Synchronicity Earth

Synchronicity Earth is a charitable foundation with an ambitious vision: a sustainable planet that values the interconnectivity and interdependence of all living things.

Meet our new Conservation Director, Dr Simon Stuart

At the end of 2016, Dr Simon Stuart completed his tenure as Chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Commission after 8 years in the position, and more than 30 years with the IUCN. 

In January this year, Simon joined Synchronicity Earth as Conservation Director. We took the opportunity to speak to him about what his new role will involve and to find out his views on some of the key challenges for the conservation community.

Q: You have a new role as Conservation Director at Synchronicity Earth. Can you tell us what this role entails, and why you decided to take up this new position?

A: Well, I will be trying to build a new vision and a more ambitious programme for Synchronicity Earth, building on what the organisation already has, not replacing it. We aim to build something very much around the themes of partnership with other organisations that have similar philosophies and biodiversity conservation agendas, to work together more efficiently by sharing resources and supporting each other in various ways.

My previous job was Chair of the Species Survival Commission at IUCN, which is a term-limited job, so just like Obama, after 8 years was up, I had to find new work! Around nine months before that post ended, Adam and Jessica (Sweidan) offered me a role helping to build a more ambitious programme for Synchronicity Earth, so I had a lot of time to think about it and I was really persuaded and excited by their vision. I found it a better way to spend probably my last few years in paid employment than some of the other possibilities out there. I thought about joining one of the big international NGOs, which would have meant learning a new bureaucratic and political system; another option was to go back into academia. But it was the Synchronicity Earth vision that attracted me most, partly because it is building something new and, I think, breaking new ground, and partly because I like the people. I have spent my entire career in IUCN trying to build partnerships between organisations, rather than build one big organization in potential competition with everyone else.

Q: As you begin your new role, what do you think are the most pressing current priorities in conservation?

A: I think you could answer that at several levels.

We need to do a lot more work on those conservation problems for which we have no solutions. For example, we are not being realistic on coral reefs and the threats they face from ocean warming and acidification - we are going to lose the reefs unless something dramatic can be done. Thinking that we can manage the ecosystems to improve the resilience of coral reefs is fine: we might buy a decade or two and we probably should be doing it, but as the ocean warms and becomes more acidic, we are going to run out of options. Also there are some diseases, such as amphibian chytridiomycosis and others, that still have no solution in the wild. Captive breeding is sometimes essential for buying time, but the future we want is amphibians in healthy populations in the wild.

Another thing to look at would be conservation finance, what works and what does not, especially in terms of donor education. Donors are driving a lot of the problems: short-term project cycles, unrealistic deliverables being demanded in order to secure the money, the wrong things being measured, conservation organisations having to spend way too much time fundraising at the expense of other things and so on.

On another level, biodiversity data and information collection processes are not funded by any intelligent system, especially for the IUCN Red List and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and also for population level monitoring of species and ecosystems. Using a time-bound, project-based funding system for something that is a service, not just to the conservation community but on a much broader level to corporations and governments doing due diligence and so on, means that decisions are made in the world without the correct information being readily at the fingertips of those that need it. The provision of data needs to be funded differently, perhaps through a data licensing system, perhaps through public sector finance with countries coming together and agreeing that this is something they should do. 

Q: Do you think that is something which is likely to happen in the near future?

A: Well, it is not politically in vogue at the moment, but I think there are possibilities, for example, for corporate finance. Not from a philanthropic point of view so much - because that just gets you stuck in the project mode again - but rather as a sort of data-licensing service for corporations that want the data downloaded on their own decision tool systems and would pay for it. To some extent, that is already the case, but I think it could be developed much further.

Q: Despite the challenges, there seems to be a focus on conservation optimism at the moment - the idea that we should focus on success stories, what works and the progress being made (rather than just the bad news). What, in terms of conservation, makes you optimistic for the future?

A: I do not like the term optimism, or the heading 'conservation optimism’. I prefer the term “hope”. At a spiritual level, my Christian faith gives me hope for the planet. At a scientific and empirical level, I can also find reasons for hope. For example. there was a paper by Mike Hoffman et al on ungulates which came out a couple of years ago which looks at what would have happened if there had been no conservation efforts. It showed that in fact we are more effective than we think we are. Yes, we are ineffective in relation to where we want to get to, but this does not mean that what we are doing is having no impact. 

