Sciblogs: Part 7: Community conservation won’t save biodiversity

Sciblogs: Part 7: Community conservation won’t save biodiversity

Community conservation is a real jewel in the crown of New Zealand’s conservation effort. Many thousands of kiwis fight for kiwis every weekend: trapping, weeding, building tracks, running tours and building community links to nature. Community groups, iwi organisations, private sector inputs, the philanthropic sector and landowners toil admirably.

But this won’t save biodiversity.

Community conservation should not substitute adequate resources for our publicly funded conservation agencies. Its role should be complementary. The efforts of volunteers should be additive to both the national-scale efforts of DOC and the regional-scale efforts of councils publicly funded for the benefit of us all. 

The Department of Conservation enthusiastically touts the achievements of community groups, with little regard to their capability and the missed outcomes for high priority biodiversity conservation – missed because resources are diverted to support community ‘partnerships’.

DOC is politically weak and so has little choice in this matter. It is bound to attest the adequacy of its funding and the pretence that the state of nature is truly reflected by the good news stories pumped out daily by media liaison staff.

But surely genuine success is much more engaging? And we can absolutely have that.

Community groups are uniquely connected to place. This means that community aspirations often won’t align well with national or regional conservation priorities. The conservation achieved may well not be the best use of public resources from a national scale or even a regional scale perspective.

Community conservation is unlikely to be able to work at the scale required for backcountry pest control, to undertake the highly technical captive breeding techniques for our most beleaguered species, to do the necessary technical design of management interventions, to coordinate crucial scientific research or to carry out hard, mundane tasks that only the keenest of vollies can be relied on to do. Community groups are unlikely to be able to sustain the workforce needed for long-term projects, or for tasks requiring long periods of time in remote areas.

We must urgently either review and calibrate our expectations of community groups, or make the changes that will enable community conservation to be central to the conservation of our indigenous biodiversity.

To maintain the status quo, we need a well-resourced Department of Conservation that helps rather than delegates to volunteers while implementing nationally important programmes that are sufficiently comprehensive and robust that the state of biodiversity doesn’t turn on community conservation outcomes.

If that isn’t going to happen, then let’s break out of this debilitating stalemate and instead give community groups the resources and tools they need to fulfil the role that DOC should perform (if it were adequately resourced and its efforts systematically planned and directed at conserving the most vulnerable of our biodiversity).

If New Zealand is to move toward a model of multi-agency conservation, in which it might be reasonable to expect community groups to deliver a significant share of the conservation gains, then instead of ad hoc delegation, let’s systematise a new division of labour. The ultimate partnership. In which communities deliver on conservation in accordance with their capacity, matched robustly by the larger scale and more technical outcomes from a properly funded DOC.

This middle ground entails a robust and well-resourced Department of Conservation focused on delivering core national conservation priorities and doing so in accordance with a publicly available and auditable work plan.

Community conservation (including the efforts of landowners, the private sector and philanthropists) should be given the space and support to be the vibrant complement to the delivery of these priority national conservation outcomes. Funding would be distributed in accordance with conservation need.

An independent institution that recognised the needs of community conservation and provided significant administrative and coordination support would be a valuable addition. Such an institution could collect information on the aggregated efforts of conservation groups (information usually absent) and ensure it is recognised and integrated within conservation planning. Such an entity could support environmental education, citizen science initiatives and provide independent support and advice to landowners, community groups, iwi organisations and basically anyone doing conservation without a statutory mandate to do so.

Where community activity and conservation priority intersects, then financial and technical support from DOC can be increased in accordance with the conservation value of that partnership.

The success of this new ‘division of labour’ requires outcome monitoring. We would need to establish metrics for success to ensure this new model was delivering on aspirations and be savvy enough to review it in the event of continual under-performance. For example, the voluntary sector may be bound to achieve certain outcomes regarding improved resilience of threatened species on private land and in the front-country and success for DOC would occur when those statistics are improving for widespread backcountry species and those located in remote places.

Picking a course here is essential to ensure that the meagre resources for conservation (compared to those available for damage) are marshalled to best effect, and make the greatest difference for our natural heritage.

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.

Featured image: Flickr CC, a robin at Zealandia in Wellington, Keri-Lee Beasley.

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

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Last updated at 5:36PM on April 20, 2016