- As a product of the profound impacts of climate-induced disasters, the pandemic, and rising awareness of social injustice, the conservation sector is in the midst of a period of rapid change.
- Fred Nelson, the CEO of Maliasili, which works to scale the impact of local conservation and natural resource organizations in Africa, identifies four key trends that are “significantly reshaping the conservation field” and what these mean for the sector.
- “Conservation organizations should anticipate greater support for locally-led or community-based organizations and initiatives, continued and increasing interest in the intersection of the environment and social justice, and more funding and policy support for the central role of healthy ecosystems in addressing climate change,” Nelson writes. “Ultimately these trends are all creating important opportunities for strengthening the conservation field in crucial ways—with more resources, deeper partnerships, greater diversity, and stronger local and grassroots leadership—during this critical period.”
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
2021 continues to be a year like no other. From record heat and wildfires in western North America to the flooding in China, the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction are becoming more and more apparent all around the world. Meanwhile the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, highlighting the connections between human health and the environment, as well as fostering a psychological vulnerability to shocks and changes that perhaps makes longer term crises less abstract and more ‘real’. Perhaps as a result, climate and environment have risen to near the top of the public and media agendas in a way that, while slow and late, is still a welcome change.
The upshot is that the environmental and conservation field is changing more rapidly than at any time since the dawn of the modern environmental era in the early 1990s (symbolized by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992). Part of this rapid pace of change is just a reflection of other wider changes in societies around the world- in technology, economic and social relations, and wider trends, many of which have been disrupted or distorted by the effects of the pandemic.
But for anyone working in environmental conservation, it is a critical time to lift one’s head up from the fray and day-to-day crises and reflect on the major shifts taking place. The context for conservation is changing in important ways, and all organizations—particularly more local groups that may have a harder time tracking important global shifts—need to be cognizant of new opportunities and challenges that are emerging. Here are four key trends that are significantly reshaping the conservation field in this challenging yet dynamic period.
Convergence of climate and biodiversity agendas.
For the past three decades, efforts to address climate change and biodiversity loss—the greatest environmental challenges of our time—have been pursued largely in parallel. More recently, though, there has been a convergence of these agendas. This convergence is based on the reality that nearly a quarter of global carbon emissions come from deforestation and other forms of land use change or degradation, making the protection and restoration of forests, grasslands, mangroves, and other ecosystems central to both climate and biodiversity solutions.
The significance of this is a rapidly increasing recognition of the prominent importance of ecosystem conservation to climate change, with this topic now endorsed in mainstream climate policy initiatives under the rubric of ‘nature-based solutions.’ Investing in the protection and restoration of ecosystems is central to both mitigating climate change—by enhancing carbon uptake and storage in forests and other carbon-rich landscapes—and to adaptation, particularly in vulnerable tropical regions where peoples’ livelihoods are so dependent on nature. Conservation organizations can expect to see a continued increase in investment in healthy ecosystems that foster both mitigation and adaptation by maintaining forests and other natural land uses, as well as growing emphasis on regenerative agriculture. Conservationists working at the ecosystem or landscape scale have an opportunity to frame their work and impacts in these converging narratives around climate and biodiversity.
Increased investment in climate and biodiversity solutions.
A related trend, particularly evident during the first half of 2021, is the surge of funding from public, business, and philanthropic sources into environmental issues over the past year. This is being driven by the growing sense of urgency surrounding the climate and biodiversity crises, and the recognition that public and private actors need to increase investment in ecological health and ‘nature-based solutions’ in order to respond to both climate and biodiversity concerns. A wide range of UN and other international organizations, as well as private firms like McKinsey, are increasingly making the case for these investments. For example, a UNEP report released in May calls for increasing investments in ecosystem conservation (aka ‘nature-based solutions’) from a current estimate of $133 billion to $536 billion. Private companies are increasingly collaborating with conservation organizations to actually deploy capital towards these ends; for example, Apple, Goldman Sachs and Conservation International launched a $200 million restoration fund.
Meanwhile in the philanthropic space the environment, climate, and biodiversity are seeing new resources and opportunities. For example, Jeff Bezos’ Earth Fund, launched in 2020, aims to spend roughly $1 billion annually over the next decade and issued its first series of major grants last year.
Significantly more funding is also flowing into long-term conservation financing mechanisms. Globally, conservation trust funds are proliferating, with 40 new funds created since 2010 and at least $2 billion spent by such trust funds between 2009 and 2018. New financing mechanisms are emerging as part of the effort to scale up conservation investment. A notable recent example is the Legacy Landscapes fund, a long-term protected areas financing mechanism that launched in May, with over €80 million from the German government as well as a number of private foundations. In the marine realm, the Blue Nature Alliance, with a goal of protecting 18 million km2 of ocean habitat, launched as a partnership with $125 million in seed funding from Conservation International and funders such as the Pew Charitable Trust and the Rob and Melanie Walton Foundation.
Conservationists should expect to see more of these long-term, large-scale financing initiatives and collaborations launched in coming months and years. The active collaboration between international organizations, private foundations, and public agencies in a number of these is notable and a promising trend. The upshot is that there will likely be a continued increase of investment in long-term financing for landscape-scale conservation, often framed as a combination of climate and biodiversity aims that converge around maintaining healthy ecosystems on a large scale.
