Conserving the diversity of life and vitality of the world’s ecosystems is among humanity’s greatest challenges. Despite growing recognition of the importance of biodiversity, ecosystems, and the environment to peoples’ economic and social well-being—as embodied by, among other things, Sustainable Development Goal 15—conservation outcomes from local to global scale often remain disappointing. World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 “Living Planet” report, for example, concluded that between 1970 and 2010, global populations of all vertebrates declined by 52 percent. A new study in the journal Science finds that across roughly two-thirds of the earth, growing pressures have caused biodiversity to drop more than 10 percent, throwing into question the ability of certain ecosystems to continue to support human livelihoods.

Despite laudable gains in some areas—such as the establishment of more than 200,000 national parks and other protected areas covering more than 15 percent of the earth’s surface—conservation efforts as a whole are failing to make sufficient inroads to address the wholesale loss of biodiversity and decimation of ecosystems that characterize the current mass extinction episode. The future of life on Earth, including people, will depend in large part on our ability to devise, test, and scale up effective and creative conservation models at a pace that far outstrips progress made to date. These models must create incentives for people at different scales—including local communities, national governments, and transnational corporations—to change their behaviors in ways that foster the sustainable use of natural resources and ecosystems.

In tackling one of the foremost global challenges today, the conservation field should serve as—and draw from—a dynamic laboratory for social entrepreneurship. Conservationists urgently need to develop innovative measures that catalyze local action, and reshape the economic relationship between people and nature. Policy and institutional reforms, which often require systems change through collective efforts, are imperative. Above all, we need to make solutions to today’s conservation challenges both transformative and scalable.

But this kind of entrepreneurial thinking and practice does not characterize the conservation field today, by and large. As entrepreneur Gautam Shah recently observed, the pace of innovation in conservation has been too slow to keep up with the growing scale of problems. Some conservationists today seem preoccupied with debating the merits of 19th-century models of conservation, rather than developing a field that can stand up to the pressures of the 21st. For the most part, there is little interaction between the conservation field and leading social enterprise networks and discourse.

We need a revitalized suite of ideas and practices for fostering innovation, scaling up solutions, enabling new ways of networking and organizing, and encouraging collaborations with transformative potential. As we see it, there are five priorities for catalyzing more entrepreneurial conservation approaches and investments:

Finding ways to sustain biodiversity and natural systems mostly comes down to changing human behavior.

1. Beyond Biology

Conservation has conventionally been conceptualized as a sub-field of the biological sciences, centered on the application of biology to conservation work, or “conservation biology.” The tools of conservation biology are valuable for diagnosing and understanding conservation problems, and for carrying out certain technical interventions where actions such as captive breeding or eradication of invasive species are important.

But in today’s increasingly complex and crowded world, finding ways to sustain biodiversity and natural systems mostly comes down to changing human behavior—the core driver of biodiversity loss and ecological degradation, such as patterns of land or resource use, species exploitation, or discharge of pollutants—at local, national, or global scale. As a result, over the past 30 years the entire conservation field has developed under something of a false premise that it is primarily about biodiversity science, when it is really about social change. Today, the field is much better at diagnosing problems—understanding why species are disappearing or ecosystems are degrading (a biology question)—rather than developing solutions (a social behavioral challenge). And while today’s graduates in conservation science are typically equipped with a broader pedigree of skills that encompass new perspectives in economics and social science, the sector’s historic roots within academia perpetuates a funding and organizational culture that values scholarly analysis over practical action, and precaution over risk-taking. We cannot understate the estimable dedication and commitment of those scientists to conservation, yet it is unlikely that the revolutionary acceleration of innovation needed so urgently across the sector will arise from within the academy.

Facilitating community-level behavioral changes that lead to local conservation measures is important to effective conservation practice in Africa and other parts of the world. (Photo by Roshni Lodhia, 2016)

This is because conservation as a field of work and scholarship needs to go farther than calls to develop, as Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier write, “a more integrative approach in which the centrality of humans is recognized in the conservation agenda.” Conservationists need to fundamentally reframe conservation as a process of social and human behavioral change, and direct resources toward enabling conservationists to facilitate such changes. Having a clear definition of the root problem and conceptual basis for the field is a prerequisite for improving practice and impact.

2. Rolling Back the State

Another legacy that constrains conservation entrepreneurship is the field’s historic domination by the public sector. State and various public management agencies have, in recent history, owned or controlled biological resources such as wildlife, forests, and fisheries. Though many communities have used and survived on these natural resources for generations, a range of factors in the 20th century resulted in the widespread dispossession of local users. The public sector’s monopolization of natural resource tenure and control over conservation space impedes the kind of risk-taking and experimentation feasible in more decentralized fields, such as agriculture.

Today, one of the most profound changes in the conservation field is increased investment in securing indigenous and communal land, resource, and territorial marine rights to create better incentives for stewardship. Between 2002 and 2015, for example, roughly 150 million hectares of forest land were secured for or restored to indigenous peoples and other local communities, according to research by the Rights and Resources Initiative, increasing the total area of forests under local tenure regimes in developing countries from 21 percent to 31 percent. Conservation efforts and organizations are contributing to this progress in settings as varied as Indian drylands, the Colombian Amazon, and indigenous lands in Australia, with nascent marine movements following a similar trend in a growing number of coastal states, such as Kenya.

Conservation practice needs to more widely and consistently deploy a prototyping approach, whereby initiatives target root problems through a testable hypothesis and impact model based on measurable results.

