Conservation Effectiveness series sparks action, dialogue

  • Our in-depth series examined the effectiveness of six common conservation strategies: Forest certification, payments for ecosystem services, community-based forest management, terrestrial protected areas, marine protected areas, and environmental advocacy.
  • We also examined how four of the biggest groups that dominate today’s conservation landscape — The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation International (CI), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) — make decisions about which conservation strategy to employ.
  • Our series generated a lot of discussion and attracted a wide variety of feedback.
  • We hope to keep our databases of scientific studies and our infographics alive and relevant by developing a platform that allows researchers to update them by adding studies. We welcome ideas on this effort.

Some strategies for protecting forests and wildlife, such as protected areas and community forestry, have become immensely popular around the world.

But do these conservation strategies truly achieve the objectives they set out to realize? How much scientific evidence do we have about their effectiveness? What is the quality of that evidence? What are the information gaps?

Our seven-part series Conservation Effectiveness sought to answer these questions through an in-depth investigation spanning 10 months. We pored through more than 200 scientific papers and talked to numerous experts to critically examine what we know about the efficacy of six common strategies: Forest certification, payments for ecosystem services, community-based forest management, terrestrial protected areas, marine protected areas, and environmental advocacy.

For each of the six strategies, we presented the findings of our review of the scientific literature in the form of an interactive infographic that readers can use to explore and engage with the scientific findings.

We also examined the four big groups that dominate today’s conservation landscape: The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation International (CI), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). What kinds of evidence do these groups use to inform their decisions? How do they evaluate the impact of their projects?

Part 1: Does forest certification really work?
Part 2: Cash for conservation: Do payments for ecosystem services work?
Part 3: Does community-based forest management work in the tropics?
Part 4: Experience or evidence: How do big conservation NGOs make decisions?
Part 5: Do protected areas work in the tropics?
Part 6: The ups and downs of marine protected areas: Examining the evidence
Part 7: Do environmental advocacy campaigns drive successful forest conservation?

Gold mining is a major threat to the forests and biodiversity of the Peruvian Amazon, including protected areas. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

What we’ve learned

The six strategies we looked at have been around for decades and are all frequently prescribed around the world. They are also all driven by the common goals of protecting biodiversity and habitats, and either ensuring socioeconomic benefits to people living near conservation projects or at least doing no harm.

Yet our investigations revealed that there’s a lot we don’t know about their effectiveness. Several of the strategies simply hadn’t been subjected to much research. And the vast majority of studies we examined were not rigorous, meaning they could not attribute the observed outcomes to the strategy itself.

We found some recurring patterns: There is a lot more research on how the strategies affect the environment than on how they affect local communities. And even within environmental outcomes, scientists have studied some aspects of the environment more than others. For the land-based conservation strategies, for example, scientists have tended to focus on whether they affect forest cover — something that is relatively easy to study using remote sensing. Other aspects of the environment, such as whether the conservation strategy affects biodiversity, illegal hunting, or the sustainable supply of forest resources, remain poorly studied. In the case of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the fastest-growing voluntary forest certification program in the world, even research examining the certification’s impact on deforestation is currently poor.

A deep dive into the oceans revealed that most studies looking at the impacts of marine protected areas have focused on commercially important fish, reef-type habitats, and marine reserves (a specific kind of protected area that makes up a very small proportion of the marine protected areas out there). Other marine species, such as invertebrates or deep-sea species, and habitats, like kelp forests and mangroves, remain understudied.

When it comes to socioeconomic outcomes, many conservationists today acknowledge the importance of understanding how conservation projects affect local people, not just from a moral standpoint, but to ensure long-term support for the projects. But researchers are only now beginning to critically, and rigorously, examine how conservation strategies really do affect people living nearby.

Advocacy campaigns are yet another popular strategy deployed around the world. But this strategy had the weakest evidence base in scientific literature of all those we looked at in the series. We found no evidence that advocacy campaigns on their own drive long-term forest conservation, though they do appear to be valuable for pushing companies and governments to change their policies and for raising awareness of environmental issues.

Our investigations also revealed that the four big conservation NGOs — WWF, CI, WCS and TNC — have been slow to adopt evidence-based conservation. The available science is not easy to use, NGO representatives said, and doing rigorous impact evaluations of their own projects is expensive and requires technical and analytical skills that are often unavailable within the organizations.

It is important to remember, though, that the status of the evidence can and will change over time. For example, soon after the publication of our first story on forest certification, the FSC passed a motion to increase investment in evaluation during its last general assembly meeting, which could lead to better monitoring and assessment of the certification’s impacts.

Fishermen in Acapulco, Mexico. Image by Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Response to the series

Our series received more than 81,000 page views and generated a lot of discussion online. We also received a mix of very insightful feedback throughout the series. Here are some of the comments:

Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke chair of conservation ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, North Carolina, U.S., wrote:

“I hugely appreciate the series on Conservation Effectiveness. You’ve done a superb job of tackling an issue that has received far too little attention by conservation professionals — some of whom surely prefer not to ask such awkward questions. It’s a great set of essays and will be set readings for my conservation class. Very well done.”

