The number of mammals, insects, amphibians, fish and birds is in steep decline, the world’s forests are on fire and the abundance of life is diminishing at rates unprecedented in human history. The TV screens are full of images of gorgeous wildlife but one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction and governments appear paralysed.
Faced with stark and mounting evidence of nature’s precipitous decline, leading natural and social science researchers, philosophers, anthropologists and conservationists have come together to ask why conservation is failing, and to call for an urgent re-think of how the natural world should be protected.
So what is conservation getting wrong? The political reasons for its failure were discussed last week in Vienna, at a meeting of 70 academics, professionals and researchers at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, a research body set up by the WWF.
Top of the list were capitalism and neo-liberal policies that encourage the over-consumption of resources; the financial starvation of nature protection by governments; global trade and subsidies for energy industries, and a licence for agriculture and mining to expand into even the remotest places.
But identifying the cultural reasons for conservation’s abject failure to stem the tide of nature’s losses also emerged. These ranged from media disinterest in anything other than a few animals, conservationists’ narrowness and out-of-date attitudes, and scientists’ reluctance to shout.
Mainstream conservation’s historic focus on rare species, “hotspots” and numbers is part of the problem, said Bill Adams, professor of conservation and development at Cambridge University. “Species, particularly the charismatic ones, dominate the conservation imagination. Birds and mammals grab the headlines, followed by unusual reptiles and amphibians. The occasional plant features, and sometimes a flamboyant insect. But of other invertebrates, let alone lower plants, fungi, and bacteria essential to the ecosystem function … there is rarely public attention,” he said.
This narrow vision suggests that conservation has no interest in people and therefore no appeal, he said. “Loss of the Earth’s astonishing diversity is an outrage, a disgrace, a tragedy – perhaps even a cause for rebellion. [But] the loss of most of the species apparently of greatest concern to conservationists does not offer an existential risk to humankind. Rhinos are rare, wonderful and irreplaceable, but they do not have a globally significant ecological role. Their loss would tragically impoverish human futures, but would not threaten human extinction.”
Conservation must become more inclusive and accountable to people, said Dilys Roe, principal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. A failure to address the problems of people in developing countries – home to most of the world’s wildlife – undermines its credibility.
“Money doesn’t get to the ground and local citizens must be able to hold governments and big international groups to account. We should learn to adapt to biodiversity loss. The regions of highest biodiversity loss coincide with the areas of the highest poverty,” she said.
A new generation of conservationists with a fresh agenda is needed, argued Jon Hutton, director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute and former head of the UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The world’s wealthy wildlife groups, which attract more than $10bn a year to protect nature are in danger of becoming disconnected from real-world politics and people, he said.
“We consistently overlook the highly political nature of issues such as land ownership and rights and access to natural resources. The result is our biodiversity maps and plans that sketch out sweeping agendas for land-use change may unwittingly contain the seeds of their own failure. We need to re-imagine everything – rethink and challenge everything we do, how we do it and who does it.”
“Conservation is dominated by elderly white guys. There is a strong perception that we have failed..”
Dissatisfaction with the “corporate nature” model of conservation practised by the big international non government groups is growing, said Sarah Milne, a researcher at the Australian National University. “[They] now consume and channel a significant proportion of available conservation funding. This is corporate nature [where] branding is fundamental, market-based and technocratic. It risks being top-down, impervious and homogenous and calls for a rethink of how global conservation works.”
These groups count success by numbers and the money they attract, not by consideration of conservation, said Dominique Bikaba, director of Strong Roots, a group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “They do not understand local people. They come with big degrees and an idea from London or Washington. They don’t want to learn from local and indigenous peoples.”.
“Conservation still thinks in terms of separating people from nature and of saving pristine places,” said South African anthropologist Anselmo Matusse, who has just spent a year in a remote, forested part of Mozambique where people have lived successfully and sustainably for years, but which governments and conservation groups now want to “protect”.
Matusse pointed to EO Wilson, the world’s foremost biologist, who has proposed that only by committing half of the planet’s surface area to nature can we hope to save the life forms that compose it.
“If we continue with the present path of nature conservation then biodiversity will soon be like art that is of value to only some – kept locked away in highly guarded museums where only the rich can visit. Is the current path of protecting biodiversity not another form of colonialism? Are the state and the market the only options to change the route of human civilisation and Earth, which [are] heading towards collapse?” asked Matusse.
Western science must now listen and learn from the world’s 350 million indigenous people, who currently conserve 80% of the world’s remaining diversity but who have been barely acknowledged by conservationists, argued Eli Enns, Canadian political scientist and co-chair of the Canadian Indigenous Circle for Experts.
“Indigenous knowledge of how to live with nature has been routinely dismissed or downplayed,” he said.
“Western scientists and indigenous peoples come with very different world views. [In general] western science is more utilitarian and sees the world in pieces, indigenous knowledge is more about understanding the interconnectedness of things,” he said.
The danger, said Jon Hutton, is that welcome action on climate change dwarfs and imperils biodiversity protection. “There is a real danger that radical climate action might, in reality, involve a rush to solutions that are anything but biodiversity-friendly. A renewed drive for biofuels, perhaps, or for more indiscriminate hydropower, or an escalation in forest restoration based on fast-growing, non-native species? In anticipation, we need to develop science, policy and advocacy responses right now.”
But conservation must also recover the passion and emotion that once informed it, said Cambridge lecturer Chris Sandbrook, who has invited Extinction Rebellion activists to help teach his students about the power of direct action to change perceptions and create the space for political action.
“Conservation may be more organised and professional, but has this come at the expense of the creativity and passion that enticed many to the conservation world in the first place? Conservationists have some choices to make. Should we continue down the path to professionalisation? Or should we lay down our laptops and lie down in the streets?
“The world needs organised, skilled and professional conservationists, but it also needs them to stay in touch with the authenticity and the energy of protest groups and never to forget their raison d’être is change not conformity.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 18 September 2019.