Conservation news

Transforming conservation in times of crisis and opportunity (Commentary)

  • 2020 was envisioned as a potential turning point for global conservation efforts, but over the past nine months COVID-19 has created an unprecedented social, economic, and public health crisis on a global scale.
  • Fred Nelson of Maliasili, Alasdair Harris of Blue Ventures, Leela Hazzah of Lion Guardians, and Lúcia G. Lohmann of the University of São Paulo (Brazil) and the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) write that the extraordinary circumstances brought by the pandemic create new, unique opportunities for systemic change.
  • “As societies respond and adapt, opportunities emerge for changing how conservation is conceptualized, practiced, and funded,” they write. “The conservation field now has a unique opportunity to accelerate efforts to build a stronger, more dynamic, more resilient field – one that can truly face up to the challenges of the present global ecological crisis.”
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds.”

– Peter Baker, in The Guardian, March 30, 2020

The year of 2020 was envisioned as a potential turning point for global conservation efforts. Major events such as the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the IUCN World Conservation Congress were expected to raise biodiversity conservation to the top of the global agenda. These and other major events aimed to foster greater links between biodiversity, climate, and development goals. New conservation initiatives and ambitions such as a ‘global deal for nature’ were being advanced to try and increase conservation impact and investment.

Now, the world is a very different place as we head into the new year. Over the past nine months COVID-19 has created an unprecedented social, economic, and public health crisis on a global scale. The pandemic’s impacts have been augmented by additional political and social crises encompassing fundamental issues such as race, democracy, and inequality. The events of the past year take place within the wider context of the biodiversity and climate crises, of which conservationists are all too aware. We are living and working in a period of crises layered within crises.

But such extraordinary circumstances also create new, unique opportunities, often in unexpected ways, for systemic change. As societies respond and adapt, opportunities emerge for changing how conservation is conceptualized, practiced, and funded. The conservation field now has a unique opportunity to accelerate efforts to build a stronger, more dynamic, more resilient field – one that can truly face up to the challenges of the present global ecological crisis.

As we move into the new year, and a decisive decade for nature conservation, practitioners need to capitalize on these opportunities for systemic change and transformation of our field. We highlight seven key themes where change is urgently needed, and where creative and collaborative engagement can create new opportunities for action.

Revitalizing Conservation Leadership

Bringing about large scale social change requires outstanding leadership in the mold of what Peter Senge, a scholar at MIT, calls ‘systems leadership’. Systems leadership involves recognizing that complex social problems require the coordinated efforts of many different actors, often working through networks, partnerships, and strong collaborations. Tackling such problems requires skills like understanding different actors’ perspectives, building trust, and the art of engaging in tough but important conversations, while facilitating a common shared vision amongst diverse actors.

This kind of systems leadership also inherently values diversity in cultural viewpoints, personal values, and social composition. Conservation, as a field that has characteristically been dominated by white men, primarily from northern countries, needs more representation and leadership from women, youth, and different cultures and ethnicities. It needs leaders like Melina Sakiyama, co-founder of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network, and Fred Swaniker, founder of African Leadership Group and a member of the 2019 Time 100. Swaniker’s group founded the African Leadership University’s School of Wildlife Conservation in Rwanda to build the next generation of African conservation leaders, and help move African conservation into a new era of entrepreneurship, youthful leadership, and collaboration.

Women’s leadership training from 14 countries in Africa coming together to find a different way to do conservation Photo © PRIDE Lion Conservation Alliance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a forceful notice on the importance of women’s leadership on a global stage. It has been well-documented that women tend to provide more democratic, more collaborative, and more compassionate leadership and communication styles. All these traits are badly needed in conservation. Ultimately we need to rebalance gender equity at the environmental decision-making table, where women are significantly underrepresented. One new effort to shift these norms is Women for the Environment-Africa (WE Africa), which provides a transformative leadership experience through the creation of a peer support and learning community for women in the environmental sector in Africa.

Changing Constituents

Perhaps the greatest positive change in the conservation field over the past 20 years has been the broad recognition of the critical role played by indigenous peoples and local communities in delivering conservation outcomes through local values, norms, and resource management systems. Mainstream conservation leaders now regularly extol the importance of indigenous and local leadership in global conservation issues, while a growing volume of research documents the incredible contributions made by indigenous people to biodiversity conservation. Moreover, as pressures on remaining wild lands intensify, it is increasingly clear that local communities and indigenous peoples are literally the people putting their lives on the line to save tropical forests and other rich ecosystems – not for conservation but for their self-determination, cultures, and territories – which are bound up in those landscapes. This reality has been strongly reinforced by the realities of conservation during the pandemic, when local organizations have steadfastly maintained their presence and support to communities throughout the shutdowns and disruptions.

