With recent wildfires in Australia and the Amazon, and high-profile campaigns against illegal hunting, it’s impossible to ignore the plight of at-risk species and habitats. Even without extreme events such as fires, the outlook is gloomy – biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, with over 1 million species at risk of extinction. It’s against this backdrop that a new global framework for nature conservation is currently being debated, with goals and targets for achieving ‘transformational change’ on protecting species and habitats expected to be agreed by governments worldwide later this year.
However, while there’s a broad recognition that something needs to be done, finding consensus on conservation methods is far from simple. The sheer scale and urgency of the challenge has led to radical and diverging proposals for protecting biodiversity. So-called ‘half-Earth’ approaches seek to designate half of the world’s surface as a protected area, keeping pesky humans far away. Others seek to integrate conservation into capitalist modes of production, with nature and its services regarded as products to be traded, so long as the profits are re-invested into conservation, but without addressing the root causes of biodiversity loss in economic growth spurred by capitalist accumulation itself.
Against the backdrop of these divisive debates, a forthcoming book by two members of the T2S community suggests a new future is possible – but to realize this we need to think big. The Conservation Revolution, which is published this week by Verso, proposes a new way forward, Convivial Conservation, the approach proposed in the book, is based on an idea of living with nature in a way that incorporates the needs of humans and nonhumans. As explained in a recent video, ‘Convivial conservation’ means letting nature flourish more freely, and letting people be part of it, so that some human-dominated spaces encompass more nature, and some natural spaces become more human.
Conservation needs a revolution, and crucially, it must engage with the bigger issues of politics and economics that shape its success. We caught up with authors Bram Büscher and Rob Fletcher to find out more.
As Büscher explains, “We’ve been thinking about how to deal with human-nature relations for the last 15 to 20 years, and we’ve seen radical proposals coming from within the conservation community during that time. But there weren’t many critical social science alternatives for conservation. With this book we have really seriously looked into it and come up with what we feel is a more politically engaged alternative that takes the pressures of our time very seriously.”
“The book reflects critically on some of the trends going on in policy and practice in conservation that we think are problematic. But what they signal is the fact that there’s an urgent need to rethink things in a fundamental, transformative way,” says Fletcher.
These are extraordinary times, and we need a radical, realistic way to transform conservation efforts. Convivial conservation is one such alternative, say the authors, and it’s based on a recognition that deep systemic change is necessary to get to where we want to go. Rather than superficial or piecemeal reforms, conservation built around the idea of conviviality depends on work across different scales, from the global to the local, to turn short-term efforts into long-term change.
Described as a post-capitalist manifesto for conservation, The Conservation Revolution makes clear that endless growth is incompatible with protecting biodiversity on the scale required, and systemic change is needed to transform economies. At the same time, conservation must be organized more democratically, and those with the largest footprints – principally in the global north – will have to change the most.
At the local level, this kind of approach means rethinking landscapes and the way conservation is financed. Some pockets of innovation in conservation already exist, such as in the ICCA Consortium, which promotes the appropriate recognition of and support for areas and territories that are conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities.
In addition, aspects of convivial conservation are also being explored by the CON-VIVA project led by Büscher and Fletcher through the Transformations to Sustainability programme.
The CON-VIVA project team are looking at diverse examples of people living in close proximity to apex predators: jaguars in Brazil, bears in the United States, wolves in Finland and lions in Tanzania. Each of the study areas is home to experimental approaches in how conservation is governed and financed, potentially providing seeds of innovation for a convivial conservation approach.
For example, the team in Tanzania is studying a compensation scheme similar to a basic income payment for people living close to nature-rich protected areas, supporting sustainable livelihoods in a way that conserves natural habitats. In the USA, the CON-VIVA project is bringing a social science lens to the California Grizzly Study Group, an established network determining what it would take to re-introduce grizzly bears in California. If the bears are re-introduced, there will be an opportunity to put convivial conservation into practice from the beginning of the re-introduction and conservation strategy.
The authors are clear that they don’t think the whole vision for Convivial Conservation is currently being implemented anywhere in the way that is envisioned in the book. But CON-VIVA will explore and highlight elements of convivial conservation, and will seek to make broader connections across the macro and micro level, and across the short and long terms.
To develop the kind of long-term vision necessary for convivial conservation, the project team are starting conversations about development trajectories, through the creation of open spaces for discussion about livelihoods and consumption pressures globally, in which the voices of local people are foregrounded. This, they say, is a more balanced, equal approach to conservation, which has traditionally been characterized by top-down directives. “The idea is to put into practice a convivial approach – a democratic, bottom-up approach to doing the research, and then to develop recommendations out of that which will hopefully lead to more convivial conservation in practice,” says Fletcher.
It will draw on thinking from different disciplines. As Bram says, “we’ve been working on this for 15, 20 years, but only the last 5 years did we get more attention and connections with natural scientists, with ecologists, people in practice, that all of a sudden – at least for us – seemed more ready for this type of approach. Over the last few years it’s just taken a whole new dynamic and level. Within the project we work across these boundaries – ecologists, social scientists, natural scientists. It has its challenges – nothing here is simple or simplistic, but we are really enjoying it and feeling that there is a hope and possibility in this new type of space”.
This feeling of hope and possibility is also being seen in discussions with conservation practitioners, who are facing up to the need for transformative change in the sector. A new future for conservation is possible, and it’s just beginning.
Photo by Matthias Krappitz via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).