Thought piece: bridging aspirations and biodiversity conservation

© Anthony B. Rath / WWF

An independent thought piece brought to you by Dr Santiago Izquierdo-Tort, a Consultant at Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos and a Senior Researcher at ITAM Centre for Energy and Natural Resources.

“I started working since I was young. My father gave me a small parcel. We like a lot when we knock down a forest. We knock down a forest area, bring in chainsaws and burn, and we get really nice maize…The goal of a farmer is to desolate everything and see what one can put there. This is the goal of many ejidatarios…The people who came here, like my father, used to work for rich people. They had no land”

Manuel Martinez

Meet Manuel Martinez, an ejidatario (landholder) from Flor del Marqués, a community in Selva Lacandona, one of the last remaining tropical forest areas in Mexico. Manuel is one of almost twelve thousand people who live in the municipality Marqués de Comillas (MdC), a region that was only permanently settled in the 1970s as the result of government-led agricultural frontier policies aimed to bring ‘idle’ forestlands into production and to solve peasant land demands. Like many other ejidatarios in MdC, Manuel is both a crop farmer and a rancher. In less than 50 years, more than half of the forests in MdC have been converted to crop fields and pastures.

This is a common scenario in the tropics: forest-dwellers at the resource base who aspire to become peasants and ranchers; and people who ‘see’ forests as potential crop fields and pastures, where forests represent a source of livelihood to extract timber, hunt, fish, and engage in other legal and illegal activities. Evidently, these aspirations sharply contrast with those of conservation communities concerned with safekeeping wildlife: communities who see forests as the refugee of thousands of animal and plant species, and for whom forests provide valuable ecosystem services that benefit many people locally and abroad.

Decades’ worth of efforts with different ‘carrots and sticks’ for biodiversity conservation have made their way into the world’s tropics, with crucial effects in some contexts. Such interventions have ranged from ‘command and control’ instruments that restrict human activity on nature to projects that promote sustainable resource use or seek to displace productive activities away from ecosystems, as well as market-based instruments that provide direct incentives for biodiversity protection, such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) programmes. Indeed, the last well-conserved forest patches in southeast Selva Lacandona have been maintained by a combination of instruments – protected areas, PES programmes, community-based ecotourism projects – and the uninterrupted presence of committed NGOs such as Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos, and have helped secure viable populations of endangered species such as jaguar, white-lipped peccary, and scarlet macaw.

Despite some progress, we seem to barely scratch the surface when it comes to understanding and addressing the long-term, fundamental processes at the core of biodiversity loss. There remains a strong need to go beyond how people respond to short-term nudges, both positive (incentives) and negative (coercion), and rather move towards the broader set of motivations – philosophical, cultural, ethical – that together drive actions that affect biodiversity. If narrow, short-term decisions influence biodiversity but result from more fundamental issues that people hope and dream of achieving, what if we directly examine how such behavioural foundations are formed and evolve?

What if we recast biodiversity research and practice in terms of aspirations?

A lens on aspirations would involve asking different types of questions. What if instead of focusing on the questions of how –how people respond to incentives or how behaviour is influenced by ‘opportunity costs’ and ‘intrinsic’ motivations for conservation –we focus on the key questions to do with why? For instance, why does Manuel like to knock down forests? Why do people in the tropics aspire to be cowboys? Why do people overharvest timber, overhunt, overfish, and engage in illegal trafficking?

A lens on aspirations would require searching for answers in yet unchartered domains of human life. If biodiversity-damaging decisions are fundamentally influenced by people’s hopes and dreams, then the first place to search for clues is in people’s culture and history. Does religion play a role in the activities that cause biodiversity loss, or the things people watch on television and the internet, or music themes and lyrics, or achieving status among peers, or childhood memories like Manuel’s?

Clearly, the notion of linking aspirations with biodiversity raises more questions than answers. As the field of biodiversity conservation seems to be running out of ideas to protect its very being, and the world’s biological diversity is certainly running out of time, hopefully thinking about people’s aspirations – from local to global – may trigger much-needed discussions on the conflicts that result from different worldviews regarding biodiversity, and offer new places from where to find inspiration in our quest to design and implement more effective and resilient interventions.

Dr Santiago Izquierdo-Tort is a Consultant at Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos and a Senior Researcher at ITAM Centre for Energy and Natural Resources.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.