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.

Conservation in former colonies, how to stop dehumanizing people

The more I was attending those meetings, the more I was getting this feeling that as if I am sitting among a group of colonists who are making plans to set up new reserve in an occupied country; in the countryside, ‘protected’ from access by the colonized people; where the white settlers will be enjoying the utilitarian and intrinsic values of the ‘nature’, and the natives will be living on the edge to serve the whites.

Problem with this feeling is, first of all, I am not recounting memories from past centuries (I am not that old, you know), those meeting happened between 2013 and 2016. And, there were very few white people attending those meetings. Those meetings were not taking place in India under East India Company’s brutal rule, or in colonized Zimbabwe, those meetings were held in present-day Bangladesh. And most importantly, no one was talking about the violent business of colonization; cleansing, slavery, or dislocation of native communities, in old or new form, neither.

Now, let me use the vocabulary of a good-hearted politically-correct liberal naturalist; those meetings were about nature ‘conservation’, where conservationists (experts, practitioners, government officials, local representatives of international NGOs) were discussing ‘spatial management’ or ‘protected area’, and so on; they were discussing strategies, management plans for ‘protected areas’, to create ‘alternative livelihoods’ for the ‘local communities’.

Probably, you can make a guess, this type of meetings are generally workshops, consultations, seminars, conferences and so on, mostly organized by INGOs, NGOs, UN agencies, and universities. Unfortunately, I have found myself among the organizers, sometimes. It’s been almost one year since I am not attending any such meetings, but all these thoughts recently came back to me while I was talking to one of our colleagues; we were on a very long-distance call about something else, but he was seemingly uncomfortable about a discussion recently took place in Dhaka which he was a part of.

It was a discussion about conservation of Hilsa, and one of the talking points was, riverine communities engaged in wild Hilsa fisheries are ignorant people, ‘beyond amending’, and we should think about pulling them out of this largely subsistence and artisanal fishery and re-employ them as workers in export-oriented ready-made garment factories. Maybe it is a noteworthy fact that most of the experts who attended the meeting are aquaculturists.

Children at Saint Martins
”The question is if the best leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful to the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought?”

It is not just something being discussed here and there by some groups, it is happening. Rather than focusing on addressing major stressors in social-ecological systems, conservation projects are going after the most vulnerable communities. Because simply it is ‘doable’ to mislead about the ‘indicator’ of success. For instance, when in a fishery hundreds of mega-trawlers are dredging without Turtle Excluder Devices, a conservation project can just declare success by forcing out some subsistence and artisanal fishing families from the coastal waters to urban slums and name it as ‘alternative income generation’.

If you do not have the historical experience as formerly colonized people, the experience of being dehumanized in this way, you will find it very difficult to get the idea, why these discussions are reminiscent of the brutal colonial era; how in 21st-century conservation is still rationalizing violence on people.

So, while protecting or conserving the nature always sounds unquestionably innocent when we live in our liberal bubbles, it is not that rosy for the people who are suffering most from ecological degradation without contributing much in the process of degradation, and again they become the victim of nature conservation efforts. When it comes to ‘conservation’ efforts by a specific government or inter-governmental agencies or international or national NGOs; things are not very black and white for the people living on the edge.

The question is, if the ‘best’ leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful to the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought? Was it chosen because it was deemed as the best possible leverage to start creating a positive trend? Or it was just hand-picked based on the ease-ness of delivering the project? If you are a conservation partner of a government in the global south, in countries where oftentimes political participation is restricted, you know it better, there’s no other easy things to do, than motivating such a government to go after the marginalized communities.

But we can’t allow it to be continued. Because in this time when the unsustainable global economy is at its peak with all the consequences in the forms of global warming and extinction threat and so on, we can’t afford any more false hope in conservation.

If any ‘conservation’ efforts exclude the ‘nature’ from social system, if they consider nature as ‘resources’, if they deny the indigenous relationship, knowledge, and practices of communities, if they consider communities as ‘means’ to achieve ‘conservation’ ends, we should call those efforts out, those projects are not conservation, something else.

Conservationists should certainly stop excluding nature from societal spheres. In this way, we will be able to see that, we are not the messiah saving the ‘pure’ nature from the ‘people’. We need to be conscious of this savior complex of ours and avoid it.
And, when working with the communities to empower them against internal and external stressors within the social-ecological system, we should certainly stop stereotyping about communities because as a people no community is a homogeneous group. Individuals in a community need to be recognized for their unique vulnerabilities as resilience.

Conservation needs to empower people who are the worst victims of ecological degradation; in countries like Bangladesh where political participation is very limited, that is a very difficult thing to do, and the job of conservation is to start addressing it no matter how much difficult it is. Of course, there are sectoral limitations, we can’t just start talking partisan politics, we should not. But working with communities for ecological justice is a good way to start, it will help flourish clusters of locally-led conservation efforts.

The development agencies who fund conservation efforts run by the governments in the global north need to understand that, if they want to serve interests of their taxpayers, which they are supposed to do, the interests should be mitigating the biggest global ecological crisis in human history, not aggravating it.