Measuring Conservation Impacts? First, Get the Question Right

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Published on December 9th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

Paramo is like a saturated sponge

A páramo ecosystem in Ecuador. The soil is like a saturated sponge.

Since I started my position as senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy a year and a half ago, I have been outspoken in the crusade to measure the impacts of the organization’s conservation strategies. Sure, I love knowing that the Conservancy has, for instance:

But what does that really tell me about our the conservation impacts of these efforts?

  • Have the marine protected areas increased fish abundance…allowing poor fishermen to recover their jobs?
  • Is the freshwater biodiversity in the river enhanced or maintained now that there is an ample volume of water year round? Has anyone been denied water or electricity because a dam has to release more water during dry seasons to protect the biodiversity?
  • Does organic agriculture actually reduce the sediments and pesticides that flow into our water systems?

Measuring our impacts can answer these questions and tell us if the hours we spend on planes, in the field, in meetings, on our computers, talking to partners, running models, etc., etc., etc. are actually doing something.

So why haven’t we always measured our impacts? Because although it may not be as tough or costly as we make it out to be, it’s still not easy.

Ecosystems are a giant cobweb: They look pretty, simple and shiny from afar…but are sticky, intricate and complicated up-close. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t measure impacts; we just have to approach it logically and methodically.

For the past few months, I have been working with a team of experts to design a set of impact-monitoring protocols for the Conservancy’s water fund projects – an approach to water conservation proliferating throughout the Northern Andes region.

These projects are the cobweb I just described. They are elegant, simple in design, productive and successful. But when we talk about measuring their impact and breaking the projects into their component pieces, life gets sticky.

The projects are elegant and simple: Water users pay water providers (by putting money in a trust fund) for supplying clean, regular water supply. The payment goes to conserving the watershed. Each donating water user gets a seat on the fund’s governance board, which decides how to spend the money.

But the projects are sticky because, while the water users are millions of downstream city residents, the water suppliers are poor communities dependent on these watersheds for their survival:

  • The water suppliers are native ecosystems — particularly high-altitude grasslands, páramo (defined by Wikipedia as “glacier-formed valleys and plains with a large variety of lakes, peat bogs and wet grasslands intermingled with shrublands and forest patches”); and tropical forest — as well as watershed communities.
  • The communities are poor and rely on income from their cattle or crops for survival.
  • The native ecosystems provide fertile soils and pasture lands for these resources.

So do we save the páramo and provide water to city residents, thereby threatening the lives of poor communities? Or do we allow those communities to survive and threaten the water supply of millions — not to mention invaluable biodiversity?

Water fund projects have found a way to avoid making these choices by investing in people and in nature. Project strategies include:

  • Providing alternative resources and income sources to communities,
  • Hiring community-based park guards to keep cattle out of native ecosystems, and
  • Investing in the productivity of communities’ farms through best management practices.

This is great, but also makes things complicated. Since we invest in it all, we need to measure and monitor it all, and that’s step 1: disentangling the cobweb to be able to ask the right questions.

Asking the right questions leads to being able to measure the impacts that we care about:

  • Does keeping cows out of páramo actually help regulate water flow and improve water quantity?
  • Do alternative livelihood strategies offered to communities offset any harm done to their well-being?
  • Does restoring riparian vegetation reduce sedimentation levels in the river?
  • Does conserving the whole watershed by investing in people and in nature improve or maintain the integrity of the basin?

To really know if this strategy is working we need to at least measure the impact on biodiversity, on hydrology, and on people.

So, first, define the objectives. Make them clear, simple, and straightforward. For example:

  • Objective: Reduce sedimentation in the river by 30% in 5 years.
  • Question for experimentation: Does fencing and therefore removal of cattle from riparian areas reduce sedimentation problems?
  • Indicator for experimentation: Amount of sediments in the water before the fencing and after the fencing as compared to a watershed with no fencing.

But we’re still not done. There are still issues of scale (how much of the watershed needs to be fenced before we see a basin-scale impact); of choosing a control site (so we know that it’s the fencing that is causing the impact we are measuring); of ensuring the treatment area (fencing length) is long enough to see a response, among others. But the above is a start.

And it’s worth the while — because in 5 years, conservation organizations can say more than “how many acres of land we have purchased” or “how many policies we have influenced.” Imagine if we could say that, because of our efforts, 5 million people have reliable access to water for the next 200 years — where, without our investments, the same water source would be so polluted it was not potable.

That’s powerful. And slowly but surely, the Conservancy is taking steps to get there.

(Image: Páramo ecosystem in Cajas National Park near Cuenca, Ecuador. Credit: Rebecca Goldman/TNC.)

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One Response to “Measuring Conservation Impacts? First, Get the Question Right”

  1. Liane Davis says:

    Interesting piece, Rebecca, and I completely agree with the rationale for measuring impacts and the tactical approach you suggest. However, I think there’s still one more step in the approach that I don’t think we’ve fully addressed yet. As we dig still deeper into what it means to measure our impacts on processes such as hydrology and sedimentation, the web becomes even more tangled. The inherent variation in many aquatic processes, including hydrology, and time-lags associated with the time it takes to be able to detect a meaningful response to changes in management can make measuring such things an immensely costly, difficult, and long-term endeavor. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do them or continually strive for new, innovative monitoring methods, but despite the call for measures and a recognition of the value of monitoring, I still have yet to see a true committment from many people, agencies, and organizations (the Conservancy included) to invest deeply, and over the long-term, in the robust monitoring needed to obtain these answers. I’m not that familiar with the water fund project, but I’m wondering if there’s a sufficient investment in monitoring there to get the answers to the questions you pose?

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