Guilford Harbor

In this week’s issue of Nature: Rethinking global conservation

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


Robert Smith and colleagues argue1 that it’s time to reorganize the approach to conservation in developing nations.

They are critical of academics and NGOs for missing what they think really matters—effective, on-the-ground research and policy development with strong local participation and buy in.

Part of this stems from the focus of academics.  They cite as an example the work of Norman Myers and Conservation International, who published a now-famous map of biodiversity hotspots.

The map was marketed as a tool for identifying where conservation investment would have the biggest impact, but this involved playing down both how little was actually known about species distributions and that accurate global data sets on the costs of implementation were not available.

These limitations did not stop the map doing its main job, which was to raise funds and show broadly where Conservation International should target its efforts. In fact, the initiative has been extremely successful and helped to raise an estimated  US$750 million for conservation within hot spots. But the hype led many academics to treat priority area setting as simply a question of working out what lives where. This led to many studies that took no account of how plans are implemented.

And part of it stems from traditional structures of NGOs, which, in Smith’s words,

[facilitates] the need to create a sense of urgency among donors lead[ing] to short-term funding and ‘quick and dirty’ projects, which rarely gain local long-term support. Second, NGOs tend to advocate their institutional methodology, rather than allowing local agencies to develop approaches that best match their needs. Third, NGO researchers find it easier to produce articles on broad-scale issues for high-impact journals, which helps to build scientific support for new campaigns, than to write papers about research on local issues.

What’s the new approach they advocate?

Their recommended overhaul includes putting local agencies and citizens in charge of the conservation programs.  It’s an idea increasingly advocated by proponents of indigenous and community conserved areas.

Specifically, they recommend developing “social-learning institutions,” which unite local and international interests.  The role of NGOs and academics becomes a partnership or subordinate relationship to the local communities developing and implementing conservation plans.

What would these institutions do?  Smith sees several needs, emphasizing a strong role for social analysis:

  • investigating what makes people support or block conservation projects
  • the social and economic implications of different methods for prioritizing conservation areas
  • the social, economic and biodiversity benefits of different management approaches
  • the effectiveness of these conservation projects
  • approaches for building support for conservation
  • research on the geographical distribution of biodiversity and how this will change with climate change…but only if produced in a way that helps local decision-making.

They also see a new role for journals and global conservation organizations—cataloging and disseminating approaches used around the world, identifying ones that are successful (and the social-ecological context in which they are successful) as well as the ones that fail (with analysis of why they failed).  These would be immensely useful to local agencies working on the ground.

The conservation-science community should recognize those with the highest academic or media profile can no longer set the research agenda. Moreover, academics need to understand that if they work in isolation from local conservation agencies, those who might usefully apply their research will probably ignore it. If academics really want to change the conservation agenda or achieve results on the ground, they should join or set up social learning institutions as part of a planning process. This will take more time than simply firing off another paper, but it will also lead to more interesting, novel and important research.

1Smith, R. et al. (2009) Let the locals lead. Nature 462: 280-281.


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