Global Conservation & My Disregarded To-Do Lists

About a year ago, I had a mini-revelation about international conservation that made me feel marginally better about my seeming inability to stick to the really excellent goals I regularly set for myself.

I was once again (as many times before) growing frustrated with my tendency to craft gorgeous to-do lists, only to flippantly disregard them. It was as if part of my brain figured that creating the list was enough of an achievement to excuse me from actually adhering to it. Rationally, I knew that making more multi-colored, structured lists would not fix this tendency. I needed to figure out the deeper reasons (anxiety? lack of confidence? laziness?) for this behavior, but that seemed like it would be time- and energy-consuming. Much better to wring my hands about it, to wonder, “Why, oh why, do I keep finding myself in this situation? Well, time to make another list!”

And then, I read up on the next round of major international conservation goals being developed for 2030, and I felt comforted somehow: I am not the only one who sets overly ambitious goals without well thought-out plans for realistically achieving them.

With the flurry of planning for the next U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Conference, there’s been a big push for an initiative called “30×30.” For those unfamiliar with this, it is basically a commitment to protect at least 30% of the planet — ocean and land — by 2030.

We’re totally gonna do it.

It’s going to be great!

It’s totally not going to be like our goals for 2020… heh. No, this time, we really mean it!

Wait, what’s that about goals for 2020?

Well, see, there were a set of 20 goals, called the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, set through the CBD to be achieved by 2020 (yes, someone somewhere seems very taken with the idea of matching numbers and year names… 20, 20, 30, 30). And here is one of the many similar headlines on how those goals were achieved: A decade ago, the world agreed to 20 biodiversity targets. It did not meet any of them (Rick Noack in Washington Post, Sept 2020). This is based on the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report, which concluded that, “None of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be fully met [by the end of 2020], in turn threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining efforts to address climate change.”


In fairness, there has been progress made toward several of these goals — and the one I’ll focus on here is the target for area-based conservation, by which areas of land, inland waters, coastal areas, and ocean are designated as conservation zones which we’d primarily think of as Protected Areas (more on this shortly). This is Aichi Target 11: “By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.”

Sounds good. But, upon closer examination, there are some qualifying statements in there that require some more soul-searching: what do “effectively” and “equitably” mean, in measurable terms? How do we measure whether a set of protected areas are “well-connected”? What is meant by “other effective area-based conservation measures” (elegantly known as OECMs)?

This latter point spurred the formation of the IUCN WCPA Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures Specialist Group, which has worked effectively to define what OECMs are and to promote the inclusion of these areas — which, while not formal Protected Areas, still are managed in a way that offers positive conservation outcomes — in reporting on global conservation progress, which should promote greater support for these areas in national and international policies (and, one hopes, less domination by the conventional Protected Area model by which local and indigenous communities have often been excluded and even harmed in the process of blocking off conservation areas — just because you’re claiming land for a “good cause” doesn’t mean you’re not stealing it…).

And it’s a good thing they did this, because these OECMs turn out to contribute substantially to progress on Aichi Target 11. With OCEMs and Protected Areas together, it is now estimated that 16.64% of terrestrial and inland water area are covered by area-based conservation efforts (Protected Planet 2020). For the ocean, around 7.5 to 7.74% is included in conservation areas (World Database on Protected Areas, Protected Planet 2020).

At this point, you might be thinking: okay, that sounds pretty close to the targets of 17% and 10%. Maybe you’re actually being a grumpy lady in this moment, Tara. But we need to remember that those targets are not for areas that are merely designated as conservation areas, but for areas that are effectively and equitably managed. And this is where my concerns lie.

We know very little about the effectiveness of these conservation areas. Very, very little. I first started learning about this maybe 7 years ago when contributing information to the Marine Conservation Institute’s Marine Protection Atlas (MPAtlas) on Marine Protected Areas for which I had on-the-ground experience. These areas had depressingly low levels of protection, blocked by corruption and lack of funding — often following ambitious international projects that did not make plans for how local institutions could feasibly continue to fund conservation activities after the project timeline was completed.

