Conservationists share ‘core aims’ but clash over ways forward, study finds

15 Apr 2019

The first large-scale study of the views held by those working to protect the natural world has found agreement on the goals of conservation – but substantial disagreement on how to move towards them.

The research has been supported by a CCI Collaborative Fund grant involving the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, The Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Fauna and Fora International, the University of Leeds and the University of Ediburgh. It reveals a sizable consensus among conservationists for many core aims: maintaining ecosystems, securing public support, and reducing environmental impact of the world’s richest.

However, the study also shows the global community is deeply split on whether to place economic value on nature. The necessity of protected areas – and whether people should be moved to create them – is highly disputed, as is the worth of “non-native” species.

Conducted by Cambridge University’s Dr Chris Sandbrook with colleagues from Edinburgh and Leeds universities, the new study collected opinions of over 9,200 conservationists in over 140 countries and has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The research uncovers some demographic variation. For example, women and those from Africa and South America lean more toward “people-centered” conservation, which aims to benefit communities and give them a say in conservation decisions. Men and those from North America tend to favour a “science-led” approach associated with protecting nature for its own sake.

Next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity meeting will see UN member states gather in Beijing to set global conservation goals for the following decade. The research team says their findings “raise important questions about whose voices get heard in conservation debates”.

“A core set of aims must form the bedrock of any social movement,” said lead author Sandbrook, from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. “We can see that the world’s conservation community is in general agreement on many fundamental beliefs and objectives.”

“When it comes to the mechanisms for delivering conservation, we find significant rifts emerge. In some ways the conservation movement is like a political party, where some underlying beliefs bind together people who don’t agree on absolutely everything. When big decisions need to be taken these splits come to the surface.”

While the study’s authors say conservation is facing “bitter internal disputes” over its future, their research confirms some key ideas around which the majority of conservationists coalesce. 

The study finds 90% agreement for science-based conservation goals, as well as for giving a voice to people affected by those goals. Some 88% agree that the environmental impact of the rich must be curtailed, and only 8% think global trade is fine as it is. Some 77% believe human population growth should be reduced, and only 6% think humans are separate from nature

The study shows the application of economics to nature is one of conservation’s most contentious issues. “Some think assigning monetary value to nature is a pragmatic way to assist policy-making. Others believe it reprehensible to put a price tag on things that are priceless,” said Sandbrook.  

Only around half (52%) of conservationists think their movement “should work with capitalism”. Some 61% believe “economic arguments for conservation are risky”, and 73% think economic rationales risk displacing other motivations for protecting species.

However, a high number – some 84% – believe corporations “can be a positive force for conservation” and 62% say the movement needs the support of corporations, suggesting many conservationists see both the pros and cons of economic approaches.

“Our study shows that conservation is a diverse movement, both in people and ideas,” added Sandbrook. “As the Convention on Biological Diversity 2020 meeting approaches, we need to improve the representation of this diversity when debating how best to preserve life on Earth.”    

This study has been supported by the CCI Collaborative Fund for Conservation. For more information, visit the project page.