ANALYSIS: The world’s biggest conservation groups have embraced a human-centric approach known as “new conservation.” But is it up to the task of saving life on Earth? Part 1 of Conservation, Divided: Mongabay’s four-part series investigating how the field of conservation has changed over the last 30 years.
Frankly, after the miles of oil palm it was hard to imagine anything bigger than a house cat surviving there, let alone herds of elephants. That night, we met informally with some World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) staff at a local guesthouse. They excitedly explained the ambitious plan of the world’s most recognizable conservation group to preserve wildlife in Borneo from an unprecedented onslaught of logging, mining, and oil palm.
They handed me a glossy booklet filled with gorgeous photographs of charismatic Bornean wildlife frolicking and local people looking happy. Dubbed the Heart of Borneo project, WWF along with the three governments on the island planned to safeguard a region spreading over 23 million hectares and owned by three countries. The plan wasn’t to turn the area — larger than Great Britain — into a park, but instead into a sustainably managed landscape, something decidedly novel that involved partnering with the palm oil, logging, and mining industries to achieve. It would be a place, they claimed, where wildlife and indigenous groups could thrive. A big chunk of Borneo might just remain ecologically whole.
It sounded like a grand, ambitious, lovely idea. And as they told me about it, the WWF staff seemed eager for me to look impressed.
But then I said, “Well, this all looks great, but how are you going to do it?”
Map showing rough boundaries of the Heart of Borneo. Image by Elekhh/Wikimedia Commons.
Now, maybe I had put my foot on cultural norms in Malaysia, but I found that the same faces that had looked excited and eager only a moment earlier either stared at me blankly or avoided my gaze. No one said anything; no one had an answer.
Something seemed missing.
Bashing the big
One of the things you discover as an environmental journalist is just how quickly scientists and conservationists are happy to bash — off the record, of course — big conservation groups. These include four of the world’s largest wildlife and wild-lands-focused groups with a global footprint: WWF, Conservation International (CI), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and at times, though to a much lesser extent, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Together these four groups employ over ten thousand people in nearly a hundred countries and have a collective annual income of around $2 billion. In many parts of the world, if not most, one of these four groups is likely to be seen as the public face of conservation efforts.
Over the years former employees have regularly dished the dirt to me about missed opportunities, misplaced values, and projects that seemed to fail as often as they succeeded, while current employees often sounded like public relations officials speaking in staccato. Outside conservationists often complained that the big NGOs took credit for their hard work and bungled local relationships. The same concerns would come up repeatedly: an obsession with the organization’s brand at the expense of success, a corporate-mimicked hierarchy, cushy relationships with some of the world’s biggest environmentally destructive corporations, radio silence on so many environmental issues, and an inability to respond to crises that are appearing with ever-more regularity.
Now, it’s not exactly surprising that former employees would sometimes complain about their last job; or that some environmental programs, with all their complexities and in the face of so many pressures, would fail; or that small conservation NGOs might be jealous of bigger groups. But as time went by I became so accustomed to hearing how bad big conservation has become, that I found myself startled when a conservationist had nothing but good things to say about his former employer (WWF-Poland) over beers. It was a first.
As so many sources told similar stories over and over, I began to wonder: has something really gone wrong? Was this just to be expected in a highly competitive landscape full of idealistic and passionate characters facing down ecological catastrophe…or has big conservation gone astray?
To find answers, one has to go back some 30 years when conservationists began dabbling with a new philosophy.
The rise of “new conservation”
The biggest shift in conservation in recent times is the rise of something called “new conservation.” This change is the origin of some — but by no means all — of the criticism flung at big conservation today.
Since the beginnings of the modern conservation movement — often linked to the rise of national parks in the nineteenth century — conservation has been largely about setting aside tracts of land or water and developing ways to protect endangered species. While early conservation efforts were in part propelled by economic and human-oriented values (such as hunting and recreation), they also placed a major emphasis on saving nature for its intrinsic and spiritual worth.
“There is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties,” wrote John Muir, one of the great fathers of modern environmentalism.
Inspired by Muir and others, many environmentalists argued that whatever nature might be worth economically to humankind now or in the future, it possesses a deeper importance that can’t and shouldn’t be measured in dollar signs. We should protect nature not because it serves myriad human needs (even though it does), but because we have a moral duty to do so.
Yet in recent decades the pendulum has swung back toward viewing nature through a largely utilitarian lens. This is perhaps not surprising given the rise of global environmental threats like climate change, ocean acidification, overpopulation, pollution, and mass extinction — and the growing realization that these threats could actually unhinge the workings of human civilization and plunge millions, maybe billions, into misery.
But this shift also followed the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 80s, a movement that espoused de-regulation, distrust in governments, and deepening trust (some might even say religious-like fanaticism) in free markets and private enterprise. Conservationists were not immune to such beliefs. Following this period, environmentalists took a page from economists in attempting to meticulously measure everything in nature for its economic worth today and even make guesses about tomorrow. How much is pollination worth? Carbon sequestration? Water filtration?
A wonderful vision took form: if we could only incorporate the dollar value of nature into our current economic system — and convince policy makers and business people to understand that unrecognized economic value — we could save the world. This economic-centric approach has come to be called “new conservation.”
New conservationists argue that past conservation efforts never fully comprehended or addressed the real causes of biodiversity loss.
Tom Dillon, Senior Vice President of Forests and Freshwater for World Wildlife Fund-US (part of WWF), told me that the “core” of new conservation is transforming the drivers of destruction to be more environmentally friendly.
So, the new philosophy largely turned to focus on lands and waters outside protected areas with attempts to green big industries like agriculture, logging, fisheries, and mining.
“Expanding agriculture is responsible for most of the world’s deforestation. Polluted runoff and fragmented ecosystems from poorly planned infrastructure, such as roads and dams, is a major threat to the world’s rivers. Understanding the magnitude of these threats has helped us in creating innovative approaches to addressing them,” Dillon said. “And that is the only way we will be able to protect the world’s wildlife.”
