Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

Creating Conservation Communities

There's a bold new idea on the front edge of conservation: Let's treat people as well as we treat animals.

Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

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IN MAY AND JUNE 2004, scientists from the Nature Conservancy ran a Rapid Ecological Assessment of the Solomon Islands. For 35 days, they cruised 2,000 miles down the 950-island archipelago in their liveaboard dive ship, counting spinner dolphins and clownfish, Maori wrasses and beaked whales. The place was an astonishing hot spot of bio­diversity, teeming with 494 coral species and at least 1,019 species of reef fish, including several previously unknown to science.

The scientists also found significant evidence of overfishing, confirmation that these waters needed protection—and fast. But what they did next reflects an ongoing shift in conservation philosophy. Instead of just setting up a marine park to keep local fishermen out, the Nature Conservancy and its partners engaged the islands’ tribal leaders, allowing them to manage the fishery for their own long-term economic interests. The conservationists scrapped pristine nature as the goal and put people first; the people, in turn, found a way to both create a protected area and keep fishing. Sea turtle numbers have almost tripled. And livelihoods have doubled.

“Too much conservation is about sequestering nature,” TNC’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, says. Environmentalists have always worked with local people, he points out; that’s not new. “The difference is that now we’re being more explicit about it. Instead of collecting data to see how the birds and trees are doing, we do household surveys to see, if we set up a marine protected area, whether the people in those communities feel better off. That’s a down-to-earth, concrete change.”

People? Really? Since John Muir first walked the Sierra, hasn’t the point of conservation been to protect nature from people?

Not anymore. In a slow but dramatic shift, the world’s biggest environmental NGOs—the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International—have retooled their goals. Saving chunks of nature by fencing people out is too piecemeal, too arrogant, they’ve come to believe. What’s more, it doesn’t work on the scale we need.

“The historic approach will fail,” says Peter Seligmann, Conservation International’s co-founder and CEO. If we don’t rethink our tactics, he believes, “we will have islands in a sea of development, and islands are always eventually eroded.”

That’s a strong statement coming from Mr. Biodiversity himself. CI invented the term “hot spots”; since its founding, in 1987, when Seligmann and others peeled off from the Nature Conservancy, the group has championed the preservation of wild places above all else. But over the past two years, CI has embarked on a painful journey of consultant-aided soul searching. This fall, it announced a new mission: “to empower societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature for the well-being of humanity.”

In some ways, CI can afford this kind of drama; it’s the only big conservation NGO not beholden to public members. But the turnaround required some harsh reexamination of its past successes. “With our conservation partners, we’ve put some 500 million acres of priority lands and waters in protected status,” Seligmann told me. “That’s an area about 30 miles wide that wraps around the equator. It seems really big—until you go to outer space and you look at the earth and you see it’s actually a tiny bit of land. You look at the issues of climate change, consumption, and the state of the world’s oceans and you realize that, although we’ve succeeded in putting a lot of land and waters into what I like to refer to as ‘the conservation pantry,’ we haven’t changed the hunger of development, nor have we reduced the capacity of development to reach into that pantry whenever they want something and pull it out.”

Biodiversity is still crucially important to CI, he says, “but it has now become the indicator of the health of the ecosystem we’re focusing on, as opposed to the driver of where we’re going to work.”

On the face of it, using biodiversity—the glorious variety of nature in all its forms—in the service of human well-being sounds pretty cynical. Tough times, snail darter! Nice knowin’ you, polar bear! For those of us raised on the American idea of wilderness—on the sacred mission of keeping some places immune from being paved, bulldozed, and mined—scrapping that notion rips at the foundation of our beliefs. When I brought this up with Kareiva, he reminded me, quite gently, that the rest of the world is not made up of “European or North American affluent white people who enjoy taking nature hikes.”

“As the conservation movement has gotten outside of the U.S.,” he said, “it’s had its eyes opened to global realities, and the realities are that it’s not about the affluent U.S. having nature reserves. It’s about meeting lots of needs.”

Some of those needs have been ignored ever since the U.S. first pushed Native Americans out of Yosemite, in 1864. “Fortress conservation,” the practice of fencing off protected forest or savanna, has created a new class of “conservation refugees”—people forced from subsistence living within a landscape to straight-up poverty outside of it after it gets “preserved.”