3. From Projects to Prototypes

Much conservation work tends to focus on specific places and geographies. Since the root causes of conservation problems in a given place tend to involve a multitude of social, environmental, cultural, and political dynamics, projects tend to deploy a range of strategies and interventions that attempt to shape all sorts of different social and ecological variables. But the line between a usefully holistic approach and one that is unfocused, or lacking any systematic analysis or theory of change, is a fine one. Despite the ostensive grounding of conservation in empirical evidence, it is relatively rare to find conservation projects based on a clear and testable hypothesis of behavioral change.

The result is that conservation efforts frequently attempt to accomplish a wide range of outcomes through a rather generalist project structure. Even the best of those local projects tend not to be scalable, because they are so embedded in the specificities of place and designed to solve multi-faceted problems in a particular locale, rather than addressing a wider systemic issue through a replicable set of methods. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that achieving lasting progress in site-based conservation typically takes decades rather than years, requiring sustained investment and frequent adaptation. But we frequently see the resulting “project trap” in conservation: numerous, small, isolated projects, or opportunistic organizations that have no clear path to scaling.

Conservation practice needs to more widely and consistently deploy a prototyping approach, whereby initiatives target root problems through a testable hypothesis and impact model based on measurable results. For example, Lion Guardians, a local organization based in Kenya that works on community-based carnivore conservation, has developed a remarkably effective impact model that addresses a widespread and growing conservation challenge in Africa: conflicts between livestock herders and lions, which result in lions getting killed and thus, a decline in lion populations. The organization took about five years to develop its methods into a model based around converting Maasai warriors who traditionally kill lions into “Guardians” that monitor and protect lions, as well as protect the community’s livestock from lions. The model’s theory of behavioral change is clear, and the empirical impacts have been demonstrated in a number of social and ecological contexts. This creates the kind of prototype or proof of concept that leads to opportunities for impact on a larger scale.

Prototyping Blue Ventures' approach for kick-starting local engagement in marine conservation necessitated a deep understanding of the economic forces affecting traditional fishing communities. (Photo by Garth Cripps, Blue Ventures)

Somewhat similarly, the organization that one of us directs, Blue Ventures, has spent the past decade refining a “community catalyst” model, which is based on enabling local communities in Madagascar to establish locally managed marine areas or seasonal protections on certain species. After years of experimentation, refinement, and careful evaluation, this model of local marine conservation has spread to more than 11 percent of Madagascar’s coastline, and Blue Ventures is beginning to scale it out to other regional and global settings.

Funders and international conservation organizations need to think about new ways to identify and support the kinds of organizations that have scalable solutions on offer.

4. Improving the Conservation “Marketplace”

Even when an exceptional social entrepreneur develops a prototype solution that effectively addresses an urgent conservation problem, the general inefficiency of the existing conservation “marketplace”—whereby organizations “sell” their results and impacts to funders that “buy” or invest in them—still hampers impact at scale. Despite significant global investment in conservation, there are relatively few funders with risk capital looking for scalable ideas and solutions. Much conservation funding is concentrated within a small number of large international organizations, and the feedback loops between efforts on the ground (often in tropical, developing countries) and funders (located predominantly in the Global North) are fairly attenuated.

More effectively promoting scalable approaches and solutions to conservation requires that funders make a number of basic changes in how they think about and support scaling. Effective local organizations often cannot easily access the funding and technical or organizational expertise they need to scale. And genuinely scalable and disruptive local ideas can get lost amidst the clamor of a sector dominated by large, global organizations and international development agencies and funders. Both of our organizations have frequently witnessed the difficulty that effective local organizations generating tangible impacts in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa face in reaching global networks, audiences, and funding sources within this context.

Funders and international conservation organizations need to think about new ways to identify and support the kinds of organizations that have scalable solutions on offer. We also need new to find ways of bringing together innovative organizations, entrepreneurs working on the fringes of the field, investors, and funders, to envision and spread new strategies and solutions. For example, a Blue Solutions Forum for Africa recently convened more than 100 practitioners from 24 countries to share innovative models and practices for marine conservation. A start-up organization called Conservation XLabs articulates the critical need “to harness, build, and mobilize a ‘tribe’ of conservation visionaries, solvers, and doers that will bring a new wave of innovation to conservation.”

5. Think Big

Ultimately we can address today’s conservation only by achieving large-scale transformation of complex social and ecological systems. Such transformations depend on a combination of social, institutional, and economic change that lead to people using and managing resources in fundamentally different ways. One example of this type of large-scale change is the recovery of US fisheries since the 1990s, enabled by policy and legal reforms that mandated clear fishery recovery targets and granted fishery users (fishermen) a defined right to a share of the fishery. Another example, though still tenuous, is the 70 percent decline in Amazon deforestation over the past decade, resulting from a combination of factors, including strengthened indigenous land rights, improved government enforcement, changes in the commodity chains for soy farming, and better monitoring technologies.

Transformations like these require the combination of effective local conservation models, institutional and policy reforms, and multi-actor collaborations to leverage resources and skills. New technologies, new financing models, and new organizational structures based on networks and coalitions are all critical components of achieving the kind of systemic changes that contemporary conservation challenges demand.

Meeting today’s growing conservation challenges will require that we find new ways of thinking about and practicing conservation, rooted in solving social problems through scalable methods and prototypes that deliver results. Conservation investors, practitioners, and scholars need to work together to reimagine a bolder, more integrated and entrepreneurial conservation field that is up to the challenge.

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