To address the drivers, new conservationists have built elaborate certification schemes (like the Forest Stewardship Council for wood products or the Marine Stewardship Council for seafood) in order to convince industry that self-regulation can lead to both higher profits and more secure natural resources. They have also crafted still-nascent “payment for ecosystem services” programs that seek to pay governments or landowners to keep environments intact (such as REDD+ for carbon sequestration in forests). And they have focused on anti-poverty or sustainable development programs as a way to counter environmental destruction by the world’s poorest. New conservationists have also partnered with all variety of industries and corporations, including some of the most destructive, in order to help them clean up — and in some cases, it seems, also to access their sizable donations.
New conservation quickly captured most of the big conservation groups. All the mega-international NGOs — WWF, CI, TNC, and to a lesser extent WCS — have incorporated elements of new conservation into their myriad projects. For example, while TNC focuses on traditional conservation in the U.S. by buying up land, its overseas projects are largely new-conservation oriented.
Dillon said that his group’s adoption of the new conservation ethos came from realizing just how bad things had gotten. He pointed to WWF’s Living Planet Report, which assesses the state of the natural world every two years.
“The  report showed all indicators, from biodiversity to climate change, trending negatively,” Dillon said, noting that these reports, which began in 1998, have made WWF realize that “we had won some crucial, hard-fought battles, but we were losing the war. We knew we had to change.”
Although WWF started out dedicated to on-the-ground work to save target species, more and more of its programs have revolved around new conservation ideas in recent years. The Heart of Borneo is just one example. Still, Deon Nel, the Global Conservation Director with WWF, insists the primary focus of the group “will always be” wildlife.
But many outside observers disagree. One of them is John Payne, who spent nearly thirty years working at and with WWF – Malaysia. Today, he is the head of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, trying to save the subspecies from extinction. He told me that WWF has changed significantly over the last three decades. “WWF allocates rather small proportions of its funding to programs on individual species to prevent their extinction. This is a significant departure from [its] founding aim.”
Still, some traditional conservationists dispute that idea that there is anything really new about new conservation.
“There has absolutely not been a shift from nature-only to people-too. Conservation from its beginnings in the 1800s has always included human interest in its work, including both economic desires and harm from environmental degradation,” Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Tucson-based NGO Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told me, pointing out that even John Muir was a farmer and rancher.
New conservationists have simply marketed their ideas as novel for self-promotion, he charged. “The first rule of selling widgets is that all widgets must be described as radically new and better,” said Suckling. “Otherwise no one will be interested in your widget. Don’t be fooled by the widget sellers.”
Suckling’s point is noteworthy, but what is certainly new is how many formerly wildlife-centric groups are now focused on the human and economic sides of nature. Traditional conservation has been “obviously…de-emphasized” within the biggest conservation groups, according to Leo Bottrill, who worked at WWF for six years and now heads Moabi, an initiative to map and monitor deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“There’s less money going into [traditional conservation]. There’s less support for it. There’s less capacity,” Bottrill said.
And, according to many of their critics, the big NGOs have gone too far.
Noga Shanee, co-founder of a small NGO in Peru called Neotropical Primate Conservation, says new conservation really should be called “neo-liberal conservation.” She dubs its activities “near-conservation actions” or “beating about the conservation bush.”
“There is so much effort, so much money, pouring into enormous projects that are not directly focused on conservation,” she told me.
She criticizes new conservation for being “full of paradoxes,” like forcing indigenous people to become farmers, selling off forests for cash, and supporting monoculture plantations. But — most egregiously in her mind — this type of conservation continues to push trophy hunting even when targeting Critically Endangered species like the black rhino (Diceros bicornis).
Asserting that often when local people hunt they are “poachers,” but when rich foreigners do so they are “conservationists,” Shanee added that new conservation groups “also sometimes change hunting to ecotourism, bioprospecting, or other less destructive activities, but the idea is basically the same, conservation is largely used as a justification for territorialism.”
According to critics like Shanee, new conservation’s focus on economics and drivers — at the expense of setting aside more wilderness areas or taking action to save species on the brink — is at best risky and at worst a red herring. They contend that new conservationists have traded in programs focusing directly on wildlife for ones that may or may not help endangered species. And that by dropping arguments about morality and values, new conservationists have essentially handed the argument to nature utilitarians: if the rabbit has no economic value, kill the rabbit. In today’s red in tooth and claw capitalism, nature must pay for itself.
A vigorous debate: parks and values
The debate over traditional versus new conservation has been vitriolic, impassioned, and at times downright ugly. Researchers, conservation workers, and journalists have fired slings and arrows in academic journals, in newspapers, at conferences, in blogs, and in person. Conservation thinkers have become divided.
Neither side disagrees that conservation today — both traditional and new — is failing to adequately halt mass extinction. But how to proceed is where talks break down, especially when it comes to the importance of protected areas.
Proponents of traditional conservation view protected areas as conservation’s biggest success in the last 150 years. They argue that conservationists should urgently focus on creating more of them, as well as increasing on-the-ground efforts to save on-the-brink species.
Protected areas currently cover about 12 to 15 percent of land and 3 percent of the oceans, though they are steadily ratcheting up in the latter. Without them, proponents argue, the extinction crisis would be orders of magnitude worse, with countless species having gone extinct that are still here today. Indeed, research in the past few years has backed that up by showing that protected areas house more biodiversity and in greater abundance than adjacent areas.
But proponents of new conservation say this approach is insufficient. “We are convinced that protected areas alone are not enough,” writes Michelle Marvier, an environmental scientist at Santa Clara University, in a 2013 editorial in Conservation Biology with the unwavering title “New Conservation Is True Conservation.” She compares the call for more protected areas to the call for more hospital beds during the AIDS crisis — in other words reactive rather proactive, a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. “Despite great successes in the establishment of protected areas, the rate of species extinction remains unacceptably high,” she writes.
