Conservation impossible in ‘silent’ developing countries

Note by Joern: Today a guest post by Badrul Azhar. I look forward to your comments!

Authored by Badrul Azhar

I am thankful that Joern has been kind enough to let me post this sensitive article on his blog. There are few other good platforms to air my opinion among fellow conservation scientists.

Next generation of conservation padawans

The next generation of Malaysian conservation scientists (photo by Badrul Azhar)

Working as a conservation scientist in a developing country requires a high level of perseverance and endurance, to face the litany of domestic and global challenges–especially if you’re a local resident, from a less fortunate socio-economic background, exposed to red-tape culture, with little resources, and are a non-native speaker of English. Most counterparts from developed countries may not understand, nor encounter these problems. If they did, I suspect that no-one would ever produce significant or valid works in conservation science.

I feel a need to share my insights about what is happening today in mainstream conservation science, and what is routinely experienced by fellow scientists in other developing countries. Apparently, we’re fortunate to reside and work in some of the remaining countries still rich with tropical biodiversity. For sure, we’re just 15 or 20 minutes drive to the nearest tropical rainforest, and we can study various organisms and taxa, from viruses to tigers. Yet, in reality, we’re crippled by many shortcomings. These prevent us excelling to the levels we watch our counterparts in the developed world achieve.

Allow me to explain. A few weeks ago I saw an advertisement from a professor in a developed country looking for a PhD candidate to study oil palm biodiversity in Southeast Asia. So I advised a former postgraduate student (MSc by research) to email the professor to apply for the specific PhD research. Unfortunately, I learned from my student that the PhD opportunity is only available to those from that specific developed country. This former student has published several research articles on oil palm biodiversity in impact factor journals, and it would have been a great opportunity for him to be trained abroad, particularly in the developed world. Sadly, all too often this is not possible.

I was immensely lucky. I was given the rare opportunity to further my study abroad twice through government scholarship (not because I’m an outstanding student–I was merely in the right place at the right time). My first opportunity was my MSc in the UK and the other my PhD in Australia. Similar scholarships are now enormously competitive and incredibly rare. Many such scholarships have been withdrawn during this period of economic slowdown that is impacting conservation science. You stand a better chance to win a scholarship if you are pursuing a postgraduate degree in critical field areas such as medicine, engineering and biotechnology.

For many years, I’ve reflected that assistance, such as financial support, mentoring systems, and basic facilities made available either from abroad or domestically to local conservation scientists, have been evaporating. I have also noticed that foreign scientists, who conduct their research in my country, are well funded by agencies from their wealthy origin. Interestingly, some research projects, spearheaded by foreign scientists in my country, are even funded by local companies, generously contributing tens of millions of dollars to ensure great impacts and produce high-quality findings. On the other hand, local scientists are only awarded a tiny fraction of what their counterparts from the developed world have received (if they have been successful in their grant application from government agencies). To my knowledge, on average, my colleagues receive less than USD$15,000 per research project, to finance their work for two years (this may not apply to other developing countries). These days, that small amount of grant money is unlikely to ensure that colleagues in the developing world can advance conservation science and natural resource management, or even to get their research outcomes published in leading journals such as Nature and Science. Fieldwork in remote areas is very costly (you have to pay to access some pristine forests), and researchers are poorly equipped (both in the office and field) to conduct research in the developing world. Attending important conferences, domestically or internationally, is considered a luxury only few can afford. Like many of my colleagues, I would rather spend every cent of the small grant money I accrue to support the students collecting data in the field.

Sincerely, I do not resent those who have secured huge research grant money from my country. However, if the benefits have gone mostly to foreign scientists, rather than to local people, there is an ethical question that needs to be answered by both grant receivers and givers. Local scientists, as well as students, are being sidelined directly or indirectly from studying important conservation topics in their own country, in favour of outsiders. In the long run, conservation science will be less attractive, with no good prospects, for local people (already, many seem comfortable to be identified as naturalists instead of scientists), and conservation degrees in local universities will fail to attract the best brains or even sustainable student numbers.

There is a moral responsibility among conservation scientists from the developed world to partner with scientists in developing countries, and to be seriously involved in capacity building of their counterparts who are at the forefront of the biodiversity crisis. I welcome foreign scientists researching in my country, as long there is a win-win situation for local counterparts (e.g. publications, genuine networking and capacity building).

