Book Review – Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions

Conservation conflicts are rarely out of the news. In the UK we have recently seen arguments rage over whether or not badgers should be culled in order to mitigate the spread of Bovine TB, with farmers, scientists, conservationists, policy-makers and animal rights campaigners all involved in fractious debates. Similarly, just this month Natural England reported that the fifth hen harrier of the year had disappeared from northern England, likely due to illegal persecution. Thus continues the bitter dispute between grouse moor managers, who see predation by hen harriers as a threat to their grouse stocks and consequent income, and conservationists who wish to see the return of a protected species that has been hunted practically to extinction in England.

The latest volume in the BES’s Ecological Reviews series therefore arrives at a timely juncture. Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions, edited by Stephen M. Redpath, Ralph J. Gutiérrez, Kevin A. Wood and Juliette C. Young, offers a new, interdisciplinary perspective on both understanding and resolving conservation conflicts. Defining conservation conflict as what occurs “when parties clash over differences about conservation objectives and when one party asserts, or at least is perceived to assert, its interests at the expense of another”, the book incorporates insights from disciplines ranging from anthropology to ecology, biology to law, all brought to life with a series of illuminating case studies.

At the core of the book is the view that the natural sciences alone do not give us the necessary tools to achieve progress towards our conservation goals. On the surface conservation conflicts may appear to be about conflicts between people and wildlife that can be resolved through better scientific understanding of the problem at hand. In reality however, they are predominantly conflicts between different groups of people; and as the editors write, they encapsulate “a complex layering of diverse issues related to different world views, issues of trust, power imbalances or latent historical issues”. Conservation conflicts present problems that cannot be resolved through science alone: they are messy, complex, and unavoidably involve human politics and values.

As such, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding conflicts that brings together ecological and social scientific knowledge, as well as the tacit knowledge of stakeholders, professionals and communities, is essential. The strength of this approach is well illustrated by the diversity of insights offered in the different chapters of Conflicts in Conservation. For example, taking an approach grounded in political ecology, William M. Adams argues that eliding the political dimension inherent within all conservation decisions, and presenting them as merely technical, is a poor strategy for resolving conflicts: “conservation is always and everywhere political because choices have to be made”. Similarly Robert A. Lambert highlights the importance of environmental history for contextualising conservation conflicts, whilst Herbert H. Blumberg places psychology centre stage. The importance of sound scientific evidence is not forgotten, with Stephen M. Redpath and William J. Sutherland asserting the value of high quality ecological information.

The depth and breadth of insights offered by the different chapter authors certainly give us a better understanding of conservation conflicts, but do they enable us to more effectively resolve them? A strength of this volume is that it doesn’t stop at understanding conflicts, but suggests steps towards their positive management. For the editors, this starts with a process of mapping the conflict: identifying the problem, including relevant stakeholders, their values and positions; identifying the scale of the conflict and understanding what different disciplines and forms of knowledge are required to understand the issue. From here, a process of “collaborative conflict management” is proposed, based on five principles: communication, transparency, inclusiveness, influence and trust, working within a process that involves all stakeholders, and works towards a potential solution agreeable to all sides.

Could this approach be applied to some of the seemingly intractable conservation conflicts we face in the UK? Clearly, there is no silver bullet. Yet by opening up the debate to recognise the complexity of these conflicts and the importance of both ecological and social dimensions, this book offers a strong starting point.

Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions can be ordered from the CUP website.

BES members receive a 25% discount on the cover price of all volumes in the series, visit My BES Offers (must be logged in) to access the discount code.