We are taking convivial conservation to the next level: the Oak Foundation has approved a three-year programme to start implementing convivial conservation in three living landscapes in South Africa. The programme will be led by The institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) of the University of the Western Cape, together with the Sociology of Development and Change Group at Wageningen University. More updates soon.
Authors: Robert Fletcher, Kate Massarella, Ashish Kothari, Pallav Das, Anwesha Dutta and Bram Büscher
The prospects for Earth’s biological diversity look increasingly bleak. The urgency of global efforts to preserve biodiversity long predates the COVID-19 crisis, but the pandemic has added new dimensions to the problem. Conservation funding from nature tourism has all but disappeared with international travel restrictions, wildlife poaching is on the rise, and various political regimes have used the crisis as an excuse to roll-back and circumvent environmental regulations. These developments are products of the dominant mode of natural resource “management” via technocratic control that is at the core of global socio-ecological crises.
Even worse, perhaps, a series of key international meetings planned throughout 2020 to establish a Global Biodiversity Framework to guide conservation efforts through the next decade have been cancelled or postponed. Yet, while the delay developing this framework leaves conservation’s future even more uncertain, it also presents a valuable opportunity. The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that any hope of preserving the planet’s rapidly dwindling natural systems and species depend on our capacity to use this extended period of reflection and discussion to push the Biodiversity Framework, as well as national- and local-level policies and practices, in a radical new direction.
This short news item on CONVIVA – the convivial conservation research project was first submitted as a contribution to the Transformations2Sustainability September 2019 newsletter.
In June 2019, the University of Sheffield, one of the institutions involved in the CONVIVA – convivial conservation research project funded by the Belmont Forum/NORFACE, hosted a workshop bringing together diverse scholars working on different aspects of political ecology in the global South and North. Four researchers affiliated with CONVIVA, Wilhelm Kiwango from the University of Dodoma, Kate Massarella from Wageningen University, Dan Brockington and Judith Krauss from the University of Sheffield, presented ongoing work which explores different aspects of convivial conservation. The viability of insurance schemes in communities living with lions, the social life of ideas, and the commensurability of convivial conservation with the 15th Sustainable Development Goal were discussed with the 30 participants.
This workshop marked the starting point for Wilhelm Kiwango’s one-month stay at the University of Sheffield to plan research activities which will develop and test ideas around convivial conservation in Tanzania. These activities, led by Mathew Bukhi Mabele and Wilhelm Kiwango, are additionally supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund. They will enable CONVIVA to work with communities in Tanzania who have experienced human-wildlife conflict with lions on co-developing ideas which put into practice the research project’s objectives of promoting co-existence, (bio)diversity and social justice.
Originally published at: http://undisciplinedenvironments.org/index.php/2019/10/01/the-case-for-convivial-conservation/
By Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, Wageningen University (Netherlands)
In the face of the sixth extinction, rising wildlife crime and biodiversity under dire threat around the globe, environmental conservation finds itself in desperate times. A new approach is needed, one that takes seriously our economic system’s structural pressures, violent socio-ecological realities, escalating extinctions and increasingly authoritarian politics. Convivial conservation is such an approach.
These days it is difficult to keep track of all the devastating conservation news appearing. While some profess ‘conservation optimism’, most of the scientific news about species, ecosystems and the climate is far from positive. The Living Planet Report 2018 states that 60% of all wild animals have disappeared since 1970. Other recent studies, including the major IPBES report launched in June 2019, show that extinction rates are accelerating and that global biodiversity thresholds may soon surpass ‘planetary boundaries’ beyond which even more dramatic decline is inevitable.
All of this is happening in a broader context wherein alt-right and authoritarian (-leaning) politicians like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, Putin in Russia, Erdohan in Turkey and many others promote an explicitly elitist, anti-environmentalist and divisive politics that could make things much worse for decades to come.
Given this context and these threats, it is little surprise that many in the conservation community feel great anxiety and pressure. And while they do sometimes admit that radical transformation is needed, it seems very difficult to break out of the neoliberal consensus many organisations have come to embrace since the 1980s and 1990s.
For example, the WWF’s flagship Living Planet report, released two days after Bolsonaro was elected, calls for a ‘new global deal for nature and people’ and urges ‘decision-makers at every level’ to “make the right political, financial and consumer choices to achieve the vision that humanity and nature thrive in harmony on our only planet”. To operationalise this ‘ambitious pathway’, WWF, together with other organisations, will launch a new research initiative based around ‘systems modelling’ to help “us determine the best integrated and collective solutions and to help understand the ‘trade-offs’ we may need to accept to find the best path ahead.”
