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: 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?
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!
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 – embraces diversity, not just in terms of gender, or cultural diversity, but also diversity of views and opinions, on how one achieves success or on the use of local knowledge or scientific approaches.
Another thing which helps IUCN to be more diverse now is simply our ability to communicate with people on the other side of the world. I joined the IUCN Secretariat in 1985 and if you think of what IUCN and the conservation movement looked like back then, it was very Western dominated. Some of that is to do with capacity and resources, but it was also to do with the incredible inefficiency of communications.
This was before the fax, and even making phone calls was tricky – if I wanted to phone someone in Vietnam for 3 minutes it would cost £50! You could send messages by telex, which was monumentally inefficient, but you normally ended up writing letters. This was the age of the dictaphone, where you dictated letters, you had a secretary to type it up, and it got sent and arrived 10 days later. The level of interaction within the SSC was far less, because the whole process of communicating was so difficult that it often simply didn’t happen. Compare that to now! The number of emails going round, the Skype conversations, people populating and editing Red List assessments online – it’s just completely different. This has acted as a leveller, empowering people from countries that would have been outside the loop beforehand, partly because of this difficulty and expense of communication. It hasn’t brought about equality just yet, but it’s certainly pushed things in that direction. I don’t know if you’d agree with that Jon Paul?
JP: Yes, totally. We have a project with the Sumatran rhino and we have three Skype calls a week with our partners in Indonesia, Kenya, the Netherlands, US and Venezuela. Just the fact that we can sit down in the morning and it’s their afternoon or evening and we can speak every week for no cost, that is a real game changer.
SS: In that respect it’s a totally different world. Of course we still have barriers: language, money and so on, but it’s been very positive in terms of sharing leadership out across the world.
Responding to the biodiversity crisis
Q: How can such a huge and complex network as the IUCN respond to a biodiversity crisis with the necessary urgency?
SS: Well, we have urgency at all sorts of levels. We have urgency at the policy level – both government and private sector policy. We also have urgency to tackle critical situations on the ground that need action right now. For that type of situation – saving a particular species, for example – that is not the role of the IUCN. It might provide the information or the expertise to advise but its role is not to implement conservation.
To give you an example of something I’ve been dealing with recently, there’s a frog in Ghana that is down to probably less than 100 individuals and there’s a fantastic little NGO called Save the Frogs Ghana and they are working to protect this frog – the Giant squeaker. IUCN has done the assessment work that has put this frog on the map in terms of being a high priority. But Save the Frogs Ghana is the right entity to save the frog on the ground, not IUCN! What IUCN can do is support them through data, through giving advice and connecting them to other people who have done similar projects throughout the world and that sort of thing.
IUCN is good at assembling knowledge – the Red List, KBAs, expertise, it can can carry out analyses and assessments like the recent reports on oil palm or synthetic biology and it can convene disparate groups to come up with agreed policies and standards. For instance, IUCN has set the minimum standards for biodiversity offsets through its policies, which I think has had huge impact. IUCN has also – through a monumentally complex negotiation process – agreed the standards for defining Key Biodiversity Areas, something I don’t think any other organisation that exists could have done. That’s what IUCN is for, and I think IUCN could potentially have an even bigger impact on some global policy issues than it currently does. That’s my view – you play IUCN for what it’s good at, rather than waste time on what it can’t do.
JP: I agree. Every time you play a game, you learn the rules. And the rules at IUCN are that the process is slow – but it is also very inclusive, very democratic, very distributed. And it operates on a timescale of decision-making which means you have to think long-term. The ball rolls slowly, but it gets there in the end.
A Global Deal for Nature?
Q: The Global Deal for Nature has been talked about a lot lately. Broadly speaking, the deal suggests that 30 per cent of the planet should be protected and a further 20 per cent designated as ‘climate stabilisation’ areas. What are your thoughts on the global deal and these percentages?
