Click to read: Community conservation: Q&A with Charlie Gardner

Community conservation: Q&A with Charlie Gardner

Growing up in Mauritius, Dr Charlie Gardner spent many a memorable weekend feeding Mauritius kestrels in the Black River Gorges with Durrell’s very own Carl Jones. Charlie has been a budding conservationist for as long as he can remember. He volunteered on the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation’s pink pigeon project before going to university to complete a degree, an MSc, and later a PhD. He’s been a conservation scientist and practitioner, but defining what he does now he says is “a bit tricky!” his various roles involve researching, teaching and communicating conservation, with a ‘people’ focus.

Could you tell me about your work in Madagascar, particularly with the Durban Vision project?

I went to Madagascar in 2005 and was increasingly aware that working directly on species is a limited approach because, in most of the world, biodiversity is really threatened by people. So I realised that it was all about working with people.

At the 5th World Parks Congress in Durban, Madagascar’s President declared that he was going to triple the size of the country’s protected area network. Since then, this has been the primary framework for most conservation in Madagascar. It was an incredible opportunity where there was political will, which is often one of the last things missing in conservation.

Most of the remaining areas in Madagascar that harbour biodiversity are important for people that live around them. There are huge rural communities that depend, often quite significantly, on the biodiversity you’re trying to conserve. Creating strict protected areas to keep people out wouldn’t work; that would mean further disempowering and disenfranchising some of the world’s poorest people. It was never going to be ethically acceptable or pragmatically feasible – you can’t stop hungry people from trying to find something to eat. Developing protected area models that achieve multiple goals at the same time – for the benefit of biodiversity and the livelihoods of rural people – is a real challenge.

 Photo by Louise Jasper

What are the key issues you have encountered in the development of management plans?

Despite all the rhetoric, there is still insufficient integration of local communities in many cases. Often, outside NGOs do not fully involve rural communities in the decision making and planning of how resources will be used and managed. I think it’s essential that resource users be involved to as great an extent as possible if they’re going to take ownership of these projects and ensure they are sustainable in the long run.

The other major problem is simply a lack of resources. The things we’re doing work, but we aren’t able to implement them at the necessary scale. Take the example of Ranobe in southwest Madagascar, which was prioritised as a new protected area. Agriculture was becoming less viable because of climate change, so people were moving into the forest to carry out slash and burn cultivation and produce charcoal. It was clear that agricultural extension work was necessary to address this problem. We developed a partnership with an agronomy NGO, but it was just one guy, trying to work with the 20,000 farmers in the landscape. It was the right approach to take, but the scale was completely inadequate.

If the world decides it wants to conserve biodiversity, it’s going to have to put its money where its mouth is; we as a society are going to have to start funding projects adequately.

 Photo by Louise Jasper

Is the development of protected areas with community involvement the best strategy?

Yes, I think so. Protected areas have much greater scope and potential than species-focussed projects, for example, because they conserve space. So they conserve everything in that space. You can use species as a flagship for conservation, but you can’t conserve species without conserving their habitat.

I think involving rural communities in the management of those areas is the way to go. The alternative is to have strict protected areas. Apart from the huge ethical problems associated with that approach, how are you going to enforce the rules? The only way you can establish sustainable management and influence how communities use their resources is to work with them and get them to decide how they will use them.

 Photo by Louise Jasper

Does this approach mean conservation can be compatible with development?

Absolutely. Much of the resource loss in Madagascar is a result of poverty – people are hugely dependent on natural resources because they have no alternatives. But that’s not to say that development would necessarily change that. When people have more income, they consume more and exert new environmental pressures. If we look at a global level, it’s people’s consumption in our industrialised societies that is the major driver of biodiversity loss – not the poverty-driven consumption of the world’s poor majority. It’s not to say that as the country develops, conservation problems will be fixed, but this approach is the most likely to generate co-benefits for economic development and biodiversity conservation.

Are more organisations starting to think the same way?

There is a spectrum within conservation practice. Some still believe in strict protection rather than promoting the continued use of natural resources, and of course that has a place in many contexts. But most people now acknowledge it’s very important that the communities that live around the resources you’re trying to protect, and those that depend on the resources, must be put at the heart of the picture.

How important do you think research is to biodiversity conservation?

It depends what time of day you ask me! Having an evidence base for decision-making is really important. On the other hand, quite often, the scientists’ recommendations aren’t implemented. In two areas of Madagascar that I’ve worked in, projects to establish protected areas have been kick-started by scientists; they have identified the most important areas and done some preliminary zoning, and then a completely different picture has emerged as to what communities are prepared to give up to protect a zone. In both cases, the final zoning map of the protected areas was based much more on what the communities wanted. That doesn’t mean that research is not important. Social science, for example, is fantastically important in community-based projects.

There is a huge research-practitioner divide that does pervade our field and limit the utility of the science produced by researchers. They are not producing the research that practitioners need to inform their decision making, for the most part.

 Photo by Louise Jasper

Do you have any thoughts on how to close the research-practitioner gap?

Practitioners and researchers should work much closer together so that researchers are aware of what the ‘on the ground’ priorities are. That doesn’t mean they will want to do the research that practitioners need – they have different incentives. Journals also have a part to play here – they often don’t publish the work of practitioners because it’s not ‘sciency’ enough and is, by definition, often very parochial in nature – it’s based on one study system or one site, but the journals want research of global relevance.

It would be great if practitioners published more. If conservation scientists had a greater idea of what practitioners were actually doing, it would help them align their research with what was needed. It’s not just that the journals don’t publish practitioner-generated work, it’s also that practitioners don’t have the time to publish – they’re too busy putting out fires (literally and metaphorically). There is often little incentive to dedicate the hundreds of hours necessary to produce this work.

If you could tell conservation decision-makers to stop or start doing something, what would it be?

One thing that comes to mind is not directed at everyone – just at funders. Conservation decision-making is too driven by the funders. They go through fashions. One year, they promote gender-based stuff, the next year climate adaptation-based stuff, or food security, and it means conservationists constantly have to re-package the work they’re doing. The conservationists know what is required, not the funders. It would be great if the funders just funded what the conservationists said they needed!

 Photo by Louise Jasper

Do you have any advice for conservationists early in their careers?

Just try and get as much experience as you can. That’s partly CV-oriented because it is very difficult to get work, but it’s much more than that – it’s about understanding socio-ecological systems. The more systems you work in, the better you will understand them and the better placed you will be to manage them. We all tend to think conservation work takes place on small tropical islands, but it takes place everywhere; everyone in the UK lives within a few miles of a protected area of some kind and probably not that far from a conservation group. Find out who is around you, get in touch with them and see what you can offer. 

Photography by Louise Jasper

Posted 29 November 2017

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