Julia P.G. Jones, professor of conservation science at Bangor University, U.K, wrote:

“Mongabay (in collaboration with Zuzana Burivalova) have done a fantastic job at bringing together the current state of the evidence for really important conservation strategies to ask the critical question: ‘do they work’? They produced an interactive infographic to summarise the state of knowledge for each strategy they investigate. These are incredibly valuable as a communication tool (showing what we know, with how much confidence and where the gaps in our knowledge are) but they also represent an invaluable resource for researchers and practitioners needing quick access to relevant literature. I work particularly on two of the areas which have been covered (Payments for Ecosystem Services and Community Forest Management) and found the reviews to be absolutely state of the art. We are more used to seeing work of this level of depth and rigour published in academic journals. However, by combining excellent research with captivating images and evocative writing (by Shreya Dasgupta and Mike Gaworecki), Mongabay communicate so much more than could be communicated in the standard, and rather dry, style in which research is usually presented. I expect the Conservation Effectiveness series will mark a very significant turning point in how the conservation community think about conservation evidence.”

Chris Searles, founder of BioIntegrity, a Texas-based for-profit fundraising company, commented on the “Does community-based forest management work in the tropics?” story:

“Thanks so much for this research, article, and exceptionally handy info graphic. Excellent work. Clearly “CFM” is a blanket term applied across a number of contexts and Conservation is currently falling far short of realizing and replicating CFM’s implied potential. All for good/reasonable reasons. You may want to now look across the organizations doing community-based tropical restoration / conservation for a more granular understanding of what works best.”

Reader Jens Lund wrote about the “Does community-based forest management work in the tropics?” story:

“Interesting article! However, the notion that some studies are more ‘well-designed’ than others appears to rest on the use of quasi-experimental designs and statistical evaluation. Obviously, such approaches have their strengths, but also their weaknesses…”.  (Read the rest of his comment here)

Cláudio C. Maretti, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas regional vice chair for South America and director of ICMBio, the Brazilian federal protected areas agency, left several comments on the “Do protected areas work in the tropics?” story. Here’s what he thought about how we reviewed the evidence for the story (read the rest of his comments here).

“Separate considerations for different protected areas categories probably are a correct approach, but to select some might be not. It is a pity to focus only on more restrictive categories of protected areas and a mistake to assume that categories I-IV are “better”, for the current trend is going much more strongly towards category VI large protected areas (when categories III and IV are usually small) and might have the benefit of local communities active action.”

Reader Anna Finke wrote about the “Experience or evidence: How do big conservation NGOs make decisions?” story:

“Excellent article, I especially agree with the difficulty of informing oneself about the best conservation strategies when half the articles are behind a pay-wall.”

An anonymous reader commented on the “Experience or evidence: How do big conservation NGOs make decisions?” story:

“I generally like this article as it highlife [sic] the necessity for evaluation of effectiveness and impacts, and there is mention albeit brief of the importance of the human dimensions in conservation and evaluation. However, I think a big and important perspective missing from this article is the need to evaluate policy processes and governance structures (or lack thereof), including decision making situations, and whose voice is represented or not.  This literature and the importance of governance is missing in explicit considerations of conservation evaluation.”

A group of researchers, including Madeleine McKinnon of Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, published a commentary on Mongabay, critiquing our evidence reviewing process. Read the commentary here, and our response here.

Activists staging a protest against palm oil in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

What’s next

Conservation has the laudable objective of protecting the Earth’s species and habitats. But to succeed, conservation strategies must be effective, especially with limited resources in hand. Scientific studies can be a useful window to gauging that effectiveness.

Our databases and interactive infographics provide a snapshot of scientific studies. We hope to keep them alive and relevant by developing a platform that allows researchers to update them by adding studies.

If you have ideas or would like to collaborate on this effort, do contact the team at [email protected].

In addition, if you are aware of relevant studies that we may have missed or that are published after the Conservation Effectiveness series concludes, please post a link to them in the comments of the relevant story so we can continue to gather evidence.

One of our goals with this series was to challenge the conservation community to be clear-eyed about the effectiveness of the strategies it deploys. To the extent that we’ve sparked a conversation about this issue, we hope it will continue beyond the close of the series, whether in the story comments, at conferences, or in other forums.

Conservation Effectiveness team
Reporters: Shreya Dasgupta, Mike Gaworecki
Researchers: Zuzana Burivalova, Amy Fensome, M. Fernanda Tomaselli, Annika Schlemm
Editors: Rebecca Kessler, Mike Gaworecki
Copy editor: Hayat Indriyatno
Infographics: Zuzana Burivalova, GreenInfo Network

Banner image: Young orangutans in Kalimantan. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Article published by Shreya Dasgupta

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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