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Cooperation and Conflict in Conservation

By Michael Bode

Different groups are all “fighting” for the environment, but each group does it in its own way and with its own specific priorities – sometimes leading to negative conservation outcomes.

Systematic conservation planning is the absolute best-practice approach to conserving biodiversity in a large landscape. We create maps that highlight the distribution of our favourite conservation features – be they threatened species, vulnerable habitats, ecosystem services, or all of the above – and then we use these data to decide which locations are the most valuable. The result is a priority map: a chart of where our limited resources will do the most good for conservation.

While systematic conservation planning methologies do a pretty good job of describing the distribution of conservation features, they do a poor job of describing the conservation organisations themselves. Systematic conservation planning basically says that protected areas are created by a single conservation entity that is concerned about all the features equally. It therefore bears little resemblance to the landscape of organisations that make up the modern conservation sector. In biodiverse landscapes, reserve networks are the cumulative result of a huge number of autonomous, passionate, idiosyncratic organisations.

Of course, these organisations share the same general objective – to minimise or reverse harm to the environment. However, these groups are independent operators that are usually focused on radically different facets of conservation. Some are interested in species, others in different habitat types. Some believe that conservation needs to be working where the bulldozers and chainsaws are operating. Others think that conservation should focus on the most intact, untouched landscapes.

As anyone who has worked in conservation will tell you, the relationships between these various organisations are often strained and fraught. Conservation groups are usually made up of true-believers, strong-willed workers and assertive leaders. Frequently these individuals don’t see eye-to-eye on the best way forward for conservation; often they’re competing for the same government grants, philanthropic donors and skilled workers.

This is the real world, and yet none of this complexity is reflected in the modern systematic conservation planning literature. In the few places where these issues are discussed, authors generally assert the benefits of collaborative work, and move quickly onto where that work should take place. Others argue that conservation groups should try to “free-ride” on other organisations working in a region – for example, biodiversity conservation should try to benefit from organisations that are protecting forests to sequester carbon. Clearly there is a need for systematic conservation planning to acknowledge the multi-organisational reality of conservation.

We don’t pretend to offer a solution to these difficulties, but we have developed a new framework that provides a more nuanced description of how this diversity might affect conservation outcomes.

We have used simulation models and game theory to explore how alternative behaviours – such as organisations acting independently or explicitly cooperating – affected an organisation’s ability to protect their feature of interest, and investigated how the distribution of features in the landscape influenced organisations’ attitudes toward cooperation.

For example, take conservation features that have highly correlated spatial distributions. Conservation planners have always been very optimistic about the potential synergies that can be achieved when species or ecosystem services overlap in space – they call them “win-win” opportunities. However, correlated features will draw conservation groups into close proximity, where competition and conflict could easily arise. Depending on how organisations behave, correlated features can actually lead to negative conservation outcomes.

While these detrimental outcomes can be avoided through expensive cooperation, our models show that this coordination will demand painful sacrifices from each organisation. To achieve the full benefits, each conservation group has to give up some of the most valuable places in the landscape – the “hotspots” for their favourite feature – in return for “compromise” areas that protect an intermediate amount of both features.

A number of these results fly in the face of received wisdom. These insights were only possible because, for the first time, we integrated multiple conservation actors with different bio­diversity goals into a single process.

We’re now working on applying the insights of this theoretical work into real conservation landscapes, where conservation organisations are actively pursuing different conservation goals.

Michael Bode is a researcher with the Environmental Decisions Group. He is based at the University of Melbourne.