Time to rethink ecotourism and conservation

By Robert Fletcher, Bram Büscher, Kate Massarella and Stasja Koot

Among the pandemic’s most significant effects has been its impact on the global tourism industry – an important source of conservation financing in many places. In some places, this is affecting wildlife directly. For instance, fears that endangered mountain gorillas might contract the virus from human visitors has resulted in a suspension of highly lucrative tourism activities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet the main consequence of COVID-19’s tourism impacts concerns the conservation activities to which tourism is connected. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated in May that global visitations in 2020 may drop 60-80% due to the crisis, resulting in losses of hundreds of billions of euros to tourism operators and workers worldwide. This has provoked widespread concern that loss of revenue from tourist visitation may endanger conservation programming in many places, as over the past decade ecotourism has become one of the main sources of revenue for conservation as well as one of the main strategies to enrol local people within it.

This latter dynamic is based on what Martha Honey calls the ‘stakeholder theory’ asserting that ‘people will protect what they receive value from’. This is one manifestation of an increasingly popular strategy for championing conservation more generally, consistent with paradigmatically neoliberal understanding of human reasoning and motivation, which aims to offer economic incentives sufficient to make conservation more lucrative than other more destructive land use options.

This stakeholder strategy has always been a dangerous gamble, since basing conservation support on such ‘extrinsic’ motivation (rather than an ‘intrinsic’ sense of care for biodiversity) could obviate this support were the revenue fuelling this motivation to disappear. And considering the instability of the tourism industry due to its dependence on an inherently volatile global economy, it was never really a question of if this would happen, but when. As Dickson Kaelo, CEO of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, notes:    

Members of these communities may lose faith in wildlife conservation if there is no money forthcoming. In addition, people who live around these wildlife havens and looked forward to selling artefacts to tourists may resort to other income-generating activities such as farming, fuelling the never-ending human-wildlife conflicts as animals invade and destroy their new farms.

This is precisely what seems to be occurring right now, with instances of poaching and encroachment on the rise within many conservation spaces worldwide.  Yet is this ostensive connection really so clear-cut? Some question the assertion that conservation depends so heavily on tourism revenue, pointing out that implicit in this stance is the assumption that (usually foreign) tourists and conservationists are the main actors valuing and nurturing biodiversity. Kenyan conservationist Mordecai Ogada thus asserts, “Let’s not pretend at any point that tourists are the ones that look after our wildlife. Our wildlife is looked after by our people, our wildlife rangers, and those mandated by government to care for them.” 

What next?

Given all of this, what is likely to happen now? There is much uncertainty at the moment and different possibilities exist. In the short term, it is probable that forms of coercive conservation enforcement will intensify – as they already have in certain places – as ‘softer’ options dry up. Yet others assert that the precarity of ecotourism finance exposed by the COVID-19 crisis signals the need for a deeper rethinking of how conservation is funded more generally. This is compounded by acknowledgment that even before the current crisis global conservation efforts already experienced a substantial financial shortfall estimated at 200-300 billion euros per annum.

Thus Johan Robinson, Chief of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Biodiversity and Land Degradation Unit at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), contends, “If the international community is serious about conserving biodiversity as part of a just and sustainable world, we must get serious about funding conservation”. To achieve this, Robinson calls for development of “a new class of financial asset, ripe for sustainable investment. Success would depend on investments that simultaneously reinforce the impact of conservation; providing capital preservation and/or returns on investments and generating cashflows through sustainable use of nature by local communities.”

Creation of a financial asset class for conservation been a widespread aspiration of many for some time now. Several years ago, for instance, Credit Suisse and McKinsey advanced a similar call in a widely circulated report entitled Conservation Finance From Niche to Mainstream: The Building of an Institutional Asset Class. This report asserted that

few conservation projects today are big enough to be structured as marketable standalone investment products. Thus, aggregating distinct but complementary projects with potentially different structures is required. These aggregators need to be able to bundle a diverse set of cash flows…and mould them into a single investment product.