For example, the main site for my dissertation research was Malampaya Sound Protected Landscape and Seascape in the Philippines. My field station there was a relic from an EU-funded project that had ended a handful of years prior, a formerly stately building now falling apart in which I felt a bit like a squatter; the solar panels and electrical system were shot, and we were only able to charge our equipment by renting power from the fish processor next door who had a generator and stringing a series of dangling extension cords between the two buildings. There had been a system for running water, but it, too, was no longer functional, and we instead had two large water barrels that we filled bucket by bucket from the community spigot. This was supposed to have been the main ranger station, but the few rangers who actually patrolled the area did not use it. Around the building and elsewhere in the village, there were faded, broken signs advertising this wonderful project, now a phantom. The rangers I met were dedicated and bright, but operating on extremely limited funds, such that it was rare that they could actually patrol — and when they did manage to apprehend illegal loggers or fishers, it often was not worth the cost they’d have to go through to go into town to file a report because these illegal harvesters were generally friends of municipal authorities (not to mention the serious risk to their own personal safety in cases of retaliation). Illegal fishing was rampant, fish stocks were declining, and the number of fishers was increasing, while a critically endangered subpopulation of Irrawaddy dolphins continued to decrease due to accidental capture in fishing gears.

And yet Malampaya Sound and other similar sites I’ve visited are listed as Protected Areas in global databases, included in that ~7% figure for ocean conservation areas. I knew that there was no monitoring of the effectiveness of these and most other areas — there was barely funding for basic management activities, let alone for evaluation of the actual level of protection. The Protected Planet 2020 report estimates that only about 18% of Protected Areas have been assessed for effectiveness (and I did not look to see whether there was any more detailed mention of when these assessments took place, which is an important consideration). The IUCN Green List is a program to certify whether protected and conserved areas are managed effectively, but it as yet is only being applied to a very small number of sites. And Marine Conservation Institute states that less than 3% of the ocean is effectively protected (I did not look into how they arrived at this number).

Monitoring of equity in conserved areas is even farther behind. From research on specific case studies, we know that there have been substantial disruptions to local communities at many conservation areas, in some (many?) cases amounting to human rights violations. The International Institute for Environment and Development has an ongoing Social Assessment of Protected Areas (SAPA) program, but this approach has not as yet been widely applied. I first learned about SAPA in 2014, and though they have worked hard and made progress over the past 7 years, it’s certainly not being taken up at a rate that makes me feel confident that things will be much different by 2030.

From my own experience, this kind of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is often — generally — disregarded in conservation plans. It’s rare to have funding that allows for the time and effort needed to monitor effectiveness and equity, especially over sustained periods of time. In my work as an M&E consultant, I’ve run against constraints by small budgets for field teams for M&E activities, as well as rigid monitoring indicators and targets that often don’t match with meaningful change — I much prefer when I am able to direct research projects where we collect in-depth information on the links between conservation actions and social-ecological outcomes in a way that standard M&E programs do not.

I’ve gotten the sense that some folks in conservation even regard routine M&E as a nuisance — a sort of bland, bureaucratic step that lacks the zest of ambitious planning and excitement of initial implementation. Many projects receiving funding from major international projects do indeed have to have a monitoring and evaluation component, but these are usually constrained to measuring achievements by the project rather than sustained impacts to the project site, which is a subtle but critically important distinction. It’s similar to the comparison between “this is what we did” and “this is the change that our actions made.” Even for projects that claim lofty principles of equity or effectiveness in their project descriptions, and even for funding sources that require that projects adhere to lofty international goals of equity and well-being, the M&E plans rarely includes measures to collect information that would actually confirm whether these goals are meaningfully addressed in project activities. For example, gender equity is a common “guiding principle” often tucked into project descriptions, but generally this is monitored by reporting what percentage of conservation activity participants were women. That tells us very, very little about equity. Just because women are present doesn’t mean they are benefitting or being heard.

I think a large part of this, again, is because very little is invested into M&E. It is treated like a routine chore that is often reduced to ticking off checkboxes that aren’t necessarily grounded in real impacts. But, in reality, meaningful M&E can be as intensive as the biodiversity research that often gets most of the focus in conservation. It takes time. It takes resources. It takes careful design, data collection, and analysis. And it’s rare for funders to require the level of M&E that would lead to true accountability of conservation outcomes. Similarly, under the CBD’s 2020 targets, there was little accountability built into the system of reporting by countries; “The biodiversity convention’s member states have to publish biodiversity action plans — but these are often statements of a country’s ambitions, rather than records of its achievements” (Nature 2020).

