AI in Conservation: Communities’ control over the decision-making process

Imagine a tropical forest region, a seascape or mangroves; where big data on the society and ecology— on biodiversity, the behavior of peoples as individuals and the community— are being collected through data sensing and other methods and used in a larger Artificial Intelligence project. The machine— the computers and so on— will, of course, learn in the process; but from the beginning, the decision about what information to acquire and for what and how to use that information is decided by certain (human) stakeholders. Gradually machine learning will take its course, and will take AI processes forward. AI will acquire data and set rules for data-use to decide about the access to nature by communities, about the use of the natures’ commons. AI will determine what is nature conservation and what is not; it will decide about where, when, and how to intervene for conservation.

In recent years, several non-governmental organizations based in North America and Europe are embracing AI in nature conservation. Plans and actions of these conservation NGOs have significance for communities all across the world. Because narratives promoted by these big NGOs and their work heavily influence policies and resource allocation outside North America and Europe. Unfortunately, it appears that conservation groups who have international influence are yet to recognize that, AI is an automated decision-making process. None of these groups are addressing the question of communities’ participation in and control over AI. But the success of these NGOs will mean that, in the coming decades, AI will increasingly determine the extent of control over natures’ commons enjoyed by local and indigenous communities across the world.

For instance, the largest association of nature conservation groups— the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is currently drafting its program for the 2021-2024 period. The IUCN has identified Artificial Intelligence as one of the main enablers to achieve its goals related to core program areas. It seems the use of big datamachine learning, and AI is being considered as the most important enabler in the future programs of the IUCN. But there’s not a word about safeguarding against the autonomous superpower of AI to harm; nothing is mentioned about whether there will be efforts to ensure communities’ participation in AI, and communities’ control over big data.

If you take a serious look into the current state of the AI field, you will see that basic premises of discussions on AI in the governance of nature conservation should at least consider the following;

  1. AI is a simulation of human intelligence process owned and run by big data monopolies that also simulate all the human biases amplified by interests of monopolies, and can aggravate violation of rights and accelerate injustices.
  2. AI is an autonomous decision-making process, that has autonomous power to harm individuals and communities by violating privacy and other rights, and has inherent features to aggravate the current state of global inequality through the unequal distribution of resources.
  3.  AI innovations and applications are till date is largely run and owned by a few big data monopolies. If big data is not owned by communities AI processes and tools have inherent capacities to be used in the disempowerment of people and to hinder equitable governance of nature’s commons.

Unfortunately, while conservation groups are embracing AI, none of these discussions are present. After decades of works by communities to secure environmental rights and justice, inclusion, and participation, and establishing the concept of free and prior and informed consent— why this is happening all over again when it comes to AI? I see three main reasons. Firstly, conservation groups are considering AI as a mere technological tool which is innovative and can tremendously enhance the operation of nature conservation governance. Secondly, conservation groups fail to recognize that, the AI processes are still business products owned by a very few giant corporations that have a total monopoly on the powerhouse of AI— the big data. Lastly, conservation groups are not recognizing the fact that AI is resources-expensive and absence of AI is not necessarily the main challenge for many communities to conserve nature’s commons.

These limitations of big conservation groups’ position about AI should be seriously addressed. Members, supporters, and patrons of conservation NGOs should know better that, AI isn’t just an innovative technological tool that state or non-state actors can use to implement nature conservation interventions, it’s much more than that. AI brings very high level and extent of automation to the decision-making process that it will determine who get to decide about what interventions are necessary and when and how to intervene.

Till date, the main powerhouses of AI— the Big Data is owned by invasive, non-transparent and unaccountable corporations who have established their monopoly in the business. So, AI as such has all the inherent biases against marginalized communities in every nation, and inherent capacities to be used against marginalized communities (e.g. indigenous nations, artisanal fishers, and vulnerable gender groups) whose livelihoods practices offer protections to nature against unsustainable extractive industries. So, without ensuring the democratization of AI, it will be dangerous for vulnerable communities to just welcome it in the management of environmental commons to which their life, livelihoods, and cultures are deeply connected. Deployment of AI without securing direct control over the data by communities can undo decades of efforts in environmental justice; and participatory and inclusive governance of nature’s commons.

