A call for researchers and policymakers to reconnect with the grounded realities of tropical forest conservation
Sitting in a session at the 15th Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC) in 2009, forest researcher and conservationist Agni Klintuni Boedhihartono sketched out two triangles on the notebook in front of her.
In the broad base of the first triangle, she filled in some of the characters, colors and complexities of a tropical landscape, including trees, animals, agriculture, and people going about a range of activities. At the apex of the triangle, there was a small negotiating table with a handful of people gathered around it. The picture represented how tropical conservation policies were made until the 1980s: by a small group of experts with long-term experience and connection with the lands and peoples affected by their decisions.
The next triangle she drew was inverted: the broad upper half was dominated by a mass of suited negotiators in an urban landscape, and at the lowest point, the tropical landscape was confined to a speech bubble connected to one person who was trying, with limited success, to get the attention of the “talking heads” above. This represented, to Boedhihartono, the way that tropical landscape policies are largely made nowadays: by big groups of elite negotiators with little connection to local realities.
Boedhihartono, who is now an Associate Professor of Tropical Landscapes and Livelihoods at the University of British Colombia (UBC), has spent decades working closely with communities in complex landscapes in Indonesia and the Congo Basin. Speaking with colleagues at the conference who had also, in their youth, spent considerable time in the field as scientists and activists, she observed how their paths contrasted with contemporary career trajectories for scientists and policymakers. It was clear to her that “a lot of the people who came to these big international meetings – especially the younger ones – actually had no experience on the ground.
“And we talked about how important it is to have that experience, before you can make decisions on behalf of people who live there.”
It was an important step in an ongoing conversation about how to reconnect policymakers and researchers with the people and places that their work impacts. In a new article in Tropical Conservation Science, Boedhihartono and a group of co-authors argue that many global conservation initiatives are not achieving desired results for conservation in the tropics, and that researchers’ and policymakers’ lack of attunement to local contexts must shoulder a significant part of the blame.
DECENTRALIZED GOVERNANCE & CENTRALIZED KNOWLEDGE
According to the authors, these on-the-ground realities are becoming increasingly complex. As demand for commodities rises, landscapes are changing quickly as natural forests are felled for agriculture and agro-forestry. Forest governance has also become increasingly decentralized, so the number of stakeholders has grown in many forest landscapes.
Meanwhile, conservation priorities and policies are moving in the opposite direction, and becoming overly centralized and simplified, say the authors. Within high-level policy processes, there’s a tendency toward the tempting but troubling belief that “easy, globally-applicable solutions can be identified,” they say. This leads to the phenomenon of ‘issue cycles,’ where international attention focuses excessively on “simple short-term solutions to what are, in reality, very complex long-term problems.” By focusing on individual components of complex systems, these ‘solutions,’ while attractive to funders and policymakers, do not tend to take integrated approaches to addressing the actual problems at hand.
Research capacity has also become more centralized. “The center of gravity of tropical conservation science has shifted northward,” say the authors: toward developed countries, and away from the landscapes that are being studied. Researchers are incentivized and rewarded chiefly through publication in high-impact journals, and thus encouraged to move to elite research centers and universities, most of which are now located in developed countries. “The ways our universities and research institutes are funded, people are going for these very simplistic things that produce papers in elite journals, and they’re not particularly concerned about conservation impact on the ground,” observes Jeff Sayer, another co-author of the paper, who is also a professor at UBC. “The incentives for researchers do not drive them to do things that are useful.”
Meanwhile, many research facilities located in key biodiversity areas in the tropics have experienced declining funding, and some have been forced to close. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has sought to counter this trend, but still finds maintaining funding to be a constant effort. Conservation organizations in developing tropical countries often have little research capacity, often depending on ‘safari’ scientists on painfully brief assignments. “We call them ‘seagulls,’ ” Boedhihartono laughs wryly, “because they’re like those birds that fly in, and leave their droppings everywhere, and then fly out again!”
RECONNECTING THE DOTS
In critiquing the status quo, the co-authors don’t advocate a return to the former expert-driven model (triangle 1 of Boedhihartono’s drawing) of tropical forest conservation policy. They acknowledge that there are many more conservation problems – and intiatives – than in the past, and this inevitably requires more meetings and negotiations. But they do call for integrated management, genuine local leadership and deep connection with complex grounded realities, looking hopefully toward “a future where strategies and decisions are produced by those whose lives will be impacted.”
This means making space for local leadership. “We don’t think that we as outsiders should lead these things too much,” says Sayer. “There is this tendency for the big international NGOs to come in and want to fly their flags and stamp their logos on things that they’re doing, and I think that’s harmful.” Rather, he says, “We should be lurking in the wings. We don’t want to convene things; we want to encourage them to happen and to function.”
The co-authors believe that landscape approaches, which provide principles, guidelines and tools for adaptive conservation at local scales, hold potential to help make the change that’s needed. They call for a more integrated, experimental model of knowledge co-production, with enhanced feedback mechanisms between those who design conservation interventions and those who implement and experience them. Co-author and CIFOR scientist James Reed, who is one of six leaders of a new project on implementing the landscape approach, says that regular engagement between researchers, decision makers and landscape inhabitants can serve to identify and negotiate areas of consensus – and of disagreement – to better inform future land-use management.
“The hope is that such negotiation can serve to harmonize land-use decisions and spur innovation among invested stakeholders,” he says, “while acknowledgement of trade-offs can help alleviate potential land-use conflict and provide support for marginalized or disadvantaged groups.”
The co-authors also call for more incentives and viable career pathways for scientists who choose to spend more of their working lives in the field. Boedhihartono emphasizes that successful conservation in tropical landscapes is necessarily a long-term process. “We need to have the trust of the people who are there, and if you’re only flying in for a short time, it’s difficult to create that,” she says.
For her own part, she makes sure to return to the research sites she’s been working in every year if possible – and to bring graduate students with her each time, to kick-start the kind of on-the-ground experience she believes is so crucial for the next generation of scientists. “They have to stay in the villages for two months, in really remote places,” she describes. “And now, several PhD students have been coming to these field sites for several years. So it’s a good way of keeping up our engagement with the people there.”
Sayer corroborates that there are few shortcuts in the process of making sense of a particular landscape. “Our work in the Malinau [research forest in East Kalimantan] is now over 20 years old,” he says. “And I think after that amount of time, you begin to start understanding what’s going on, and to see how you might make a difference. It does take a long time,” he affirms.