New conservationists have also attacked the idea that there is really any pristine place left in the world, with the implication that preserving wilderness in some pre-human state should no longer be the goal. Instead, we should find a way to live with nature that supports the seven-billion-and-rising people on the planet.
“I think most conservationists would say ‘yes,’ that’s absolutely right, and that’s what we’re fighting against,” Don Weeden told me, referring to the idea that nothing is pristine. Weeden directs the Bedford Hills, New York-based Weeden Foundation, which supports mainly traditional conservation projects around the world. “Certainly any wilderness area will be compromised, but what we’re trying to do is basically save the best of what’s left,” he said.
One of the reasons why the traditional versus new debate has hit such a nerve is because it touches wholly sensitive places like one’s values and morals. New conservationists contend that traditionalists have not put enough value on human needs and economic requirements. But for their part, traditionalists believe new conservationists have lost sight of nature’s intrinsic value — of the ethical imperative that a species has every right to exist regardless of any benefits (or lack thereof) it may provide humanity. Traditionalists fear that once we have to have an economic value attached to a place or a species, we will begin to lose many of both.
Yet new conservationists contend that this is the wrong way to look at it: ecosystems like forests provide multiple benefits for people — carbon and water filtration, in addition to biodiversity — that add up economically.
In pushing the economic value of nature, new conservationists say they are also simply responding to polls showing that declining numbers of the public view themselves as environmentalists or conservationists (at least in the U.S.), as well as looking for practical ways to convince governments and corporations that environmental action need not come as a threat to neo-liberal capitalism as it is currently practiced.
“For me personally, I love nature,” Will Turner, senior vice president and chief scientist with CI, told me. “I love biodiversity. I also love people. And I think I’m entirely comfortable with having a value system that includes both the intrinsic value of nature… [and] the foundational importance of ecosystems on this planet for human survival and prosperity.”
Wherever the balance lies, new conservation has birthed truly novel programs that its proponents contend could go a long way toward really saving nature.
Are certification schemes worth it?
Go to an upscale grocery store and you might notice a profusion of stamps: there’s the blue, fishy Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) stamp, the green palm frond stamp from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the check-marked tree from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and the frog stamp from the Rainforest Alliance. This is one of the fruits of new conservation: rapidly multiplying, sometimes competing certification schemes that attempt to control the drivers of environmental destruction by steering consumer dollars toward more sustainable products. Big conservation groups have been instrumental in creating and shaping many of these schemes.
Critics say such certification schemes give consumers the false impression that somehow the product they buy doesn’t harm the environment, when in fact, at best, it only lessens the damage done. For example, FSC-certified paper is likely a better purchase than non-certified paper, but it’s not in any way better than simply forgoing paper in the first place or choosing 100-percent recycled. The devil is in the details — and the details of each certification scheme can be complex and opaque.
Watchdog NGOs have accused certification schemes of having poor standards and lax enforcement and of being too influenced by the industries they are supposed to rein-in. For example, environmental critics call certain of FSC’s standards unsustainable, such as its permission of logging in primary forests, monoculture tree plantations, and even clearcutting in some cases. FSC products are also often designated as “FSC Mix,” which can mean they contain only a percentage of FSC-certified material, while the rest is “Controlled Wood” that meets certain minimal standards but does not follow more stringent rules required for FSC certification.
Part of the reason such allowances arise is because certification schemes are not designed solely by the big NGOs, but are the result of often hard-fought compromises and back-door meetings between NGOs, companies and industry groups, governments, and other “stakeholders.” Certification schemes are also only as good as the auditors that inspect the operations (usually only once a year), but many have run into trouble for having shoddy and even corrupt auditing — most recently the RSPO.
Despite such concerns, Dillon with WWF said that the amount of land certified by the FSC was one of WWF’s biggest organizational successes in the last 20 years. WWF helped create the FSC in 1993 and remains a member and staunch supporter today. Dillon pointed out that 15.5 percent of the world’s production forests are currently certified by FSC, an area larger than Iran spanning more than 182 million hectares. He also said that the FSC’s standards are improving: in 2014, the council strengthened protections in “Intact Forest Landscapes,” large areas of primary forest that haven’t been cut by roads or other infrastructure.
“WWF believes the FSC has the most rigorous forest management standards for environmental and social responsibility,” said Dillon. “We also believe that obtaining FSC certification and sourcing FSC-certified products is one of the best approaches to conserving the world’s forests.”
But critics say that in its 20-plus years, the FSC has done little to protect the world’s most biodiverse forests. In 2013, only 19 million hectares of FSC-certified forest (about 10 percent of the FSC’s total) were located in the tropics — and a quarter of these were monoculture plantations, which have very little biodiversity value. The FSC has certified four times more forest in Europe than in all of the world’s tropical countries. If the point of the FSC was to help protect wildlife, to date it has largely missed the world’s most wildlife-rich landscapes — and those, of course, with the most threatened species.
Yet even some traditional conservationists view certification schemes as a useful way of responding to the global environmental crisis.
Payne of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, a member of the RSPO, says the palm-oil certification scheme provides a positive course in the absence of more protected areas by making “environmental standards transparent and mandatory for members.” The fact that governments often try to “meddle” in the process proves the RSPO’s worth, he said.
In Payne’s view, governments are holding too tightly on the reins of wildlife conservation while certification schemes like the RSPO return some power to NGOs.
But Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental studies professor at New York University, says governments need more responsibility not less. She critiqued certification schemes in her 2015 book Is Shame Necessary? by arguing that they move responsibility for environmental health from the government, which can make large-scale and comprehensive changes, to the purchasing public, which can only make hodgepodge and arguably slight changes. Many companies can still get away with environmental destruction, since there will always be consumers willing to buy their products as long as they can pay less. For example, while RSPO certification may prove successful for a percentage of products sold in Europe and America, the bulk of the world’s palm oil is actually consumed by China, India, and Indonesia — where such schemes currently don’t look very promising.
