Science and Economic Development in the Emerald Edge

Working in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities is critically important to achieving outcomes for people and nature. Social science is the backbone of The Nature Conservancy's approach to strengthening voice, choice and action.

Working in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities is critically important to achieving outcomes for people and nature. The Nature Conservancy partners with indigenous peoples and local communities across 27 countries, leading to the conservation and improved management of more than 235 million acres, and has had positive impacts on the well-being of 925,000 people through wealth-creation, enhanced security and greater empowerment. Social science informs and strengthens this conservation work and is the backbone of The Nature Conservancy’s approach to strengthening the voice, choice and action of indigenous peoples and local communities in territorial management.  We call this approach the Voice, Choice, and Action (VCA) Framework.

The VCA Framework outlines five conditions that are critical to achieving outcomes for people and nature across our work in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities:

  1. Secure rights to territories and resources;
  2. Strong community leadership and capacity;
  3. Effective multi-stakeholder platforms for decision-making;
  4. Environmentally sustainable economic development opportunities; and
  5. Strong cultural connection to place.

We sat down with Eric Delvin, the Director of the Emerald Edge program, to find out how he uses the science backing the VCA Framework in his work with communities pursuing sustainable economic development along the Northwestern Coast of North America.

Eric Delvin

Director for The Emerald Edge Program

Eric Delvin is the Director for The Emerald Edge Program of The Nature Conservancy, which works to conserve the largest temperate rainforest on earth spanning the coasts of Washington, British Columbia, and Southeast Alaska. Eric has worked for The Nature Conservancy for 15 years and focuses on work with Indigenous and Local Communities, particularly in the Emerald Edge.

Q: How do you define sustainable economic development in the context of the Emerald Edge?

A: It’s development that’s aligned culturally with the indigenous and local communities of the Emerald Edge. We typically also think about it from a triple bottom-line perspective, so, economic opportunities that, one, make money and support livelihoods, two, consider the ecological impact, and, three, consider the community or socio-cultural impact. And it’s not like these have to be small, tiny enterprises. They can even be things that you might think of as resource extraction, such as forestry, but they are again aligned and consider wholly, or equally, those triple bottom-line components.

Q: Can you talk more about your theory of change for the Emerald Edge and the science that underpins it?

A: We have three outcomes that we’re driving for in the Emerald Edge program, which is that, one, the indigenous and local communities have management authority, or rights and authority, to manage their lands and waters, and they have the sufficient resources to do so. Then the second is that the communities have strong leadership and natural resource management capacity; and the third is that the indigenous and local communities have sustainable livelihoods, sustainable economic development opportunities that, again, are aligned with their values.

We know from evidence around the world and from the ground breaking research of Elinor Ostrom that with the right set of conditions and strong leadership, indigenous and local communities make long term sustainable natural resource decisions.  Previous to Ostrom’s work it was long unanimously held among economists that natural resources that were collectively used would be over-exploited and destroyed over the long-term (coined the tragedy of the commons). Elinor Ostrom disproved this idea by conducting field studies globally on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources, such as pastures, fishing waters, and forests. Elinor Ostrom’s work on common pool resource governance and the kind of conditions that you need in place for communities to make sustainable natural resource management decisions through time is the foundation for our theory of change in the Emerald Edge.  I would also note that it is consistent with how my colleagues work in other indigenous and local community programs such as Africa, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Mongolia, to name a few.

I think that culturally it’s very easy for our members and our staff to understand traditional western scientific evidence used in conservation – for example ecoregion assessments, how watersheds function, what the science tells you on how to restore a certain area. And I would say that as we evolve to meet the global challenges that are most critical to people and nature and the future, one of the things that we must do, and that we are doing in the Emerald Edge program, is embracing the social science literature and evidence, to support and drive our work. And so, the science has been fundamental in how we developed our theory of change and the outcomes that we’re driving towards and it’s been important to help people feel confident that the work is going to be successful and that it’s backed up by enough evidence globally – that it’s not just an idea that we haven’t tested.

Q: Is the Emerald Edge program doing any work around traditional knowledge and western science and the intersection between the two? And if so, could you describe a little of that work?

A: When we look at our work globally with indigenous people, including in the Emerald Edge, I think there is a real opportunity to ensure we’re incorporating indigenous world views and mindsets into our work and finding ways to integrate that. I think it’s going to be fundamental when you think about things in a global context and indigenous peoples worldwide, to figure out how to incorporate those world views for a sustainable planet for the future. When I think about how we’re trying to do that in the Emerald Edge, the Communities, Economies and Place Initiative (CEPI) is an example of how we are being explicit in the incorporation of the local communities’, primarily indigenous communities’, perspectives and world views into the work. CEPI is a collaborative effort with the communities of the Emerald Edge, where we are working to cultivate new economic development initiatives.

