Do environmental advocacy campaigns drive successful forest conservation?

Of the 34 articles we looked at, 20 focused directly on the outcomes of environmental advocacy campaigns. Of these, seven were perception-based case reports (supported by documents and literature), seven were expert opinion (often supported by literature), and six were literature reviews (often non-systematic, including non-peer reviewed sources). 12 articles were related to Zero Deforestation Commitments (seven were experimental, two quasi-experimental, two were expert opinion, and one was a literature review).

The research we examined was fairly scattered and diffuse. We found a number of case studies looking at how advocacy campaigns impacted forest conservation in specific regions or how specific policy outcomes that resulted from campaigns have contributed to conservation results on the ground, for instance. Others zeroed in narrowly on campaigns seeking to change corporate behavior, or markets campaigns. We even found a study that looked at how one specific NGO used photos of charismatic megafauna on its website. But we didn’t find any studies that sought to broadly examine the role advocacy campaigns play in achieving forest conservation, which makes it extremely difficult to make any generalizations based on the research.

The upshot is that the scientific evidence is fairly weak for any claims about the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns. So we also spoke with several experts in forest conservation and advocacy campaigns to supplement our understanding of some of the broader trends and to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge.

Why are advocacy campaigns so hard to study?

Of all the conservation interventions we examined for the Conservation Effectiveness series (forest certification, payments for ecosystem services, community-based forest management, terrestrial protected areas, and marine protected areas), advocacy campaigns appear to have the weakest evidence base in scientific literature.

Part of the reason for that, we discovered, is that every advocacy campaign is unique, employing a different mix of tactics, from non-violent direct action and community organizing efforts to petition drives, brand damage, and boycotts. And each makes an ask tailored to the specific power dynamics vis-a-vis the campaign target, such as committing to sustainable forestry practices, protecting some piece of land, joining some non-state market-driven governance body, or purchasing more certified forest products.

This diversity of tactics and goals makes it virtually impossible to precisely define what an “advocacy campaign” consists of, so examining environmental advocacy as some kind of a whole in a scientific manner remains elusive and may in fact not be feasible.

But perhaps the biggest confounding factor is that advocacy campaigns do not operate in a vacuum. Multiple “pathways of influence” are typically at play if and when a conservation plan actually becomes a reality. These include norms and rules promulgated by international governance bodies or non-state market-driven mechanisms; domestic policy and law enforcement; and a variety of market pressures from consumers and the private sector.

Among these pathways is a constellation of stakeholders exerting leverage any way they can, which makes it difficult to tease out the effect of the campaigns themselves. Some NGOs refrain from advocacy, such as the Thailand-based Center for People and Forests, which focuses on partnering with governments in places like Cambodia, where openly criticizing the government can put organizations and their workers at considerable risk. Other stakeholders include community groups, trade groups, or the grassroots organizations and indigenous coalitions that initially started British Columbia’s War in the Woods. The engagement of First Nations throughout the lengthy negotiation process was crucial to achieving the final Great Bear Rainforest agreement, for instance.

Action against a ship transporting paper from Canada made of rainforest wood. Quatsinas, chief of the Nuxalk Nation, joined the activists. Photo © Greenpeace / Philip Reynaers.

In fact, the Great Bear Rainforest example shows clearly that advocacy campaigns are just one of the pathways necessary to create the right conditions for permanent change. Continued pressure from their customers was a key motivator for B.C.’s logging companies to remain committed to the negotiating process. At a series of roundtables, consumer companies were updated by government, industry, and First Nations representatives on the progress being made during negotiations. Nonetheless, the parties failed to meet a March 2014 deadline for full implementation of an agreement. Then, on the eve of a roundtable in June 2015 that brought together investors and customers collectively representing nearly $300 billion-worth of forestry industry revenue, the B.C. government finally released a draft of the legislative package that would enshrine the Great Bear Rainforest agreement into law a year later.

“It was just such a show of force, having $300 billion worth of revenues, representing that sheer amount of the market and the broader expectation of the marketplace, rather than letting it be diminished as one company here or there,” said Rycroft of Canopy, which hosted that final roundtable. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a legislative draft had been shaken loose.”

The story of how British Columbia came to adopt such an innovative approach to forest management illustrates the strengths and limitations of advocacy campaigns, Ben Cashore, a professor of environmental governance and political science at Yale University in the United States, suggests.