JP: When I first heard E.O. Wilson talking about setting aside half the Earth for nature, my immediate thought was ‘why not 100 per cent for nature?’ I really have a strong negative reaction to any percentage targets, because I think they imply that we can destroy the rest. I think there’s a lot of room for biodiversity in urban contexts, for example, there’s so much that we can still do for species in cities or in agricultural landscapes. I think we need to think about managing 100 per cent of Earth to save all species present and avoid all extinctions, so I feel more inclined towards that approach than towards setting particular targets. Having said that, I know that targets are useful for society as a guide, but since I’m not president of a country I can allow myself to take a view that is more utopian!
SS: I find it very frustrating that so many headlines about conservation targets get hung up on percentages. If you look at the Global Deal for Nature paper (Dinerstein et al.) that just came out, it has lots of great ideas about what needs to be done and the issues we are facing. But if you just saw the Executive Summary and the headlines it’s generating, the emphasis is on the percentage targets. While they do give a formal scientific justification for the 30% – though I guess some scientists will argue about that – they could perhaps have found a way to create headlines for the paper that would have been more unifying and easier for everyone to get behind. I find that quite frustrating.
Another paper that came out around the same time (Visconti et al) very clearly pointed out the problems with how governments misused the Aichi percentage targets. Although the Aichi targets had some strengths, the governments often only reported on the percentages and they frequently only reached their percentage targets by having paper parks and that kind of thing, so in some ways the process became a pointless window dressing exercise, at least in some countries.
In the end, we’re only going to bend the curve, as Jon Paul says, if we manage the whole Earth sustainably, so I worry that this hang up on percentages is taking things in the wrong direction. Also, having the conservation community argue publicly with each other at any time – but particularly when we’re in an adverse political climate – is really not smart. So, first we all need to reach agreement with each other in the conservation community, and then we can all go and fight for it!
The point is, I think we can all say that we need more of the world formally protected, in the right places, done the right way with the right people – we need more of that. The amounts will vary by country and by ecosystem, and what happens outside the areas that are formally protected also matters hugely, so you’ve got to put all of that together.
Looking to the future…
Q: Jon Paul, you said you can allow yourself a utopian vision. Do you think it’s important to be optimistic if you are in conservation?
JP: Well, I don’t think you can be in conservation if you aren’t optimistic!
It sounds strange, but in some ways the best thing that can happen to a species is to be put on the Red List (The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species), because it brings new attention to that species. To give you an example, we did the first national Red List of Species in Venezuela in 1995. A couple of us wrote it after consulting with lots of people and looking at the literature. We used the first version of the new categories, although the process was a little less rigorous than it is now.
For that first version, many of our colleagues approached us to point out that we were wrong about particular species. For example, they might tell us that they had seen a certain fish in various different places, so the level of threat we had was wrong. I challenged those colleagues to bring me proof, they went out and got it and we were able to lower the category of threat for those species. Maybe that is quite an extreme example, but it shows that sometimes, if you bring attention to a certain species, you encourage exploration and find that the situation for a species is not as bad as you think.
The other reason I’m optimistic is because of how resilient nature can be. Look at the impact of fishing exclusion zones, for example, which can turn a marine desert into a productive area where in just two or three years you have greatly increased fish populations and other species start to bounce back.
In Venezuela, I’ve seen forests which, as soon as agricultural pressure is reduced, start to come back very quickly.
In Margarita Island, we planted trees in an area which is essentially a rock desert, what is left after the sand mines operate – they remove all the sand and all they leave behind is rocks. We plant trees there and those trees grow and in three or four years you have something that looks like a forest. If you give nature a chance, nature returns.
SS: And I guess another thing which brings great hope is just to look at all the young people coming up in conservation every day across the entire world. There’s a fantastic new generation coming – many more of them, much more diverse, a lot of them very angry, which they need to be.
JP: Simon teases me that I’m now at a wiser age than I used to be – he liked it more when I was angrier – an angry young man!
SS: That’s true! I remember Jon Paul used to be really angry about the ‘national versus globalised’ approaches on the Red List. He taught us a lot, so we put him in charge! He might be older, but he certainly hasn’t compromised on what he is fighting for!