“Most certification schemes have had a marginal effect on ecology, sucked up major amounts of conservation funding, and, as I argue, have been a major distraction from making bigger, blanket changes,” Jacquet told Mongabay in an interview last year. She noted that the MSC only covers 7 percent of the global seafood market.
But proponents of certification schemes argue that they take time to really begin to make a difference and that they have already succeeded in improving the environmental impacts of some industries, if only partially and in specific regions.
Still, critics say all the effort expended on these schemes would have been better spent on convincing individual governments and the international community to improve regulations across the board. In the end, they say, what’s needed is not the multiplication of voluntary schemes dependent on consumer awareness, but better, stronger regulation ensuring that all the fish at sushi counters, all the wood at Home Depot, all the palm oil at Wal-Mart are sustainably sourced.
Can ecosystems pay for themselves?
However controversial certification schemes may be, they have been wildly successful in bringing big conservation and industry together to wrestle with difficult problems. Whether they will end up being wholly transformative remains to be seen. An even more difficult baby of new conservation, however, has been the dream of getting the market and governments to recognize the economic value of what has come to be known as ecosystem services, or in layman’s terms the free stuff nature gives us, like clean water, oxygen, carbon sequestration, and pollination.
New conservationists have used research on ecosystem services to try to convince governments to protect important environments like watersheds, mangroves, and forests. They have also crafted new programs, known as “payment for ecosystem services programs,” based on the idea that governments or corporations would actually pay outright to protect such services. But to date, such programs, like the U.N.’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+), have struggled to get off the ground. For example, REDD+ proposes that wealthy countries pay poor countries to keep their forests standing for the carbon they sequester. But most of the program’s life, which began officially in 2008, has been taken up by negotiations. Roadblocks have included trouble with indigenous groups who view it as a new form of forest-grabbing, lack of support from local governments, and difficulty raising the required funds. It remains to be seen whether the Paris Agreement will give it a much-needed shot in the arm.
Critics say that payment for ecosystem service programs have promised more than they can shell out. For example, they contend that really no monetary calculation of a forest’s services can compete with something as lucrative as an oil-palm plantation or a mine for highly desirable minerals.
But Turner with CI noted that there are cases where ecosystem services can already compete, especially when one includes the full range of services, instead of focusing on just one, like REDD+ does with carbon sequestration.
“I think mangroves are great example of this… There have been various studies comparing the value of mangrove ecosystems relative to the most profitable alternative use,” he said. Mangroves provide nurseries for fisheries, carbon sequestration, and non-timber forest products for locals. They also buffer against storm surges, which means mangroves actually save lives. “And you add those up and it’s much more valuable than the sort of near-term profits from conversion to shrimp aquaculture,” Turner said.
Mangroves may indeed be worth much more standing than shrimp aquaculture, but that hasn’t stopped them from being destroyed around the world at record rates. Between 1990 and 2005, the world lost somewhere between 19 and 35 percent of its mangroves. Experts say that mangroves have fallen at a rate of three-to-five times faster than forests on land, imperiling not just biodiversity but human lives. In other words, even when policy makers know an ecosystem is worth more standing they don’t always protect it — at least not yet.
Turner admitted there are also cases where exploitation trumps ecosystems economically. Mining is one. “You are never going to be able to put a value on those few square acres around the mine site as of greater economic value to people than the millions of dollars in minerals,” he said, adding that in such cases it’s important to reduce the overall destruction as much as possible. Of course, the impacts of mining go far beyond the immediate area destroyed, such as pollution leaking into the water table and rising into the air, as well as additional infrastructure like roads to bring minerals to the market.
Another factor complicating the payment for ecosystem services approach is that uncertainties stack up when trying to measure ecosystem services. For one thing, as climate change worsens there is the potential for carbon sequestration to become more valuable. And the same could be said of many services in an age of environmental loss, such as clean water and pollination.
This kind of potential future worth that doesn’t end up on the balance sheet today should still be considered, said Turner, who pointed to rainforests as storehouses for undiscovered drugs.
“My father got a multiple drug-resistant infection two years ago [and] nearly died. The compound that saved him was vancomycin, one of these antibiotics of last resort, that it turns out was collected on an expedition funded by Eli Lilly fifty years ago in Borneo,” said Turner. “This rainforest compound literally on the other side of the planet from my father, fifty years in the future…saved his life. Meanwhile, that forest today is cleaning water and providing water and supporting the fisheries that people…depend on very directly right now.”
Turner said that identifying a wide range of ecosystem services also allows conservationists to expand the number of institutions and people involved in conservation, and to make the case for conservation to a broader audience.
But Payne of the Borneo Rhino Alliance argued that focusing on ecosystem services has left wildlife adrift. “What is not sensible is to argue for economic reasons to protect species when no economic arguments exist…[Conservationists] not only have to make up potentially spurious arguments, but people in general start to believe that nature conservation has to be linked to economics,” he said. “[T]he ‘new conservation’ approach is normally too generic to save any endangered species, except by luck.”
For example, even assuming that estimating a value for an ecosystem’s services results in setting land aside, Payne said that doesn’t necessarily mean the species living there will be protected. Wildlife is facing a rising barrage of threats beyond habitat loss, including wildlife trade and climate change. Many species will still require on-the-ground efforts to make it through the next hundred years, even if their habitat remains. But this is exactly the kind of work that has fallen by the wayside in the age of new conservation.
“There’s no substitution for working directly with park authorities…to implement conservation programs,” said Bottrill of Moabi, who spent several years doing just that earlier in his conservation career.
He added, “[You] still need to learn about species and how you manage and maintain them. These problems haven’t gone away.” Bottrill pointed to the catastrophic bushmeat trade in Africa as a glaring sign of the need for more conservation boots on the ground, not fewer.
The bottom line for critics is that the ecosystem services approach is just another way that new conservation has moved away from directly protecting endangered species, even as threats multiply and populations plunge.