It’s remarkable that on the cusp of 2018 these statements even need to be made. It’s worth reflecting if conservation science is dominated by elite groups that share similar cultural and socio-economic values. If this is so, the advancement of conservation science is being skewed more to the developed world (judging from the number of research articles published) while it seems to be ‘quiet’ from a significant number of developing countries. Could this be a contributing reason for why conservation science has failed on the ground (beyond the realm of journal publication), particularly in developing countries? Similarly, it’s also worth contemplating why there are so many published articles delivering the same rigid bad news in tropical conservation science these days, while little progress or success has been made in reality. Is this status quo going to remain forever?


7 thoughts on “Conservation impossible in ‘silent’ developing countries

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful blog! I think research groups from the developed countries should always consider local/regional knowledgeable people in their research; whether these are just ‘wise people’ formally engaged to feed the project with fresh local ideas and/or as master/PhD/postdocs. I know that from Joern`s approach, that this works and its fair.

  2. Thanks for the post, Badrul.

    You may have seen that the blog ‘Dynamic Ecology’ hosted a series of posts from ecologists in developing countries (Mainly Brazil and South Africa). Many of those posts shared a common frustration, which is also reflected in your post.

    To summarise, those posts all came to a similar conclusion that developing countries should develop their own ecological research capacity, but they will be unable to follow the same development trajectories of more developed countries in North America/UK/Europe and Australia. Low and middle income countries face operational constraints (political, bureaucratic, economic, social) that make our local context incompatible with strategies that have proven successful elsewhere.

    It will be tricky to beat our own path, but also exciting. The first step will be to acknowledge that we should embrace the help offered by wealthier countries, but we should only use their kind offers to support our own strategies; not the other way around. In Africa, I too often see how development strategies are based solely on the funding offered by other countries. When the funding dries up, the projects disappear with it. Not only is this unsustainable, it also instills a culture of dependency.

    But we should be optimistic. The fact that these issues are being discussed – and the discussions are being initiated by conservation professionals from poorer countries – shows that we are on the right track.

  3. Thanks Tibor and Falko for the responses. I’m glad to learn that discussions are being initiated by conservation professionals from the developing countries to help others. And I optimistically believe there are still many conservation scientists from the developed countries who always want to engage with and help their counterparts in the developing countries. All these should be commended and welcomed. Ideally, conservation scientists, regardless where they come from, should work together to tackle the current biodiversity crisis. But I’m afraid that future conservation scientists will be astonished by so many journal articles on biodiversity conservation published from our decades, mostly have been shaped by the same crowd, ignoring the rest of global stakeholders. I also think that a level playing field is not possible in conservation science because of a very wide gap between the developed and developing countries, where we all play the game by different set of rules. Hopefully, things will work out all right.

  4. I agree that researchers who are funded for their work in developing countries should collaborate and share their grant with local researchers. The problems of lack of research funds and opportunities for conservation scientists in many developing countries also stemmed fr their government’s focus on economic growth and their lack of concern for conservation and sustainability beyond paying lip services at international fora. They view forests and ecosystems as natural resources to be exploited for commercial activities. They will fund research on how to exploit nature. It is very much a neoliberal approach. In some countries such as Costa Rica and Cuba where conservation is valued there are more research done locally by their own researchers. Similarly in Indonesia during the reign of former president Susilo Bambang Yudidyono there are many research done on forest carbon because his government started to tackle deforestation and peat degradation issue.

    • Thanks Lee Tan. I agree with you that most developing country governments pay less attention to conservation, reflected by extremely small budget allocation for biodiversity conservation and research. That’s a true reality (faced by conservation scientists in developing countries, nothing much can be done to rectify that issue) that colleagues from the developed world should understand. Hopefully something will come up to help those underprivileged and to close the gap in conservation science between developing and developed countries. Conservation science should not be treated like an exclusive membership-only club.

  5. Greetings from Brazil where the situation is very similar, and I absolutely agree with your comments. Also one should add that the millionaire NGOs who basically rule conservation around the world have shown very little interest to incorporate the views and needs of local civil society organizations and activists unless you agree to align fully with their agenda, oftentimes decided in a faraway capital and not necessarily the best for your country´s conservation. We must resist and continue the good fight in any case. Regards!

    • Thanks jtruda for your comments. It’s sad if some international conservation NGOs or foreign researchers still use such ‘colonial’ tactics and disregard local stakeholders. Things must change soon otherwise history will not judge conservation science kindly.

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