Beyond talk – time for action: Integrating people into conservation

Matt Porteous / Getty Images
6 February 2017

Greater effort is needed to make people part of the equation in conservation projects. This will increase local support and the effectiveness of conservation.

That’s the main conclusion of a study ‘Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation,’ recently published in the journal Biological Conservation. In the study, an international group of scientists outlines the need to consider people’s livelihoods, cultural traditions and dependence on natural resources when planning and carrying out conservation projects around the world. Among the authors is Carina Wyborn, Research Adviser at the Luc Hoffmann Institute (LHI).

“People often say that understanding people is as important to conservation as understanding biodiversity,” she says. “We’ve been talking about integrating social science into conservation for a very long time, but it still seems to be a major challenge.”

As species decline continues unchecked, conservation organisations traditionally emphasise natural science to solve ecological problems, neglecting people’s relationships to natural resources.

“Despite many calls to provide more people-centered approaches, conservation is still often viewed as being about the environment with biophysical science being prioritised over social science," Wyborn adds.

Increasingly, natural scientists and social scientists are working together to try to consider the needs of both nature and people. These integrated approaches offer hope for the future of conservation.

“When we don’t understand the social aspects, conservation strategies can have negative impacts on people living in a region, or are not feasible within the local policy context. Conservation social science can help us to understand when, where and how our conservation strategies are likely to be more effective”

says Wyborn.

This paper follows dozens of studies that point out the need to consider people in environmental management and conservation, but few have articulated the benefits of doing so and exactly how to do it. This paper is the first to bring together the entire storyline by listing the practical contributions the variety of social science disciplines can offer to improve conservation. It calls for action to ensure that we learn from past failures and successes when ignoring or considering human dimensions and the governance context of conservation.

Successful conservation projects happen when both natural and social scientists work with government, nonprofits, resource managers and local communities to come up with solutions that benefit everyone. This can take more time and resources at the outset, but the paper argues that social scientists can help make this a more efficient process.

“Conservation research has operated in silos for far too long – social scientists in one community – ecologists in another, but to develop robust, long-term conservation strategies, we need to understand the social, political and ecological landscape as an integrated whole,” says Wyborn.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is using social science methods to build the capacity of protected area planners and managers to address climate change. Despite many studies of climate impacts on biodiversity, there is still a gap when it comes to implementing adaptation strategies. LHI’s Conservation Futures project is developing an approach to understand and overcome the barriers to adaptation. Integrating social, climate and ecological science gives a more complete understanding of the challenges of preparing for change in the long term.

Read the full paper here.

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