If you’re working on saving the Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) from extinction it’s relatively straightforward to tell if your project is working: simply count the population and see if it’s declining, rising, or stable. One of the strongest, most persistent criticisms of new conservation is that it’s far more difficult to measure success or failure when it comes to how ecosystem services, certification schemes, anti-poverty programs, or aligning with industries are actually helping wildlife.
“[Funds] have been spent over many years on the new conservation approach without measurable outputs. This approach is commonly just that: an approach without clear goals,” said Payne. “Success or failure is subjective.”
Traditional conservationists will tell you that measuring biodiversity — as opposed to just a single species — can itself prove problematic, but measuring the impact of a certification or payment for ecosystem services program on biodiversity muddies things further. In fact, even though new conservation has been around for decades, critics say groups have been reluctant to commission hard research to see if their programs are living up to the hype.
Suzanne Apple, WWF-US’s Senior Vice President of Private Sector Engagement, admitted that credibly measuring success is something conservation in general could improve. But she said WWF is working on it.
“We’ve learned through experience that we need to link our conservation work to hard numbers so that we can better understand where we’re making progress and where we might need to change course,” she said. “WWF has taken steps toward a clearer strategy…and we have incorporated measuring and evaluation into our planning processes.“
A lack of good research on the efficacy of new conservation programs means that many groups are still in the dark about how well their programs work. Surprisingly, there have been few comprehensive studies looking at whether FSC-certified logging operations have actually prevented deforestation or protected biodiversity, even though FSC has been around for nearly a quarter century. But a 2015 study in PLOS ONE evaluating logging concessions in Indonesian Borneo found that FSC-certified operations did decrease deforestation — but only by 5 percent compared to non-certified forests. The study also found that FSC-certified forests had no impact on the outbreak of fires or on the fragmentation of forests’ core areas, one proxy for biodiversity. On the other hand, the study found that villages in FSC-certified forests were better off by various measures. “The actual impact is negligible…there are some benefit[s] but it’s not that much better than the alternative,” concluded Bottrill of the research in Indonesian Borneo.
However another recent study in Chile found that FSC-certified plantations reduced deforestation by 43 percent and bested other sustainability schemes in the area. But, even here, the goal was to reduce deforestation to zero, so while FSC fared better in Chile’s temperate forests than in Kalimantan’s rainforests, it still missed its overall mark.
At the same time, Shanee of Neotropical Primate Conservation said that new conservation groups dwell in a “culture of reproducing super success stories” even when there is no evidence of success. “It always seems to surprise everyone that with all these excellent conservation efforts, species keep being wiped out.”
For Nel of WWF, comparing outcomes of traditional and new conservation is like comparing apples and oranges for one important reason: timeframe. Nel noted that establishing protected areas results in rapid outcomes. But when you target the drivers of environmental problems through a certification scheme or payment for ecosystem services program it takes longer to know if your effort was successful.
Nel said conservation today needs to learn to “play the long game” if it’s going to tackle the forces behind environmental degradation, such as industries, markets, and consumption patterns. And so the very nature of WWF’s work today means a scale of ambition unseen in conservation just a few decades ago.
“These aren’t immediate fixes as when you’re working very close to the ground,” he said.
Too big to succeed?
But Nel’s point begs the question: has the ambition of conservation groups outstripped their abilities? Has their size, which ballooned in recent decades, become more of a liability than a strength? Or is this the only way to tackle mounting environmental crises that now crisscross national borders and permeate all levels of society?
The two really big fish here are TNC and WWF, which brought in $949 million and $700 million respectively in 2014. WCS brought in $253 million and CI brought in $152 million that year, making them small compared to the other two, but still giants next to most conservation groups.
TNC employs around 3,500 and works in more than 30 countries, though it focuses heavily on the U.S. WWF employs 6,000 people and works in some 100 countries and has 5 million supporters around the world. WCS employs 4,000 people around the world. CI employs 800 people in 30 countries. Even as WWF and TNC are Earth’s conservation juggernauts, they are far overshadowed by dozens of other charities, such as United Way or the Salvation Army.
Conservation groups remain underdogs in the nonprofit world and have problems that nonprofits geared toward human welfare do not. Conservation groups not only have to work to protect nature, but also have to convince governments and society of the importance of the environment and its millions of species. Humans rarely need to be convinced of the importance of humans.
But critics say big conservation’s very expansiveness has tended to make it less nimble, more bureaucratic, less adaptable — in short, less efficient and effective. Today, large conservation NGOs often commit themselves to long-term programs, making U-turns nearly impossible and making it difficult for them to respond to conservation crises with funds or expertise, according to many sources. Critics argue, for instance, that big conservation groups have dropped the ball on, and maybe even exacerbated, the bushmeat-poaching frenzy taking place in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America by turning their focus away from endangered species.
Big conservation is further hampered by an ossifying hierarchy that is steeped in bureaucracy, according to its many critics, who say new ideas from lower-level employees are stifled before they can rise to the top, along with their concerns. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the story of a new employee coming into a major conservation group excited and passionate, only to become disillusioned and frustrated over time — and often fearing to speak out.
All this has made it almost impossible for hard-working conservationists to take the kind of bold action necessary to save species on the edge of extinction, according to sources. Some traditional conservationists even suggested that the big groups could achieve more by partnering with top conservationists, which was the way WWF operated from the 1960s to the 1980s, and then granting them considerable freedom.
This is the sort of model that the one group, San Francisco-based Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), has undertaken. WCN assists conservationists around the globe with fundraising, publicity, and scaling up their work, without imposing additional bureaucracy.
“We exist to support their brands, not ours,” Jefe Parrish, WCN’s Vice President for Conservation and a former WWF employee, told me. A common criticism of big NGOs, on the other hand, is that they tend to swallow up, and even take credit for, the work of smaller groups.