A critical component of CEPI is working in a deep and collaborative way with the indigenous communities in the landscape, and one of the first steps in that process is really building our own understanding of the socio-ecological system as it exists now. One of the insights that I’ve had as we’ve been engaged in this project for about a year is that the current “system” is functioning exactly as it’s designed. The issue with that is it’s delivering outcomes that are not good for conservation and not good for the communities in the landscape. And so why do we have unsustainable natural resource extraction happening? Why do we have poverty at incredible levels in indigenous communities? The socio-ecological system of that place is delivering these outcomes that aren’t aligned with what we are trying to do in the program. The first step for us is making sure that we have the right people in the room to build our understanding, so that we can then find ways that will nudge the system to have better outcomes, or more aligned outcomes with what we’re seeking in our program. Having people of the place who carry with them the knowledge of that place for the last ten thousand years fundamentally changes the types of ideas you come up with for sustainable economic development needs.

Q: It sounds like you are describing a social lab/systems approach. Would you mind briefly going in to what this approach is, when it’s warranted and when it works, for those not familiar?

A: This approach can be useful when you’re faced with problems that have persisted and are really complex – meaning that if you do one thing, you change a bunch of other variables and it’s not clear that the thing you do is going to result in the outcome that you’re seeking. And I would argue that sustainable economic development is one of those complex problems that we have in the Emerald Edge. Using this kind of systems approach, where you really build a comprehensive understanding of the system as it is, and the structures and values and beliefs that are in place that underpin that system, you can find leverage points in a collaborative, systemic, experimental way that will be more likely to deliver the outcomes that you’re working towards. I live in Washington State and have been working on the coast with The Nature Conservancy for the past 15 years, and the same problems that we’ve had there in terms of high unemployment, low economic opportunities, the fact that people have to leave their communities to go find jobs, have been persisting for generations of people. What we’re doing now isn’t working, so the whole idea of a systems leadership or thinking approach is to do things in a more systemic, or wholistic, fashion.

This is not some new and different approach that we need to just have faith that it’s going to work. Sometimes they’re referred to as “social innovation labs” and they’ve been around for a long time, and we have evidence from a myriad of projects and initiatives through time that this approach really delivers. The other facet that’s really powerful for me about CEPI is that in addition to hopefully providing us some economic opportunities and initiatives that will be longer lasting and more systemic, it has additional really important advantages. There was a paper that came out in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) a few years ago that talked about social innovation labs and the other benefits that come out of them. You’re building knowledge for and from the system, so you’ve got people from that place informing it and you can ensure you’re really going to have ideas and initiatives that work for that place. But it also has the added benefit of building capacity at a local level, which is one of those other outcomes we’re working towards – building leadership and capacity. The systems-change approach outlined here is one way The Nature Conservancy is looking to improve these results in years to come, rooted in proven science and shown to work in geographies across the world.

Q: What lessons have you learned so far through the creation of CEPI about how you achieve sustainable economic development in the Emerald Edge?

A: We are at the beginning of the CEPI initiative and so we have completed what we called “Phase One,” which was really an extensive set of interviews with people in place and other people “in the system” – working on economic development, political folks, business leaders – to help us build an understanding of the system as it is in the Emerald Edge. One of the things we’ve learned to date is that there is incredible appetite and energy for doing something new, doing something more systemic and better than what’s being done now. We found there is tremendous energy and excitement from people to learn what others are doing in their place and we had, for example, people who do lending in small communities in Alaska learning from people who do the same thing in Washington and coming up with ideas for opportunities just from having a brief conversation over a couple of days where we brought people together.

Q: You’ve mentioned the term “in place.” Does place mean something different for traditional inhabitants of the Emerald Edge than it does for others outside of that area? Or, say, from the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “place”.

A: Yes, it does. We use that term “place-based communities” to talk about the indigenous and local communities of the Emerald Edge with an understanding that when we say place-based, we’re talking about people that have a cultural and spiritual tie to their place and a dependence on the natural resources of that place. So, it’s not really an option for them, for example, to go somewhere else. I hear that all the time working with people and communities, they’ve been in this place since time immemorial and they’re not going anywhere else and so there’s an urgency and an intense desire to figure out solutions to things like sustainable economic development that will work in that place.

Q: 20 years from now, what would the situation in the Emerald Edge look like if CEPI were successful?

A: I think that if CEPI is successful as well as our other work in the Emerald Edge, then when you come to visit the Emerald Edge you will see towering trees, bears, wolves, whales, and rivers teaming with salmon.  You will see vibrant communities who celebrate their unique cultures and where people who want to stay in their place to work will have the opportunity to have jobs or businesses aligned with their values.  And you will find communities aligned with conservation, who are the defenders of that place from outside threats.  Actually, you can find many places and communities just like this right now in the Emerald Edge, so come visit!  Our work is to sustain the amazing places that exist now and ensure that all the communities (human and other) in the Emerald Edge can realize this vision.

For more information on TNC’s VCA Framework, see “Strong Voices, Active Choices:  TNC’s Practitioner Framework to Strengthen Outcomes for People and Nature

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