A call for constructive dialogue on the future of area-based conservation

Back in 2018, just before the 14th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), I wrote an article on this blog about a big argument regarding the future of protected areas. Should there be a 50% ‘half earth’ target for area-based conservation? Or should there be a shift towards a more integrated ‘whole earth’ perspective? Or something else? 

Fast forward three years, and we are still waiting to see whether the 15th CBD Conference of the Parties, postponed from 2020 due to COVID, will happen this year (the current plan is for October 2021 in Kunming, China, but that is looking increasingly unlikely). While a lot has changed in this period, the future of area-based conservation remains the hot topic in the ongoing CBD process. Key players have set out various contrasting positions in press releases and on twitter, and an avalanche of papers that seek to influence the process have been published – including a proposed Global Deal for Nature, a call for an approach based on ‘three conditions’ of global land use, a calculation of roughly how many people live in areas that might be protected under a half earth goal, and many more. 

During the intense negotiation process the idea of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 (often referred to as ‘30 by 30’) has gradually risen to prominence. Promoted by the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ of 35 governments and the Campaign for Nature coalition of over 100 conservation organisations, this idea has made it into the recently published 1st draft of the Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework as Action Target 3: “[to] ensure that at least 30 per cent globally of land areas and of sea areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.” 

The inclusion of this target represents a significant success for those pushing for more ambitious area-based conservation, and it seems to have broad support from publics in many countries. However, the role of area-based conservation remains highly contentious within and outside conservation. Within the conservation community, the Future of Conservation Survey found that while 49% thought it unacceptable to displace people to make way for protected areas, 40% thought it acceptable. Not all area-based conservation involves formal protected areas, displacement or strict protection, but these polarised results serve to demonstrate the level of disagreement on this issue, particularly given that the same study found near consensus among conservationists on many other topics. Outside conservation, Survival International, a human rights organisation, are running a campaign against 30 by 30 called ‘The big green lie’, saying that new conserved areas “will increase human suffering and so accelerate the destruction of the spaces they claim to protect because local opposition to them will grow”. 

The level of disagreement that remains in the debate over area-based conservation is exemplified by two recent publications and the responses that they have attracted. In the first example, Anthony Waldron and over 100 other authors published a working paper entitled Protecting 30% of the planet for nature: costs, benefits and economic implications. This set out to calculate the net economic impact of applying a 30% protection target. By modelling the potential impact of conservation areas on tourism, agriculture, fisheries and logging, it found that going for 30% would be better economically (at the global and national scale) than a scenario in which there is no further expansion of the conserved area of land. The authors acknowledged that this might generate some local costs to residents, and calculated opportunity costs associated with protection in terms of lost opportunities to harvest and sell natural resources. However, the associated press release says, “Benefits of protecting 30% of the planet’s land and ocean outweigh the costs at least 5-to-1.”

A highly critical Open Letter was published in response to Waldron et al., which broadly argued that their working paper overlooked the full range of local costs of conservation that will be borne by residents, was over-optimistic about the future of nature-based tourism, and was written by a group of authors lacking in social science expertise and sufficient representation of perspectives from outside the global north. Summing up their concerns, the authors of the open letter say that “The result is that this paper reads to us like a proposal for a new model of colonialism.” 

The second article that has generated heated debate is Protecting half of the planet could directly affect over 1 billion people by Judith Schleicher et al. (full disclosure – I am a co-author on this paper). This article looks at where new conserved areas might go if the half earth 50% coverage target were implemented, and then looks at how many people already live in the areas that would be affected. It does this for two scenarios – one in which 50% coverage is applied in all ecoregions, and another in which it is done only in ecoregions which have over 20% of natural habitat remaining. The article finds that in the more ambitious protection scenario 760 million people currently live in areas that would be newly protected (bringing the total to over 1 billion), whereas in the less ambitious scenario 170 million live in areas that would be newly protected. 

This article has been the subject of recent exchanges in the e-letters pages of Science Advances, as part of a series of responses to a paper by Dinerstein et al. setting out plans for a ‘Global Safety Net’ with 50% protected area coverage. In one letter, Burkart et al. criticise the Schleicher paper for assuming that new protected areas would follow a top-down ‘fortress conservation’ model, and for including a scenario with 50% coverage in all ecoregions despite this not having been proposed by Dinerstein et al. Subsequent letters in the sequence, from Dan Brockington and Eric Dinerstein, descend to an ever-greater level of acrimony, with Dinerstein describing Brockington’s letter as “attempting to initiate a zero-sum rhetorical debate absent any new scientific material” and “unworthy of publication”. 

Taking a step back from the point by point specifics of these arguments, it is clear that the debate has, like many in academia, descended into frustration, anger and name-calling. And yet, I am cautiously optimistic that there could be a more positive way forward. This is because through my close reading of the articles, and conversations with participants with various perspectives, I believe that some of the current points of disagreement are illusory, and that there are some important shared ideas that could be the basis for a more constructive conversation. 

