Why and How Conservation Needs to Tackle Human Well-Being: A Conservation with Heather Tallis

Heather Tallis, lead scientist, The Nature Conservancy. Image courtesy Heather Tallis/TNC.

Heather Tallis, lead scientist, The Nature Conservancy. Image courtesy Heather Tallis/TNC.

Bob Lalasz directs science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Can conservation make a decisive and systematic contribution to solving social problems and improving the lives of people  – especially the world’s poor?

Finding out is Heather Tallis’s job: As a new lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy in charge of the Conservancy’s new Human Dimensions Program, it’s her task to bring “people metrics” to assess the impact of the Conservancy’s work on the ground on people. She’s also charged with integrating innovative economics and social science into the organization’s field work in a way that builds conservation methods and tools that can benefit everyone.

The challenges are many — among them, getting those metrics right (something conservation has struggled to do); designing conservation from the ground up to impact people positively; and helping  policymakers and other decision-makers to recognize the value of conservation for answering many of the big questions facing the planet.

I sat down with Tallis to talk about where she and the Human Dimension Program will begin addressing those challenges:

Why does conservation need an initiative to attack human well-being head-on?

HT: Well, I like the way the folks from the Stockholm Resilience Center say it: “There are no natural systems without people, nor social systems without nature.” This is our reality, especially as the Conservancy moves to thinking about and managing whole ecological systems.

But this is obviously not the way most people see the world, so our personal decisions, our political ideas and our management process are out of synch with this reality. The next 20-30 years will see dramatic change in the face of the planet — and what lives on it or doesn’t — as society decides how to double food production, build hundreds of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and create more megacities.

Conservation needs to be in those decisions. And we won’t get past the door unless we know and can describe what nature has to do with major social problems, and how nature can contribute to human well-being solutions.

Conservation orgs have talked for years about how they’re going to be relevant to people. What do we have to do to get people measures right?

HT: We have to focus right at the intersection of people and nature. This is not easy.

Natural scientists have done a decent job of figuring out how we measure what’s going on with the environment. And governments, development groups and companies have decent ways of measuring what’s going on with the economy and people. But none of this tells us explicitly how the two are connected.

We can watch GDP, the unemployment rate, child malnutrition, and infectious disease rates go up and down, and with these metrics alone, we have no idea if they are changing because of government programs, changes in markets or change in the environment.

So these broadly used and accepted metrics are a good starting point, but we need new metrics that tell us what nature contributes to different components of human life.

If we want to know the impact of a new marine protected area on local nutrition, we can’t just measure individual nutritional health in the region. We need to measure the amount of nutrition provided by fish, relative to other sources. Some of these metrics are worked out; many are not. And the biggest challenge will be designing monitoring programs for these new metrics that are practical and cost-effective.

We also have to get people strategies right. There’s a lot of talk about how we measure the impact of conservation on people, without a strong parallel conversation about how we design conservation to help people.

Some of the good examples we have now of how conservation helps people are projects with two independent goals and strategies. For example, a conservation program restores natural habitat and also builds a health clinic. There’s the idea that people have to have their basic needs met before they can think about nature conservation. Sometimes this is true, but in some cases, the two can go hand-in-hand.

For example, many rural communities in developing countries rely heavily on disappearing native plants for medicinal treatments. Conservation can develop a project that restores native plants and fosters local governance in support of access for local communities to use these plants medicinally. This could directly benefit nature and give people an opportunity to directly preserve culture and be healthy.

This is not a novel idea, but it’s also not a widely employed one. Water funds are a good example of moving in this direction. I’d like to see the Conservancy go more towards creating and supporting strategies that shine a light on and cultivate these real, valuable connections between people and nature. And honestly, if we design our work this way, it will make it a heck of a lot easier to know what to measure and to say whether or not we are succeeding.

What are you going to tackle first? What are the paradigms and approaches that are priorities for you to bring to conservation off the bat?

HT: Certainly metrics that highlight nature’s contribution to people will be at the top of the list. It’s also time to have a standard approach for mapping ecosystem service priority areas. This kind of mapping is relevant to bringing ecosystem services into Development by Design and the mitigation hierarchy, land and ocean planning, protected area design and many other lines of conservation work.

Another important concept I’d like to see taken up broadly in TNC is the idea of servicesheds. These help us map in space where different benefits originate, and which people are receiving them. We’ve started developing ways to use servicesheds to keep track of who will lose benefits from proposed infrastructure development, and how to site mitigation so offsets don’t create inequities.

Servicesheds can also help in targeting restoration investments to provide the greatest returns in biodiversity and multiple human benefits. We can see how many people will be affected by putting habitat back in different places, and we can say whether those people are particularly vulnerable, or hold especially high values for the services that will be restored. The approach helps us deal with distributional issues that often go unaccounted for in conservation work.

I also see a need to bring some rigorous thinking about tradeoff analyses to the Conservancy’s work so we can identify more clearly up front what kinds of conservation projects are likely to provide high returns for people and nature, and which may cause tradeoffs.

You’re not a social scientist. So why are you the right person to lead the Human Dimensions Program, much of which is about topics that fall under social science?

HT: A lot of the hard questions the Conservancy and conservation in general needs to grapple with now involve people, but they aren’t purely social science or economics questions.

For example, we don’t just care about the unemployment rate, we care about whether or not conservation programs are protecting species and creating jobs. The Conservancy is not going to go out and work solely on securing food supplies, but we are going to figure out how to help produce more food with less environmental impact. These are issues at the interface of natural and social science. It can still take serious translation for these fields to connect well.

The Conservancy is largely an organization of natural scientists, so it makes sense to start where you are. I come from the same kind of background as most of our scientists, but I’ve spent the last decade working with social scientists and economists — so I understand the path they’ll have to go down to be able to engage these new fields in their work.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues.



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