AI is resources-expensive. Where nature conservation management is doable with the less, it will be counter-productive to indiscriminately welcome such a resource-expensive process. The efficiency in nature conservation governance promised by Artificial Intelligence is helpful for indigenous and local communities only if they have the political power, opportunity of direct participation, and authority to control such an automated decision-making process. Imagine artisanal fishers or indigenous communities who aren’t allowed to directly participate in governance, and then outside actors bring AI into the scene without ensuring democratization the ownership of the big data. In that case, AI will be used to justify injustices against communities.

Conservation groups should make it very clear that when they talk about Artificial Intelligencebig datadata sensing, and machine learning— they recognize AI as a highly automated decision-making process that has inherent biases and inherent power to harm communities. Secondly, conservation groups should give the utmost importance on democratizing such processes before deploying AI in nature conservation. And lastly, it should be recognized by conservation groups that democratization of AI does not only mean that communities have right to know or see (access) about what’s going on, rather it means the big data are owned by communities and the communities have total control over the processes related to AI.

 


Featured Photo: Fishers and honey collectors in the Sundarbans— the largest continuous mangrove forest in the world. Photo by the author.

Integrating SDG14 and Blue Economy into the next Five-Year Plan in Bangladesh

Recently after being asked by the officials of Planning Commission in Bangladesh, I and Professor Dr. Kazi Ahsan Habib of Aquatic Bio-resource Lab at the Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University have submitted a Concept Note about how the government can integrate SDG14 and Blue Economy into the next Fiver-Year Plan. Following is a summary of the Concept Note.

As a highly climate-vulnerable country, Bangladesh needs to focus on building resilient communities. To do that, particularly in Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZ), SDG14 targets and Blue Economy offer windows for the public agencies to mobilize resources; as both are the priorities of the public agencies since the last couple of years. But the progress made in the Blue Economy sector is very negligible, it is not even integrated into any long term plan yet. In this context, the next 8th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) is an excellent opportunity to integrate SDG14 and Blue Economy in national planning.

Healthy coastal and marine ecosystems, and protection of biodiversity could be the main powerhouses to build resilient communities through creating new job opportunities and social benefits. There are lots of options for people-based solutions where it’s possible to do more with the less in coastal and marine conservation. So, for Bangladesh, mobilizing resources is not the main challenge, rather the most important tasks are to building capacity in terms of knowledge, trained human resources, and policies towards integrating Blue Economy into long term national planning such as the next FYP.

The goal 14 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals; ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ can be the best available source of framework for a national pathway to incorporate blue economy in the 8th FYP, because SDG 14 targets are focused on increasing knowledge and research capacities as well as the transfer of technologies. The public agencies already have a Monitoring and Evaluation Framework of SDGs. If necessary, a separate Monitoring and Evaluation Framework of Blue Economy can be adopted once setting the targets are done.

Based on recommendations made at the 2nd Marine Conservation and Blue Economy Symposium held in Dhaka in 2017, we think the aforementioned targets should be included in the 8th FYP to make progress towards a ‘blue economy’ in Bangladesh.

Major Core Targets: Building an Ocean-literate citizenry, and reviving coastal economies through the restoration of ecosystems.

Poverty: To reduce extreme poverty in the coastal region, and to create good jobs for the underemployed populations; resources should be allocated to restore Chakoria Sundarbans and other ecologically collapsed or degraded habitats through private land-owner conservation schemes.

Fisheries: To reduce extreme poverty and offer good jobs through leveraging fisheries sub-sector, first, public investment should be mobilized to make sure that millions of fishers either own their necessary boats and gears or they are employed as fish workers. Secondly, Similar to large scale industrial fishing, marine commercial fishing also should be recognized as a formal economic sector, and taxations should be extended to it (prior to that, a classification and certification process need to be completed to identify and classify recreational, subsistence, artisanal, and commercial fishing); and third, initiating the process for sustainable certification of marine industrial fishing with any of the global certification consortium.

