Posts Tagged ‘social justice and conservation’

The sins of our forefathers

Last week Ed Carr and I had an amicable little to-and-fro in the comments stream of his blog on the culpability of the environmental movement in pushing economically restrictive rules on those least able to resist (the global poor). Ed concluded his post:

“Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a ‘think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)’ mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Ed’s case in point was restrictions on charcoal makers in Zambia, which appear now to be rationalised as part of the fight against global climate change. Although I do not know the Zambia case specifically I suggested that these restrictions might actually have much older provenance in colonial times, with an intellectual heritage that dates back to laws designed to safeguard mediaeval aristocracies’ hunting privileges. And indeed that much (though sadly not all) of the modern international conservation movement now opposes such anti-poor regulations, which are rarely very effective any way.*

Some people might get a bit frustrated with this unjustified negative image that others in mainstream development may have of us in tropical conservation. For my part, however, I think we need to face up regularly to the sins of our forefathers. Push back by all means, but better to have people like Ed Carr keeping us on our toes than to naïvely assume that just because now we are a bit more people friendly we have automatic claim to the moral high ground.

It takes a lot of hard work to shed a bad reputation, and the job is yet at best only half done.

* It’s a bit of a dirty secret that some community conservation programmes were at least partially originally justified on the basis that the government of the time simply did not have the resources to police their own laws, and community conservation was as much an attempt to co-opt local allies into the enforcement effort as to generate them any particular rewards.


Dimensions of Sustainability

One of the big disappointments of Rio+20 was the evisceration of the Sustainable Development Goals initiative which now looks like it is going nowhere. I hope that some of the ideas underlying that can find some other outlet; I particularly liked Kate Raworth’s notion of the sustainable development doughnut, in which economic activity is constrained by social minima and environmental maxima.

But, as with my previous post, there is no reason to wait for international politics to sort itself out; we can get implementing these ideas in our own efforts right now. When it comes to designing conservation projects I like to use another visual metaphor, what I call the dimensions of sustainability.

Typically a conservation project will start with a problem statement along the lines of habitat A or species B is severely threatened and something must be done. This may be expressed as a target to prevent the area of habitat shrinking below a given carrying capacity or a population declining below the Minimum Viable Population. Thus a red line is drawn. Everything else must fit around that line, and the further away from the line the better, so not only do we start with a massive constraint, but the whole project design is oriented towards pushing the target variable as far as possible from that minimum.

The problem is that this monocular vision of sustainability greatly constrains the range of solutions which might be considered, and can also lead to blinkered project management with negligible attention paid to other variables. Instead I like to start with a general consideration of the ‘sustainability space’. This space has three primary axes of environmental, social and economic sustainability (ref the three chambers of FSC). Each axis, however, may be a composite of various measures (or sub-axes, if you like), e.g. the environmental axis may list habitat protection, biodiversity and carbon as important issues, the social axis may consider issues of equity and cultural propriety, and the economic axis returns on investment and ability to meet the needs of the market (as opposed to the project logframe).

For a project to be truly sustainable we need to keep all of these variables within sustainable bounds. Excessively prioritising one or two over the others will rarely be constructive. Moreover consideration of this wider picture may help one to understand how a little shift in that initial red line might in fact make the whole difference between project feasibility and miserable failure.

Moving the red line can create space to find a workable solution

For the hard-core conservationists out there it is important to note that this is not about compromising on important principles; if a habitat fragments too much it ceases to function as God intended. But many of those red lines we like to draw are based upon questionable data, and may be somewhat precautionary. Neither point invalidates the need for a line, but they do suggest a certain amount of flexibility. This is important when considering the range of practical interventions. It might be that without such flexibility no project is likely to succeed. (Alas such unsolvable equations are too often not sufficient to stop investment in the project.)

Instead my approach of considering the various dimensions of sustainability is intended to define the problem space properly. It is only within that space that we are going to find any solutions.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim any great originality for the insights above so I would be interested to hear if anyone has similar or alternative frameworks. Equally please do let me know if you ever find the above useful in designing a project yourself.

REDDoubtable concerns

There’s been a flurry of posts recently on that big new idea in international forest conservation, REDD+, which is struggling to be born, conjoined as it is with all the wrangling over a post-Kyoto settlement.

  • Angela Dewan makes the oft-overlooked point that even if forests make a return for local communities that doesn’t change their own aspirations for development which may not be fully compatible with forest conservation. No noble savages here!
  • James Mayers reminds us that governance is going to be critical in REDD+ implementation (there needs to be more than just trickle down to local communities), but that it’s not all bad news, and that in many countries local civil society is agitating for the sorts of rights that once would have been up to donors to impose.
  • At the heart of these governance concerns is that old chestnut, land tenure: both Indonesia and Mozambique are struggling, and many other countries too I should imagine. Ultimately, I think this is where the REDD+ battle will be won or lost, for it’s over land that REDD+ proponents will face their toughest opponents, few of whom will fight fair.
  • Finally, Isilda Nhantumbo has an eight point list on what would make a ‘good’ REDD+ initiative. All are good ideas, but I would caution against over-complicating things. The most important of these ideas should be regulated by governments; others could perhaps be incentivised by the markets. But let us be in no doubt, if you want to scale REDD+ beyond a few NGO-run project islands, then simplicity is the name of the game, and ‘goodness’ needs to be rewarded in the market for anyone to pay any serious attention.

