We’ve seen it in the movies hundreds of times: communities rallying together to save the world. In Independence Day, Will Smith leads a charge against aliens. In Hunger Games, J-Law rallies to take down the Capital. In World War Z, Brad Pitt fights zombies to not only save his family and his beautiful face, but the whole, wide world. In our non-fiction society, conservation programs target communities in attempt to save the environment from destruction done by our own hands. These programs intend to change groups’ behavior in order to accomplish their conservational goal and ultimately save the planet. In all of the movies, the communities come back from their adversary stronger and more together than ever. However, human behavior in real-life is complex, so research was done to quantitatively measure behavioral changes linked to conservational efforts in 17 different programs around the world. The research noted that main reasons that cause communities to engage in conservation programs are the possibility of economic advantage and gaining local control over resources.
Successful conservation program strategies involve socio-economic incentives and giving communities autonomy over local resources. Sociology and psychology have proved time and time again that incentives are more effective when the benefits outweigh the costs, but it doesn’t really take a scientist to figure that one out. What is less obvious, is that the foundation for all change is behavior and it should be the first thing tackled by any program.
The 17 case studies conducted to see how behavior can be effected by conservation efforts were divided into the two strategies that drive community involvement: economic benefits and control over natural resources. In the economic strategy, the main goal was for the benefits of practicing conservation behavior to outweigh the costs of stopping the previous behavior. This strategy was divided into two forms: conservation as a livelihood and economic rewards for conservation efforts. Conservation as a livelihood was applied in ecotourism in Costa Rica and Cambodia, Tanzanian butterfly farming, and making products from recycled plastic in Colombia. Findings show that this method was more successful if the livelihood change was the primary source of income and not just a side job, if the participants understood the link between their actions and their benefits, if the community had the capacity to change, and if there was social gain. Since this is indeed an economic strategy, people faired better if the strategy made a substantial profit in addition to understanding the benefits.
The second type of economic strategy was economic rewards for conservation behavior. In Peru, Ecuador, and Zambia, conservation behaviors were rewarded with some form of economic compensation. Zambians were rewarded for not hunting the wildlife, however, this program was less effective because of continued hunger and insufficient benefits. The reward was most successful if it was logistically feasible, if the community had the capacity of changing, if the actions were culturally acceptable, and if the rewards were distributed equally. Again this seems pretty straightforward, people did stuff if they got rewards. In a perfect world though, you’d think that you wouldn’t have to reward people for doing the right thing for their planet and that they would just do it because it helps them, their families, and the world in general.
The next strategy was a rewards strategy also, but the reward was specifically the communities’ natural resources. For this strategy, the goal was for the community to manage resources in a sustainable way that benefited the conservational efforts. By giving the communities control over the resources, they gained authority over management decisions and were empowered to make sustainable decisions that fit their community. Just like in The Hunger Games, the districts did better when they had control over themselves and more autonomy from the big, bad Capital.
In most of these strategies, educational efforts were also applied, however, education was not enough to change the communities’ behavior and most people had to be bribed (for lack of a better word). Secondly, there were further compounding social factors that could have changed communal behavioral outcomes. The different strategies were all affected by “a wide array of contexts, including socio-economics, culture, logistical circumstances, individuals’ cognitions and time on participants’ reasoning and therefore program outcomes”. In the end, the findings demonstrate that communities don’t need aliens or zombies to work together, but instead need economic benefits, control over their resources, and further benefits for the conservational efforts. So if you’re in the market to start up a conservation program, it’d be wise to set up an incentives program along with it. In an ideal world, communities would not have to be rewarded for saving the environment, but would just do it because it’s the right thing to do. However, until that day, the aforementioned methods are your best bet to making everyday, planet-saving superheroes.
(The image is from my own trip to New Zealand where we did conservation work for a native tribe who was rewarded control over the land if they planted native plants.)
Danielle Nilsson, Greg Baxter, James R.A. Butler, Clive A. McAlpine, How do community- based conservation programs in developing countries change human behaviour? A realist synthesis, Biological Conservation, Volume 200, August 2016, Pages 93-103, ISSN 0006-3207, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.05.020. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716302014)