Conservation impact evaluation: the right answers, but only some of the right questions?

It seems that impact is everywhere at the moment. Is our research having impact? Is our teaching having impact? Are conservation actions having the intended impact? These are very important questions, but they are also very difficult to answer, particularly when the things we hope to affect are complex processes that are terribly difficult to untangle (the policy making process, the career development of alumni, or the trajectories of socioecological systems).

Last week Professor Paul Ferraro from Johns Hopkins visited Cambridge as the Humanitas Visiting Professor in Sustainability Studies. Paul is a world leader in analysing the impact of conservation interventions, and a strong advocate of quantitative analysis that properly accounts for things like selection bias in treatments (e.g. the location of protected areas is non-random and this should be considered in impact evaluation). He is in the vanguard of a growing industry of people doing similar work, which increasingly fills the pages of the conservation science journals. To me, this research is fascinating and provides important insights that often challenge widely-held assumptions about things like the relationship between protected areas and poverty. Continue reading

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Out of sight/site, out of mind: the challenge of studying what really matters in political ecology

According to Marx, a defining characteristic of capitalism is the way that the social relations involved in the production of commodities are obscured: he called this ‘commodity fetishism’, suggesting that we see commodities as ‘inanimate objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers’ (OED). So, for example, when we buy a cheap T-shirt or the latest gadget we can exist in a bubble of ignorance about the social and ecological consequences of their production. This allows us to carry on consuming, and capitalism to carry on churning out surplus value, without too many difficult questions being asked about things like labour rights or pollution.

Political ecology scholarship regularly, and rightly, calls attention to these hidden processes and seeks to shed light onto them. For example, a recent paper by Martin Arboleda argues that one cannot understand the dynamics of urban areas, with their towers of steel and glass and hyperconsuming citizens, without also understanding the connected dynamics that produce immense holes in the ground and gigantic livestock factories in distant rural locations, with all of their social and ecological consequences. The one could not exist without the other, and so to understand them, Alboreda argues that we must understand (and therefore conduct research in) both.

This is a compelling argument, but in practice it presents two important challenges. First, it isn’t always easy to know where to look for the concealed relations of fetishized commodities, precisely because they are so well hidden. Second, even where the concealed relations that go into the production of commodities can be uncovered, studying them in detail can be very difficult, requiring fieldwork in multiple locations and sometimes multiple languages. This work can also be fraught with potential danger, as the underbelly of capitalism can be reluctant to give up its secrets. Continue reading

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. Continue reading