To a degree, we can understand that conservation organisations want to be cautious politically. But the big problem with this conciliatory mainstream approach is that it is very easy for alt-right and authoritarian (-leaning) politicians and movements to ignore, while at the same time it allows people to postpone the more drastic action that is truly needed.
Interestingly, we have seen more radical discontent with this approach emerging, even from within the conservation community. These reactions are diverse, but two streams seem particularly adamant to push mainstream boundaries.
One stream – under the label ‘new conservation’ – has started criticizing the key elements that conservation has been build on since the 19th century: protected areas and ideas of ‘pristine’ nature and wilderness. Instead, they advocate a full integration of conservation into dominant, capitalist political economic systems for conservation to stand a chance in the future and maintain legitimacy.
But another group of conservationists – whom we call ‘neoprotectionists’ – go livid when they hear this. They believe that this strategy would not only be the death of conservation, but of the planet more generally. According to neoprotectionists, we need to go back to protected areas and wilderness preservation, but on a scale hitherto not yet seen. They argue that only if half the entire planet becomes a nature reserve can the ecological processes critical to human and planetary survival persist.
In short, while new conservationists advocate a radical mixing of people and nonhuman nature, especially through valuation of ‘natural capital’, neoprotectionists call for a separation between people and nature on an unprecedented global scale.
A conservation revolution?
In a soon to be published book and recent article, we argue that neither of these radical conservation proposals take historical and political economic realities seriously enough and so cannot lead us forward. Our book offers a detailed discussion of the important differences and nuances among and within these proposals to do justice to the foundational issues they highlight and try to tackle. At the same time, we argue that neither truly addresses the integrated socio-ecological roots of the biodiversity crisis, nor do their politics adequately confront the reactionary political developments we are witnessing around the world.
Yet we do not want to throw away the baby with the bathwater. What these radical conservation approaches show is that a conservation revolution might be brewing, and we should build on this potential. Moreover, there are important positive aspects in the various radical proposals that should be nurtured and brought together into a more coherent alternative. We therefore see these two positions as pointing towards the more fundamental transformation that is needed to allow conservation to effectively confront the mounting pressures we face.
We propose an alternative termed ‘convivial conservation’. Convivial conservation (literally: ‘living with’) is a vision, a politics and a set of governance principles that realistically respond to the core pressures of our time. Drawing on a variety of perspectives in social theory and movements from around the globe, it proposes a post-capitalist approach to conservation that promotes equity, structural transformation and environmental justice. It directly targets the extreme capitalist interests of the global elites, positively engages with but transcends technocratic beliefs of pragmatists and enthusiastically builds on a growing groundswell of global social movements, including Extinction Rebellion and FridaysForFuture youth protests that demand structural change.
Conclusion: Another Conservation Politics is Needed
The growing environmental and political crises has made the choices that conservation faces even more difficult than they already were. This, then, is the basic reality facing conservation: radical choices have to be made. This is not to say that we should not look for complementarities and things that unite. This remains vital.
Yet we must always do so in the context of the broader systemic change that is needed, and full awareness that this is resisted violently by entrenched and institutionalised forms of power. To continue to try to please, accommodate or ignore these entrenched powers is a defeatist politics.
Convivial conservation engages these issues by combing attention to complexity with political acuity and is therefore a realistic alternative. Much, however, remains to be worked out in both theory and practice. It is critical that this is done in and through collaboration with many actors, including local people living within biodiverse spaces.
Only then can convivial conservation offer a truly hopeful vision of a future in which humans and nonhumans live together well.
By Kate Massarella, Wageningen University (Netherlands)
Since the Brundtland report was published over 30 years ago, sustainable development has held its place as the goal for many concerned with both environmental protection and economic development. This powerful idea that we can eliminate global poverty while preserving the natural world has captured and held the collective imagination, mobilised policy and funds, and been used as the rationale for countless environment and development interventions.
However, increasing concern around global environmental and social crises, including climate change, biodiversity loss and rising inequality, are creating apocalyptic imaginaries of the future of our planet. And it seems that a collective, if not necessarily conscious, decision is being made: that sustainable development is no longer enough. We need more. We need transformation. For example, the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services complied by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) identifies an ‘unprecedented’ and ‘dangerous’ decline of nature. And the solution? Transformative changes that challenge the status quo.
