Learning by participation in conservation projects

By Tibor Hartel

A growing amount of scientific literature addresses the social aspects of biological conservation in Europe and worldwide. This is not unexpected given that many (if not most) of the protected areas and species occur in environments where human presence and activity are pronounced. Ignoring the human component of biological conservation from such areas increases the risk of conflicts.

Involving local communities in developing management plans and participatory scenario planning tend to be recognized as a need for increasing success of biological conservation. This need is clear. But are the conditions favourable for implementing such methods? Not always. People’s perceptions and attitudes for various natural and cultural values are generally determined by their actual knowledge, past experience and the social context. These perceptions and attitudes generally influence the outcomes of various participatory exercises, with direct consequences for the effectiveness of conservation.

Learning is considered as an important central driver of individuals’ understanding and relationship with the ‘world’. Knowing more and understanding better various environmental problems may positively influence outcomes of conservation projects. Many conservation projects increasingly recognize this and promote the involvement of various stakeholders e.g. as ‘volunteers’.

But is there a ‘best’ way for making people learn? And what does ‘learning’ mean?

In a recent study published in Conservation Letters, Anna C. Evely and her colleagues evaluated how much volunteers can learn from various types of conservation projects. For this, they categorized projects considering the type of participation they promoted as: (i) Functional projects – where participants were ‘used’ mostly to assure ‘manpower’ to achieve various predetermined objectives. (ii) Interactive projects – where participants were allowed to decide, design and run events to a greater extent. And (iii) Self-mobilization projects which were built on the ability of participants to show initiative and be part in key decisions.

The key results of their study are:

i)  All participatory projects resulted in learning but projects with greater quality and extent of engagement resulted in higher extent of learning. The learning outcomes greatly varied, from ‘learning something new’ through ‘learning about other viewpoints’ and ‘understanding of conservation’ to ‘increase in confidence in solving complex problems’. Especially the ‘ability to work together with others’, the ‘problem solving ability’ and other practical abilities were positively influenced by a greater level of engagement of participants.

ii)  Greater investment in quality of engagement of the participants will result in higher quality of learning immediately after the start of the participation.

iii)    Learning outcomes were associated with a range of different factors. For example, the ‘learning about the viewpoint of others’ was associated with ‘autonomy’, ‘feeling valued’, ‘information sharing’, ‘involvement in decision making’, and the ‘feeling that the decision making is fair’.

The research addressed some important questions like: What is the relationship between the different aspects of learning and the adaptive capacity of individuals? What is the relationship between the level of participation and learning and the efficiency of conservation outcomes? What type of change is desired through the participation and which are the tradeoffs resources used to encourage participation and those needed to achieve ecological outcomes?

What did I learn from this paper? Many things, but certainly, next time when I hear somebody saying that ‘we need to put more emphasis on education’ (‘education’ is almost a buzzword today, and in my perception becomes more and more ‘inflated’) I will quickly ask for some short details about what kind of ‘education’ they might have in mind.

What type of engagement – i.e. functional, interactive or self mobilization – do you use/prefer in your projects and why?


Evely, A.C., Pinard, M., Reed, M.S., Fazey, I.2011. High levels of participation in conservation projects enhance learning. Conservation Letters 4: 116-126.


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