Ethics over leather wallets – mobilizing rural communities to support conservation

In my last post “Nature conservation – why, actually?”, I wrote that prof Dave Goulson, a British biologist and conservationist who specialises in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees, said that he was getting fed up with having to make an economic argument to justify conservation.

Prof Goulson’s statement reminded me of an interesting article I came across some time ago: “Why must we protect crocodiles? Explaining the value of the Philippine crocodile to rural communities.”, published in the Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences.

In a nutshell, the authors argue that by relying mainly on utilitarian logic and focusing narrowly on economic incentives to convince rural communities to protect crocodiles in the wild, conservationists risk their credibility and can ultimately alienate local people from nature conservation. The economic arguments are often oversimplified, based on inaccuracies and flawed assumptions, or irrelevant from a local perspective. Intrinsic and cultural values such as pride, love and curiosity offer in fact a more realistic and honest foundation to preserve the species.

Here is a summary of the study.

In 2008, a group of scientists organized a community consultation in a small village in the northern Sierra Madre mountain range in the Philippines, on whether to declare a small stream that runs through the village as a protected area. The stream harbours the largest reproducing Philippine crocodile population remaining in the wild. They explained to the villagers that the endangered species are protected by law and solicited people’s support for them. But then a farmer stepped forward and asked a simple, straightforward question: ‘‘why?’’ The scientists admit that they did not have a good answer.

“Perhaps surprisingly, conservationists are ill-equipped to address this fundamental question. Too often arguments to conserve wildlife lack a scientific basis, or are irrelevant from a local perspective.”

So, why?

In theory, there are several reasons to conserve nature. Environmental philosophers differentiate between instrumental and intrinsic values.

Instrumental values emphasize the importance of biodiversity to human societies (economic benefits or cultural importance of nature, which includes aesthetic, recreational, spiritual, scientific and psychological values. Intrinsic values in contrast emphasize the value of species as ends-in-themselves regardless of whether they are also useful to mankind).

In practice, conservationists, scientists and policy makers in the Philippines mainly rely on economic values – such as setting up a crocodile leather industry or benefitting from ecotourism – to justify in situ wildlife conservation. The trouble is that the first argument doesn’t work when it comes to critically endangered species such as the Philippine crocodile – with less than 100 mature individuals surviving in the wild, the harvest of crocodile skins is not a viable conservation strategy. It is also unlikely that crocodile tourism can generate substantial benefits for communities in the northern Sierra Madre because poor accessibility, equity issues and a civil insurgency form major constraints for the development of ecotourism infrastructure in this remote rural area.

Managing expectations

The authors also point out that things become problematic when developmental aid is presented or perceived as a reason to conserve wildlife. Local people in the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Papua New Guinea, for example, understood that they would get healthcare, education and consumer goods in return for their cooperation in protected area management. Such expectations inevitably lead to disappointments for both parties, as the promised or expected economic benefits often do not materialize and unsustainable resource use continues.

No one is saying that using the economic arguments don’t provide important incentive to protect the species in the wild. There are examples in the article showing that in “several countries, crocodile ranching has become an important income-generating activity and provides an incentive to conserve crocodiles and wetland habitat.” Rural communities in Papua New Guinea, for example, earn money through the sale of juvenile crocodiles to commercial crocodile farms and therefore actively protect crocodile nests. In northern Australia, saltwater crocodiles bring in much needed ‘tourist-dollars’ while the community-based whale shark tourism enterprise in Sorsogon Province in the Philippines has succeeded in improving people’s incomes and minimizing illegal fishing.

But quite often conservationists, scientists and policy makers rely solely on economic values to explain, and get the locals’ support, for conservation. It is dangerous because, by promising tangible benefits to rural communities, conservationists often create unrealistic expectations. Framing conservation as an economic issue poses a risk of obscuring other valid motivations to conserve species in the wild.

 The power of culture

Cultural values can play an important role in making global conservation priorities such as the Philippine crocodile locally relevant. The role of pride, joy and interest in building a local constituency for conservation has, however, been largely ignored by conservationists and policy makers. Cultural and intrinsic values can form a strong motivation for poor people in non-western societies to conserve biodiversity. In the northern Sierra Madre on Luzon, respect for nature, interest in wildlife ecology and pride in the occurrence and conservation of a rare and iconic species proved to be effective.

In 2007, the authors of the article interviewed 549 people in the northern Sierra Madre area on Philippine crocodile conservation, and asked if they agreed or disagreed with the proposition: ‘‘crocodiles have the right to live.’’ 93% of the respondents agreed with the statement. Most people, irrespective of their income, descent, education or livelihood strategy, somehow endorsed the notion that crocodiles have an intrinsic right to exist.

This universal tendency to affiliate with nature provides a starting point to mobilize broad public support for conservation. Education can nurture this inherent ‘‘love for nature’’ and transform it into active support for environmental protection, also in the developing world.

Hearts over leather wallets

To build an inclusive constituency for the conservation of the Philippine crocodile, it is essential to communicate a clear and, perhaps even more important, sincere conservation ethic. Focusing only on economic arguments neglect cultural and intrinsic values that form a legitimate reason to conserve wildlife and inspire changes in people’s behaviour. Conservationists must be guided by what works best in a specific context.

Love, respect, pride and curiosity are in fact the best (and probably only) arguments to mobilize local support for Philippine crocodile conservation. As the article concludes: “by appealing to people’s hearts, rather than to their crocodile leather wallets, conservationists can motivate people to conserve the Philippine crocodile in the wild.”




About martas2912

Sustainable tourism specialist with communications, marketing and stakeholder engagement background, specialising in sustainable destination management and Protected Areas (PA) tourism. Advised and provided training on responsible tourism development for several international organizations in the Caucasus, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. Speaker and trainer. Mentor and an Associate Staff member at Leeds Beckett University for the MSc in Responsible Tourism Management course, focussing all academic research on mountain and PA tourism in the Caucasus
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