In this context, conservation needs to truly speak to these social struggles and the worldviews of the indigenous people and other local communities that are increasingly the true conservation leaders of our days. Conservation has to be socially and politically relevant to local communities around the world – from villagers in Mozambique, to indigenous people in the Amazon, to coastal communities in the Western Pacific.

Local communities and Indigenous peoples in the tropics are increasingly recognized as critical for effective conservation. Photo by Lucia Lohmann.

Growing networks of indigenous and community-led conservation organizations are strengthening the voices of those leaders. Stronger financial support to assist local communities and indigenous people secure their territories, such as the $459 million in philanthropic pledges made at the 2018 Global Climate Summit, could also play a crucial role.

Conservation cannot be successful if it continues to be in conflict with those who should be its strongest allies. Greater investments should be made in supporting efforts to secure indigenous peoples and local communities rights to their lands and territories, which is often a foremost challenge to both survival and stewardship. Conservation has an opportunity to fully recognize the huge investments that indigenous people and local communities make in safeguarding the planet’s biodiversity and ecosystems – estimated at up to $1.7 billion annually in forested parts of low-income countries. This recognition should be at the heart of the next phase of global conservation agreements and their financing.

This all provides an excellent opportunity to redefine the profile of a conservationist, shifting towards a more diverse profile of the people who are living and working on the front lines each day, in their community or country. They are the true conservationists, regardless of education level, race, and gender.

Changing Human Behavior

Despite the field’s roots in the biological sciences, conservation today is fundamentally about social change. Success or failure in conservation depends predominantly on changing human behavior – getting individuals, communities, businesses, and governments to alter the status quo. Social change can be difficult and costly, often involving complex collective action and human cooperation. Understanding that conservation is a process of social change is crucial to laying the foundation for conservation in the twenty-first century. Without such an understanding, it will be impossible to build the skills and networks that are essential to solving complex social and institutional problems.

Conservation efforts need to tap into the explosion of knowledge around behavioral psychology and behavioral economics in recent years. This is key to understanding and influencing the behavioral and institutional choices of political decision makers, who often play a critical role in determining conservation and environmental outcomes. Groups like Rare, which recently created a Center for Behavior and the Environment, are providing a welcome new emphasis on these dynamics in the conservation field.

The COVID-19 crisis also presents an unmatched opportunity to learn about human behavior change on an extraordinary scale. For better or worse, rapid shifts in day-to-day human behavior that would have recently been deemed impossible have now occurred all around the world. As one environmental leader recently told Mongabay, a key lesson from the pandemic is that “we can change much faster than we thought.”

Breaking Down Silos and Scaling Solutions

To address the global biodiversity crisis, conservationists need to move beyond long-outdated yet remarkably resilient disciplinary silos. Conservation practice should be led by creative and entrepreneurial organizations that are focused on developing and implementing effective solutions to conservation problems and taking them to scale. We need new and more diverse actors from across different fields, with technology, economics, business, and politics all core to delivering lasting impact.

Often the most important conservation work today is done by organizations working on community land rights, governance reform, youth education, and/or community health. As a group of conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society argued in an important paper in BioScience, conservation outcomes in regions like Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be strongly shaped by wider demographic forces, which in turn are closely linked to women’s economic empowerment, urban planning, and public health services. Conservation efforts need to increasingly draw from and integrate with these fields, recognizing that conservation is not only about protected areas, wildlife, and biodiversity, but also about the people who live in the biodiverse regions of the World. For example, at Blue Ventures, whose mission focuses on rebuilding fisheries with coastal communities, conservation programs in coastal Madagascar have been integrated with community health service provision for over a decade, providing regular services to over 30,000 people living in and around community conservation areas.

