Talking conservation with Simon Stuart and Jon Paul Rodríguez

© Jim Pettiward

By |2019-06-26T15:31:21+00:00June 26th, 2019|Biodiversity, In-Depth, Interviews, IUCN, Species|Comments Off on Talking conservation with Simon Stuart and Jon Paul Rodríguez

Jon Paul Rodríguez is the current Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC). When the former Chair of the Commission, Simon Stuart, left the post in 2016 after 8 years, he joined Synchronicity Earth as Director of Strategic Conservation. The two men go back a long way, so with Jon Paul in London to collect a Whitley Gold Award, we sat them down to get their views on some of the current challenges facing the conservation sector. 

An outstanding contribution to conservation

Jon Paul won the Whitley Gold Award (2019) for his outstanding contribution to conservation. His organisation, Provita, works to conserve the Yellow-shouldered parrot (Amazona barbadensis) on Margarita Island, Venezuela.

Simon: First of all, huge congratulations on your Whitley Gold Award this year. Your first award was in 2003, and this is the fifth time that Provita has received support from the Whitley Fund for Nature! Tell us what that really means for Provita and all those working on the project.

Jon Paul Rodríguez. Photo © Sean Southey

Jon Paul: Well, the project actually started in the early 1990s, but the first Whitley award came in 2003. Whitley often talk about the increased visibility that their award gives to organisations and I think they’re right. They are very good at showcasing their winners and the work they do and, of course, having Sir David Attenborough as a Trustee and Princess Anne present the award gives it a greater level of international recognition.

Our first award came at just the right moment because it coincided with a very difficult period for the project: we’d just had some poachers break into our captive-breeding facility and steal some of the parrots, and we were facing a number of other challenges in our work. Winning the Whitley award helped us gain visibility and the funding they provided really re-activated the project when it was at a very low point.

And it’s not just financial support. They are constantly putting us in touch with other people, asking us how things are going and spreading the word about what we do. At international conferences, they organise side events for the Whitley winners. It’s a really nurturing network, and many of us – the winners – have met through the Whitley award and continue to work together.

Conservation – a social process

Q: The Whitley Award winners are testament to the value of conservation which is led by local people and communities in the places they know best. Do you think there is still something of a top-down, ‘West knows best’ approach to a lot of conservation?

Simon Stuart. Photo © Jim Pettiward

JP:  Yes, I do. It’s still very common to come across that kind of attitude. I call it the ‘golden rule’ – those who have the gold make the rules!

SS: Part of the problem, I think, particularly in Western countries is that a lot of people consider conservation to be a purely technical exercise. Of course, there are lots of technical issues to conservation – we’re both scientists and the Species Survival Commission plays a key role in dealing with some of those technical issues.

But conservation – when and where it is implemented – is always a social process, even if we don’t recognise it as such.

Conservation isn’t just some technical exercise done by remote people handing down guidelines to people to tell them what to do. Guidelines can of course be helpful and important, but in the end, the stakeholders who live where the conservation needs to happen have to own the process and be part of it. Some indigenous groups have a saying which goes something like ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu’, and that is often true.

JP: I recently had a great example of the importance of understanding local context and the social aspects of conservation in my own work with Provita. For many years, we have treated poaching as an education problem: we have to educate kids that parrots belong in the wild, not in the home. The traditional approach has been to try to change people’s relationship to nature. But about a year ago, we decided to hire a team of sociologists to go in and get to the bottom of the social dimensions of parrot poaching and keeping parrots. And it turned out that the main driver of poaching was something which we’d had absolutely no idea about for all that time!

In this fishing town on Margarita Island, many of the men spend two or three months away on their fishing boats, that’s the norm. So what they do is leave a parrot in their place, to provide some company for their wives while they’re away. The parrots talk to them and keep them company, so effectively these parrots are playing the role of a surrogate husband!

Yellow-shouldered parrot in fishing community, Margarita Island. Photo © Abril Santalnes

The point is, it is a lot more complicated than just telling someone not to keep wild animals. The fact that we never really had a clue that this was going on means that in 30 years of environmental education, we haven’t decreased poaching demand at all, not even by one per cent. We’ve decreased actual poaching by protecting the nests, but education has not reduced demand: the desire to keep parrots has not gone down at all.

Even though we are from that part of the world, we didn’t really understand that these birds are more like family members. I think this shows that the further away you are from the reality on the ground, the more likely you are to get things wrong.

SS: Yes, local engagement and indeed ownership is essential for long-term success. For instance, the Synchronicity Earth programme in the Congo Basin is very much about trying to reconcile the alienation between indigenous local groups and the land that has come about because of this notion that land is owned by governments there. Yet they cannot enforce this, leading to a huge problem of land grabs by loggers and oil palm plantations without any any engagement, knowledge or agreement from the local stakeholders. So a key pillar of our Congo Basin Programme theory of change is that land rights need to be given to the local communities that live there.

All the evidence, I think, shows that across the world, where that has been done, there have been significant conservation gains. For instance, where land rights have been given to tribal groups in India, or to all sorts of groups in Southern Africa, even those with very different conservation philosophies, you’ve had conservation success, because local people take more of a long-term view. Katy Scholfield, who developed our approach in the Congo Basin, has been instrumental in developing this ethos within Synchronicity Earth. Indeed, that is one of the things that attracted me to join them!

The challenge for conservation NGOs

Q: On the subject of understanding the local context, the current situation in Venezuela is clearly very difficult politically, economically and socially – how do you think it is affecting conservation efforts in Venezuela?

JP: Well, conservation is clearly not a priority for the Venezuelan government – their main objectives right now relate to social and economic policies. Conservation is neither in favour or not, it’s just not part of the discourse, so conservation is basically driven by civil society, academics and other organisations.

The huge challenge we face in Venezuela is that the NGOs have been disappearing as well! 20 years ago there were 11 or 12 IUCN members in Venezuela, including the government: now there is just one fully paid up member, and that’s Provita. Sadly, that reflects the status of the environmental movement. Of course there are organisations that continue working in Venezuela that are not members of IUCN, but many of these lack the resources and capacity to be very effective: if you cannot pay $500 a year for IUCN membership, then it follows that your resources are not very substantial.

Q: Have some of the bigger international NGOs pulled out of Venezuela as a result of the current situation?

JP: All of them! We had The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society… In fact, as part of my Whitley speech, I made the point that you don’t need to have a programme to have a presence. You can work through local partners and that’s what I think is so brilliant about Whitley, the fact that they are supporting us to do our own work on the conservation issues that we understand best.

Diversity and equality in conservation

Q: In your Whitley Gold Award speech you talk about a biodiversity paradox, the fact that in countries where there is the richest biodiversity there is often the least conservation capacity. Can the IUCN play a role in addressing this issue? For example, you are the first non-European or North American Chair of the Species Survival Commission.

JP: Yes, I think it can and in some ways I guess I am a product of that. From the beginning I have always felt very welcome, which perhaps would have been different a few decades ago. You can also see see how the IUCN has diversified and grown through the leadership and presence of new generations: there are very strong groups of members from countries like Indonesia, India, or Bolivia that are incredibly active as groups, so we are creating the conditions in which that can happen.

SS: The Species Survival Commission is a network that – by design – emb