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10 conservation “fads”: how have they worked in Latin America?

Blue color form of Dendrobates auratus dart frog. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Blue color form of Dendrobates auratus dart frog. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • A 2013 editorial in the journal Conservation Biology described 10 conservation methods that emerged since the late 1970’s as fads, “approaches that are embraced enthusiastically and then abandoned.”
  • The fads on the list were: the marketing of natural products from rain forests, biological diversity hotspots, integrated conservation and development projects, ecotourism, ecocertification, community-based conservation, payment for ecosystem or environmental services, REDD+, conservation concessions, and so-called integrated landscapes.
  • Mongabay consulted seven conservation experts on how the 10 fads played out in Latin America, a region that is not only a hotbed of biodiversity but also of conservation activity.

In May 2013, the journal Conservation Biology published an editorial describing 10 conservation methods that emerged since the late 1970’s as fads, “approaches that are embraced enthusiastically and then abandoned.”

Despite the fact that conservationists are likely to consider the term “fad” as applying mainly “to gadgets, clothing, music, haircuts, and video games” and “tend to believe we are immune to such frippery,” the authors argue that the field of conservation is nevertheless subject to faddish cycles. Promising new ideas are often pushed hard, promoted widely, then rejected, and finally repackaged and marketed as something new, point out authors Kent H. Redford from the Maine-based firm Archipelago Consulting and Christine Padoch and Terry Sunderland from the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Fads seem never to die of their own weight but rather are replaced by or incorporated in a new approach,” they write. Even approaches that remain in widespread use and current favor, such as ecotourism, ecocertification, and the marketing of natural products from rainforests, have a place on their list.

Latin America, broadly speaking, is not only a hotbed of biodiversity but also of conservation activity taking place in a wide variety of ecological, political, and cultural settings. So, how have Redford, Padoch, and Sunderland’s 10 fads played out in Latin America? Have they succeeded? Failed? Had unintended consequences? Passed out of fashion or gone retro? To find out, Mongabay consulted seven of the region’s conservation experts. Here’s their take on the list, which appears in no particular order, as well as on how the field of conservation can best move beyond the fad cycle.

1. Marketing natural products from rainforests

Aims to generate revenue in order to motivate rainforest protection.

Sven Wunder, principal economist at the Livelihoods Program of CIFOR in Peru, told Mongabay that many conservation and community groups in Latin America adopted the marketing of various rainforest products thinking it would be quite profitable. In reality, however, the approach generated highly variable results. While it was sometimes successful, its failures were often due to unrealistic expectations about the amount of money that could be mobilized, so it is really most useful as a supplementary approach, he said.

John Reid, founder and president of the conservation-economics research and training firm Conservation Strategy Fund, told Mongabay this approach has been effective with traditional products but not novel ones that require educating both markets and producers. For example, tagua vegetable ivory has largely failed while the huge, delicious fish known as pirarucu (Arapaima sp.) from the indigenous Paumari community in Brazil has succeeded.

Pirarucu. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

2. Biological diversity hotspots

Designated areas with unique, endemic species are targeted for conservation.

Wunder said he sees hotspots as a bit of an outlier on the list. That is because rather than being a business or a policy tool, they are more of an analytical approach to conservation. Reid doesn’t even consider them to be a conservation approach per se, but merely a way of identifying, cataloging, and ranking places to conserve.

3. Integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs)

Aim to improve the livelihoods and quality of life of people living in biodiverse areas to promote their conservation.

According to Wunder, ICDPs are probably the most widely used conservation tool in Latin America. The idea is to try to change production systems by getting a community’s labor force working on sustainable activities so they don’t over-exploit the environment, or add value to what they sell by, say, processing raw wood into woodcarvings. Reid stressed that “most serious organizations engage with communities, try to understand their needs, and fit conservation in with their economic priorities and aspirations.”