Parrish noted that WCN was able to launch an ambitious initiative called the Elephant Crisis Fund after a discussion that lasted only a day, whereas making that kind of decision at a mega-NGO could drag on for a year. Characteristics such as innovation, speed, nimbleness, and collaborativeness are not easily found at any of the big NGOs, Parrish said.
Still, being big isn’t all bad. WWF has “immense convening power,” according to former employee Bottrill. It may take the group a long time to get behind something due to reputational concerns, “but when it did, it could be a force to be reckoned with,” he said. No one likes an angry panda.
Few, if any, conservation experts would disagree with the need for the kind of large-scale transformational change the conservation giants are aiming for. But some do still question whether these groups are the right institutions to take this on, are really capable of transforming global markets and governments at the scale needed, or are employing the right strategies.
An alternative vision of future conservation might be famed biologist E.O. Wilson’s Nature Needs Half initiative, according to contacts. The idea is that humanity would set aside half of the world’s area for wildlife and nature and keep the other half for human needs. If that sounds crazy, think of it this way: half the Earth would go towards the immediate needs of one species while the other half would go to the other 10 or so million.
“It’s been in my mind for years that people haven’t been thinking big enough — even conservationists,” Wilson told Smithsonian magazine last year (he published a book on the idea last month). “Half Earth is the goal, but it’s how we get there, and whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang onto. I see a chain of uninterrupted corridors forming, with twists and turns, some of them opening up to become wide enough to accommodate national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.”
If the world managed to protect half of nature (a task that would require much restoration and rewildling), proponents argue it would go a long way — maybe the whole way — toward preserving the ecosystem services humans need. It would not solve issues like climate change and ocean acidification — though it would certainly help — but proponents argue that most other global environmental concerns would evaporate, especially the rising threat of mass extinction.
“Instead of abandoning protected areas we need more protected areas,” Weeden of the Weeden Foundation said.
He supports Nature Needs Half because, he said, “we need those…lofty goals.” He added that the target is achievable in many places. According to the World Bank, Venezuela and New Caledonia already had over half of their land in protected areas as of 2014. Bhutan had 47 percent; Zambia, Namibia, and Nicaragua 37 percent; Belize over 36 percent; and the Republic of the Congo 35 percent — and all of these are developing countries. In contrast, the U.S. has only protected 13.9 percent.
But could the globe’s growing human population thrive using just half the planet instead of damn near the whole thing? And would anyone, let alone global society, ever agree to such a thing? Critics of the plan have warned that Wilson’s big idea could result in the forcible removal of locals and indigenous groups, a problem that has plagued conservation for over a century-and-a-half. However, Wilson insisted to the New York Times that “this proposal does not mean moving anybody out.”
Weeden says science proves something more must be done. “Fifteen to 17 percent just isn’t enough in many areas to really protect against a continuing slide in biodiversity. You know, the end targets have just been mostly political and they’re not based on the science that says you need to be protecting a greater percentage of the Earth.”
Still, according to critics, big NGOs are paying less attention to scientists, at least conservation and biodiversity scientists, than ever before.
Even as conservation groups have grown larger and wealthier, they have shrunk their teams of conservation scientists. In 2014, WWF-US dismantled its core science team, sending about half its 30 scientists to other teams and laying off the rest.
At the time, Thomas Brooks, the head of the Science and Knowledge Unit at the IUCN, told Science that he viewed WWF’s decision as “short-sighted” and “very bad news for science.”
But WWF’s move was only the latest among big conservation groups dropping key science staff. TNC also dismantled its core scientific program, the Natural Heritage Network, in 2000 by combining it with another NGO to create an independent group that is now called NatureServe but is no longer a part of TNC. And while CI began as a renegade group of TNC ecologists deciding to start up their own shop, today the organization retains few conservation scientists, according to observers.
This change isn’t just within the organizations, but also at the top. Of the biggest conservation organization’s five leaders (all men, of course), two have degrees in business instead of science. WWF-US’s CEO Carter Roberts, who took over in 2005, has a Master’s in business and worked for Procter & Gamble and Gillette before heading into conservation. WWF-International’s Director General, Marco Lambertini, earned a doctorate in chemistry and had a long career in conservation before getting his job. But it is Carter who is partly credited with the organization’s shift from wildlife and wild lands to partnering with industries and greening supply chains. Mark Tercek, TNC’s CEO since 2008, spent 24 years at investment banking giant Goldman Sachs — a corporate partner of TNC.
The CEO (and a co-founder) of CI, Peter Seligmann, has a Master’s in forestry and environmental science, but he is also credited with spearheading the group’s shift in focus from biodiversity to new conservation.
The loss of scientists — and science leaders — has resulted in groups failing at species conservation, according to Payne. “For reasons that I cannot fathom, the science and art of wildlife management essentially died by year 2000,” he said.
Instead of field conservation science, Payne sees “an irritating rise” of “technical gimmicks” and “pseudo-science.” He pointed to the groups’ attraction to intensive research efforts like sampling feces or the blood from leeches to determine if endangered species are present in an area.
“To what end?” he lamented. “If a species is so rare that such methods are contemplated, immediate drastic and targeted action…or simply giving up on the species, are likely the only two options.”
Payne said this was just one example of a prevailing “more research needed” syndrome. This often accompanies techno-heavy ideas that may make good PR, but often fizzle when applied, he said, and tends to come at the expense of training scientists to actually apply field research to save species on the ground.
WCS: an exception
One large conservation group, though, has maintained a sizeable army of conservation and field scientists throughout its ranks: WCS.
Of the four biggest conservation groups WCS is also the only one with a CEO, Cristián Samper, who has a PhD in biology. A renowned expert in tropical ecosystems, Samper is also the only one of the four CEOs who was not born and raised in the U.S. He grew up in Colombia and got his Bachelor’s degree at the University of the Andes in Bogotá.
Over and over again, conservationists told me that WCS stood apart from the rest in terms of using good science and effective conservation techniques and maintaining its focus on wildlife. Sure, some still complained about the group, but their complaints were largely nit-picks rather than takedowns of the group’s philosophy, approach, or effectiveness.