Subsequently, this report helped to inspire creation of a Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation, organized by IUCN and including Credit Suisse as well as bankers JP Morgan Chase along with UNEP, GEF, Conservation International and the World Bank, among many others, to put this plan into action.

Yet realization of this ambitious vision has remained elusive. Dempsey and Suarez demonstrate that efforts to tap economic markets for conservation finance globally to date have fallen far short of intended aims, producing only “slivers of slivers of slivers” of envisioned funding. Meanwhile, global programmes like payment for ecosystem services (PES) and the reduced emissions from avoided deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) mechanism have largely morphed from their original design as “market-based instruments” (MBIs) for conservation finance into dependence on state-based taxation and other forms of redistributive funding.

There is little to suggest that this situation will reverse in the future. On the contrary, there are serious questions whether it is possible for MBIs to ever achieve their aim to reconcile conservation and sustainable local livelihoods with profitable return on investment at significant scale. Indeed, it is apparent that most MBIs paradoxically depend on expansion of destructive extractive industries and financial institutes as the basis of their economic model.

Rather than presenting opportunities for increased conservation finance through market expansion, the current crisis will likely intensify pressures on already vulnerable conservation areas as governments and capitalists look to previously restricted natural resources as new sources of accumulation. The global economy is already in deep recession and will likely sink further in the months to come. After the 2008 recession, capitalists turned to intensified resource extraction to recapture lost growth, at great expense to ongoing conservation efforts. It is likely that this same pattern will be repeated now too. At the same time, the growing recession will certainly further impoverish countless residents of rural communities close to biodiversity hotspots who may be forced to turn to exploitation of conserved resources if other survival options dry up.

Closing the tap: towards convivial conservation

All of this suggests the need for a more profound rethinking of conservation finance than Robinson and others propose. As Serhadli asserts, “If we promote conditions where local people are completely dependent on external market forces, and the motivation behind conservation is money-based, then conservation will always be dependent on a stable global economy, which is highly uncertain as we are witnessing right now.” Rather than doubling down on efforts to fund conservation through financial markets that have proven quite miserly thus far, we may instead need to double-step in the opposite direction. That is, we may need to “begin taking the market out of conservation altogether” and “instead experiment with providing subsidies (state supported or otherwise) to resource-dependent communities based on direct taxation of extractive activities of the type that are already in some cases covertly supplied through MBIs”.

But even this is merely a first step towards the much more radical change that is ultimately needed. Conservation will always be a rear-guard battle if done within a fundamentally unsustainable global economy. Bluntly stated, it is like frantically mopping the floor with the taps wide open. The real solution is simple: to close the tap.

A different economic system is needed to facilitate another form of conservation. One that allows humans and nonhumans to live side-by-side in meaningful coexistence rather than shallow commodified encounter. One that does not aim to control nature, but that lets natures (human as well as nonhuman) thrive, while recognising and celebrating the biophysical limits that necessarily both constrain and enable this. And one that supports and subsidizes the livelihoods of people living intimately with wildlife beyond providing precarious tourism employment – for instance, through redistributive mechanisms like a conservation basic income. Such calls for radical or “transformational” change have been gaining momentum over the last decade and the COVID-19 crisis has added urgency to these calls. If transformational change is indeed most likely to happen at ‘times of crisis, when enough stakeholders agree that the current system is dysfunctional, then the current conjuncture may present an opportunity to find a new way forward that may not have seemed possible before.

Closing the tap on aggregate economic growth opens positive new possibilities. It renders possible a more equitable world and a form of convivial conservation that celebrates and enables living together. This post-capitalist proposal is currently being debated and tested in a number of places by various actors. Aspects of it are already being practiced in many indigenous and community conservation projects worldwide.

Robert Fletcher is an environmental anthropologist and Bram Büscher is a sociologist, both at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Their book The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Athropocene was published in 2020.

Stasja Koot and Kate Massarella are environmental sociologists based at Wageningen University.

A longer version of this article was originally published in Atlas Tourism and Leisure Review.

See also CON-VIVA: Towards convivial conservation

Photo: Tourists at the Maasai Mara National Reserve by Heather Edwards.

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