A conservation conundrum: people love nature but not protected areas

Conservationists don’t agree on much, but we do agree that public support for conservation is essential. So it is alarming that many people in the communities we work with don’t seem to support what we are doing.

If people don’t value protected areas, they are not going to support them. If they are resistant or just passively uninterested, conservation is not going to succeed.

This is true in the UK where government increasingly follows public opinion. It is also true, perhaps even more so, in developing countries where governments have limited financial and political capital but where much of the world’s biodiversity exists.

Protected areas cover 12% of the earth, a great achievement of the conservation movement. Even so, many species and ecosystems are not covered. The plan of the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed a little over a year ago, is to increase protect areas to cover 17% of the land and 10% of marine and coastal areas.

Notwithstanding these ambitious targets and despite intensive efforts, it is a sad truth that there is little support for protected areas amongst communities that live around them. This does not mean these people wish to see their natural world destroyed. They often have close connections to their landscapes and nature going back generations – the wish to protect nature for future generations may be a universal value – they just don’t support their local protected areas.

How did this contradictory situation arise and what can be done about it?

Ironically, we conservationists are largely responsible. Though building local support for conservation has been at the heart of our work for decades, protected areas continue to be designed and managed to reflect values important to us but largely irrelevant to local people. We seem to believe our values are universal. If we view the world through a cultural lens, we can see they are not.

Though it was not always so, conservationists increasingly talk about nature in terms of science and economics.  These are very particular, western ways of seeing the world; powerful perhaps, but not universal. And certainly not the only way of seeing the world.

If, in our efforts to build support for protected areas, we talk about other values, we talk about values important to us.  I find a powerful beauty in nature. I am fascinated by how different plants or animals have evolved. I believe we have an ethical responsibility for our fellow travellers on this planet. These ideas are important to me, but, putting my cultural lens on again, it is easy to see they are personal perspectives and come from my background and experience.

If we want the support of local communities, we must begin to ask them what they value in nature, what connects them to the place we are trying to conserve. And then make sure these values are integrated into the meaning and management of the areas. After all, every one of those protected areas that make up that 12% of the surface of the planet, with very few exceptions, is someone’s, some families’, some communities’, some peoples’ cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, recreational, inspirational, essential, life-confirming homeland. If protected area were designed and managed in that light we could resolve the conundrum. Communities that value nature for their own reasons would join our endeavours to protect it for ours.