Cooperation and conflict in the conservation arena

By Michael Bode (This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of Decision Point, The Monthly Magazine of the Environmental Decisions Group)

Systematic conservation planning is the absolute best-practice approach to conserving biodiversity in a large landscape. We create maps that highlight the distribution of our favourite conservation features—be they threatened species, vulnerable habitats, ecosystem services, or all of the above—and then we use these data to decide which locations are the most valuable. The result is the ubiquitous priority map: a chart of where our limited resources will do the most good for conservation.

The only problem is that while systematic conservation planning methologies do a pretty good job of describing the distribution of conservation features, they do a poor job of describing the conservation organisations themselves. Systematic conservation planning basically says that protected areas are created by a single conservation entity which is concerned about all the features equally. It therefore bears little resemblance to the landscape of organisations who make up the modern conservation sector. In biodiverse landscapes, reserve networks are the cumulative result of a huge number of autonomous, passionate, idiosyncratic organisations. For example, more than 1600 non-governmental land trusts work independently towards conservation in the USA alone, and this is just a small, specific group of actors in a much larger sector.

It’s fair to say that, at a fundamental level, these organisations share the same basic objective—to minimise or reverse the harm that humans bring to the environment. However, when it comes down to brass tacks, these groups are independent operators. They focus on radically different facets of conservation. Some are interested in different species, others in different habitat types. Some believe that conservation needs to be working at the front line, where the bulldozers and chainsaws are operating. Others think that conservation needs to admit that these are lost causes, and instead find and protect the most intact, untouched landscapes on Earth. Still others believe that we need to revisit the bulldozed hills, eroded gullies and grazed paddocks, and focus on restorating and revegetating degraded land.

And, as anyone who has worked in conservation will tell you, the relationships between these various organisations are often strained and fraught. Conservation groups are usually made up of true-believers, strong-willed workers, and assertive leaders. Often they’re competing for the same government grants, the same small pool of philanthropic donors, and the same precious, skilled workers.

This is the real world and yet none of this complexity, none of this diversity, is reflected in the modern systematic conservation planning literature. In the few places where these issues are discussed, authors generally assert the benefits of collaborative work, and move quickly onto where that work should take place. Others argue that conservation groups should try to ‘free-ride’ on other organisations working in a region, for example carbon sequestration groups, or human development organisations.

“Reserve networks are the cumulative result of a huge number of autonomous, passionate, idiosyncratic organisations.”

Clearly there is a need for systematic conservation planning to acknowledge the multi-organisational reality of conservation. We don’t pretend to offer a solution to these difficulties, but we have developed a new framework that provides a more nuanced description of how organisational diversity might affect conservation outcomes.

We used simulation models and game theory to explore how alternative behaviours (e.g., organisations acting independently, or organisations explicitly cooperating) affected an organisation’s ability to protect their feature of interest, and investigated how the distribution of features in the landscape influenced organisations’ attitudes toward cooperation.

For example, take conservation features that have highly correlated spatial distributions. Conservation planners have always been very optimistic about the potential synergies that can be achieved when species or ecosystem services overlap in space—they call them ‘win-win’ conservation opportunities. However, correlated features will draw conservation groups into close proximity, where competition and conflict could easily arise. Depending on how organisations behave, correlated features can actually lead to negative conservation outcomes.

While these detrimental outcomes can be avoided through expensive cooperation, our models show that this coordination will demand painful sacrifices from each organisation. To achieve the full benefits, each conservation group has to give up some of the most valuable places in the landscape—the hotspots for their favourite feature—in return for ‘compromise’ protected areas, which protect an intermediate amount of both features.

A number of these results fly in the face of received wisdom. These insights were only possible because, for the first time, we integrated multiple conservation actors with different biodiversity goals into a single conservation process. We’re now working on applying the insights of this theoretical work into real conservation landscapes, where conservation organisations are actively pursuing different conservation goals.

Approaches that help us better understand the pros and cons of coordinated action between different organisations are likely to prove of increasing importance in the years ahead. The diversity of organisations and objectives in conservation is poised to increase dramatically as new objectives such as carbon sequestration (and other ecosystem services) bring a flood of additional funding and agencies into the conservation arena. Our findings provide novel insights into the benefits and the pitfalls of this increasingly complex operational environment.

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