Is capacity building the key to a brighter future?

The Andean sun, still rising, shone down on the cobbled streets. Contented dogs sprawled over the warm stones, paying no notice to the occasional over-laden car which carefully edged around them. Streets lined with white stone cottages opened to reveal shady peaceful plazas. And 180 delegates, many bleary-eyed from having travelled halfway around the world and clutching snazzy green conference bags, clattered through the streets and delicately negotiated the cobbles, the dogs and the lure of the craft shops to pour into the Humboldt Institute in Villa de Leyva, Colombia.

Relaxing in the shade. Credit: Chloe Hodgkinson/FFI.

Relaxing in the shade. Credit: Chloe Hodgkinson/FFI.

Found high in the Andes, the laid-back air of the village belied the event it was hosting. For the first time, an international exchange focusing on capacity building for conservation was being held. This ground-breaking event, stretching from 12-15 February 2013, was bringing together academics, practitioners, trainers and students to exchange opportunities and best practice in conservation capacity building. I was thrilled to be attending, along with three of my colleagues from Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

In the magnificent vaulted stone hall, which was patched with faded frescos, conservation capacity building techniques and approaches were shared, created, examined and discussed during four extended days of presentations, workshops, discussions and debates.

A beautiful place to learn. Credit: Chloe Hodgkinson/FFI.

A beautiful place to learn. Credit: Chloe Hodgkinson/FFI.

It would be impossible here to cover everything that was discussed, learnt, exchanged and explored during the event, but I wanted to share a few of the important lessons I took home with me.

Capacity building is a process, not an event

When we hear the words ‘capacity building’, we all tend to think of activities such as a short course to build technical skills, or workshops to improve understanding of a particular issue. Such activities can be vital to making a significant conservation impact. However, short term, one-off events are rarely enough to produce significant conservation impact. Building capacity is a long-term process which should not be undervalued and cannot be rushed.

Combat funding issues with better measurement

We can create laws, protected areas and management plans, but without the human capacity to ensure effective implementation, such efforts may be largely wasted. As such, it can be argued that capacity building underpins successful conservation activities that bring about real change.

It therefore surprises many to discover the scarcity of funding available for such work, with funders struggling to process the long-term nature of such work and the often convoluted links to conservation outcomes.

But the onus is also on conservation practitioners to develop stronger measures of success (or indicators) to help illustrate the links between capacity building activities and conservation impact or change. One of the key messages to come out of the conference was the need to consider indicators at broader scales.

Traditional measures of conservation success have focused on short-term immediate impacts on the individual, as illustrated by the classic post-course questionnaire exploring what somebody has remembered.

We need to start thinking more seriously about the change, or the difference this training has made for conservation. How has this changed someone’s behaviour? How has it changed the organisational impact? Or, wider still, how do we measure national conservation capacity? Is the change to be measured over one week? One year? 10 years?

The power of networks

Networks should be more than an afterthought or add-on. They can be a highly cost-effective way of sharing lessons, scaling up ideas and developing new shared initiatives, yielding significant results for conservation. Impact can be dramatically improved by focusing on ensuring clear strategic purpose, the active recruitment of motivated individuals and well-designed activities, fostering collaboration and strong conservation leadership and skills

Colombia’s biodiversity

That such a conference was being held in Colombia was no coincidence. With its high mountains, deep valleys and extensive coastline, Colombia possesses an astonishing variety of ecosystems and houses an estimated 14% of the planet’s biodiversity. Having worked primarily in Africa, I was particularly excited about encountering some of this amazing ‘new world’ biodiversity.

Hummingbirds, sloths, and giant eagles whirled before my eyes…unfortunately this was all in my guidebook (although I did see the occasional pigeon).

Biodiversity. Credit: Chloe Hodgkinson/FFI.

Not exactly a wild encounter. Credit: Chloe Hodgkinson/FFI.

Hips don’t lie

I dream of going into a Latino club and wowing people with my hard-earned salsa skills. And on the last night of the conference, that’s exactly what…I didn’t do. I just can’t move my hips like that.

Blame it on the altitude

When visiting the nearby national park – one of a network of protected areas that covers around 10% of Colombia’s territory, it is ok to be out of breath when tackling an incline. It’s the altitude you see.