Sciblogs: Part 3: A wounded gatekeeper – what’s up, DoC?

Sciblogs: Part 3: A wounded gatekeeper – what’s up, DoC?

Many countries don’t have a centralised conservation agency like New Zealand has, but do these gatekeepers have the backing to stem environmental degradation and biodiversity loss?

Last week I set out the three fundamental drivers of biodiversity loss:

  • Market failure for biodiversity
  • Regulatory failure due to agency capture and the power of private interests
  • Perverse incentives that lead politicians to accumulate costs for future generations

Together, these drivers create the barriers to conservation seen throughout the economy. Unless we address those fundamental drivers and bring down the barriers, nature will continue to vanish.

How have they impacted the Department of Conservation since its creation 29 years ago?

Most obvious is the gap between the scale of Department’s conservation task and its funding. DOC is tasked with protecting (such as through pest control and other interventions) one third of our land mass, all indigenous species on land and in freshwater and all marine biodiversity. But they have to do it within a very small annual natural heritage budget of just $159 million (equivalent to less than a week of the 2014/2015 health budget of $15.1 billion).

Consequently, only about 12.5% of public conservation land is under active management and the great majority of species threatened with extinction are unmanaged. While the funding shortfall is immense, it is unclear what amount would be required to halt biodiversity loss. What is clear is that underfunding now will build a far greater cost to future generations in the form of extinction and lost ecosystem goods and services.

The Conservation Act provides DOC with a statutory advocacy role in order to help redress the power imbalance between NGOs and community groups dependent on donations and volunteers and well-resourced private development interests.  However, DOC’s role has been greatly reduced: they provide submissions on far fewer consents, those submissions are more often neutral and lack follow through (such as requesting to be heard in support of the submission). Regulatory failure is also apparent in the dilatory monitoring and enforcement of DOC concessions and other conservation legislation.

Conservation law hasn’t changed – so what has?

The key change is in the balance of power between private interests in development and public interests in nature. Generally unconcerned with mounting ecological debt, private interests often seek to expand their opportunity to profit from the consumption of nature by reducing environmental controls and the capacity of environmental agencies to go about their business – protecting the public interest in nature and the prosperity it supports.

Meanwhile, the ecological debt builds daily.

To help avoid outcome transparency, few of the bad news stories are told. Most communications coming out of DoC are cheery and triumphant, belying the true state of nature. While a positive message has some benefit in engaging communities, a skewed picture of the state of biodiversity serves few. Inadequate monitoring and reporting of biodiversity state and trend, the ecological outcomes of management interventions and partnerships, and the impact of statutory advocacy leaves success and failure to anyone’s best guess, and the real story rarely reaches the voters, thereby neutralising political risk posed by environmental degradation.

So – what’s the solution?

The Department of Conservation is key to the future of our natural heritage. Its paltry funding must be boosted immediately and raised annually until it has the capacity to halt biodiversity loss on public conservation land. The Environmental Defence Society has called for an urgent conservation dividend of $50m, and a much more sustainable and realistic funding allocation long term.

But funding alone will not be sufficient.  There must also be mandatory reporting on the state and trend of endemic biodiversity. This must include detail about what is being done to secure threatened species, habitats and ecosystems and how effective that management is in reducing vulnerability to further loss.  The Department’s conservation funding must be based on what it costs to secure a specified suite of threatened species, habitats and ecosystems (and by default, be explicit about what will not be secured).

The Department’s role in advocating conservation more generally must be restored. It needs the political mandate and resources to provide vigorous and provocative statutory advocacy to challenge current norms facilitating environmental degradation. Formal structures are needed to make it much more difficult for private and political interests to erode this role.

These three changes require new sources of funding, alignment of the interests of different stakeholders and release from agency capture. I’ll look at how we might achieve these in future blogs. A dedicated central agency to provide conservation leadership and bring together of all of us engaged in protecting our environment is crucial. It’s an institution many countries don’t have. So let’s resource it and make sure it is willing and able to do its job.

In March 2015, the Environmental Defence Society published a critical analysis of biodiversity management in New Zealand in a book titled Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Article by Dr Marie Brown, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Defence Society

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Last updated at 3:20PM on March 24, 2016