In 2012, I attended the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress (WCC) in Jeju, South Korea. I had been in my job at Synchronicity Earth for just over a year and was also in the throes of writing up my PhD thesis, looking at conservation networks and mountain gorilla conservation. My head was full to the brim of conservation connections and disconnections and how these impact conservation in practice. I thought the Congress might distract me from writing up (in fact it gave me an extra 12 caffeine-fuelled hours working time a day), but it really helped me to place my findings into the context of the wider conservation sector. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this first experience of the Congress and met some amazing people from all over the world, I came away with two overarching thoughts about the conservation sector:
- Despite efforts by some funders and session organisers to be inclusive, conversations were happening in siloes, or bubbles, with ideas circulating in very separate circles and limited crossover both socially and in formal sessions between people from different backgrounds, cultures and sectors.
- While indigenous people were included in the Congress, it felt somehow tokenistic, their participation just a sideshow at what was a very western-science focused event.
Fast forward four years to the WCC in Hawaii in 2016 and I had a very different experience. In part this was down to Synchronicity Earth being more established and connected and there being multiple opportunities to catch up with all of our amazing partners and meet new people.But it was also because I felt far more positive and hopeful than I had after Jeju about both the ‘connectedness’ of the sector, and the amount and level of collaboration within it, as well as the growing recognition of the role of indigenous peoples in protecting the planet.
Whilst conversations are still happening in siloes, in part due to the way parallel sessions are – perhaps necessarily – organised, and in part due to the focused nature of many scientists and conservation practitioners, who do not have the capacity to look beyond their close circle of contacts given their massive workloads, I felt there were greater efforts to try to bring people together who, in the past, might not necessarily have talked to each other. For example, a session on the freshwater aquarium trade and livelihoods attracted people from the marine sector who talked about what has and has not worked in marine aquaria trade; an amphibian session organised by SE’s Helen Meredith brought diverse people together to brainstorm about, amongst other things, who else we should be connecting with; rights-focused sessions had people representing multilateral institutions and more traditional conservation NGOs present.
There is still much that can be done and I felt some people were still very resistant to collaboration, but it really felt like the conservation sector – as represented in a snapshot at the congress – was far more connected than it was four years ago.
Indigenous peoples also felt central to the Congress. I think this was a mixture of the setting – the Aloha spirit felt strong even inside a large convention centre in an urban area – as well as the tireless efforts of groups such as Gaia Foundation, Christensen Fund, Wild Foundation and the Sacred Land Film Project to not only bring these peoples to the Congress, but to support them to tell their stories to show how they are central to the future of life on Earth. Through the efforts of all of these people – from countries as diverse as Russia, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea and Kenya – the IUCN approved Motion 26, making protected areas and sacred sites ‘No Go’ zones for industrial activities. Indigenous peoples were also successful in creating their own, new category of IUCN membership. And on a more subtle level, it felt like terms such as ‘wilderness’ were being redefined to include local communities and indigenous peoples and the important role they play in protecting biological and cultural heritage.
The sector needs to continue to break down siloes and it has a long way to go. In the short term, very practical things could be done to support this with large conservation events: themed days with no parallel sessions would allow diverse interests ranging from scientists working on migratory fish, to humanitarian NGOs working on livelihoods, to conservationists protecting amphibians to indigenous peoples campaigning against destructive hydropower dams to sit together at the table and find the best solutions for safeguarding freshwater. Conferences could have translation hubs, allowing people to network and share ideas in between formal sessions across multiple cultures and languages (I spent some time running about trying to find a Spanish-French translator to allow an Ecuadorian and a Congolese to discuss strategies for challenging oil exploration in national parks).
In the longer term, we need to think outside the box. Many of the solutions to addressing conservation issues lie in recognizing the vital role that indigenous peoples play in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. How can we integrate this beyond place-based conservation programmes to influence how we produce our food, our energy; how we relate to one another and to our environment?