First, in some cases people are disagreeing because they are not reading the arguments other people are making sufficiently closely (or sometimes perhaps barely registering them at all). It is all too easy to react to an imagined straw-person version of an argument, rather than to what a paper actually says. For example, Dinerstein accuses Brockington of not having read his or Burkart’s articles, a claim lent some weight by the fact that Brockington spells Burkart’s name incorrectly throughout. Similarly, the claim by Burkart et al. that the Schleicher et al. paper assumes new protected areas will be of the top-down fortress model does not match Schleicher’s text, which is careful to make no predictions about what form protection might take and to acknowledge that social impacts can be positive or negative (even if the title of the paper is, admittedly, somewhat less careful). 

Second, disagreement is sometimes illusory because authors are making different assumptions and not comparing like with like. The main culprit here is the question of what form new conserved areas might take. There is a very big difference between covering 30% of the planet in IUCN Category I or II protected areas and covering it with indigenous and community conserved areas and ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’ (OECMs). In the former case millions of people would be evicted with enormous negative impacts, whereas in the latter the outcomes for many resident people might be positive (through enhanced land rights and the ability to keep out predatory industry). Those who are critical of half earth / 30 by 30 tend to assume that new areas would be strictly protected. In contrast, those who are in favour of scaling up area-based conservation tend to emphasise the role of OECMs, including indigenous lands. The draft CBD target mentions both, but greater clarity about what kinds of protection is envisaged and in what proportion would enable some serious research to be done into potential social outcomes, rather than basing arguments on extreme assumptions one way or the other. 

Alongside these points of illusory disagreement, there are several areas of shared ground that could be built upon. Most obviously, all participants in these debates claim to care about non-human life on earth and want to create conditions for it to flourish, even if they have very different ideas about how (or even why) to do so. Slightly less obviously, all participants say that they want to see a more or less radical restructuring of the global economy so that it reduces the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss. This argument is central to those who critique the half earth / 30 by 30 view, but it is also often present in arguments in favour of more ambitious spatial targets. For example, the Global Deal for Nature calls for major changes to agriculture, fishing, use of plastics and other areas of economic activity. Political ecologists put forward similar arguments, even if they are more explicit in calling out industrial capitalism as the underlying problem. 

There is also some potential shared ground regarding the importance of environmental justice and giving an effective voice to indigenous and local communities in the conservation process. This manifests itself in very different ways – those for 30 by 30 argue that local residents can be partners in achieving large scale conservation goals where they themselves wish to protect biodiversity, whereas those arguing against 30 by 30 have deep concerns about how conservation has impacted people in the past and fear that it will continue to do so in the future. These are completely different points of view, but at least they are both based on recognising the need to take the role and rights of resident people seriously. 

Of course, there are many ways in which protagonists in this debate do not, and never could, agree with one another. Nonetheless, I see enough areas where some connections could be made to encourage me that a more constructive process could be established. This might take inspiration from the famous Worm-Hilborn debate in fisheries science, in which two eminent scientists with strongly opposing views and a history of trashing each other’s work were able to come together and make progress following a debate on public radio in which they found some common ground. In Matt Burgess’ excellent article on this process, he identifies three key ingredients that worked for Worm-Hilborn. 1) A willingness to put differences aside and start a constructive dialogue. 2) A mutual acknowledgement of a shared goal. 3) A clear and early distinction between differences in values and differences in interpretation of the data. Debates over protected areas are between whole epistemic communities (with reputations to protect, citations to seek etc.) rather than just two individuals, but my hope is that with the right support and a little humility, future debates might be less hostile, and more constructive. 

I have spoken to various people who have been involved in these debates from across the area-based conservation spectrum, and I believe there is a real willingness to engage in such a process. This is an excellent first step, but for it to be legitimate and most likely to succeed, it would need to include much greater representation of people who stand to be directly affected by 30 by 30 – those that James Andrew’s powerful IDS article on the topic calls the “indigenous, first nation and rural farmers, forager and fishing communities”. At present the overwhelming majority of people participating in high profile public debates over area-based conservation are white, middle class residents of wealthy countries – people like me – and this needs to change. Ashish Kothari makes a similar point in his excellent recent editorial in Oryx, in which he calls for a more fundamental shift in power and perspective away from the global north. 

The constructive dialogue process I am proposing would not be talking for the sake of it. If successful, such a process could generate increased trust, equality and respect between participants, greater understanding of different perspectives and ideas, and increased willingness to adapt previously entrenched positions. This in turn could lead to better area-based conservation research, and better recommendations for policy and practice that will conserve biodiversity and deliver environmental justice. There is no time to be lost – at some point in the next few months the CBD negotiations will (finally) end, and the hard work of implementation will begin. The conservation community needs to stop mudslinging and start talking, if it is to take on the challenges ahead. 


