Conservation legacy and the bits we leave behind

When was the last time you visited your ‘site’ or ‘study area’? Who did you talk to and who helped you? A recent blog by Pat Thompson, directed primarily at research students, but equally valid for conservation practitioners, discussed how we should view the areas where we conduct research. We should aim to view them as a series of fluid and changing relationships and not so much as the dehumanised abstract objects of ‘sites’ and ‘samples’.

Credit: Paul Barnes
Credit: Paul Barnes

This became strikingly clear during a recent fieldwork trip. It got me thinking about what conservationists leave behind. Skills? Equipment? Capacity? Empowered communities? All effective grant winning buzzwords that want ‘conservation legacy’, but should we be thinking about what else we leave behind? Rules and regulations? Exclusion? Maybe expectations of on-going reciprocal relationships that we cant commit to? Maybe altered social structures? Perhaps even broken promises?

With the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity contained in some of the poorest regions, we as conservationists are sometimes required to work in collaboration with isolated, poverty stricken and marginalised communities who are most dependent on the resources that we are trying to conserve.

Credit: Paul Barnes
Credit: Paul Barnes

Many conservation researchers and practitioners are used to travelling huge distances around the globe and regularly meeting people in remote areas. Yet to the people we meet, outside visitors may be rare and memorable experiences, possibly even talked about through generations. What we say and do will be remembered long after our funding has run out.

During recent fieldwork I was having a conversation with two people about my proposed research to get their feedback and hopefully permission and endorsement to work with them in their village. Towards the end of a very long and stimulating conversation I was asked about some past visitors that had come to the village. Specifically, they wanted to know about some westerners representing the World Bank; would they return soon to do the work they had discussed with the village? The work the village was waiting for was the decommissioning and compensation for structures and damage left behind from the American Pacific campaign of World War II. Most surprising was that the visit from the westerners had taken place in 1986. Ever hopeful, the people are still waiting for action or news about what was discussed related to this previous social engagement.

Credit: Stephanie Brittain
Credit: Stephanie Brittain

With the patchy short-term conservation funding and research agendas of western science I imagine the scope for such occurrences are huge. Whether it is a fleeting three month visit for an MSc project, a three year PhD project or five year grant funded conservation intervention; it is essential that we are aware of the bits we leave behind, our conservation legacy.

Agreements, expectation and relationships are often viewed differently by different cultures. It is our responsibility to understand these differences, so that what we leave behind is positive and self-sustaining or at the very least clear and understood by the people who we have been working alongside. This understanding is vital, primarily for the people who have welcomed us to their home, but also so that future outsiders who want to research and help conserve biodiversity are also warmly welcomed.

Some solutions…

With conservationists engaging more and more with local people in their work it is essential that ethical considerations be taken seriously. Guidelines have been published by the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) and the Social Research Association (SRA). These documents provide excellent information to consider when carrying out any type research with people.

Credit: Paul Barnes
Credit: Paul Barnes