret my reserved nature as being arrogant, when it’s just not like that”.  Aila and Keith have always had lots of people involved in their organisation wanting to help and Aila has also helped a number of people who are now successful and well known to find their way in conservation through their work with ARCS.

Aila made some very interesting comments about women and men in leadership in the environment movement in Queensland.

“There have been cycles in leadership.  In the previous decade, most of the conservation peak organisations in Queensland were dominated by females, and now, I think I’m the only female leader, at least in the peak groups, so we’re now in a mainly male-dominated part of the cycle.I’ve been involved in conservation for over 30 years, I find that some of the analytical literature about male versus female archetypes rings true, at least in part.

I’m not a sociologist, but I’d say the broad categories, [women tending to be] caring, nurturing, networking versus [men tending to be] more aggressive and competitive do have some resonance. With men involved in the environment movement, I think, careers can be more important. But as always, there are lots of outstanding exceptions.

Women in leadership roles have a powerful contribution to play, often because of their empathetic nature, and very extensive networking abilities, perhaps more trusting.  Social capital and social learning depends on trust for very effective networks.  The conservation movement needs to be an effective network, with a rapid response ability and adaptiveness, and the capacity to recruit a wide range and large numbers of people to respond quickly when needed.”

Aila also spoke about why women might not want to take on leadership positions in the environment movement.

“In any social movements, there can be brutalising experiences – people can be very cruel to each other.  When I left academia, I thought that I was leaving behind the ugliness that can arise from raw ambition and personality conflicts to a movement united in idealism and passion to make a difference.  But it wasn’t always like that.  I used to come back from some meetings [in the mid 1980s] traumatised.   I didn’t leave academia to become enmeshed in difficult people issues to the detriment of my mission, so I turned more to developing my own networks and interestsd.”

Throughout the interview, Aila often emphasised how strongly she feels about threats to the environment, and how important it is for her to be working towards protecting the natural world,

“I do have this sense of the planet being an extraordinary place, and that life is, I think, miraculous, but it is getting harder and harder to not sink into deeply pervading despair.  The thing that always inspires and revives is reconnecting with nature.”

Aila’s many efforts in the Queensland environment movement have been recognised by a number of significant awards.  More information about these can be found on Aila’s entry in Wikipedia.

Comments very welcome below.

About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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