A long way to go

My newest research tries to understand what the barriers to truly inclusive conservation projects are. It is of course very hard to generalize from a couple of cases. Especially today, conservation practice has branched off into many different orientations. This being said, I think it is valuable to examine certain cases of conservation to try to understand why, for the most part, there is such a wide gap between what appears from a distance and what actually happens on the ground.

Seeing that this project is ongoing, and my reflections far from conclusive, I will not discuss specific examples but rather stay on a broader level of abstraction. The point, in any case, is to provoke a different kind of thinking about what the mission of conservation is; being too detailed would distract from this. In building this research up, I have become very familiar with several cases (including local histories, the local teams, the money trail, etc.) that are branded as rewilding, the main idea behind them being the reintroduction of locally extinct species for the purpose of ecosystem engineering. The ultimate goal is the recreation of a thriving ecosystem without much human management. This kind of conservation is increasingly popular throughout Europe, for reasons I’ve explored in previous posts.

Not having active, invasive management is one thing; but under no reasonable scenario would these places be devoid of people. This also means that the ways in which such projects are integrated in local communities is perhaps the most important variable in their long-term success. In theory, the organizations implementing these projects are conscious of the need to involve as many locals as possible. But I keep seeing a big gap between this awareness and its practical application.

One straightforward observation that might account for some of the deficit in local involvement is the difference between being a local and being a conservationist. More precisely, conservationists work on projects (I have written here about some shortcomings of a project logic), while locals are in their home. The first major obstacle then is the different time-frames presupposed by ‘project’ and ‘home’. Locals think of their children and grandchildren and how they will live in a particular territory, while conservationists have one to five years to show donors what a great job they’ve done. This difference creates tensions and suspicion and, even when organizations manage to hire locals, they often offer them short-term contracts that do not signal a long-term commitment.

Similarly, locals are often already inscribed in a history of environmental tinkering that has left them disenfranchised. The creation of many national parks, for instance, has been well documented to have involved the dispossession of local inhabitants. This often-encountered history needs to be addressed when setting up rewilding projects, and one way to do so is to widen the mission of conservation/rewilding organizations to include advocacy for the local’s rights to govern their own territories. These kinds of (frankly, political) partnerships that extend far beyond species reintroductions and educational workshops need to be pursued in order to build trust and show people which side the organization is on. It is inevitable that, from a local perspective, people advocating for, say, the return of the wolf, are not to be immediately trusted. But if those same people are also, perhaps primarily, involved in community organizing and development, then the bases are set for a sustainable return of big predators.

Implied in the above is that conservationists would do well to study local history and sociology alongside biology and ecology. This is not new, there are countless papers arguing for it. It is, however, surprisingly hard to achieve. The logic underlying funding schemes, unfortunately, undermines this need to be broadly interdisciplinary. The established funding mechanisms for conservation and/or rewilding are focused on ecological indicators and only superficially touch upon the social ones. Sure, you can no longer submit a proposal that doesn’t say that it will involve the community, but in reality, there are no hard mechanisms required to lock this promise in. The need to compete for funds blinds many organizations to how they are perceived on the ground, and to the distance that exists between their marketing and their results.

Though funding schemes are partly to blame for this state of affairs, there is no a priori reason why conservation organizations could not do a better job within the current system. Many easy fixes are available. For example, paying people well and offering decent contracts shouldn’t be controversial; allowing local teams to develop local relationships and budgeting this accordingly is likewise easy to do; investing in many small but locally meaningful initiatives as opposed to big, board-pleasing ones, often makes sense. These kinds of simple measures are, in my experience, rare. This points to how little the social sciences have actually influenced conservation organizations and how they see themselves. If the goal is deep local ownership of conservation, then there is still a long way to go before the local perspective has been integrated within organizational structures. The greatest obstacle to participatory conservation might just be the idea that conservation is primarily about nature.

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