Transportation and communication: First, building necessary infrastructures and implementing Ballast Water Management in all seaports. Secondly, ensuring all coastal embankments, roads, and protection infrastructures are compliant with ‘living shoreline’ standards; and third, reclaiming and maintaining the intra-coastal waterways in the central and western coast, and the greater Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin areas.

Environmental sustainability: Creation of an autonomous institution to operate a public grant mechanism for coastal and marine research and extension. It will ensure that public agencies have continuous knowledge and community support through the works of a next-generation professional workforce in participatory conservation.

Urban settlements: In light of rising sea level and extreme weather events, there should be sectorial targets to re-build coastal and riparian urban settlements as ‘Ocean friendly’ using new and modified public and private infrastructures.

Energy and infrastructure: A reasonably ambitious target should be set for marine renewable energy generation.

We hope our proposal will be useful for the Planning Commission to integrate SDGs and Blue Economy into the 8th Five-Year Plan more effectively. We also call on the Civil Society Organizations, Educational, and Research Institutions to work together to help public agencies to achieve the goals of a sustainable blue economy.

Why we need media ethics for Ocean communicators?

Throughout the last decade, topics related to the climate crisis, marine ecosystems and biodiversity have increasingly secured their place in the mainstream media (MSM) coverage. The climate and Ocean coverage is not only presenting the bad news, the seriousness of the ecological crisis but also focused on reporting marine conservation efforts. With widening opportunities to get the conservation message across to the public, activities related to communications and public relations are getting rapidly increasing attention within marine conservation organizations.

MSM & MARINE CONSERVATION

We can notice broadly three types of engagement between MSM and marine conservation groups. Conservation groups see the media as the partner, and/or tool, and oftentimes they find media as their critic.

  1. Conservation groups like to see the media as a partner in conservation. Because, how and to what extents media cover an issue significantly define and shape the public discourse on that issue, and conservation organizations clearly understand that. As media is supposed to serve the public interest and common good, conservation organizations see ‘common ground’ with media and reach out to them as potential ‘partner’. This partnership approach serves them well to manufacture consent in public for conservation and mainstream and strengthen the support for conservation in public discourses.
  2. In many cases, conservation organizations consider media as a ‘tool’ to get the words out in the public about their own institution, or projects, or to reach out to their targeted audience for fundraising, or to reach out to policymakers and other stakeholders for advocacy or engagement. In these cases, media oftentimes, play the role of ‘neutral’ validators of conservation groups and/or of their works.
  3. Sometimes, conservation groups find media as the watchdog on behalf of the public, or a critic of their institutions and/or efforts.

THE CHALLENGE

While coverage of Ocean and conservation in the MSM is ‘getting better’, internalizing this as a news agenda is not happening much in legacy media outlets. Globally, MSM has a lack of institutional capacity and editorial priority to cover marine conservation related affairs as part of its regular agenda. In many cases, the novelty of the subjects to the newsroom, and high resource needs to operate in remote coastal and marine areas are also restrictive. So, oftentimes MSM coverage of Ocean conservation is mostly based on the updates delivered by the conservationists themselves.

This practice deprives Ocean conservation and conservation groups of objective reporting and critical coverage which are cornerstones of transparency, accountability, and public trust for any crisis sector. So, I think, strong and dynamic ethical practices are imperative to address this challenge.

QUESTION OF PUBLIC TRUST

MSM is useful for conservation communication because of the public trust that legacy media traditionally enjoys. The traditional perception is that media covers current affairs to serve the interest of all citizens, and it is independent of the undue influence of outside actors, political parties or conservation groups, for instances. Therefore, when ecological crisis or conservation efforts are represented in media as a consequence of any types of relationship between conservation groups and media organizations, it is an imperative that, the very relationship do not cross essential ethical standards of PR and/or journalism in a way that impede the media’s role as the fourth estate that makes other entities accountable to public.

People should be able to rely on that the stories are done independently by journalists (not serving the institutional interest of conservation organizations as such) who are committed to serving only the public interest and pursuing truth through facts.