Organizational Performance

Scaling up conservation impact requires a growing cadre of entrepreneurial and high-performing conservation organizations that deliver results. The current crises will pressure-test conservation organizations of all stripes by creating greater ‘selective pressure’ for organizations to operate efficiently and demonstrate strong evidence of their impact. Organizations that are agile and adaptive, with a clear mission and focus, will be better positioned to not only survive, but also to thrive. In this way, the crisis may create an opportunity for stronger, more resilient, and more locally connected organizations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of community-driven conservation efforts and grassroots organizations in the face of global disruptions. Credit: Felipe Rodriguez.

The pandemic has also put into relief the inherent vulnerability of operating models that rely excessively on international travel by outside advisors and experts, highlighting the need for a step change in investment in technical capabilities at a field level. Through this growing emphasis on localizing conservation impact and capacity, and questioning the enduring overreliance of conservation in tropical regions on international agencies and organizations, the pandemic could facilitate a much-needed correction in the locus of investment across the conservation field.

Catalyzing Collaboration

Conservation not only needs high-performing organizations but improved shared learning and collaboration across different organizations and sectors. Conservation has long been a field in need of greater collaboration from local to global scale, to tap into the organizational logic of collective action in order to tackle big and growing challenges. Most conservation organizations are too small and/or too narrowly focused to have broader impacts and thus collaboration is likely the only and most straight-forward way to scale impact.

Effective collaborations between scientists, practitioners, and local managers or communities is needed to put knowledge, tools, and technology in the hands of local conservationists, in a format that maximizes practical action on the ground. If the goal of the leading academic institutions of conservation science is to support a meaningful response to the biodiversity crisis in the limited window remaining for action, research resources and expertise must step up to the fierce urgency of climate and ecological breakdown. This calls for more pragmatic, participatory, action-orientated research and education, whose goal is not only to deliver conservation outcomes, but also to empower local conservationists through training and mentorship.

Marine conservation efforts in Madagascar – and a growing number of coastal states – are increasingly focusing on the securing the rights of traditional fishers to protect their seas from industrial trawling. For example, this photo shows Vezo traditional fishermen in southwest Madagascar sailing past a deep water shrimp trawler. While traditional fishermen have fished these waters for centuries, they have no formal claim to them. About 150 foreign industrial fishing vessels are licensed to fish within the waters of Madagascar. Photo © Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures.

Crises are unmatched opportunities for different organizations to come together to respond to common threats and potentially develop new ways of working together. The pandemic provides us with an opportunity to forge stronger collaborations that can outlast the immediate crisis.

New Funding Models

Lastly, transforming conservation impact requires the deployment of available financing to become much more efficient by flowing to the best solutions and helping them to scale. Existing conservation funding models tend to favor discrete short-term projects, with an emphasis on spending quickly on predefined activities. Short-term, project-based funding limits the ability of organizations to invest in long-term processes of change and the core capabilities required to deliver. Effective conservation funding needs to adopt a longer-term investment horizon and fund for impacts and outcomes, rather than activities and project outputs.

The crisis has already led to many private funders rapidly adjusting their funding parameters to provide greater flexibility to organizations. Kathy Reich, the director of the BUILD program at the Ford Foundation, offers hope in a commentary that this could lead to long-term shifts in funding models towards greater core organizational support and less reliance by funders on project-based funding.

The Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

The process of working collectively to address the pandemic could also lead to more collaborative and open working relationships between funders and conservationists in the field, helping to overcome power imbalances and different perspectives. This could lead to a healthier dialogue and patterns of conservation investment in the future.

Moving Forward

As we turn the corner into 2021, it is clear that we will not leave the crises and challenges of 2020 behind us. This calls for deeper thinking and focused efforts on how to convert those crises into long-term opportunities. If conservationists can seize on these opportunities with a spirit of collaboration, compassion, creativity, and entrepreneurship, 2021 could turn out to be a pivotal moment for global conservation efforts. In this way, the pandemic could provide us with an opportunity to build a more resilient, diverse, and effective conservation field that is able to step up to the challenges not only of the pandemic, but also of our global biodiversity crisis.

Fred Nelson is CEO of Maliasili. Alasdair Harris is Executive Director of Blue Ventures. Leela Hazzah is Executive Director and Cofounder of Lion Guardians. Lúcia G. Lohmann a faculty in the Department of Botany at the University of São Paulo (Brazil), and the Executive Director of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation

Related listening: Leela Hazzah and Earyn McGee join Mongabay’s podcast to discuss finding opportunity and community amid the twin crises of COVID and civil unrest, play here: