Activists and policy makers are often considered to be separate influences on environmental issues. A new review suggests that the key to long-term conservation policy could lie in the creation of 'Conservation Systems'. These are a collective of activists, organisations and policy makers which could make biodiversity conservation efforts more resilient to major external changes, such as economic crises, change in government or conflict.
One of the main challenges of environmental policy is that there can be a mismatch between the long-term needs of environmental management and the short-term needs of the public who have an impact on the environment and who affect decisions about management. For example, decisions governing land use and harvesting often pit short-term private costs to farmers or land owners against long-term environmental gains.
The study analysed the concept of resilient institutional design to inform the development of conservation policies that can withstand unpredictable, external change, such as economic growth and collapse, ethnic conflict, civil wars and political changes. It points out that previous approaches to resilient design have paid little attention to the role of social constituencies and political mobilisation in ensuring the long-term survival of biodiversity and ecosystems. The study suggests that this promotes a narrow focus on financial incentives and misses the diverse motivations that underpin political action to improve conservation.
As a solution the study suggested the promotion of Conservation Systems, which are networks of interlocking institutions and social constituencies that provide a 'safety net' to protect biodiversity.
To be successful, Conservation Systems should include participation by diverse organisations across governmental, private sector, and civil society sectors. It also requires political support among multiple political parties and at all levels of governance, including local, regional, national and, where possible, international. The inclusion of diverse constituencies prevents the protective system from collapsing in the face of common changes like a shift in the local ruling party, an economic recession, personnel turnover within a key non-profit organisation, or national political instability.
There are several techniques to strengthen local participation in the safety net, such as grassroots campaigns, locally initiated protected areas, community development projects and payment for ecosystem services. Inviting influential decision-makers to nature retreats has also been found to help build national policy support. Economic constituencies can be diversified by designing projects that involve multiple sectors such as tourism, educational and scientific organisations, and groups with a stake in watershed protection and sustainable harvesting of natural resources.
The question remains as to whether Conservation Systems are achievable in the face of likely co-ordination problems between the different players. Key challenges include establishing trust and managing differences in power between different groups. To overcome these, a core group should be established to assume responsibility for coordination and to ensure everyone is working towards common conservation goals. So-called boundary organisations, such as task forces and co-ordinating committees, may be useful to bridge the different levels. There are also a wide range of incentives for participation, such as information sharing, provision of ecosystem services and funding by governments and donors.
Source: Steinberg, P.F. (2009) Institutional Resilience Amid Political Change: The Case of Biodiversity Conservation. Global Environmental Politics. 9(3):61-81.