20 Apr 2020

Addressing the political: The key to successful conservation?

Why are so many conservation efforts in trouble? The TNRC project aims to increase the success rate by providing research-based evidence on how corruption undermines conservation, informing practitioners working to save forests, fisheries and wildlife.

Conservation is big business. Hardly anything makes people dig deeper in their pockets than photos of cute animals or pristine forests. With this financing a range of organizations work tirelessly to preserve forests and save animals on the verge of extinction. Many countries have implemented massive state-led conservation efforts. And yet scientists and UN experts present strong evidence we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis and that current approaches to saving biodiversity are not bold enough. So why is it so hard to stop deforestation and to protect animal and marine life?

According to Aled Williams and Anwesha Dutta, senior adviser and post doc at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre and researchers in the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project, an essential part of conservation work is missing from the equation thus making it harder to succeed.

-Currently there is an analytical narrowness behind many mainstream conservation efforts. You rarely see political analysis informing conservation. We need to bring political ecology into the picture, says Williams.

A conservation approach flawed by analytical narrowness
And that is exactly what the TNRC project is doing. They aim to widen the lens through which conservation efforts are seen, hence hopefully producing more successful conservation attempts. The best way of doing this, they argue, is to acknowledge that the conservation sector is not only about saving iconic species or ecosystems. Conservation also has to contend with vested interests in natural resource exploitation.

-Analytical narrowness is a problem because it frames the way people think about conservation efforts and project design in certain ways. Political ecology allows us to take a step back, says Williams.

Williams and Dutta argue that biodiversity approaches and conservation efforts need to be challenged both on design and the kind of interventions that are being implemented. Current interventions are influenced by designs based on fairly narrow understandings of what is happening on the ground. The link between the interventions and the actual challenges in the field is often too weak.

-Many organisations’ work on the community does not go far enough. Their work is mainly focused on the preservation of natural resources and encouraging communities to restructure their livelihoods. This presents challenges in implementing conservation efforts that are successful both from an environmental and societal justice point of view, says Dutta.

Close connections, muddied waters
By now there is strong evidence that strengthening the rights of local communities strengthens conservation outcomes. Yet, the role of local communities and rights are often not part of the picture in conservation work. In many mainstream narratives of conservation local communities are portrayed as having a destructive role while larger scale drivers of environmental problems may be deemed too sensitive or too difficult to address.

-A dominant narrative in conservation has often been that local use is unsustainable and that the main challenge is smaller scale illegal use of natural resources. Even where this is partly true, it is almost never the whole picture. More than outsiders, local people tend to be very concerned about the sustainability of the resources they use precisely because their livelihood situations are precarious and highly dependent on natural resources, says Williams.

In most countries the overuse of natural resources is first and foremost state led and facilitated, a situation that tends to have deep historic roots often with colonial-era origins. Conservation organizations have formal relationships with various states and public agencies around the world, with these connections often a necessity. The benefit is that conservation organizations gain access and a better overview of what is happening on the ground. In circumstances where the connections are characterized by transparency, cooperation and political will to accommodate and implement conservation efforts, they can be a blessing.

But they can also be a curse in settings where corruption, state capture and patronage relationships predominate. Conservation organizations constantly negotiate their relationships with state actors, also in countries where corruption is widespread, and they need better political analysis to inform their decision-making.

A political ecology approach allows for a step back; to talk about how conservation effectiveness is often limited by corrupt practices. Conservation interventions must become better at wisely navigating the politics of natural resource extraction driving large-scale nature loss.

-There is no doubt that actors in conservation depend on good relationships with governments and different state agencies in many countries if they are to be allowed to work there. We hope that our research can help conservationists reach better solutions in how they manage the close bonds to state actors, says Williams.

Bringing academia and practice together
The TNRC project’s practical advise on how to better navigate these relationships is based on thorough analysis and fieldwork. TNRC is a USAID -funded project with several institutions working closely with practitioners. An academic advisory board feeds into the methodological approach and into the fieldwork plans. The output and findings from the project will not only provide practical input for practitioners, but also form the basis of academic articles. TNRC is in its very nature an inter-disciplinary and multi-sector project with close dialogue between researchers and practitioners. The ultimate goal is to change conservation for the better, and the researchers involved in the project are not holding back:

-If conservation actors are to succeed, changes will be needed in the way projects and interventions are designed and run. Some interventions may need to stop altogether because it is too difficult to control their pernicious side effects, says Williams.

No matter what the recommendations are, tough decisions have to be made. Some of the answers may lie in working on other jurisdictions. Part of the solution is to focus more on structural issues and challenges that drive large-scale nature loss.

Commissioned research can be challenging and the researchers have to be protective of their independence. But Williams and Dutta firmly believe that bringing these different worlds with very different perspectives closer together is what it will take to bring positive change to conservation.

-This project gives us a chance to bring the political ecology perspective into the conservation work that both non-governmental organizations and states do. Standing outside would not give us this opportunity to interact with the practitioner community and to have an actual impact, says Williams.