This focus on ambitions versus achievements resonates a bit with me and my to-do lists, now that I’m in a relatively flexible professional setting as a freelance consultant. There’s accountability in bursts here and there in terms of the outputs I need to provide to clients, but many work items or goals (professional or personal) that are not tied to a specific project with externally imposed deadlines have tended to just drift lackadaisically past me, and I just sort of half-heartedly wave at them and wish them a happy journey to wherever they’re headed for now. It’s okay, after all — I’ll see them again on the next to-do list. I’m very comfortable viewing them as ambitions, but somehow not accountable enough to myself to turn them into achievements.

Such is the risk of focusing on the outward appearance of the goal itself — the 30% or the manuscript I’ll finally submit or the level of fluency with a language I’m studying — especially if failing to achieve that goal by a stated deadline carries no prompt, substantial accountability mechanism. Yes, as 30×30 proponents warn forebodingly, if we fail to protect 30% of the planet, we risk serious losses to biodiversity and ecosystem services. That’s an awfully big and abstract concept, and as such not easy to translate into serious motivation for individual countries to achieve that goal in a meaningful way (not just designating conserved areas, but actually conserving them in an ethical manner) (and then there’s the issue of who is in positions of power to designate and recognize conserved areas, and who is most at risk from environmental change, and how these are often not the same people, i.e. the feedback loop of risk-to-action is fairly weak).

I am also concerned that setting such large, splashy goals — focusing on the number 30 (or whatever the number of choice is) — tends to obscure the complex social-ecological context that underlie the numbers. The rush to achieve these numbers on paper has, in the past, drowned out meaningful conversations about what is actually meant by these numbers and how, really, they are going to be achieved. We can consider these the “why” and “how” of the goals. The “why” might seem obvious (to save nature!), but actually, it needs to be more specific and it needs to be regularly revisited to assess if the actions of achieving the goal are still rooted in fulfilling the drivers of that goal. So, if part of the “why” is that we want to maintain important ecosystem services to support human well-being, it’s not enough to just track the percentage of areas we’re calling “conserved,” because that does not actually tell us if those ecosystem services are truly being protected in a way that truly helps people.

And the “how” similarly requires greater specificity. Yes, there are established pathways by which countries develop action plans in accordance with international agreements, but beyond that, there’s a big gap in how those plans are implemented and usefully reported on. So, I’m seeing a lot of, “We’re going to push for this big goal!” and not very much of, “here’s how we’re going to ensure that this goal is meaningfully — and ethically — achieved.” The mechanisms for evaluation should be a goal alongside these numbers; not only “oh, X% will be managed well!” but also “ecological and social monitoring of conserved area impacts will be integrated into operations of Y% of sites.”

We need to take accountability more seriously (we need accountability accountability). I hope that the trend toward more diverse voices being included in major conservation conversations will promote greater accountability of conservation impacts to communities. I hope that M&E is increasingly seen as a central component of conservation rather than an onerous requirement to be filled, and I hope that the structure of conservation funding will better allow for the implementation of meaningful M&E activities.

My view of the 30×30 initiative is shaped by more than the topics discussed here, and I’m not absolutely opposed to it. There are many brilliant people working on the international conservation stage, and more and more recognition is being paid to OECMs and to the voices of indigenous groups (…much more is still needed). Lessons from the failure to achieve 2020’s targets are also being incorporated, e.g. in the formulation of (hopefully) more measurable goals. If we can truly achieve 30% protection by 2030 in a way that is effective and equitable, I would be thrilled. Grumpy tone aside, I would absolutely, genuinely love to celebrate a world where we are confident that at least 30% of the planet managed in a way that protects biodiversity and human well-being.

And maybe I’ll think: “You know what, if global conservation can achieve its goals, so can I!” and will emerge as the zen polyglot who has finally published her backlog of scientific manuscripts (as well as a suite of personal essays) and can hold a handstand and tune up her own bike.

Posted in Conservation Realist