“At the end of the day, one has to come back to WCS’s record of long-term environmental leadership,” William Laurance, a conservation scientist at James Cook University in Australia recently told Mongabay. “Of the major international conservation groups, they’ve been among the most effective.”
WCS is unique in many ways. For one thing, it is the oldest of the big four (founded in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society). For another it is physically attached to three zoos and one aquarium in New York City, which its fans say enables it to stay grounded, stay connected to the public, and build a constituency for conservation in ways other groups cannot.
WCS has incorporated some elements of new conservation into its programs over the years, but unlike the other three groups, the new ideas have not shifted its overall focus.
“We just want to make sure that if a place or a species…does not perform a certain service to myself, [it] is not undervalued. I think that would be our main distinction [from other groups],” Joe Walston, WCS’s Vice President for Field Conservation Programs, told me.
Last fall WCS rolled out a new strategic plan. But unlike many shifts at big conservation groups, this one still emphasizes wildlife. Dubbed the 2020 Strategy, WCS aims to protect 15 priority regions across the world to, it says, safeguard half the world’s biodiversity.
“We cannot fail in efforts to convince people that the future can be different than the current gloom and doom narrative; we can reverse the decline of biodiversity,” Samper, the group’s head, told Mongabay in October. “We are living through the most important period for conservation. The pressures on nature are building as poverty declines and the middle class grows — prompting more consumerism, which leads to an unprecedented degradation of nature. You can see why it might be hard to spark optimism. But it is important to realize that as more people emerge out of poverty and more move into the cities, we feel there will be more interest and investment in conserving nature.”
In this context, Walston said protected areas are more relevant than ever, providing safe havens during transitional economic phases in developing countries. Yet in Borneo WWF has replaced the protected area strategy with something it calls “sustainable management.”
The broken heart of Borneo
Borneo, one of the most biodiverse landscapes on the planet, is in ecological crisis. The Bornean rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) — a subspecies of the Sumatran — is on the knife’s edge of extinction; less than 2,000 Bornean pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) survive; and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), distinct from the great ape in Sumatra, is being killed by people at a rate as high 4,000 a year. For the possibly hundreds of thousands of other species living on the island much less is known, but their homes — their forests — are falling at one of the highest rates in the world.
It’s been six years since I visited Borneo and first heard about WWF’s landmark project there. But what has the much-touted Heart of Borneo program accomplished since?
In 2014, WWF released a status report on the program. It found that conversion of forest to oil palm, timber, or mining “continues to occur at rather high rates” in the Heart of Borneo even though this region is far less threatened than areas outside of it.
Details for the program were mixed. For example, the report found that the Heart of Borneo was still losing its forests at an annual rate of 2.19 percent. While incredibly high, it was still less than half the rate for the whole island. Bleakly, however, the report found that deforestation rates “are too high to be able reach the conservation goals” for lowland rainforest, heath forest, and “many of the other ecosystems.” Already, the program had woefully missed its target on heath forests: only 25 percent remained in 2012 despite a goal of 61 to 80 percent.
“I don’t think Heart of Borneo has achieved anything on the ground yet,” Erik Meijaard, an ecologist and director of the Brunei-based NGO Borneo Futures, told me. This, even though it’s been 10 years since the three Borneo nations — Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia — pledged to safeguard the Heart of Borneo.
WWF’s goal was never to protect all of the Heart of Borneo in one vast park, but to create a so-called sustainably managed landscape. By 2012, 58 percent of the Heart of Borneo was run by industry. Oil palm and timber plantations covered 9 percent, mining 18 percent, and logging concessions nearly a third.
Yet in the same year, only 20 percent of logging concessions in the Heart of Borneo were environmentally certified and not a single oil-palm plantation had achieved certification from the RSPO.
“If sustainable management of forests within the Heart of Borneo is the goal then I would have expected at least some changes in land-use planning…but so far I have not seen that,” said Meijaard.
Henry Chan, WWF’s Heart of Borneo leader, defended the program, telling me it has made “much progress.” He pointed to new conservation areas, including transboundary parks between Malaysia and Indonesia (12.6 percent of the Heart of Borneo is protected). He also said more forests were being certified under FSC. Finally, Chan pointed to programs to aid the Bornean elephant and rhino.
In the rhino’s case, however, only 15 or so individuals survive in the wild of Borneo, despite WWF’s original goal to safeguard 50 to 220. Moreover, WWF has come under intense criticism for its management of the wild rhinos, including a very public announcement of the population in 2013 (which critics said would only draw poachers) and the recent death of a female while in the care of WWF staff.
Still, the Heart of Borneo was never really WWF’s baby, according to Chan. “The initiative has always been driven by the three governments,” he said. But the only really bold move made by a government to date was when Brunei, which covers just 1 percent of the island, turned all of its production forests into conservation areas.
While WWF may want to distance itself from the program, and, rightly, put pressure on the governments, it doesn’t change the fact that the Heart of Borneo program remains WWF’s flagship mission on the island. And, according to Chan, WWF is the governments’ “most active partner.”
In a 2015 paper in Nature Communications, scientists compared the likely outcome of various conservation scenarios in Borneo. If the Heart of Borneo were ever fully implemented, the paper found that it would keep around half the island’s forests standing. However, many of these forests would be logged and the majority of orangutan and elephant habitat would be left totally unprotected.
A better path forward, according to the paper, would be collaboration across all three countries to achieve specific policies and biodiversity targets, including conservation of every major vegetation type. In other words, an approach that considered the whole island, instead of just the less-threatened highlands that characterize the Heart of Borneo.
Marc Ancrenaz, a co-author of the paper and the head of the local NGO HUTAN, told me that the Heart of Borneo was “an excellent strategy to raise funds and to self-promote,” but that the success of the whole program rested on wholly voluntary actions by governments. “In a nutshell, you have a potentially very interesting tool with no teeth!”
