Conservation and governance

By Joern Fischer

Conservation science emerged primarily out of the biological sciences. In the last decade, there has been a lot of engagement with economics, especially in the context of ecosystem services and land use optimisation. Here, I argue that the next key challenge for conservation scientists is to engage more deeply with academic work on governance — especially considering multi-level governance.


Conventionally, scientists have often seen their job as providing “facts”, which then ought to be implemented by policy-makers. Such an approach can be criticised for being overly technocratic — that is, an expert (the scientist) finds the fix to a problem, and then it’s up to the benevolent dictator (the policy-maker) to implement this fix. But what if there is no benevolent dictator? What if there are a bunch of contested interests operating all at once, if the science does not have a single “true” answer, and if multiple ecological scales and administrative levels interact?

In a recent paper, we argued that conventional notions of evidence for conservation practice could be more useful if they were embedded in the context of a multi-scaled ecological vision; while explicitly acknowledging the realities of multi-level governance. How might this work?

First, a set of multi-scaled ecological principles can help to generate a vision of what a sustainably managed landscape, region, or continent would look like. Such multi-scaled visions have been discussed, for example, in forestry (see Lindenmayer and Franklin’s seminal book). Such visions enable a clear articulation of different kinds of goals at different scales, as well as shedding light on likely cross-scale interactions. Bits of “evidence” (including expert understanding) can then help to refine an ecological vision, and to assess how well a current state of implementation matches with the envisioned situation.

Second, evidence can’t be put into practice without a good understanding of multi-level governance, and the constraints and opportunities arising from it. Questions conservation scientists can ask (together with governance experts) include: which level of governance should be responsible for a particular conservation intervention? Does this interfere with decisions made at other levels? Is there sufficient democratic legitimacy for successful implementation? Which government and non-government actors have stakes in a potential conservation intervention?

Considering multi-level governance is not a magic bullet for conservation. But it will help to get away from overly technocratic, potentially simplistic understandings of how science interacts with policy decisions.

Our full paper is available in Conservation Letters. All papers in Conservation Letters are now open access.


One thought on “Conservation and governance

  1. Hi Joern,

    Thanks for this blog and good see further discussion on MLG. I agree that in many areas of environmental work MLG has something to offer especially if we, as you suggest, align it in some way with existing ecosystem hierarchies. For me one question is why is MLG not more widely applied? I further support the development of a set of principles though would be keen to expand these out to be more inclusive. My current PhD work on MLG in climate change adaptation in South Australia (sub –state to local community levels) indicates that, at least with climate change, the issues are just as much cross sectoral and internal within each ‘level’ as they multi-scaled. So including adaptive governance, subsidiarity, negotiated allocation of roles and responsibilities and the establishment/adaptation of relevant governance structures and processes, within and between levels, are critical in making some progress toward addressing multi-level goals. So why does this not happen? It appears that we need some paradigm shift to a new way of working, not least of all including a better common understand and acceptance of who is best placed to make what decisions. The current ‘old guard’ seem reluctant to make this shift. So rather than making the quantum leap we need, we may need to think of some transitional / transformational processes to help us get there?

    Barry Lincoln

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