Most probably, the unquestionably approving coverage by influential global media outlets of top-down declaration of very large marine protected areas are one of the recent examples of what happens if media does not independently and objectively examine each case on its merits, rather commit itself to the cause of certain conservation groups as such and get busy in advocacy.

Within the echo chamber of social and/or political progressiveness, to which the conservation community is a part, by and large, it might be a little hard to accept that there is an ongoing erosion of public trust in mainstream media throughout the world. But it is real. It is happening because a large portion of the global population perceive that the MSM has lost its traditional editorial independence and objectivity to various liberal progressives’ ‘projects’ such as climate action and nature conservation, and are closely associated with ‘the establishment’, which they identify as ‘elite’ and ‘liberal’. This is not uncommon in other crisis sectors too. There is past evidence of the compromised ethical standard of development communication and journalism in other sectors, and reduced public trust in media covering the various global crisis, humanitarian issues and so on.

But, we need the public trust in mainstream media, because no matter how much a conservation group has sway over social media and it is own PR platforms that are not a replacement for independent journalism. Because what the conservation groups are saying is already expected from them by the public and the public generally do not perceive those contents as ‘independent’. While we should continue to strongly advocate for conservation, we should not make it difficult for MSM to do their job that is, informing the debate with facts and making all voices heard.

Therefore, whether coverage of marine conservation efforts by journalists is the result of sponsored/ embedded arrangements or not, there should be some ethical codes on behalf of the conservation communicators to let the journalistic contents be produced independently with objectivity and neutrality needed in the persuasion of the truth.

BASIC PREMISES

The basic premises of my observations are;

  1. This has to be presumed that the activities of conservation groups and the cause of conservation are not always necessarily compatible as such. That is to say, conservation groups should not prima facie considered as agencies who can do no harm through their policies and practices.
  2. Conservation groups should remain open to this idea that like any other crisis sector agencies (for example the development agencies) their activities and projects are subject to public scrutiny and accountability through the mainstream media.
  3. While the partnership between MSM and conservation groups is necessary for the cause of conservation that should not stand in the way of the MSM playing its original role as the agent of the public.
  4. Conservation groups more particularly the conservation communicators should have the opportunity to take a proactive role in enabling the media to maintain its independence while working as a partner in conservation or any other modes.
  5. The balance of being an enabler of media in covering marine conservation efforts and keeping the public trust intact into what is being reported can be best facilitated by adhering to an ethical code.

Exactly how such a guideline will reshape the modes and modalities of engagement between media and marine conservation groups are not clear yet.

But recently I co-authored an opinion piece (Erickson et al., 2019) proposing about what are issues we need to address through such and guideline. In the opinion piece published by Frontiers in Marine Science, we have explained why we think “professional ethical guideline for marine conservation communication is necessary. We also report on discussions from a focus group titled, “Overcoming ethical challenges in marine conservation communication” held at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5).”

Please read the article here https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00304/full
The supplementary table attached with the article has some ideas about a potential media-ethics code for Ocean conservation communicators.

Reference

Erickson LE, Snow S, Uddin MK and Savoie GM (2019) The Need for a Code of Professional Ethics for Marine Conservation Communicators. Front. Mar. Sci. 6:304. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00304

What are the riverine fisherfolks thinking about?

When it comes to explaining the poor state of nature-based artisanal and subsistence livelihoods of communities, many conservation and development folks in countries like Bangladesh or India or Nepal have one mantra they think fits all the complexities; the tragedy of the commons. Experts use this doctrine to explain any such challenges — whether in forests or in the wild-caught fisheries.

Generally, this explanation without compelling evidence works as a justification for top-down interventions that come later in the process. Later, comes the conservation interventions embedded with the heavy-handed enforcement by security agencies that disregard the well-being of marginalized communities and mostly focused on securing supply for nature’s goods for the urban consumers with suitable purchasing power.

To my experience, Hilsa fishery in the Bay of Bengal and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna watershed is such a case, particularly in Bangladesh. About 50-60 percent of global Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) catch is reported from Bangladesh (Rahman, Emran, & Islam, 2010). This is the world’s largest tropical estuarine fishery.

