Some CONVIVA news

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.

The Case for Convivial Conservation

Originally published at:

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.


What is transformation anyway?

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 seemsIPBES 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 global48178887791_e5d0ac9883_b 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. NATURE NEEDS HALFFor 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 Guardians of the Forest at GCAS San Franciscochallenging 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.


Human-Jaguar Relations in the Atlantic Forest: an opportunity for conviviality!

By the Brazilian CONVIVA team

Interdisciplinarity as a goal and starting point. The Brazilian team implementing the CONVIVA – convivial conservation project is a highly diverse group of enthusiastic researchers from different institutions and disciplines, working in collaboration towards jaguar conservation in the Atlantic rainforest through a convivial perspective. Coordinated by Dr. Katia Ferraz, the leader of the Wildlife Ecology, Management and Conservation Lab (LEMaC) at the University of São Paulo, the team is composed of ecologists, conservation biologists and social scientists. One of our main goals is to build bridges across scales of analysis, from individual-centred approaches such as the ‘Human dimensions of conservation’, to political ecology which looks at broader societal-environmental relations with a justice focus. By interweaving analysis at different scales and with different disciplinary foci, we aim to work towards a new theoretical basis to improve current conservation practices and policies.


We are not starting from scratch! Our activities build on two ongoing projects in the context of LEMaC: the project “Onças do Iguaçu” on mammal conservation in Foz do Iguaçu National Park in the state of Paraná, and “Mammals in the Mata Atlântica” in Serra do Mar Green corridor in the state of São Paulo. Our focus regions are two of the only three areas in which there is a higher probability of jaguar populations persisting in the longer term (highlighted in red in the map below), based on the most recent analysis of species viability in the Atlantic Forest. mapa jaguar occupationIn working towards making this probability a reality, the Brazilian team of researchers from LEMaC have partnered with Instituto Manacá and the National Center for Research and Conservation of Large Carnivores (CENAP), a branch of the Brazilian national institute for biodiversity conservation, the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio). Therefore, we seek to engage with and deepen the work that is already ongoing through CONVIVA in a way that allows the different projects to build on and feed off each other.


Connections beyond academia. The Brazilian branch of the CONVIVA project is bringing together environmental policy, NGO advocacy and research to develop sustainable paths for a just and healthy environment for future generations of both humans and jaguars. Our meetings bring together practitioners, scientists from different fields, and public policy managers, turning our meetings into spaces both for research and knowledge exchange at the same time. We engage in comprehensive debates about the future of conservation, the limits and possibilities of interdisciplinary research, and possible alternatives for current Brazilian policies for nature conservation.


Activities under way. This year has been full speed ahead for us. In March, our team hosted the first CONVIVA workshop. The entire international team was present in Foz do Iguaçu National Park, enjoying the backdrop of the breathtaking landscape of the Iguaçu Falls. The meeting in Foz do Iguaçu established a number of challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. conviva-group-picture.jpgThe team left the meeting with a feeling of commitment to the overall objective of building a convivial perspective for conservation, one that looks at jaguars as part of a whole system in which humans and wildlife can co-exist. During the first six months of 2019, the Brazilian team dedicated efforts to planning activities for the next two years, gathering the data already available from previous projects, and deepening our knowledge of the convivial idea and our contribution to it. We collaboratively developed stakeholder mappings to evaluate possible counterparts and establish a shared perspective on the current dynamics and challenging context of environmental governance in Brazil.


Hopes for the jaguar, the Atlantic Forest and the people who live in it. We aspire to build a sound and viable basis for healthy relationships between people and the fascinating jaguar species in its remaining habitats within this rich and endangered hotspot. On that basis, we hope that we can contribute to longstanding and effective convivial conservation, taking into account both the needs of people and wildlife.


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.