Q: So having hope is partly just understanding what has actually been achieved?

A: Yes, conservation does actually have a measurable impact, but the sad thing is that most of this impact has been slowing down decline rather than bringing about recovery. Even so, there are some parts of the world where conservation has been surprisingly effective. If you look at large mammals generally we have seen population recoveries in North America and through much of Europe. There have been population recoveries of deer and carnivores in northwest Europe for a long time, but those recoveries have spread into southern and eastern Europe over the last decade or two. We have also had strong population recoveries of some species in southern Africa and in India.

Q: But in all those cases, is their recovery a direct result of conservation action?

A: In all these regions we have seen more conservation action and effective law enforcement bringing about recoveries. In southern Africa, management of wildlife trophy hunting, which is of course controversial, has also brought about population recovery. 

So, recoveries have been brought about in various places, usually where there has been better governance. 

Q: What is your favourite example of a species that has made a successful - perhaps unexpected - recovery in the wild?

A: I think you could say that many of the wildlife recoveries in India would be unexpected because there is such huge human impact on its environments. So, for example, a species like the Blackbuck is one that you would not necessarily expect to survive and yet it does. It is a beautiful antelope which has recovered hugely in India, mainly outside the protected areas. It is extinct in Pakistan, but you can see it widely across much of India, sometimes in paddy fields and other agricultural areas, where it is tolerated by people, sometimes revered. And you can go on and list a number of other species like that. If you can bring about the recovery of species in a place like India, then you can do a lot in this world.

Q: On a personal level, what do you see as your greatest achievement in conservation (so far)?

A: Well, it was partly while I was at the IUCN and partly before. Some of the survey and research work I did in Africa, with others, was instrumental in getting some major conservation initiatives going. For instance, the conservation of Mount Oku / Kilum, the second highest mountain range in West Africa, with a number of highly threatened endemic species, really came from work that I led. In fact it led to the recovery of the forest and quite a successful local community engagement with conservation… 

I also did some of the early work in the Eastern Arc mountains in Tanzania, not by any means myself alone, but I guess I was one of the pioneers in it, and others took up the flag after me. That led, for example, to the founding of the Udzungwa National Park which has a lot of endemic species in it.

Q: You are well known as a great promoter of global amphibian conservation efforts. What kind of a world would it be without amphibians?

A: The sad thing is, if there were not any amphibians, then most people out here would not have the foggiest clue would they? You would lose a lot of beautiful species, you would lose a lot of ecosystem services. One of the most fascinating things about amphibians is their range of bizarre breeding strategies. Many species are 'direct developers' – that means that they do not have a tadpole stage. The young frogs or salamanders hatch from their eggs. A few species give birth to live young. Others incubate their young in pouches on their backs, or even in their mouths (two extinct species – the gastric-brooding frogs – incubated their young in their stomachs). For those species that do have tadpoles, it is not always the case that they develop in water. Some tadpoles develop in foam nests, or on the ground, or in the axils of leaves, or in tree holes, or in the spray zone of waterfalls, or even on their parents’ backs. One group of amphibians – the caecilians, which are essentially “amphibian worms” – is particularly bizarre; in some of the species the young are fed by the shedding skins of their parents.

Q:  But - just to play devil’s advocate - why should people care about these strange frogs and their breeding strategies?

A: I think we should care about who we share the planet with – it is not just about us. I mean you can come up with economic arguments about how amphibians might control pests and all that sort of thing and that is probably true for some species but not for others. But for me that is not the reason. In fact, the world’s governments all agreed to prevent extinctions of known threatened species by 2020 (Aichi Biodiversity target 12), so the fact that we have a right to save species is not just something that was dreamt up by wild, emotional conservationists. It is official policy of all governments except those that are not members of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which are the US, the Vatican and one or two others.

Q: You mentioned that part of your role at Synchronicity Earth will involve developing partnerships with other organisations. For amphibians, the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), which you were instrumental in developing, is a great example of effective collaboration between different partners to amplify their impact. Why do you think collaboration among members of the conservation community is so vital?