Hilsa Fisher Meghna 2
‘It’s humiliating’, says Nasir Patwari about the economic struggle and uncertainty in Hilsa fishery. From Haimchar, Chandpur District on the Meghna river, he doesn’t see any future for his children in the fishery.

Despite the extreme poverty among the artisanal and subsistence fishing communities, Hilsa conservation in Bangladesh relies on heavy-handed enforcement of laws that oftentimes impose disproportionate punishments. Imagine, a fisher who don’t have anything to feed his family might get one-year imprisonment for fishing during fishing ban seasons. Such disproportionate punishment started at the beginning of this decade.

For instance, only from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 fiscal year, executive ‘courts’ embedded with law enforcing agencies imposed 2,462 prison sentences and fined 106,509 USD to law-breaking fisherfolks under Jatka (juvenile) and brood Hilsa conservation activities (Islam, Mohammed, & Ali, 2016).

Currently, the annual 22-day long ban season to protect brood Hilsa is underway throughout the country.

Earlier this month, I’ve volunteered to take part in CSO monitoring of this ban season in Meghna river, and currently traveling in Brahmaputra river basin for the same. We are talking to fisherfolks and other river-dependent communities to understand what are their recent experiences with conservation and what are their thoughts about community-stewardship of riverine ecosystems. Before that, earlier this year, I led a study to understand human dimensions of Hilsa conservation in the context of community-stewardship and trans-boundary cooperation among countries sharing Ganges-Meghna-Brahmaputra river system. We collected data mostly through semi-structured and non-structured qualitative interviews, and participant observation.

Hilsa boat meghna 2
Earlier in this month, that was the last of day of the open season for Hilsa fishing.

The results of CSO-led monitoring and the previous study are expected to be published in the due process. Both of the works are part of the Trans-Boundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project’s activities in Bangladesh. I was invited by two local NGOs to take part; Gana Unnayan Kendra and Center for Natural Resources Studies (CNRS) who are partners with TROSA.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a few notes based on my learning and observations. I’ve already shared these following notes with colleagues from India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Asian and European countries at the annual learning forum of TROSA in Kathmandu, Nepal from 24 to 25 July 2018. (See also this web-story on GWP’s site)

NOTES

1. The fisherfolks explain that despite very low income they don’t plan to stop fishing because fishing is their traditional (Chouddo purus) ‘life’ (Jebon), and all other aspects of their lives are interconnected with their fishing identity. In differently worded statements, most of them echoed the attitude that they can’t think about any other livelihood options and lifestyle other than fishing because this is what their ‘jaat’ (inheritance), and this is in their blood; diversely paraphrased Bengali dialects they have used can be translated into ‘this is who we are’.

2. The fisherfolks don’t think ‘the tragedy of the commons’ can explain the process behind the decline of the fishery. Most of the respondents identify ‘problems’ in the supply chain and conservation regime. They think fisheries conservation are reluctant to engage and utilize community’s readiness to conserve the rive- commons including fisheries. A notable number of the fisherfolks indicates that fisheries conservation are not willing to look into complex issues related to the migratory character of Hilsa fish and is not prepared for delivering conservation-benefits to local communities.

3. About all of the fishermen said, by ‘conservation of fisheries’ they understand ‘gun’ (bonduk) meaning police and other law enforcing agencies they encounter. They clearly determine that the ‘slow revival’ of the fishery is not bringing any significant benefits to them as the old supply chain is still in place.

4. Traditional fishing families blame diversion of water for irrigation both in Bangladesh and upstream countries for the poor state of fish habitat, and they also think rising use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticide, and insecticide in agriculture are to blame for dwindling catch.

5. Fisherfolks say they were always willing to be the stewards of fisheries biodiversity (nijeder ta nijeder e rokkha korte hobe), but they also need to feed their families.

6. When it comes to their expected state of community well-being, they place the highest value on spending time with families, ability to afford education for their children, and capacity to continue their generational fishing occupation. When asked what will be the ‘most rewarding outcome’ from a potential revival of the health of the riverine ecosystem and the Hilsa fishery, a large number of them said they ‘will be able to spend more time with their families’ because they will not be needing to go for fishing trips throughout day and night. Most of them said they can ‘die in peace’ by knowing that ‘the future of their children is secured.