Growing mainstream support for indigenous and community-based conservation solutions.
Another key trend is the surging level of mainstream support for locally-driven conservation approaches, and specifically the role of Indigenous People and local communities (IPLCs). A profusion of major reports, statements, new initiatives and media coverage have revolved around the growing recognition that conservation success on a global scale depends on directing greater support to IPLCs, to support them to secure and steward their lands, territories, and resources.
UN FAO and WWF both released major reports this year that highlight the scope and effectiveness of IPLC conservation efforts, and present the case for increased support for those efforts in global conservation policy and investments. The ICCA Consortium’s global Territories of Life report makes a similar case through a more grassroots perspective, and was covered by Vox with an apt headline that summarizes these wider shifts in the field: ‘Indigenous peoples are the world’s biggest conservationists, but they rarely get credit for it.’
Within major media outlets, similar narratives have appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post this year. A widely reviewed new history of conservation, Beloved Beasts, by the journalist Michelle Nijhuis, features Namibia’s pioneering community conservancies model, set alongside other chapters on renowned historic figures such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.
Much of this groundswell of support for the role of IPLC lands in global conservation is being driven by improved data and understanding of basic spatial realities. As these new reports describe, IPLC lands constitute about one-third of the total global land area (and could be considerably more if all IPLC land claims were recognized), including 36% of the land in global Key Biodiversity Areas. The WWF report finds that over 90% of all IPLC lands are in relatively good ecological condition; roughly 48% of the remaining intact Amazon Basin forests are now on legally recognized IPLC lands, as forests elsewhere that are less well protected are cleared.
These realities on the ground have been further amplified by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the way that the responses and circumstances over the past year highlight the crucial importance of local capacity and community-driven solutions in responding to such crises in adaptive and effective ways.
Justice and Equity
Another key set of forces reshaping conservation derives from the influence of new social movements and calls for racial justice, diversity, and equity in the United States and around the world. For conservation, particularly in Africa, this is leading to a greater focus on long-standing concerns around racial diversity, leadership, and power relations (see for example this recent interview in Mongabay). These issues are also being raised more openly in relation to the wider development field and how it pertains to patterns of funding (see this 2020 New York Times editorial on foreign aid in this context). The practical implications of these narratives and movements include creating more pressure on conservation efforts to support human rights, align with and support wider calls for social justice and equity, and provide greater support for enhancing local agency- including the leadership of local organizations and civil society.
On this latter point, a confluence of the above trends is spurring a marked increase in focus on the importance of local organizations and shifting more funding towards local actors. This dialogue is more pronounced in the international development field, such as a recent report from the Bridgespan Group and African Philanthropy Forum that documents the continued barriers local organizations face in accessing funding, as well as the growing urgency emerging within the international development and philanthropy sectors in remedying that situation. These issues are equally pertinent to conservation issues and funding on a global scale, and will likely rise in prominence on the global conservation agenda, particularly as more funding pours into the field.
These four basic trends and patterns all reinforce each other in important ways, and are driving potentially far-reaching changes and shifts within the conservation field. Conservation organizations should anticipate greater support for locally-led or community-based organizations and initiatives, continued and increasing interest in the intersection of the environment and social justice, and more funding and policy support for the central role of healthy ecosystems in addressing climate change. Here are three important possible implications of these broad trends for organizations large and small working in this field:
1. Think Bigger. Both the scale of conservation challenges and availability of resources is growing. Many conventional small-scale and short-term project interventions will become increasingly anachronistic in this context. This has important implications for both implementing and field-based organizations, and conservation funders. Organizations may need to position their work at a more meaningful scale of impact and ambition in thinking about the future and their desired impact.
2. Deepening Partnerships. Out of necessity, thinking bigger usually means thinking and working more collaboratively, through new or deeper partnerships. Already conservation is witnessing more large-scale, multi-organization initiatives with large volumes of funding attached to them, and this is likely to continue. Organizations that can’t effectively work through strong long-term partnerships—both international organizations and local groups—are likely to be left behind.
3. Invest Locally. The combination of growing support for indigenous and local leadership and agency; and increased support for social justice and equity will catalyze greater focus on finding new and better ways to support for local organizations and leaders. This will continue to spread well beyond the traditional field project or NGO set-up of much conservation work to social enterprises, social movements, and more creative organizational formations. This includes more actively addressing important and often-unspoken issues related to race, cultural bias, and diversity in conservation, often drawing on similar and more advanced efforts around these issues in the wider social sector. Expatriate-led programs and organizations are likely to become more of an anachronism than they have been for most of conservation’s history, and much greater scrutiny is likely to be placed on questions of power, voice and agency in conservation and scientific research (see e.g this recent op-ed on ‘colonial science’).
Ultimately these trends are all creating important opportunities for strengthening the conservation field in crucial ways—with more resources, deeper partnerships, greater diversity, and stronger local and grassroots leadership—during this critical period.
Fred Nelson is CEO of Maliasili, which works to support leading local conservation and natural resource organizations, primarily in Africa and Madagascar, to help them grow their work and impact. The analysis presented in this article emerged during the course of Maliasili’s ongoing strategic planning process from January-August 2021.