Transformation as radical systemic change
It is this focus on challenging the status quo that, for some, is central to the idea of transformation: if something transforms, it changes radically and fundamentally. As social justice scholar and activist Nancy Fraser explains, transformative change can and must be separated from affirmative action, which dominates current environment and development discourse and practice. Affirmative action addresses specific issues and tackles them by, for example, making changes to policy or introducing a new technology or mechanism to tackle an issue, but never addresses the underlying causes. Transformation, on the other hand, requires a questioning (and alteration) of the existing systems, processes and dominant discourses that are driving the problems and causing harmful and unjust outcomes.
A growing number of social and environmental movements, particularly those concerned with social and environmental justice, are demanding a move beyond affirmative action towards transformation of the global political-economic systems that perpetuate environmental destruction and social inequality. The Fridays for Future movement, spearheaded by 16-year old activist Greta Thunberg, grew out of a belief that governments around the world are not doing enough to tackle climate change, and demands radical, systemic change to halt the climate crisis.
As part of the wider worldwide global justice movement, the non-profit organisation War on Want rejects the imposition of poverty interventions, champions social and workers’ movements, and tackles the underlying drivers of poverty and inequality. The Forest People’s Programme advocates a transformation in conservation models that are rights-based and challenge the use of protected areas. Convivial Conservation aligns with these movements and with a desire for true transformation by challenging the global economic system that drives environmental destruction, rather than emphasising affirmative action within this existing system.
Transformation as non-linear process
Within social science exploration, differing and competing explanations of how transformation happens can be found. Researchers at the STEPS centre in Sussex suggest that these explanations can be organised into three groups, or sets of approaches: structural, systemic and enabling. Structural approaches focus on radical and revolutionary power shifts in society that bring about deep transformation. Systemic approaches focus on understanding social-ecological and socio-technical systems so that specific elements can be targeted via interventions, policy changes and technological innovation.
Finally, enabling approaches focus on collective, bottom-up action that is grounded in social justice and activism and encourages citizen mobilisation. Although these three approaches can be differentiated, scholars argue that in reality, deep transformation happens as a result of a combination of approaches. If, as Ulrich Brand argues, sustainable development assumes a need for managerial solutions, transformation requires that we embrace, and learn to work with, complexity, messiness and non-linear change.
Transformation as an empty signifier?
As this discussion shows, transformation has emerged as a popular new term that signifies deep and radical change. It is rooted in activism and politics. It requires us to challenge the status quo and embrace complexity and messiness. However, actual use of the term transformation does not always reflect these radical sentiments. For example, within social science exploration of systemic approaches to transformations to sustainability an ‘assumption that transformation processes can be better initiated and amplified within the current political, economic and cultural institutional system, dominant actors and related rationales’ can be identified. In some cases the emphasis is on incremental change, often focusing only on individual consumption and behaviour change and not addressing the underlying causes of climate change and biodiversity loss. In other cases it is asserted that transformation can be brought about by ‘rethinking of economic, environmental and social policies and the way they relate to each other’ without questioning the system, politics and power dynamics of the system from which the policies emerge.
In response to global biodiversity crises, a number of radical ideas have been put forward and are gaining momentum. However, critics have challenged the ability of such ideas to bring about truly transformational change. For example, the Nature Needs Half movement advocates a ‘transformation of human society’. This, they argue, requires that half of the earth be put aside for conservation via a significant increase in protected areas. However, it is argued that this approach merely extends the existing conservation paradigm that is designed around protected areas, ignores the underlying global forces that drive biodiversity loss, and could result in significant injustices through the further marginalisation of poor, forest-dwelling and indigenous communities.
It seems, therefore, that transformation risks becoming an empty signifier, whose ‘meaning is temporarily fixed, and continuously contested and rearticulated’. It may lose its emphasis on the radical, on social justice, on grassroots movements, and on challenging deep-rooted structural and systemic dynamics; instead becoming an ineffectual buzzword that allows business as usual to continue. And yet transformation in its truest sense is needed – to address global ecological and social crises and bring about fundamental, socially just change.
As researchers and activists we must work together to maintain the radical potential of transformation, to better understand how transformation happens, and to use research to support and enable the truly transformative change that needs to be achieved for life on our planet to flourish.