Both Reid and Wunder agreed that ICDPs have fallen out of fashion (at least in name) and even gotten a bad reputation in the region because they are very holistic, don’t focus much on their goals, and a lot of money can be invested with poor results. Nevertheless, Wunder disputed that ICDPs had been abandoned, fadlike, because other approaches are doing similar things under a different name (see #10 integrated landscapes).

4. Ecotourism

Tourism that doesn’t damage or upset the balance of nature while promoting respect and integration with the culture of local communities

Wunder also said he doesn’t think ecotourism can be considered a fad in Latin America because it has grown a lot. While he said it’s difficult to say whether ecotourism has worked very well in terms of conservation, it has certainly worked well in generating local income.

Reid said that’s because ecotourism is “great for spectacular, relatively accessible places like national parks, and can work for communities that have an interesting culture but also the adaptability to enter the service economy.” While it can’t secure big areas directly, Reid maintained that it can have a positive conservation impact. For example, if done in a small part of a big protected area, ecotourism can generate public and political support for the integrity of the whole protected area, as has been the case in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, he said.

Tourists in Madidi National Park in Bolivia. Photo by Joe Lazarus/Flickr.
Tourists in Madidi National Park in Bolivia. Photo by Joe Lazarus/Flickr.

5. Ecocertification

Verifies that more sustainable practices have been followed to produce a given good or service.

Wunder said that in Latin America ecocertification sometimes works, but often doesn’t generate much of an additional effect when those engaged in it are already using best practices. For his part, Reid said he sees it as a niche solution, “a way to press large companies to adopt a set of standards that go beyond regulatory minimums.”

6. Community-based conservation

Aims to improve local people’s lives while conserving land by creating protected areas using local knowledge and participation.

Community-based conservation projects have worked well in terms of conservation in indigenous areas — essentially parks where indigenous communities live, according to Wunder. He said most research shows that community-based conservation has as positive conservation impacts as protected areas do, and has yielded good results in the Brazilian and Colombian Amazon, especially where vast areas are occupied by communities.

Reid pointed out that community-based conservation projects “can be most powerful where the community has a strong reliance on intact ecosystems.” Outsiders can play a role in strengthening the community’s rights to its resources, bringing in investments, and facilitating its decision-making over how to govern the use of shared resources.

Heliconia, Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

7. Payment for ecosystem or environmental services (PES)

Financial instruments that pay landowners to maintain ecosystems that benefit society as a whole, such as planting trees to sequester carbon.

PES programs are Wunder’s specialty and he said he doesn’t consider them a fad in Latin America because they have not declined in popularity. Some studies in Mexico show positive impacts, but much depends on the context. For example, he said PES programs work well where land tenure is well established. But in many parts of the Amazon, deforestation takes place on state land. “PES doesn’t work there because nobody holds land rights and therefore they don’t protect them,” he said, adding that in such cases protected areas work best.

“We do need designs tailored for each country, and we’re still learning how to implement it in a useful way,” he said.

Luciana Gallardo Lomeli, a research analyst with the Global Restoration Initiative of the World Resources Institute, lauded Costa Rica’s PES program paying landowners to protect forests as a renowned success. On the other hand, she pointed to Ecuador’s PES scheme as one that is a highly criticized because incentives to conserve forest come from an unsustainable source — income from oil revenues.

Reid thinks PES programs have great potential as large-scale, government-driven schemes, but it can be tricky to work out the details. Ideally, PES programs should target landowners who would otherwise deforest but won’t if provided the incentive. That means landowners whom a government could afford to pay enough to opt for conservation. For example, it’s hard to compete financially with mining or lucrative crops like oil palm. And owners of very remote or steep land may have no incentive to deforest anyway. As for monitoring, PES program organizers need to check and see that the person receiving the payment is fulfilling his or her conservation commitment, and be prepared to impose a range of sanctions if not. These can include stopping payments, imposing fines, kicking him or her out of the program, or making his or her non-compliance public — and that’s just a start. There’s lots of important work to be done on structuring these incentive schemes, Ried said.

8. Reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+)

A U.N. program to get developed countries to pay developing countries to protect their forests in order to fight climate change.

REDD+ is basically a big PES scheme for carbon offsets. It encourages rich countries and corporations to pay for carbon credits that are generated by mostly large-scale conservation projects in southern countries in order to “compensate” for their own pollution. Wunder said he doesn’t consider it a fad since it hasn’t yet officially started. There are currently numerous pilot projects in Latin America and elsewhere whose impacts are under study.

Reid said he believes that of the Conservation Biology editorial’s 10 fads, REDD+ is the likeliest to escape the fad dynamic because of the potential for large-scale market demand from greenhouse-gas emitters worldwide for a tangible commodity – stored carbon. REDD+ is also a policy driver. To be able to sell your stored carbon you have to own it – that is, you must have a property right. Lots of environmental services like biodiversity or regulation of climate and water produced by forests are public goods, which are hard to measure and package for the market. “Carbon can be measured and monitored and there’s a clear demand for it,” Reid said.

REDD+ is also widely criticized because it is being used to establish tradable property rights on trees and other environmental services while supporting climate-unfriendly fossil-fuel production elsewhere. And compared with smaller scale, integrated, and bottom-up approaches, REDD+ is more likely to leave out the importance of biodiversity and the well-being of the local inhabitants as it encourages projects narrowly focused on carbon sequestration.

Aerial view of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

9. Conservation concessions

An investor pays a landowner for the right to keep a forest intact, implementing conservervation, ecotourism, research, or education activities there.

Conservation concessions have been carried out in a limited way in Latin America, primarily by the global NGO Conservation International, according to Wunder. He mentioned examples from Guayana and Bolivia, in which land was leased for conservation to prevent logging. He likens conservation concessions to a PES approach.

Matt Finer, a research specialist at the Washington, DC-based Amazon Conservation Association told Mongabay his group’s near-real-time tracking of forest loss shows that conservation concessions and ecotourism have both succeeded in stopping deforestation in the southern Peruvian Amazon region of Madre de Dios.

Reid said he likes conservation concessions because they are simple and direct. “Forest rentals provide the full array of ecosystem services as a package, avoiding the hassle and transaction costs of establishing a property right and finding demand for each one. However they are limited to the market of people who want to engage altruistically,” he said.

Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo by David Cook/Flickr.
Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo by David Cook/Flickr.

10. Landscape approaches that integrate agriculture, sustainable uses, and conservation (aka integrated landscapes)

Projects that integrate agriculture, sustainable use, and conservation to achieve social, economic, and environmental goals.

Reid said he sees integrated landscapes as a “holy grail” because most discussions about how to accomplish conservation end up there. The problem is that international NGOs have overestimated their own influence on government decision-making and the stability of such arrangements, he said. In reality, property rights are often entrenched. Reid said this approach should be pursued where high-level decision makers are sincerely eager for a new paradigm and can overrule parochial interests, and that conservationists should set more modest territorial planning goals.

Wunder sees integrated landscapes as another analytical approach related to ICDPs. In recent years he said they’ve again gained importance, along with the idea of thinking of forestry and agriculture together (a concept known as agroforestry), although they are more common in Africa than in Latin America.

While in principle they are a good idea and can create a lot of synergies between both sectors, in practice they are difficult to implement and require a lot of information and dialog between stakeholders. According to Gallardo, the same can be said of community-based conservation and PES programs.

The takeaway

Most sources interviewed for this story found it difficult to rank the 10 approaches in terms of their success, and there was little consensus on what even qualifies as a success. But most agreed that each of the approaches depends on its context or setting in order to function and succeed, and that the faddish practice of replacing the old with the new by blindly jumping on the next bandwagon can be problematic.

