Peeling the onion: how deep should conservation go?

Conservationists and their organisations are often accused of treating symptoms and not causes – as Bill Adams said on this blog a few weeks ago, “mopping nature’s wounds not addressing the cause of injury”. Bill was talking about the big global challenges of conservation, but this problem applies equally at the day-to-day level. The park staff have no equipment? Buy them some from a grant, and don’t worry about where the replacements will come from. The government counterpart is corrupt? Work with him or her anyway, because they can get things done in the next few months. And so it goes on.

Conservation researchers in general, and political ecologists in particular, like to look deeper, unravelling the chains of explanation that get to the processes that underpin emergent threats. They (we) often argue that by applying short-term sticking plasters, conservation isn’t really making much difference for the long term, and that more conservation effort should go to addressing deeper underlying problems. In other words, (and mixing metaphors) conservation should make more effort to peel back the layers of the onion, to see what lies beneath.

To give an example of sticking plaster conservation, a few years ago I was involved with a project that set out to reduce illegal encroachment into a forest national park by local farmers, who were removing trees in order to plant coffee. The project was set up on the assumption that the park and its neighbours were a bounded system, within which both the problems and the solution must lie. It was believed that farmers were encroaching because of an increasing population and the desire to generate income from the sale of coffee. Our approach was to improve enforcement of the park boundary and to set up payments for farmers that were conditional on respecting it. However, as the project went on, it became increasingly clear that the problem analysis wasn’t right. The valley bottoms in which farmers had previously cultivated their crops were being turned into very large commercial fish farms that were owned by rich and powerful individuals from the big cities. These illegal farms were displacing the local farmers, effectively forcing them to encroach on the forest. Our project targeted the farmers, when in fact the real problem was linked to corruption and elite power in urban areas. We hadn’t peeled back enough layers of the onion.

Designing conservation interventions that get to the underlying drivers of threats sounds like a very sensible plan. The problem though is that most conservation problems are more like Dr. Who’s TARDIS than an onion – open them up and they turn out to be bigger and more complicated on the inside. Conservation organisations are usually equipped with the skills and resources they need to apply sticking plasters – for example they understand wildlife population dynamics and hunting pressure, and they know how to train and equip park rangers. But when it comes to the deeper problems, they often lack the skills to address complex challenges like poverty, or the power to influence corrupt politicians or an unsustainable system of production and consumption. In the example above, we certainly didn’t have the right people or resources in our project to challenge elite power in the capital.

An example of an effort to get beneath the surface of a conservation problem is the work of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Liberia. They recognise that conservation capacity in Liberia is currently very low, and in particular there is a lack of well-trained Liberian staff to work in conservation. The sticking plaster option would be to fly in some expatriates and get on with project work, but FFI has decided to work with education institutions in Liberia to improve long-term capacity for training conservation staff. I am involved in this project in a small way, and a few months ago I went to Monrovia to lead a training workshop for lecturers and teachers who will be training Liberia’s future conservationists. The workshop went well and I think everyone learned a lot – I certainly did. I was impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the participants, and I strongly support this long-term approach to building conservation capacity.

The problem is just how long-term this kind of initiative needs to be. I was shocked by what the workshop participants in Liberia told me about the challenges they face. I had been prepared for stories of a lack of resources and students coming out of school without much to show for it, but I was not expecting them to tell me of the terrible behaviour problems in their classes. I heard of students demanding lectures to re-start when they arrived ten minutes late, of constant backchat and aggression, and in one case of a lecturer being held hostage by a group of students in his office. This certainly put into perspective my sense of frustration when students I teach turn up two minutes late for class once in a while. More recently Liberian education made the international news when it was announced that all 25,000 students taking the entrance exam for the University of Liberia had failed. I am sure there is more to this story than meets the eye, but it certainly illustrates the enormous problems that the Liberian education system faces, within which conservation teaching is just one tiny piece. FFI’s work in Liberia is admirable, but the road is long and there are bigger issues at hand than any one NGO can possibly address. Entering the TARDIS is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

The challenge for those that lead conservation organisations is two-fold. First, they must find a way to understand the underlying causes of conservation problems – something we failed to do with the encroaching coffee farmers. I think there is real potential in this area for more productive collaboration between practitioners and the academic community, but this is itself challenging and time consuming. Second, having entered the TARDIS, leaders must establish whether there is a problem inside it that they can realistically do something about within a feasible budget and meaningful timeframe. In some cases this might mean bringing in new staff or partners that have the right skills to deal with problems outside the usual scope of conservation. In others it might mean deciding that the problem runs so deep that even a sticking plaster won’t help and it should be left alone – a decision that may be pragmatic but has moral and credibility implications for conservation organisations, as in the case of the Yangtze Dolphin so brilliantly described by Sam Turvey in his book Witness to Extinction.

These are difficult strategic decisions. My fear is that by following a pragmatic triage logic the really big systemic problems (such as with the global political economy) that drive so many conservation threats are always going to be left alone by sensible conservation leaders and their organisations. In which case, who is left to take them on?

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3 thoughts on “Peeling the onion: how deep should conservation go?

  1. There is a lot in this article worthy of discussion Chris, but it is how the communication process manifests itself in the midst of that debate that interests me. The trouble with onions is that the deeper the uncovered layer, the weaker the signal coming back up to the practitioner on the surface. For all the worldly wisdom that onion centres may reveal, unless that knowledge can be understood by ordinary folk then the sticking plaster culture will prevail.

  2. I guess maybe this is why social science research is extraordinarily important, especially using qualitative methods such as grounded theory and participant observation. Otherwise there is no way we’ll understand the complexity of the situation and will keep using the same old solutions to problems that we have failed to properly understand.

  3. Chris, I just had a look at this and remembered my introduction, while working in Vietnam, to WWF’s ‘Standards’ which were based on the Conservation Measures Partnership’s approach. As it was described to me, the workshop begins with the building of a conceptual model, reaching all the way back to the deepest drivers of threat that people could name; things like corruption or poverty. And at this point, I was told, everyone gets depressed because they can’t do anything about these things and it’s the job of the facilitator to bring people’s focus back to the middling drivers. There may even be such an analysis done by WWF relating to the issues in the area of your project site where the development of intensive agriculture/aquaculture was flagged up, shrugged over and laid aside.
    I suspect that, if it was laid aside, it was done with good reason. WWF has very limited scope to criticize elites in Vietnam. So I’ll acknowledge that, shrug and move on. However it is possible to recognize that the deep systemic problems affects how you approach the local ones. And this is very hard to do if you effectively pretend they don’t exist. Especially if you’re trying to work with people who really don’t know they exist.

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