“The important part of the story is that the market campaigns, the boycott campaigns, were part of a spark. [But] they had to interact with public policy in ways that created durable and long-lasting effects,” Cashore told Mongabay. “A very complicated set of pathways that involve norms-changing, markets-influencing, and molding public policy were developed by multi-stakeholders in a sort of bottom-up way that, together, created this durability.”

While the need to understand how each pathway of influence comes into play makes studying the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns rather complex, it’s not impossible to determine what works and what doesn’t, Cashore suggests. But he says that, although “there’s a whole bunch of research out there looking at some pretty cool stuff, it’s usually pretty short-term in its attention, and doesn’t really say anything about durability.”

The kinds of long-term research into the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns that Cashore argues are necessary will not result in simple conclusions, however. But then, the point should not be to understand whether or not, say, boycott campaigns are a good way to wring concessions from corporate or governmental targets. Such concessions are merely short-term goals, whereas many NGOs, like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, intend to foster deeper, more transformative change (more on this later).

“As we know, short-term impacts often don’t mean long-term solutions. And so theorizing about how those short-term impacts might lead to long-term solutions can be very important,” Cashore said. “When we do that, we tend to see that, actually, boycott campaigns, markets campaigns, are simply one step in a much more complex set of steps to promoting long-lasting change.”

No evidence advocacy on its own drives long-term conservation

Because advocacy campaigns generally aren’t designed to contribute directly to conservation but instead seek to compel relevant actors, both public and private, to commit to policies and actions that would result in the conservation of forests, we can’t really answer the same questions that we did about the other intervention types covered in the Conservation Effectiveness series.

When looking at interventions such as forest certification, community forestry, and payments for ecosystem services, we evaluated the evidence for how well those strategies delivered measurable outcomes for the environment, social welfare, and local economies. To be sure, the NGOs that run advocacy campaigns aiming to deliver successful forest conservation also hope to provide social and economic benefits to local forest communities, but it’s nearly impossible to determine how much they contribute to these outcomes, and almost definitely impossible to quantify those impacts.

One theme that emerged from our analysis was that there is no single, straightforward way of viewing the effectiveness of environmental advocacy, as it depends on what timeframe you’re looking at and how you define “success” for any given campaign. If you define success as shorter-term victories, such as a campaign’s specific demand set being met, then it can certainly be said that there has been much success. Advocacy campaigns have persuaded an increasing number of companies to pledge to do business in a more sustainable manner by joining non-state market-driven bodies like the New York Declaration on Forests, or to adopt policies like Zero Deforestation Commitments, for instance.

A 2007 study that looked at environmental campaigns targeting Indonesian pulp and paper company APRIL provides an example of how differing definitions of success can inform the strategies employed by NGOs in waging their campaigns. Researchers found that “There are significant differences of opinion between the NGOs on APRIL’s progress as well as the route to encouraging sustainable forest management in Indonesia… Part of these differences of opinion is based on the strategy employed by the groups; with WWF willing to accept a step wise approach to the company improving its operations, whilst [Friends of the Earth] Finland seeks an all or nothing method.”

If you define success as more transformative change, however, then the effectiveness of environmental advocacy has been much more limited. A 2017 article that looked at the rise of brand-focused activism targeting the palm oil sector over its impact on tropical forests found that advocacy campaigns may have succeeded in raising awareness of the issue and pushing companies to adopt new sustainability policies, but that they hadn’t achieved much conservation on the ground:

Campaigns since 2007 to demand that brands stop buying palm oil linked to tropical deforestation confirm the rising influence over corporate policies and market demand. Many activists are portraying the outcomes as ‘victories’ toward saving rainforests. Yet, three factors are limiting the value for improving on-the-ground management: industry influence over, and governance limits of, palm oil certification; ongoing sales of uncertified palm oil as demand shifts to nonbrand buyers; and illegalities and weak regulatory enforcement in producer countries, notably Indonesia and Malaysia.

The author of that article added that “the power of brand-focused activism is rising in terms of its capacity to influence the aspirational pledges and purchasing policies of brand manufacturers and retailers, but remains a weak intervention to improve environmental management in tropical countries.” Ultimately, the author concludes: “scholars and activists should be very wary — and far more critical — of the claim that brand focused activism is a powerful way to protect tropical ecosystems.”

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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