The heavy-handed and disproportionate law enforcement neither take into account this strong environmental ethic that defines these traditional fishing communities nor care about their well-being.

Now it’s the responsibility of local CSOs, NGOs to explore more about human dimensions of such fisheries conservation, to gather more insights into the river basin communities’ readiness for the stewardship of environmental commons.

Photos: All photos taken by me

References:

Rahman, M. A., Emran, M., & Islam, M. S. (2010). Hilsa fisheries management in Bangladesh. Regional Consultation on Preparation of Management Plan for Hilsa Fisheries. Chittagong.

Islam, M. M., Mohammed, E. Y., & Ali, L. (2016). Economic incentives for sustainable hilsa fishing in Bangladesh: An analysis of the legal and institutional framework. Marine Policy, 68, 8–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2016.02.005

IMCC5 Focus Group: Overcoming ethical challenges in marine conservation communication

It’s official, I’m hosting this Focus Group at 5th International Marine Conservation Congress to be held from 24 to 29 June 2018 in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. With a few of my colleagues, we are now looking for more contributions to this Focus Group. Join us at IMCC5!


5th International Marine Conservation Congress

Focus Group: Overcoming ethical challenges in marine conservation communication

Communications and Public Relations are getting rapidly increasing attention and allocation of resources within marine conservation organizations. But Mainstream Media (MSM) is struggling with either a huge lack of institutional capacity or editorial priority to cover related affairs as part of regular news agenda. In many cases, high resource needs to operate in remote marine areas and the novelty of the subjects to the newsroom are related to this scenario.

IMCC5-logo_reduced

This dynamic is making way for ‘embedded’ journalism covering conservation efforts without clearly laid-out ethical safeguards on both sides. I’ve observed many such cases in Bangladesh, Thailand, Singapore, and the USA, where MSM is being engaged to disseminate contents while being directly or indirectly guided and sponsored by the subjects, that is nature conservation and conservation groups, but this kind of communication and PR contents are not the replacement for objective journalism. This practice consequently deprives the nature conservation of objective reporting and critical coverage which are cornerstones of transparency, accountability, and public trust. A strong, responsive and dynamic ethical regime is imperative to address this challenge.

The Focus Group is designed to gather information about ethical challenges faced in marine conservation communication, identify key values and ethics, and prepare a draft for an ethical guideline. Before the conference, the host and other contributors will prepare a working-paper and distribute among the registered participants for their feedback and inputs.


So, whether you work with communications, marine conservation, media ethics or not, if you have experience and expertise to contribute to this Focus Group, please register, and do reach out to us.

Featured Photo: Perhentian Islands, Terengganu, Malaysia. by Anwar Hossain Chowdhury

Thoughts from Pathways 2017 conference, the future of human dimensions

As a journalist, when I started inquiring about ‘community-based conservation’ projects in 2010, I anticipated that we will be dealing with works which are empowering and enabling people into conservation, but that was not to be. We have found out that, in many cases, communities are less likely to be planning or implementing the conservation projects and more likely to be silent ‘poster child’ for the NGOs who are. Not only CBCs, to my experience back in Bangladesh, other approaches to conservation are also built on the gross dehumanization of people who are suffering the most from ecological degradation. And oftentimes, the ‘best’ leverage to trigger conservation interventions turns out to be very costly for the people who are the least negative actors in the system.

In this context, I am happy that I got the opportunity to attend the Pathways 2017 Conference in Colorado last year. It was very positive to listen to the first-hand account of professionals from many countries that, things are changing in many places. Most particularly, considering ‘human dimensions of wildlife conservation’ is being gradually popular among managers, slowly, but it’s happening.

YMCY Estes Center Fireplace
‘What an awful fireplace’, a friend commented after seeing this photo on my Facebook wall. Except fireplaces decorated with animal trophies like this at YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center (located between Rocky Mountain National Park and the town of Estes Park), the Pathways 2017 Conference venue was a very quiet and scenic place. I was not surprised to see herd of Elks outside my window in the morning. ‘Ample opportunities to see wildlife’ is well advertised on YMCA’s website. Elks in flocks still frequent the 860-acre mountain resort where ‘wholesome Christian environment’ ensure that they are not being disturbed.