“If we continue to embitter millions of people by moving them off the land and settling them in these shabby little settlements outside their land, many of them are going to go back in and poach and cut trees and sell trees and make life impossible for conservation,” says Mark Dowie, author of the book Conservation Refugees, a searing indictment of the big NGOs published last spring. “We said, Duh—it’s not working.”

A couple of things finally led the big NGOs to their “a-ha moment,” as Kareiva describes where we are today. One was a global pushback from local people, which led the World Wildlife Fund to adopt a set of principles for the treatment of local peoples as early as 1996 and which has gained more steam in the past ten years. In 2003, Nelson Mandela told the World Parks Congress, “I see no future for parks, unless they address the needs of communities as equal partners.” The next year, Masai leader Martin Saning’o stood up at the Bangkok summit of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), speaking on behalf of more than 100,000 Masai herders who’d been displaced in the name of biodiversity. “We were the original conservationists,” he said. “Now you have made us enemies of conservation.”

Like the UN, the IUCN has limited authority. But it can, and did, adopt resolutions concerning the treatment of traditional people, which filtered down to the foundations that fund the big NGOs. One way to look at this awakening is that, to get funding, they had to play nice. The other is that more and more scientists, especially younger ones, became convinced that the old ways wouldn’t work.

“There’s been a growing awareness among conservation biologists that, even in the best projections, we won’t secure more than 5 percent of the world’s biological diversity in protected areas,” says Steve McCormick, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (conservation’s single biggest foundation funder) and the former Nature Conservancy CEO who pushed TNC in this direction as early as 2001. Meanwhile, he says, “scientists are making the direct correlation between conservation and human well-being. To me, that is a very hopeful precept.”

That’s the second factor in this shift: the rise of a powerful conservation idea called ecosystem services. Think of the economic value of the Louisiana wetlands in mitigating storm surges, or tropical forests in sequestering carbon. This idea will play big in December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen, where proponents will push a program called REDD (short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). To grossly oversimplify, REDD involves the West paying developing countries to keep forests intact.

But conservation for people is anything but unanimous. Noticeably absent from this trend is the fourth major NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The Nature Conservancy has made aggressive statements in the last few years about the need to reorient their target=s toward places and dimensions that meet human needs,” says Kent Redford, director of the Wildlife Conservancy Society Institute, WCS’s internal think tank. “Now, that is a shift. We’re not doing that, and we’re not going to do that. We are a proud and unabashedly a nature-conservation organization focusing on wild­life and wild places.”

There are several flaws in the new philosophy, says Redford. First, if you work primarily where you can help people, you’re going to be working in places where wildlife is not. Second, conservationists should keep their eye on the ball. If you’re saving tigers in the Hukong Valley, in Burma, count tigers. If you’re saving people, do that. The WCS works with local populations all the time, he says, “but that’s not because we’re interested as an organization in making their lives better. It’s just that making their lives better is an important thing to do to achieve the conservation of the forest and the animals living in it.”

The link between conservation and poverty alleviation is highly contested, Redford says. “It’s a leap of faith on the part of many of us in our profession. And it’s closing your eyes and jumping and just hoping somebody’s got a big sheet at the bottom.”

“This is not without controversy,” agrees McCormick. “In some cases where you have human activity, it’s not going to be 100 percent conservation. For those for whom it’s all-or-nothing, accepting some loss of [wildlife] populations because humans are taking some use of landscapes—that’s not acceptable.”

Am I one of those all-or-nothing people? I don’t like to think so, but I wonder, Is it OK to tell the polar bear and the Siberian tiger to just hold on, that we’ll save them by saving ourselves? Realism has its promise—we’ll never succeed by merely putting Band-Aids on hot spots. But I miss that romantic old idea that other species have as much right to this world as we do.

For Kareiva, that’s what it comes down to: a matter of rights. “For me at least,” he wrote on TNC’s blog this spring, “the rights of people for self-determination take supremacy over any species or biodiversity tally.” When I asked him about that, he brought up a riddle, an impossible dilemma first posed by conservation biologist Michael Soulé.

“You’re down to one snow leopard, and that leopard is a pregnant mom,” Kareiva said. “And if she lives and has a litter of four or five, you could maybe recover the whole species. And you’re up on a ridge and she’s creeping up and about to kill and eat a small two-year-old child. You have a gun, and you have a choice: You can either kill the leopard and save the child’s life, or you can sit by and watch the leopard kill it. That’s your only choice. I would save the child.”

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