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Why understanding people is key to protecting nature

© CI/photo by Janny “Heintje” Rotinsulu. A man uses a traditional fishing spear In the waters off the Bird's Head Peninsula.

Over the past century or so, humans have altered the planet so dramatically that scientists say we may have entered a new geologic epoch — the Anthropocene. Humans are responsible for heating the climate and driving an unprecedented loss of nature. And yet human behavior is often overlooked when it comes to developing conservation solutions that tackle those very challenges.

A new book edited by Conservation International social scientist Mike Mascia aims to change that. The book, “Conservation Social Science: Understanding People, Conserving Biodiversity,” argues that the social sciences — long overshadowed by the biological sciences — are key to effective conservation.

Conservation News sat down with Mascia to discuss how conservation social sciences can strengthen efforts to protect nature. 

Conservation News: To start, what do we mean by conservation social sciences?

Mike Mascia: Conservation social science looks at the aspects of human society that are relevant to biodiversity conservation, including the relationships among humans and between humans and the environment. This field of study draws on numerous disciplines, including anthropology, economics, human geography, political science, psychology and sociology.

Why should conservation include studying human behavior? 

MM: Billions of dollars are being invested in protecting ecosystems and endangered species. But these efforts don’t always succeed, and part of the reason is that they often ignore people. When we talk about conserving ecosystems, we're really talking about changing the way people interact with the environment. Conservation, ultimately, is a social process rooted in peoples’ choices. It has consequences not only for species and ecosystems, but also for people and their livelihoods. We need to understand those consequences if we’re going to find solutions that are effective, lasting and equitable.

The social sciences are vital to understanding people and their behavior — how societies interact and influence the world. Yet the scholarship and training in the conservation field hasn’t fully recognized the connection between people and nature conservation. This book is meant to fill that gap and help bring the social sciences and conservation together.

What does closing that gap look like?

MM: I’ll give you an example. Political science can help guide conservation through its understanding of power, institutions, governance and participation. Take the creation of national parks and other protected areas. That’s a complex process involving governments, communities, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders — many of which have different perspectives and competing priorities. By using a political science lens, conservationists can navigate key questions that surround establishing a protected area. Those include: Who has the power to make the rules and whose voices are underrepresented? How might power imbalances influence those rules, such as whether fishing and hunting are legal? How can we ensure that the processes for establishing rules within a protected area are seen as fair and legitimate by those who are most affected? The answers to these questions have profound implications for both nature and people.

In the Bird’s Head region of West Papua in Indonesia, local residents, government officials and experts from organizations like Conservation International grappled with similar questions when creating a network of protected areas in the early 2000s. This is among the world’s most ambitious community-based conservation programs. Over the past two decades, it has protected coral reefs by stopping unregulated commercial fishing and damaging practices, like using dynamite to kill schools of fish. In turn, the protections have supported local communities that rely on the reefs for food and income. 

Our social science research in Bird’s Head showed us that local governance is critical to conservation success. Local participation in the design and management of protected areas meant that rules and enforcement strategies were tailored to fit the local context. Together with national support for local management, local participation led to better conservation outcomes, like the increase of fish populations and the return of sharks, whales and manta rays. On the other hand, aggressive enforcement strategies, such as ratcheting up penalties, led to less effective protected areas. 

How can the social sciences help apply successes like this to future conservation projects? 

MM: We want conservation to be effective, equitable and durable. Understanding how conservation efforts affect both people and nature is a critical part of achieving those objectives. Yet, up to this point, there’s been relatively little research on the impacts of conservation. 

Impact evaluation, a longstanding approach in the social sciences, is helping us to close this evidence gap. You might think of an impact evaluation like a clinical trial, which can help medical doctors understand the side effects of a new drug. In conservation, applying this thinking can help us understand how the design and management of a project affects not only species and ecosystems, but also the lives and livelihoods of local people who depend on them. 

The fate of the planet rests in our hands. As we think about where and how to invest resources in conservation, using evidence-based approaches that draw on both the ecological and social sciences can help us target more effective actions — and quickly. 

Mary Kate McCoy is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.