Here again rises a common criticism of many new conservation strategies: while they are often ambitious and inclusive, critics contend that lack of enforcement and follow-through often results in failure.
Cynthia Ong, the founder and CEO of the Malaysia-based organization LEAP (Land Empowerment Animals People), had a bit more positive spin on the program.
“[It] has succeeded in rallying state governments on the island of Borneo to coalesce around the core area of Borneo,” she said, adding, “I prefer to see and build on the positives of something rather than to dwell on the negatives.”
Still, Ong thinks WWF may have taken the wrong approach on the project from the beginning. “I would have framed Heart of Borneo as a movement and one that is self-organizing, rather than a program to be managed,” she said, noting that given the sheer size of the plan “‘management’ will always be an impossible task.”
But things only got worse in the Heart of Borneo, and across the island, last year. Every dry season, local farmers and companies burn forests in Indonesia to clear vegetation because fire is cheap. Last year’s burning season was one of the worst on record: 2.1 million hectares (over 8,000 square miles), an area the size of New Jersey, went up in smoke.
“With the biggest environmental disaster of the twenty-first century unfolding as we speak, Heart of Borneo clearly hasn’t done enough,” said Meijaard.
When it comes to the Heart of Borneo, WWF seems to have lost its way somewhere, say its critics. Perhaps the plan was too grandiose to succeed. Perhaps the focus on influencing powerful and entrenched industries through behind-the-scenes influence proved a red herring. Or perhaps WWF was simply more committed to selling the idea to governments and donors than to actually implementing it. Whatever the case, the Heart of Borneo appears to be on life-support today.
While it’s difficult to find good analyses of many of the world’s big conservation programs, the Heart of Borneo does not appear to be an isolated case. A 2015 report by USAID on a project it funded of WWF-US called Conservation and Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountains Landscapes and Communities (AHM) uncovered deep levels of mismanagement. Like the Heart of Borneo, AHM is a massive, transnational program. It aims to help communities in snow leopard (Pantherauncial) territories by working with them on water issues, climate change, and resource use.
According to the report, the program “urgently needs a reboot.” It criticizes AHM for failing to bring in local WWF offices across the six countries involved, for wholly ignoring other snow leopard conservation programs, and for micromanaging from Washington, D.C.
USAID gave WWF-US a D for management and a D for communications and information sharing. It also warned that funding issues were beginning to erode the project’s efficacy and credibility.
But WWF isn’t the only group to struggle over some of its programs. One of the most egregious examples in recent memory is CI’s work to improve marine biodiversity through collaborating with local communities in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, in 2006. The UN Development Program found that CI had significantly mismanaged its $6 million budget, leading it to run through funds a year early (CI denied this). But the group’s relationship with locals proved just as messy: it ran afoulof the local governor over financial concerns and accusations of elitism and arrogance. At one point he ordered all CI employees out of the area and even locked them out of their offices.
Of course, this doesn’t mean every new conservation project fails at big groups like WWF, CI, or TNC. However, critics at least anecdotally implied repeatedly that new conservation faced greater trials and a generally lower success rate than programs that involved a more traditional focus and a clearer set of goals, such as protect this water body or boost this animal’s population. Critics also argued that small groups generally have a better track record because they are more knowledgeable about local communities and more aware of issues that could trip up success.
“It’s not tension. It’s bewilderment,” said Paul Salaman, the CEO of Rainforest Trust, when I asked him about the tension between traditionalists and new conservationists. The Rainforest Trust largely practices traditional conservation by establishing protected areas both large and small in tropical countries.
“Seriously, I understand that we want to look at different strategies,” he said, but new conservation is “not really targeting the wildlife that needs help…it’s certainly not a huge help for international conservation. I think, unfortunately, at best, it’s proven to be a bit of a distraction.”
Still, others view the whole discussion about new conservation versus old as the real distraction.
“[The debate] has taken a lot of attention from much more important issues and part of that is because the issues that we face….are so great that we really can’t afford to be spending time worrying about is one organization taking the right approach,” said Turner of CI.
Andrew Terry, head of conservation programs at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, a traditional conservation organization focused on saving gravely endangered species, agreed that the debate itself had become problematic.
“It implies a schism within the conservation field. I personally think this is a slightly false distinction that distracts us from the real discussions in conservation.”
He compared the best conservationists to magpies, willing to apply any tool from across various fields — basically having a whatever-it-takes attitude.
“This is what keeps conservation exciting and relevant,” he noted. “But at the same time, we need to make sure that this does not come at the expense of tried and tested approaches, and that they retain their place in the ever-expanding toolbox.”
The vitriolic nature of the debate has died down a little in recent years, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. New conservationists have been quick to say that they never meant to disparage the work that has gone before or that parks don’t matter. For their part, some traditionalists are employing “new” methods piecemeal in their work if they seem useful in a given situation. And they sometimes concede that the goals of both philosophies are broadly the same, even if the two camps want to take different routes to get there.
But while the new-versus-traditional debate may be cooling, criticism of the biggest of the big conservation NGOs for their perceived clumsiness, bureaucracy, and ineffectiveness is not.
Conservation work has never been easy and as environmental threats have multiplied and globalized, it’s only gotten messier. Conservationists often have to navigate local skepticism, government ambivalence, business animosity, and competition with other NGOs. They have to battle whole political philosophies that treat the environment not as something to be valued and protected, but simply a roadblock to endless economic growth And they have to convince an inherently short-sighted species — Homo sapiens — to think in the long-term, to think indeed of generations long after they are gone. It’s an uphill, rain-swept, mud-splattered battle everyday.
“You could easily get disheartened and think, ‘God, you know, I’d rather be an accountant,’” said Salaman. But he added that when he sees the species his group has helped, he feels it is “making a difference.”
Salaman concluded that “we’re all in this together and we’re all doing our best, so you know…”
Indeed, every day thousands of conservati