More than three hundred professionals involved in social science aspects of fisheries and wildlife management took part in the conference from September 17 through 20, 2017; mostly academics, and there were other scientists, NGO professionals, and students. Partnered with The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the conference theme was; ‘Futures: Integrating Human Dimensions into Fish and Wildlife Management.’ With a poster session, a number of panels and workshops, and at least 142 (not official count) contributions as oral presentations, it was very tightly scheduled.

Organized by the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at the Colorado State University, to my knowledge, it is THE largest knowledge forum to know about HWC works and meet the related people. Pathways is also a training platform focused on ‘increasing professionalism and effectiveness’ in the human dimensions of fisheries and wildlife management.

Elks a YMCA Estes Park
The wild mountain elks on the campus worked as ‘energizer’ during the breaks throughout the conference. And, seasonal warning signs of ‘bear activity’ brought hope to some participants, though the conference ended without any reported encounter. I remember a conversation during an Elk-watch. One of my colleagues exclaimed that ‘now that’s something that we call human-wildlife conflict!’ I added that, how about ‘human encroachment into wildlife habitat?’ The reply was intriguing; ‘I don’t think so. Maybe something worse could have happened if we were not here.’ Now, that’s something. What could have been happened if ‘humans were not the dominant species.’

It’s not my purpose here to inventory all the sessions and presentations I attended, but just a few notes are in order. And, of course, nothing preoccupies me during looking at a conservation intervention as much as the stake of the community who is being affected or expected to participate. So, I was mostly focused on that type of presentations and sessions.

Getting mainstream: Research related to human dimensions of wildlife conservation can be traced back to as early as the 1930s in North America (Stevens & Organ., 2017). But still, in the particular case presented by Stevens and Organ, the funding ratio for HWC research has not significantly increased. But interestingly, diversity of HWC research projects has been increased involving diverse stakeholder communities, and ‘society began to demand greater input into decision-making regarding wildlife and fisheries management’.

Rocky Mountain National Park
At 8000 feet, the temperature was fluctuating between 2 and 8-degree Celsius. The sudden change in altitude and temperature was little difficult for me. But after our presentation (Self-funded Model for Community-led In-situ Conservation of Sea Turtles), one day I went for a hike to more higher altitude into the national park on a 7-mile out-and-back trail. I was alone, and throughout the hike, while I was, of course, enjoying the well-conserved landscape I could not stop thinking about the indigenous people who were massacred and almost wiped out from this region. The massacres continued, even in many cases ‘accelerated’ after the independence from Britain. Probably later in November last year, I came across a news story on the Denver Post that, ‘Rocky Mountain National Park is going back to its roots, expanding its representation of Native Americans.’ Now, it should make us hopeful of the future.

Another thing I would like to note that, at least half the presentations I have attended was about working with something ‘first of its kind’ or ‘one of the first’. Social Suitability Index (SSI) for predator conservation that ‘measures the cultural context for conservation in a region’ (Kraftee et al., 2017), for instance. Given the history of big cat conservation, one can think that this could have been done long ago if there were enough attention and resources. And, that is a possibility if it is mainstreamed into conservation narrative. I remember, President and CEO of Association of Zoos and Aquarium, Dan Asher’s main argument during his keynote, that is, ‘there are no human dimensions of conservation, conservation is all about humans.’ It is an very effective rhetoric to show the way forward; we need HWC to be mainstreamed into conservation.

The challenge to transform ‘human dimensions’ into the ‘new normal’ of conservation: And, how do we do that? There are many critical opinions out there. And, with my little experience as a practitioner, it does not seem like a disciplinary case. For instance, mainstreaming social sciences (Bennett et al., 2017) in conservation will not do the job as such. Of course, it might help HWC to be broadly accepted; we will be seeing more works of this kind. But I can’t see that will necessarily transform HWC into the new normal of conservation. To me, the challenge is, whether HWC will enable us to intervene in core political and policy premises of traditional nature conservation narrative that still see ‘human dimensions’ as just another ‘tool’ to do the old job more effectively, that is, continuing the ambivalence towards ecological justice while celebrating only the presumed success of species-level conservation.

