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