“It’s too simplistic to say what’s successful or not. Some are in certain cases. Also how do you measure success?” James Anderson, communications manager for the World Resources Institute’s Forests Program, told Mongabay. Is it by the number of hectares conserved, the biodiversity of the conserved forest, or the economic benefits it provides local people? For many experts, it comes down to professional intuition, Anderson said.

Gallardo said there are various ways of measuring the success of an approach: does it yield a social or environmental return? Create jobs? Capture carbon? For example, sometimes the success of a PES project is performance based — did it provide an environmental service? Wunder pointed out that there are ways to evaluate the impact of a certain approach on a particular place more precisely and scientifically, but the field of conservation is only just beginning to adopt these assessments.

Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber) in flight, Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Reid said that one fundamental problem is that most of the 10 fads on the list are incentive-based strategies involving economics and/or business, yet only around 10 percent of conservation professionals have been trained in those two fields, according to a 2002 study by his group, Conservation Strategy Fund. So Reid said many embrace approaches without understanding them and pursue them without expertise.

Even so, for Byron Swift, president of Nature and Culture International, the key to success is for organizations and conservation donors to hire well-seasoned staff “who implement a bottom-up approach to conservation, have the experience and context to understand all the methods that have been used before, and know which work or not in any particular context.” Such staff aren’t so quickly swayed by novelty and fashion. “One needs to develop a deep understanding of what the local context is in achieving conservation, and what local communities and governments want to do. Only then can one identify the best approaches to emphasize,” Swift said.

A mix of approaches is often what’s required. Swift sees all 10 of the fads as perfectly legitimate methods, tools in the conservationist’s toolbox to be adaptively applied as each situation requires. It is the tendency to replace old ideas with new ones instead of adding them to the toolbox that can cause real problems, he said. Even if some approaches are fads, he added, “they’ve taught us how to prevent the same mistakes in the future.”

Gallardo agreed. “Even in unsuccessful cases, the approach should still be considered for future purposes, just not in the same setting,” she said.

Philip Fearnside, a professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon in Manaus, Brazil, had a different take. He told Mongabay that while the problems with conservation approaches such as REDD+ need to be faced and fixed to make them work, there are some exceptions. For instance, an increasingly popular approach is carbon credit schemes for hydroelectric dams. “This is not one that should be fixed, but rather abandoned altogether,” he told Mongabay, because the limited funds for mitigation are wasted on subsidizing dams that would be built anyway, tropical dams also emit substantially more greenhouse gases than are recognized in carbon-credit accounting procedures, and they cause environmental damage and social conflict.

Hydroelectric dam in Baños, Ecuador. Photo by Eric Chan/Flickr.
Hydroelectric dam in Baños, Ecuador. Photo by Eric Chan/Flickr.

In Latin America, governance, enforcement of governance, and government backing are crucial to the success of many approaches, according to both Anderson and Gallardo. Many of the 10 fads seek to change the attitude of decision-makers on the ground. But if it isn’t clear who you can trust or whom to target, it’s better to deploy other approaches, such as protected areas, or combinations of approaches. For example, some alternative production strategies (such as ICDPs) can be combined with ecotourism, marketing of rainforest products, ecocertification, or even with PES programs. “Integrated projects do this and they teach us many things, like how to be more realistic,” said Wunder.

The sources all agreed with the Conservation Biology editorial that it is neither necessary nor desirable to reject new approaches for fear that they’re fads, because they often have much to offer. However, none is a silver bullet for all the problems and challenges in conservation. An approach’s success or failure depends on the context and time in which it is applied.

“Recognizing fads and thinking of them as learning opportunities is part of accepting that the practice of conservation has a culture, just like all other practices,” the editorial states. Whether they are fads or not, conservationists should neither adopt hot new approaches blindly nor reject them out of hand. Rather, the authors write, the field must figure out where each approach works and why, and maintain a variety of them to tap into — in Latin America and beyond.


Group of white-nosed coati, Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
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