To deliver successful conservation, let’s consider why past efforts haven’t worked.

News | Posted on Monday 11 September 2023

Postdoctoral Research Associate Jamie Carr describes why he feels greater attention should be given to the non-environmental enabling conditions that can facilitate better conservation outcomes.

Inclusive access to [environmental] education is commonly described as an enabler for better conservation outcomes.
Inclusive access to [environmental] education is commonly described as an enabler for better conservation outcomes. "African people at work" by Miggan91 is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the primary mechanism through which most of the world’s countries specify and report on their efforts to conserve biodiversity. Signatories to the CBD present intended actions and associated targets in their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, and are required to provide interim updates on their progress in ‘National Reports’. Worryingly, summary reports detailing the progress of countries towards meeting their targets reveal that many countries are underachieving.

When examining these reports, it is often tempting to focus on ‘what’ was failed to be achieved (eg “country X lost such an amount of forest”, or “country Y failed to curb some destructive practice”). However, focusing on explaining ‘why’ certain objectives were not met in my view is equally (if not more) important. Considering conservation outcomes in this way can highlight socio-cultural, economic, technological, and governance-related conditions (hereafter ‘enabling conditions’) which, if met, would mean that past failures are less likely to be repeated. Moreover, it can facilitate a cross-sectoral call-to-action that encourages actors and experts not typically engaged in conservation to contribute to the cause in positively meaningful and consequential ways.

The importance of enabling conditions for successful conservation has been recognised for some time. The UN’s landmark Rio Declaration of 1992 alluded to the topic by noting that “peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible”, while more recent horizon-scanning efforts have explicitly noted that “creating enabling conditions for conservation is an essential component of the solution”. Studies looking at specific societal changes that can affect conservation have concluded that reducing corruption (a governance-related condition), improving access to education, and increasing gender equality (both socio-cultural conditions) can all facilitate better conservation. Numerous other examples can be found in the academic literature. Despite such wide recognition, however, studies that seek to examine a broad range of enabling conditions in a holistic manner remain surprisingly few. 

One possible reason for this is that the factors that can hinder/enable conservation are highly diverse (and likely to vary between locations), which has precluded a standardized way to classify and compare them. This becomes evident when one considers the latest (sixth) set of National Reports to the CBD. In these reports, the CBD Secretariat has laudably made it mandatory for countries to report on any obstacles and needs that have hindered progress towards achieving their targets  (likely in recognition of the points highlighted above). However, closer examination of these reports reveals a disappointing lack of consistency in the ways that this information is presented. Some countries provide extensive detail and others only a few words, and with seemingly no common language that would allow easy comparisons to be made between reports. Developing a standardized system for countries to report on these obstacles would greatly facilitate global solutions help overcome them.

Presidents Jair Bolsonaro (left) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (right)

The sharp declines in the Brazilian Amazon under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro (left) and the subsequent improvements under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (right) starkly highlight the importance of good governance for protecting the environment.

Untitled-1 by Prachatai is licensed under 
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Further complexity lies in the mechanisms that underpin enabling conditions. In many cases these are conceptually simple in nature (eg raising public awareness – a socio-cultural condition – may reduce the unsustainable use of resources), but in other cases they may be more complex, operating through a series of events, with one enabling condition required before another can be realised. For example, achieving a reduction in poaching (a conservation outcome) typically requires effective law enforcement (a governance-related condition), which may itself require improved monitoring technologies (a technology-related condition), which may further require adequate funding (a finance-related condition). Such combinations can potentially be myriad in nature, and indicate a need for a systems thinking if they are to be fully understood and acted upon. Lessons here can be learned from the burgeoning field of research on Sustainable Development Goal interactions, which commonly apply network analysis and other approaches to identify beneficial synergies within the global development agenda. 

Challenges also lie in the fact that enabling conditions may be required outside of the countries where the impacts ultimately occur. Staying with the poaching example, it is generally recognised that reducing the demand for poached products (a socio-cultural condition) is just as important as prohibiting supply. Similar challenges surround the international trade in agricultural products and other natural resources, which can have significant environmental impacts far from the countries that drive the demand for these products in the first place. Although the CBD recognises the challenges that international trade (both legal and illegal) can present for biodiversity, countries are still largely required to report on activities and needs relating to conservation within their own borders, essentially overlooking the fact that changes in one country can enable conservation successes in another. An update in the reporting requirements of countries to take account of these transnational flows of causation would be a positive step forward in developing a more globally cohesive approach to conservation.

Smuggled Pangolin Meat Seized at Miami International Airport
Improving the conservation status of many internationally traded species, including pangolins, will require changes to be made in both the source and the recipient countries.

As part of my ongoing role with LCAB, I hope to help address the issues outlined above. By examining countries’ self-reported obstacles and needs, developing a more standardized way to classify them, and determining which areas of improvement are likely to be most important in favouring more successful conservation, I hope to bring greater attention and clarity to the significant conservation benefits of addressing issues that are less commonly associated with matters of the environment. My aspiration is that this work will inform a more useful way for countries (and indeed other entities) to report on their conservation challenges, and will help to stimulate cross-sectoral dialogue and action that makes future conservation efforts as effective as possible.

Watch this space for updates.