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How sharing and learning from failures can transform conservation (commentary)

  • There is a long history of failure in joint conservation and development projects, prompting growing efforts to explicitly acknowledge the value of failure as a means to learn and further success.
  • The authors of a new paper find that the framing of failures is problematic in two main ways – it can reduce accountability for negative project impacts on people and nature, and it can also reinforce dominant conservation paradigms and approaches that are insufficient to address the biodiversity crisis.
  • It is important to openly and critically examine failure in conservation, they argue in this opinion piece, but to do so in ways that genuinely question existing approaches and open up opportunities for transformation.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Countless interventions seek to halt biodiversity loss. Yet thus far these efforts have barely made a dent in global trends of decline. With growing recognition of these failures, organizations have increasingly looked at why many conservation efforts fail, and have formed international platforms to openly explore these failures. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Failure Factors Initiative is but one example.

Such initiatives argue that our failures hold more insights for learning than our successes. They point to the need to learn from other sectors such as business, aviation and engineering sectors, which are more advanced in “failing forward” – that is, learning from failure as a means to produce eventual success.

WCS staff describe their Failure Factors Initiative through an analogy of David the bread maker – a man who loves to make bread and experiments to perfect the combination of ingredients through cycles of trialing, failing and learning. They explain how because this learning is never made public, others continue to make the same mistakes. WCS claims that we do precisely the same thing in joint conservation and development projects – we often fail in isolation and do not share our lessons learned.

We agree that opening up the process of learning about failure to others is a powerful tool to stimulate change. However, our new paper in World Development explains how the dominant framing of failure in conservation does not go far enough and poses a variety of risks. In the case of David the bread maker, a single man claims the right to fail based on his own view of what activity is normatively good (making bread) and what success looks like (delicious bread). A technical exercise to examine failures and improve the quality of bread is actually very likely to further reinforce this activity. It will not raise questions about the broader system in which David is a part – ‘what company does David work for?’ What are the ethics and sustainability of the supply chains? What alternative approaches exist? What do consumers of this bread think is “good” bread?’ It is certainly not in David’s interest to confront these difficult questions.

See related: Failure in conservation projects: Everyone experiences it, few record it

The Kazimzumbwi Forest Reserve, Tanzania. REDD+ pilot projects in the area were canceled early, which left local people disappointed. Photo courtesy of Abu Shawka.

Similarly, in conservation, there is a long history of international organizations (largely led by Western male perspectives) designing protected areas and other conservation measures that negatively impact people’s lives in these areas. An effort to increase monitoring of species, forest coverage, and livelihood compensation does not question the broader frame which continues to shift the burden for solving environmental problems onto those who are least responsible. Why make financially worse-off smallholders responsible to change their behavior when global patterns of wealth accumulation are driving environmental harms? Why import Western technical recipes and techniques to solve “problems” that are externally defined, and in ways that alienate and disempower local knowledge and values? These are fundamental issues with how joint conservation and development is still commonly done today. We need models of addressing failure that are equipped to handle these broader issues.

The practice of embracing failure in conservation interventions can result in negative, unintended consequences that most impact the rural communities defined as project beneficiaries. This is particularly true with pilot projects, which are often designed in a way that gives them a ‘right to fail.’ This was the case in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) pilot projects conducted in Tanzania between 2010 and 2014. These pilot projects were framed as exploratory, primarily designed to test the complex REDD+ mechanism across the country. As such, when the pilot period ended, the international community who designed and led the process simply moved on. In contrast, the rural communities involved in the projects were left to manage unfulfilled expectations and a wide range of other impacts. The ‘right to fail’ narrative justified project discontinuation and – to a large extent – removed the need for accountability for negative impacts.

An explicit emphasis on failure can also justify the continuation of problematic projects. In the case of a REDD+ project in Alto Mayo Protected Forest in Peru, there have been persistent conflicts between the local population and state/NGO conservation actors. The protectionist approach has not taken into account the broader patterns of wealth and land trafficking that drive land use changes both inside and outside of the park. In fact, the growing acknowledgement of failure in this setting has facilitated the further expansion of “success” narratives internationally. This has been enabled by technical monitoring of simple measures like forest cover within the park, the number of control points, and signed agreements to receive technical support packages to not deforest, which can be easily cherry picked and framed as success. Meanwhile, ongoing struggles have been reframed as risks that organizations are proactively managing.

View all of Mongabay’s Conservation Effectiveness coverage here

In the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, Peru, the priorities of Conservation International and the Peruvian Service for Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) are in conflict with local communities, posing many challenges for conservation and wellbeing in the area. Photo by Josephine Chambers.

Both Tanzania and Peru present deeply challenging contexts that conservation staff and communities genuinely desire to transform to make conservation work better. Yet, there are so many constraints they face in so doing, both within these regions and at higher levels, such as requirements from donors that money is used in particular ways. We find that growing efforts to embrace failure in these settings and elsewhere is therefore unlikely to provide meaningful change to dominant conservation models. On the contrary, such efforts may even reinforce these models, thereby continuing to undermine the agency of local people as well as longer term, more transformative solutions.

What should we then do about widespread failures? We certainly do not suggest ignoring them, as was often done in the past. Rather we advocate an approach to addressing failure that is explicitly political. What we mean by this is that failure is not turned into a fixed outcome that can be objectively measured and assessed. But rather, people recognize that failure can be framed in many different ways, and that this framing process is always subjective and shaped by vested interests. For example, failure can be seen as due to poor implementation or poor goals. These different frames fundamentally shape our interpretations of underlying causes, and thus possible solutions; for example, tweaking goals versus questioning those goals in the first place.

It is therefore essential to always dissect the power relations behind why a particular framing of failure is promoted, whose (and which) frames are excluded, and with what consequences. At the site level, we advocate genuinely participatory processes where those who are affected by conservation interventions are core decision-makers in designing and trialing interventions. At the broader level, we argue for the importance of not only judging conservation progress based on predetermined goals, which inhibits us from extending our collective imaginations beyond our existing individual and fragmented visions, but rather, we advocate addressing failure in explicitly political ways that can enable genuine transformations to existing approaches.

Josephine Chambers is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group in Wageningen University, The Netherlands; Kate Massarella is Researcher at the Sociology of Development and Change Group in Wageningen University; Robert Fletcher is Associate Professor at the Sociology of Development and Change Group in Wageningen University.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of the big findings in the latest edition of the “What Works In Conservation” report from the Conservation Evidence Group, listen here: