joi, 28 iulie 2011

Sustainability or societal relevance?

By Tibor Hartel

This post was initially published here: and is a response to the previous post on the research implementation gap.
A number of conservation scientists have identified a ‘gap’ between conservation research and implementation: while the scientific conservation knowledge is quickly accumulating, biological diversity seems to go down; previously heterogeneous and aesthetically pleasant landscapes become homogenous, infinitely boring and dead – thanks to Homo sapiens.
At the scale of Europe, this phenomenon is sharply extending from the ‘west’ (i.e. generally more impacted systems) to the ‘east’ (generally less impacted, more ‘ecologically intact’ systems). In a slightly exaggerated way: if an extra-terrestrial organism were to start researching the behaviour, demographics and economy of Homo sapiens s/he would possibly wouldn’t even realize that conservation science exists at all in Europe. If an extra-terrestrial ethnographer or anthropologist were to join the research team, she/he would probably realize after a while that Homo sapiensproduces cinemas, kindergartens, discotheque and indeed universities as well… and somewhere they do something they call “conservation science”.

If these extra-terrestrial had to somehow rank the importance of various cultural products made by humans, the importance of conservation science would be somewhere in line (or more probably below) the arts, football and other sports.
Indeed, we should admit that something is not working in the line of conservation science and its application in the real world. Scientists suggested a number of recommendations to research institutions and individual researchers to ‘control’ and solve this apparent conflict situation.
Below I will pick up one such recommendation from Knight et al. (2008) and will try to build some questions around this.
‘Bridging the research-implementation gap requires that we as a scientific community acknowledge and agree we generally are not conducting research of societal relevance and move beyond simply noting the existence of the research-implementation gap to implementing tangible changes to correct it.’
Further they point out that:
‘Researchers should therefore formulate problems collaboratively with stakeholders so as to comprehensively understand implementation opportunities and constraints and design useful, user friendly assessments’.
Both recommendations roughly converge toward the need for participatory exercises to identify common problems: to be of ‘societal relevance’ one needs to collaborate with stakeholders. It is good practice and equitable to involve a variety of different stakeholders to account for different realities.
Here I would like to point out a potentially dangerous trap. Namely, if these participatory meetings and workshops are not conducted and framed under the normative goal of sustainable development, they may fail and push the results of such workshops towards unsustainable outcomes.
One of the principles of participatory approaches is to account for different realities and ‘putting the first last’. And the question comes: ‘whose reality counts’? (see Robert Chambers exciting book about this, e.g. here for a preview)
If we ‘put’ sustainability as a normative goal for such exercises which eventually will be translated into policies and decisions – then we potentially undermine a basic principle of participation. Since sustainability is not part of the reality of everybody (various groups of stakeholders), or even if it is, not in equal importance, pushing it to a single normative goal might be dictatorial and not desirable. In a previous entry, I discussed the importance of perception about life in decision making and establishing trajectory of societies. To put it simply: if you are hungry, this means you will have different perception about life, will have different priorities (e.g. to feed your children…) and attitude toward sustainability – and you will therefore favour different types of policy and decisions.
And this is where the ‘research of societal relevance’ and ‘collaboration with stakeholders’ represents a potentially dangerous trap that needs to be managed.
How to tackle this problem?
Should we push sustainability as normative goal and then violate some basic assumption of participation and decision (e.g. ‘democracy’ or equity)?
Or in our desire to be solution-oriented and of societal relevance, should we go in the hand of ‘stakeholders’ and skew our research? (e.g. if I as conservation scientist show that fish negatively affect amphibians but actually the result is not of societal relevance – as it is in Romania for example – should I stop such kind of research?)

vineri, 15 iulie 2011

Poverty or biodiversity loss: an inevitable choice?

By Tibor Hartel

initially published here:

Here’s a 'conservation dilemma’ – (dilemma) a problem offering at least two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable (Source: Wikipedia). Working a relatively poor part of Europe (Central Romania), we are confronted with this dilemma on a daily basis.

One possibility to protect biodiversity, widely used in Europe and around the world, is the delineation of protected areas to preserve rare or endemic species, or a certain type of  cultural-natural heritage. To achieve conservation goals the area delineated should be managed in a specific way, that is, according to a management plan. If people live there, then a number of (usually financial) incentives can be used to ‘motivate’ agriculture and development which under the best available knowledge is ‘environmentally friendly’. Put simply: there are certain delineated areas where certain species or ecological functions are worth protecting, and there are areas where all these are already lost. It’s only in the latter that development can occur in a relatively unrestricted way.

Financial incentives to people living within protected areas (e.g. in the EU, Natura 2000 sites) have the aim to compensate people so they can afford the same things as people living outside the protected areas. People should not experience economic hardship because they live in a protected area, and therefore payments are used to compensate them for restrictions to development and production.

Does this work? This type of conservation strategy fragments ecological space into small isolates – like islands in the sea. These isolates (i) are unlikely to generate the full spectrum of life supporting ecosystem services, (ii) are less likely to be adaptive-resilient to global change and (iii) might hide a huge latent conflictual situation: what will happen if the financial incentives to maintain biodiverse landscapes stop?

So splitting the world into protected and unprotected areas, and compensating people accordingly works only when the world is stable. It is not sustainable in a rapidly changing world.

The second possibility is to find locations where traditional land use practices are still being practiced today. The assumption here is that if certain farming practices applied over centuries maintained fertile soils, clear waters and biodiverse landscapes, then these practices could be a good solution for sustainability. Moreover, they will generate good quality food, water and other resources for people. Perhaps these areas should then be protected areas, such as Natura 2000 sites? In Romania this happens, but one of the difficulties is that highly biodiverse farmlands are so widespread that delineating protected ‘islands’ appears quite nonsensical or even dangerous. In Romania, many valuable landscapes and biodiversity elements have now remained outside of the protected areas, receiving no conservation status and no attention from conservationists (since they focus on protected areas…). This type of conservation approach thus will result in a ‘forced binarization’ of the ecological space, which is not desired.

How can we solve the problem of biological conservation in areas characterised by traditional farming and high biodiversity? Maintaining those farming practices and traditional knowledge would be a possibility, sounds quite simple – but is it? If we somehow could maintain those traditional systems, we will likely have: (i) life supporting (and many other) ecosystem services, and (ii) adaptive, resilient ecological systems with well pronounced ‘internal-’ and ‘external memory’ (resilient e.g. to climate change, disease outbreaks etc.). But we can’t rid ourselves of that huge potential for conflict: people will want to develop (not nice to be trapped in the Middle Ages when others have satellite TV!), and acquire a similar level of material wealth as other people elsewhere (e.g. in western Europe).

Financial incentives are the solution most commonly envisaged. These incentives also symbolise an invitation for traditional communities to join the big, EU-wide (and indeed, global!) system of money and markets. Not only to be a part of it, but to depend on it. With all the consequences. Although financial incentives may be a solution in short term, they don’t seem viable in long term.

How do we tackle this dilemma?

miercuri, 6 iulie 2011

Perception about life and the trajectory of traditional rural societies and landscapes in Romania (and possibly Eastern Europe)

Tibor Hartel

The original post was published here:

Many rural communities in Romania are still tightly connected to landscapes, e.g. a great percentage of their basic food (egg, milk and milk products, fruits, vegetables, water, meat etc.) comes directly from nature.

Small scale agriculture as practiced by these people is the key driver of the species rich and unique landscapes of Eastern Europe. Small scale farming is more than a human activity generating basic resources: it is an ecological function in these landscapes. A number of organisms which are dependent on these agricultural activities are still abundant in these landscapes (such as the corncrake, cotton grass, many orchids, amphibians like the yellow-bellied toad, which inhabit temporary ponds, but also symbols of wilderness like the brown bear and wolf), yet endangered in many countries of Western Europe due to land use intensification infrastructural and other developments.

And the good things don’t end here. Natural elements remain a key part of the diversity of traditions, folklores, traditional ecological knowledge, and many other aspects of a rural life (from stork to plants, sun, rain etc.).

Yet it seems that subsistence farmers – the people who maintain these rich landscapes – don’t feel well in these times. Many have told me that life was much better before 1989 (during communism) than after the revolution, in the democracy. Why? Because life after `89 is much more unstable, and harder than before. And that ‘you can get 300 euro per month much more easily from a nearby factory than from working the land’. Money was the core of the problem: there is an increased need for money in everyday life.

During his recent visit, my colleague and friend Ioan Fazey asked me: ‘Are you sure that life after `89 is really harder or it is just the perception of people about the past?’

With this, he opened the box for a number of questions and issues.

If people’s perception of life changed, what might be the reason for that? Is it possible that the quick release from a socialist-communist world (and isolation) and the accessibility of Western Europe (its wealth and lifestyle – how people look, their behavior, the possibilities for children etc.) hit these people in a way that they suddenly feel poor and lost?

Aside from perception, there is no doubt that life is increasingly dependent on money. And things tend to be expensive. For example if parents want to educate their children --  in 2011 this is more important than it was 50-60 years ago and the financial constraints are very real.

Perception about ‘reality’ is an important driver of people’s lives. The social-economic surroundings (i.e. the European Union) are important in shaping the perceptions of people about their own reality.

To meet the type of expectations which are induced by the ‘western lifestyle’ money is needed.

Sometimes I call the very biodiverse landscapes of the Saxon area ‘dead landscapes’. Because it seems that people don’t feel comfortable with their life (anymore), and they dream about a different lifestyle – and they have the right to do this. They continue to do traditional farming but most of them dream about something else. And part of that something else is land use intensification, infrastructure development and other changes associated with a more modern life. Through such changes, however, the days of the wolves, bears, corncrakes and yellow bellied toads might be counted. The same is true for the knowledge and lifestyle which created and shaped these landscapes for centuries.

If we use the ‘sustainable development’ concept as ‘normative’ (to cite Joern Fischer), what can be done?
Thanks to Joern Fischer, Ioan Fazey and Jacqueline Loos the inspiring talks about this subject.