I hope readers of this blog will join me in looking for ways to foster a more constructive and inclusive dialogue on the future of area-based conservation. If you are interested, please do leave a reply below, or get in touch via @csandbrook on twitter.

I am very grateful to many colleagues and friends with whom I have spoken about the issues mentioned in this article over the years. Particular thanks to the Political Ecology Group in Cambridge for a rich discussion of the Waldron et al. report and the responding Open Letter, to Julia Jones for telling me about the Worm-Hilborn case study, and to several colleagues who supported a funding application related to this topic.

4 thoughts on “A call for constructive dialogue on the future of area-based conservation

  1. Thank you for the thought-provoking post. I would love to see the ‘yes/no’ debate about area-based conservation move towards an exploration of what it could look like with environmental justice in mind.

  2. Thanks for this nuanced take on the issue, Chris.

    You wrote, “This is because through my close reading of the articles, and conversations with participants with various perspectives, I believe that some of the current points of disagreement are illusory, and that there are some important shared ideas that could be the basis for a more constructive conversation.”

    I couldn’t agree more! With the disclaimer that I have NOT read all the papers you mention in any great detail, I also suspect that most of the back-and-forth is driven by academic-bluster, rather than deep disagreement.

    A nice stress-test would be to read these documents after substituting the word “protection” with “retention”. I’m willing to bet that the majority of opponents to the idea of of *protecting* 30% of the planet’s area would support *retaining* 30% of the original extent of habitats (I reckon many would even agree that 30% might be too little).

    I’d also bet that most of the advocated for 30 by 30, or half-earth, would realise that they are referring to retention, rather than protection. The word retention breaks the illusion that all protected areas will be in the form of strict fortress conservation. For example, you can ‘retain’ grassland even under low intensity grazing. You can ‘retain’ wetlands even if you abstract water for domestic use. You can ‘retain’ broad natural margins between cultivated fields. You can ‘retain’ forest even with sustainable logging. This is where OECM and biodiversity stewardship becomes relevant.

    Protected areas are only one tool for ensuring retention. For example Target 1 of the Global Biodiversity Framework is about spatial planning to address land- and sea-use change for “retaining intact and wilderness areas”. Directing development away from heavily transformed habitats using spatial planning makes it possible to retain these areas without necessarily protecting them.

    Similarly, we could use the Red List for Ecosystems (RLE) to ensure retention: criterion A3 of the RLE is that an ecosystem would be listed as ‘Endangered’ if it has declined in extent by 70% since 1750 (in other words, an ecosystem is endangered if less than 30% of its historical extent is retained). If we enacted laws that prohibited the transformation of ecosystems beyond the state of ‘Vulnerable’, then we would be implementing a 30% retention target even without the need for protected areas.

    Long story short, I wonder if most of the disagreement is not around allocating 30% or 50% for nature, but rather about whether protected areas are the best way to achieve our goals…

  3. Hi Chris and many thanks for this useful summary of the debate around area-based conservation and the post-2020 targets. I hope very much that your call for a constructive dialogue will fall on receptive ears. It’s been a source of great frustration over the years that experts in different camps focus all their attention on the few points that divide them rather than on the more numerous ones on which they agree, and around which some consensus might be built.

    There’s an additional issue in relation to the “30 by 30” target, which is the effective management of the protected areas in question. There’ve been paper parks around the world for decades, but it’s shocking to see governments that should know better continuing to create them now. The most immediate example for us here in the United Kingdom is that bottom trawling, dredging and other highly destructive practices continue — legally — across 97% of the marine protected areas (MPAs) in UK waters. That sort of cynical protected area designation “in name only” should be called out for what it is and not counted towards national or global targets if an area does not correspond to one of the IUCN Protected Area categories. Most existing UK MPAs should not if they permit industrial-scale extraction incompatible with nature conservation. The planned designation of a new UK network of Highly Protected Marine Areas (see https://jncc.gov.uk/our-work/highly-protected-marine-areas/ for details), where such practices would be illegal, is long overdue and very welcome. No doubt one of the trickiest issues to be resolved in relation to the new HPMAs will relate to ongoing access to and use of those areas, so constructive dialogue between diverse stakeholders will be required there too.

  4. Thanks, very interesting. I was just working on the “ideal national park” of ecologists in Chile and the challenges to indigenous uses or (co)management, as some Natural Reserves (that allow management), are becoming National Parks (where most uses are not permitted), and we are about to have a new Service of Biodiversity and Protected Areas, an important institutional change, moving the Protected Areas service from Agricultural Ministry to the Environmental Ministry. Understandings of nature (nature ontologies), such as the human-nature dichotomy are shaping these debates, specifically what a National Park is (or should be).

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