I leave you with a fascinating but depressing titbit of gossip on the international climate change negotiations: of all the countries with something to gain from REDD+, nobody ranks higher than Brazil, and yet, behind the scenes, I hear Brazil are stymieing concluding discussions over the REDD+ component of UNFCCC which could then be finalised and ratified as a standalone treaty, whilst the rest of the stuff drags on. The reason: Brazil already have enough money from donors pouring into their Amazon fund that right now they do not need an international REDD+ treaty, but they (understandably!) do want a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. I have no idea whether this is actually true, but I trust my source.

Whose park is greener?

A quick update on my recent post on the irrelevance of the IUCN classifications of protected areas. Two recent pieces of news courtesy of CIFOR that I should have included in my discussion (I wasn’t quite up to date with my blog reading):

I couldn’t have asked for better or more timely evidence in support of my central argument! What matters is what happens on the ground, and that involves working with local actors. The bureaucrat’s pen at conservation HQ can only accomplish so much, and oft times it can actually get in the way of real achievements.

My park is greener than your park (on paper)

A new paper in Oryx by Charlie  Gardner analyses the application of IUCN’s protected area categories to Madagascar’s parks and reserves system. Apparently they’re not a very good fit, but I find myself struggling to care.

In 2008 Boitani et al called for a protected area classification system based on conservation outcomes, which in an ideal world I guess everyone would go for, but the World Commission on Protected Areas understandably think that this is not very workable. Also there is something to be said for assessing effort (in opportunities for economic development foregone in establishing more strictly protected reserves), especially since desired conservation outcomes can take a long time to materialise. The counter-argument, of course, is that if you’re not intending to monitor your conservation outcomes what the hell do you think you’re doing setting up the park in the first place (?!?), although this somewhat ignores the reality in many developing countries in which monitoring is dependent upon unreliable donor funds.

With so many protected areas now established around the world it certainly makes sense to classify them in some way, and if that were the end of the matter then we could all be happy, but it’s not. I was once privy to (but not an active participant in) a conversation based around the ‘need’ to increase the area that country A has in reserves that fall within category X of  the IUCN system. I confess to being somewhat baffled. I sincerely hope the proponents of this idea were really concerned about eventual conservation outcome, but if so they did not say so; the IUCN category seemed to matter in itself.

One plausible explanation for this is that donor money might be distributed partly based on a reserve’s IUCN classification. I do not know for certain whether this is the case, but if so it is lazy thinking, and worrying. Indubitably I have come across many examples of literature bemoaning that country B has a low % of land within protected areas, and I would expect that countries that conserve more get more donor money to support that, so it is not too far a stretch to suppose that detailed decisions are taken based on IUCN protection category.

However, I think this is a misuse of the system. In this I am reminded of the debate over the Millennium Development Goals: the creators of the MDGs only ever intended that they serve as global targets, not as indicators of progress against which individual countries can be measured. We must always be careful in how we use a system designed to measure one aspect of a complex, messy reality (and although the MDGs are plural, sectorally they are singular), especially if we then seek to use that to drive funding decisions as such measures tend to be more substitutes to more thorough analysis.

Of course the biggest criticism of the IUCN system is that it rewards ‘paper parks’ over really functioning conservation: in effect it measures only regulation. In rich countries government bureaucracies generally work well enough such that appropriate resources are assigned to support such designations, and the bureaucrats may even resist unfunded additional designations. However, in developing countries resources are that much more limited and variable standards of governance means that decision making is not necessarily nearly so rational.

The result is a dysfunctional attempt to rule by unenforceable fiat. Local communities are unlikely to be compensated properly for their lost opportunities, thus alienating them, and hence they will seek to undermine the new park. The exclusion of Maasai pastoralists from Mkomazi Game Reserve (now a National Park) in Tanzania is a classic example of how things can go wrong; the conservation outcome was actually worse than under the previous, messier system.

In surveying the sorry state of these things I have come to the conclusion that the establishment or upgrading of a protected area can actually be an anti-conservation measure. All the rules and regulations that come with such designations constrain managers from reaching workable compromises with local communities under which everyone can benefit. Better instead to work with flexibility outside protected areas than with the dubious benefit of government regulation to support you.

Conservationists often talk about the need to protect ~10% of each different habitat, but this should be a rule of thumb. There are lots of ways to protect a landscape: a national park is often not the best solution.

Update: two recent pieces of evidence in support of my argument (15/09/11).

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