Conserving what, how, and for whom? Unpacking SDG 15 “Life on land” and its links to convivial conservation

By Judith Krauss, University of Sheffield (UK)

What does the 15th Sustainable Development Goal, dubbed “Life on Land”, mean for CONVIVA, our research project investigating how conservation can be made more convivial, socially just, transformative?

This blog post hopes to offer some initial, non-exhaustive thoughts building on a paper I am currently developing. It argues that SDG 15 misses opportunities: it mostly reflects hegemonic ideas of conservation building on exclusion-based or market-based notions, while communities’ role unfortunately is underestimated.


What are the Sustainable Development Goals and why do they matter?

In 2015, the United Nations agreed a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) encompassing 169 targets. These successors to the 8 Millennium Development Goals marked a step forward in some sense as they expanded the responsibility for attaining the goals from solely lower-income countries to encompass also the Global North, a vital prerequisite especially for all goals related to environmental matters and consumption.


Arguably, the SDGs are the most universally agreed global governance framework: they aim to provide the world with a set of goals which cover the social (e.g. SDG 1, no poverty), environmental (e.g. SDG 15, Life on land) and economic (e.g. SDG 8, decent work and economic growth) aspects of “sustainable development”. (While this is not the focus of this blog, it is worth mentioning that sustainable development remains a problematic term, which e.g. Adams’s Green Development, Redclift’s ‘An oxymoron comes of age’ or Lélé’s classic ‘Sustainable development: a critical review’ have covered in more detail).


Since their publication, much has been written about the SDGs, focusing e.g. on their implicit biases (Spann, 2017; Weber, 2017), their interdependencies (Nilsson et al., 2016) and trade-offs (Pradhan et al., 2017). However, there has been comparatively little work unpacking individual SDGs in terms of what they mean for the academic fields to which they are related. Convivial conservation has a strong link particularly to the fifteenth SDG, “Life on land”.


What is SDG 15?

IMG_20190314_122452~2SDG 15 aims to ‘protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss’ (UN, 2015). The targets and indicators which it involves demonstrate the depth and breadth of the challenges affiliated with this SDG. It encompasses:

– nine outcome targets, ranging from terrestrial ecosystems (15.1) via sustainable forest management (15.2) and arable land (15.3) to access and benefit-sharing (15.6) or illicit poaching and wildlife trafficking (15.7). Few SDGs have as many outcome targets as SDG 15, which illustrates the complexity of preserving life on land.

– three ‘means of implementation’ targets, which focus on increasing both national and international funding for biodiversity conservation (15.a) and for sustainable forest management (15.b) as well as boosting capacity to combat wildlife trafficking (15.c)

– 14 indicators. A number of the indicators are rooted in prior UN decisions, e.g. building on indicators used for the Convention on Biological Diversity or for access-and-benefit-sharing as well as sustainable forest management. They encompass measuring e.g. the mountain surface area under protected areas (15.4.1), or the number of countries that have adopted legislation limiting invasive species (15.8.1).



What does SDG 15 mean for CONVIVA?

SDG 15 prominently reflects both exclusion-based ideas of conservation such as neoprotectionists’ advocacy of e.g. excluding humans from half the earth, and new conservation’s subscription to market-based ideals.

In terms of market-based approaches, they feature most explicitly in target 15.9, which aims to incorporate biodiversity values into national and local planning. Equally, monetising natural resources is a prerequisite for the access and benefit-sharing codified in 15.6. Moreover, both targets 15.a and 15.b advocate raising funding from all sources for biodiversity conservation and forest management, respectively.

Exclusion-based ideas are just as, if not more prominent. Not only is the idea of incorporating biodiversity values into national planning predicated on being able to separate humans and nature, which is problematic. Protected areas are key to the indicators linked to terrestrial ecosystems (15.1), forest management (15.2) and mountain biodiversity (15.4). Incidentally, protected areas also bring in market-based elements especially in the global South through entrance fees to parks or tracking licenses. Moreover, species extinction is often addressed through increasing protection for threatened species by exclusion (15.5).

SDG 15 thus builds on hegemonic ideas of conservation around exclusion and markets in different ways. By contrast, communities are mentioned explicitly only once in all of SDG 15, in the indicator aiming to boost capacity-building for communities to combat illegal wildlife trafficking. From a CONVIVA perspective, both constitute missed opportunities given the importance of SDG 15 as a policy framework, but equally are not surprising given the direction of travel for mainstream conservation.

IMG_20180325_084924One way to begin making SDG 15 more convivial would have been an acknowledgement that protected areas distribute fortune and misfortune. Unfortunately, the indicators utilising protected areas have no acknowledgement of communities’ presence, never mind role. This not only threatens to interfere with attaining e.g. SDG 1, no poverty, but also continues a deeply problematic tradition harking back to colonial times of assigning areas for protection without due consideration for the needs of those living on or around them. More work is needed to think through communities’ role in SDG 15, and our project hopes to develop ideas for how to boost communities’ ability to have a say in socially just, transformative, convivial conservation.

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