“When people are ignored and conservation measures are put in, we see opposition, conflict and often failure”

“We really need to think about people as we’re creating conservation initiatives. Forgetting about humans in the conservation recipe is like forgetting yeast in a loaf of bread,” says Nathan Bennett, a researcher at the University of Washington, the University of British Columbia and Stanford University.

Bennett is lead author of a recent paper published in Biological Conservation: Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation”.

The paper recognises the importance of people in conservation, and the need to consider people’s livelihoods, cultural traditions, and dependence on natural resources when planning and implementing conservation projects.

In a press release from the University of Washington, Bennett says,

“When people are ignored and conservation measures are put in, we see opposition, conflict and often failure. These problems require the best available evidence, and that includes having both natural and social scientists at the table.”

Why local people do not support conservation

The press release gives an example from Thailand of a marine conservation failure that failed to put people at the centre of conservation:

In Thailand, for example, officials set up a series of marine protected areas along the country’s coastline to try to conserve threatened habitats, including coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass meadows. But they didn’t consider the thousands of fishermen and women who live near or inside the marine protected areas and rely on fishing and harvesting for livelihoods and feeding their families. Fishing bans and unfair treatment have led to resentment and opposition. In one case, fishermen burned a ranger station in protest.
To add to the divisiveness, big commercial boats still caught fish in these areas because the protection zones were not well enforced.

In 2014, Bennett was the lead author of a paper about the impacts of marine protected areas on livelihoods, with the title, “Why local people do not support conservation.”

Bennett et al’s recent paper notes that, “it has become widely recognized that engaging with the human dimensions of conservation and environmental management is needed to produce robust and effective conservation policies, actions and outcomes”.

A lack of awareness about social sciences

The authors argue in favour of using social sciences to understand the human dimensions of conservation and natural resource management. This may sound like stating the obvious, but they highlight a problem with the way conservation is often designed and implemented:

[A]mong many conservation scientists and practitioners, there remains a lack of awareness about the social sciences, including the different disciplines, objectives, methods and outputs, and uncertainty about the purpose of the conservation social sciences. We contend that this knowledge void and confusion interferes with the conservation community’s ability to engage with the social sciences purposefully and constructively – i.e., in a manner that will guide conservation practice and improve conservation outcomes. Without greater knowledge of the breadth of fields and contributions, the promise of the social sciences to improve conservation will remain largely unfulfilled.

The paper aims to provide a reference guide to and a detailed overview of conservation social sciences. The report outlines various conservation social sciences running from environmental anthropology through human-environment geography and political ecology to ecological economics. And the report provides an overview of 18 sub-fields of conservation social sciences.


The report lists ten of the values and contributions of social sciences to conservation:

  1. Documenting and increasing understanding of the diversity of ways in which conservation occurs in different contexts
  2. Facilitating learning about and knowledge of conservation challenges, practices and processes as well as successes or failures
  3. Aiding in proactive consideration of and reactive rethinking about why and how conservation does or should occur
  4. Interrogating the underlying assumptions, concepts and models of conservation
  5. Allowing for imagination, innovation and creation of novel or desirable concepts, practices or models for conservation
  6. Improving conservation management practices and governance processes, including understanding how to better engage different stakeholders
  7. Enabling planning and design of conservation initiatives that match different social, economic, cultural and governance contexts and that are socially acceptable
  8. Helping to justify and normalize conservation actions
  9. Increasing the likelihood of more ecologically effective conservation planning and management in different social, economic and political contexts
  10. Facilitating more socially equitable and just conservation processes and outcomes


PHOTO Credit: Some small-scale fishers on the Andaman coast of Thailand feel resentful about marine protected areas, as they were not consulted and their needs were not considered, Nathan Bennett.

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