 

References:

Stevens, S., & Organ, J. (2017). The Evolution of Human Dimensions Research through the Lens of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program Grants in the Northeast United States. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Kraftee, K., Larson, L., Powell, R., Allen, L., Hallo, J., & Jachowski, D. (2017). Assessing Cultural Context for Predator Conservation. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K. M. A., Clark, D. A., Cullman, G., Epstein, G., Nelson, M. P., Stedman, R., Teel, T. L., Thomas, R. E. W., Wyborn, C., Curran, D., Greenberg, A., Sandlos, J. and Veríssimo, D. (2017), Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conservation Biology, 31: 56–66.

Gellately, Robert. 2006. The specter of genocide: mass murder in historical perspective. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Why should affiliative leadership be a priority in environmental organizations?

In August, we participated in a discussion about ‘Being a Self Aware and Adaptive Leader’ organized under an Exchange Program at Georgetown University. In our group, we were more than half a dozen people from different countries discussing our experience and opinion about leading teams under different circumstances in culturally diverse spaces. Facilitated by famous Deidre Combs of Combs and Company, we were given Daniel Goleman’s six styles of leadership (Goleman, 2000) as a reference. Here’s a PDF file summarizing Goleman’s classification.

I asked the fellows about which leadership styles they have found as best suitable for environmental organizations. The responses were diverse, but there was a consensus about one thing that each of this styles has different purposes to serve in different circumstances. Which means, according to my fellow leaders, no single style is adequate for an organization. Having said that, one of our fellow Firuza Gulayozova prioritized about ‘affiliative’ leadership style in environmental conservation.

Based on her experience in Tajikistan she thinks for organizations engaged in environmental conservation, adopting ‘affiliative’ leadership style is very necessary. This observation intrigued me, and we talked about it later again, on another occasion. So, thought before I forget, I should write it down.

Personally, until very recently, I didn’t think of any particular leadership style. I have led a few collective endeavors in mass communication, civil and human rights, and conservation with certain successes and a number of terrible disasters. Looking back at those times now, I see I was always relying on others to lead together. I still am; leading like a diver; slow and steady, and always looking out for each other. Because for me, more than to achieve some goals the important thing is working with people we love; works which we are passionate about.

Leading like a diver; slow and steady, and always looking out for each other.

Also, I am still not convinced that, we can effectively identify exclusive features of leadership to attribute them to a certain style or category. But, of course, for the sake of communication, we can’t avoid classifications and terms like these categories of style. So, the necessity of discussion on prioritizing ‘affiliative’ leadership style in conservation organization resonated with me to some extents. I hope, it is just not a confirmation bias for me.

Firuza’s professional focus is Tolerance and Conflict Resolution, and she is ‘an expert in youth psychology and has developed skills in listening to the problems of young people and helping them find solutions.’

For any organization, Firuza said, it is important that everyone has the scope to bring many ideas into the process; and, affiliative leadership is a very powerful tool to create such an institutional environment. The affiliative style is best for ‘supporting the team morally and make them feel useful and effective’, she said. She thinks the job of conservation groups is not easy because the main task is ‘working with people’, not otherwise. The team members in such organizations need the highest degree of mutual patience and support. And the affiliative style of leadership serves this purpose ‘very well’ under any circumstances.

I get it in a sense that, ‘conservation is about people’ approach needs to be first mainstreamed through the institutional process of conservation organizations. And, the leadership traits which we identify as ‘affiliative’ is based on ‘people come first’ mantra and recognizes that empathy, building relationships, and communication are very important emotional intelligence competencies. I think, maybe these are the things we need to prioritize to revive our conservation organizations which are in very badly affected by failing bureaucracy (‘commanding’ style?).

Reference

Goleman, D. (2000, March-April). Emotional Intelligence: Leadership That Gets Results. Harvard Business Review, pp. 82-83.