A: Well, it is important because no single organisation has either the mandate or the expertise, nor the size or critical mass to do some of the things that need to be done, and it is the job of the IUCN to convene a lot of this. That is why it is necessary. Even if an organisation has the size, say like the Nature Conservancy, it will not have the mandate, so even if it tried to lead, not everyone would follow. So I think if you do not build partnerships, you cannot make these things happen.

Q: Why do you think that building effective partnerships can be so challenging?

A: Well, it is difficult because there are a lot of pressures from within organisations to try and stop them collaborating. Much of the thinking behind branding, with everyone trying to promote their logos, and the way that communication is used to promote the institution more than the message, all of that acts, sometimes inadvertently, against collaboration. I think fundraising departments, communication departments, finance and legal departments are often wary about collaboration; in my experience, they generally do not like it. They want to build the institution and I think many institutions’ strategic plans are more about building the wonderful institution than they are about saving the world. A lot of people criticise IUCN for not being visible enough, but to some extent, it is the lack of visibility of IUCN that has enabled it to convene. 

Q: In an article entitled 'Whose conservation?' (1) published in 2014,  Georgina Mace, your friend and former colleague at IUCN, said: "If the benefits provided by nature are assigned no value, they are treated as having no value, and current trends in the decline and deterioration of natural systems will continue.” To what extent do you agree with attempts to assign monetary value to nature, for example the notions of ecosystem services and natural capital?

A: The dilemma for the conservation movement is roughly as follows: decisions are often taken against nature and biodiversity because they are externalised in neoliberal economics - they are assigned no value. Therefore, we will get rid of mangroves and put in a shrimp farm because we put no value on the coastal protection that the mangrove provides or on the mangrove itself, no value on the fisheries that depend on the mangroves; we just want to have a shrimp farm. So these externalities are seen as having no value.

When Georgina Mace says that the lack of value being assigned to biodiversity leads to bad decisions, there is no question that she is correct. However, the problem for conservationists is that if we accept an economic value on that mangrove and then something comes along which is of higher value, then we are effectively saying that it is OK to let the mangrove go. But we are not OK with this, and the reason we are not is because we put some sort of ultimate value on the mangrove, we are saying it is beyond price.

I actually had this discussion at lunch with Georgina the other day. She said that the issue is in fact that we are confusing ‘price’ and ‘value’, and we should put a price on things so that the decision on biodiversity is more likely to go the right way, but we should never say that the price is our value. And I thought that was quite a good way of putting it. The price is to stop the bad decisions, but the value is what we stand by. Because the price is much less than the value.

Q: But isn't the problem that the value most people understand is price? It is fine for conservationists to assign value to something, but if other people do not share that view, then it is just talk.

A: Yes, but I think the evidence is that most people value nature at some level, and there is not a desire to monetise it. Putting these monetary values on it is really to stop bad decisions by governments or corporations. I do not think it is true that the public will not support conservation unless it is put in natural capital terms.

Q: So do you think that attempting to assign monetary value to nature is just one tool in the conservation toolbox?

A: Yes. I do agree with Georgina that bad decisions get taken because biodiversity is externalised, but I am slightly less convinced that putting a price on it is a solution. What is clear is that ecosystem services are real. I have seen some anti-ecosystem services arguments put out recently which I disagree with. If ecosystem services are our only reason for conserving nature, then I would agree with those that take a stand against them. But the fact is, most of these services are of real benefit to somebody: the streams flowing during the dry season because of forest on your water catchment is not some artificial concept, it is a real service that is supporting someone.

So I think some ‘intrinsics’ (the people who see the intrinsic value of nature…) can be too anti-ecosystem services, because the services are actually part of the intrinsics in a sense… Where I part company with some people is when they say that the purpose of conservation is for human good, not for nature itself. Adam (Sweidan) takes the line, which I also take, that we conserve nature for itself, not because of its benefits for humans. But I would not go as far as some people to say that we should therefore discount all those human benefits, because the human benefits of conservation are not minor: they are very big and they are very real, especially for the rural poor, who are the people we want on side for conservation more than anyone.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonstuartSE


(1) Mace, G.M. (2014). Whose conservation? Science, 345, 1558-1560.