It’s a long-standing ambition, for society to reach some sort of just and equitable ideal. What that means in practice differs, depending on the time, place, and people involved. But it does seem that meeting basic human rights and needs and the notion of ‘fairness’ are prevalent across discussions of social justice and equity. Things like poverty and hunger connect pretty clearly to equity. For conservation, however, it’s a bit fuzzier. In theory, conservation is driven by values around making the world a better place. Yet we also have to ask ourselves - who gets to decide how conservation happens, where, and who benefits or suffers.
A few other researchers and I recently thought we’d try to get a better sense of how research in conservation has so far approached equity - especially how it’s defined, measured, and evaluated in studies. We sifted through a mound of papers, synthesizing information from the 138 that considered how social equity and conservation fit together. Besides a general upward trends in the amount of research explicitly on this topic (and alphabet soup present as SDGs, REDD, and CBD have become prominent), there are also some trends in what and how.
Equity is 3D. According to people who spend a whole lot of time thinking about equity, we should consider not only the distribution of costs and benefits, but also the procedure of making things happen (e.g. who gets to make decisions) and the recognition for rights, types of knowledge, cultural factors, and the like. The conservation literature has often defaulted to analysing distributional equity, adopting a stance of equity as egalitarian or fair allocation of costs and benefits and capitalizing on concrete and easy-to-measure things … like money. And what is considered ‘equitable’ may be a bit fuzzy or obscured, but making it very clear is essential for keep tabs and evaluating progress.
While the limited view of equity adopted by conservation and insufficient definition are important things to recognise, there are other lessons we can take away from the state of our current equity and conservation research. If we backup and consider why researchers study conservation and equity in the first place, we often see a utilitarian perspective, this romantic notion that social equity and conservation success go hand-in-hand. However, there may in fact be trade-offs between social equity and conservation (or even between those different dimensions of equity). In both research and practice we need to be more critical of our underlying motivations and examine more closely the knock-on effects of any given action.
Like a lot of the research in conservation, there are also some discrepancies between who is carrying out the research and where conservation is taking place. For example, very little research is happening on conservation and equity in Europe or North America, but much of the research is coming from institutes in those regions. This makes it a bit hard to tell how much studies reflect the researchers’ own notions of equity or what is relevant to the local context.
I guess the burning question is still, is conservation equitable? Well, it’s complicated (and inconclusive). We found that studies reported negative or mixed outcomes - so conservation less frequently resulted in positive equity results. But all those elements above (and many more) will influence these endpoints.
If you found this all super-intriguing, you can get even more detail from our review paper in Environmental Research Letters! AND, while we’re on the topic of social equity … During Live Below the Line this May, I’m raising funds again for this awesome foundation that works to end poverty and empower youth. Definitely fighting injustice!
Friedman, R.S., Law, E.A., Bennett, N.J., Ives, C.D., Thorn, J.P.R., & Wilson, K.A. 2018. How just and just how? A systematic review of social equity in conservation research. Environmental Research Letters, 13(5). Doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aabcde