Getting conservation stakeholders involved

14 04 2011

Here’s another guest post from another switched-on Queensland student, Duan Biggs. Duan, originally from Namibia and South Africa, is doing his PhD at the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. His PhD is investigating the resilience of nature-based tourism to climate change. I’ve met Duan a few times, and I’m impressed by his piercing views on conservation science and its implementation. Duan has already posted here on (‘Make your conservation PhD relevant‘) and now adds his latest post discussing a paper he’s just had published in Conservation Letters. Thanks, Duan.

Achieving conservation outcomes almost always means working with stakeholders. ConservationBytes readers who have participated in multi-stakeholder conservation processes will know how difficult they are. Even more so when parties come from very different backgrounds and cultures. Farmers feel they just cannot comprehend what scientists are saying… ecologists silently curse [CJAB’s note: well, not always silently] because government officials ‘just don’t get it’ and so forth. So often, conservation projects are impeded, or even brought to a grinding halt because the very different perspectives that stakeholders bring to the table and the inability to see eye to eye.  This has left many a fervent conservationist and scientist feeling like the associated cartoon.

However, our new paper entitled The implementation crisis in conservation planning – could ‘mental models’ help? just out in Conservation Letters suggests ways of dealing with this almighty challenge.

Effective conservation requires conservation scientists to partner successfully with managers, extractive users and other stakeholder groups. Often, key stakeholders come from very different backgrounds and cultures, and hence have a diversity of values that result in a range of perspectives on issues. These differences are frequently a source of failure in conservation projects.

Mental models’ are the cognitive frameworks that people use to interpret the world and make decisions. Mental models are necessarily partial views of the world, but are valid to those who hold them. Community groups, conservation scientists, government officials, and the private sector partners on a conservation project, all make decisions based on their particular mental models. If differences in stakeholder mental models are not dealt with, conservation initiatives often fail because of differing underlying values, alternative understandings about what conservation objectives mean, and the ways in which they should be achieved. The idea is not to get everyone to agree to the ‘single correct mental model’ but rather to make the differences explicit and facilitate processes to get different stakeholder groups to understand each other. Scientists are but one stakeholder group that bring their own mental models, formed by their upbringing and training, to the conservation table.

Mental models operate at the individual and group level. Our paper outlines processes that enable the emergence of a shared mental model among a group of stakeholders. The development of a shared mental model can make a powerful contribution to getting a diverse group of stakeholders to craft a shared vision for a region, buy into, and take empowered ownership of, a conservation plan. Iterations of planning and implementation will be strengthened by stakeholders’ improved understanding of themselves and each other. In addition, conservation initiatives that incorporate the tools and processes associated with mental models will benefit from clearer and more open communication among stakeholders and an improved grasp of the relevant social context.

The mental models concept has its origins in psychology in the 1950s. Since then, the tools and processes associated with mental models have been widely used in risk assessment and management, education, organisational learning, water resource management, conflict resolution, systems dynamics, and others.

It is high time for conservation scientists and managers to start using mental models as well.

Authors: Duan Biggs, Nick Abel, Andrew Knight, Anne Leitch, Art Langston, and Natalie Ban drew their shared experiences of personal successes and failures from sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia, and North America together their diverse experiences from community-based conservation, conservation planning, and natural resource management in compiling this paper.

The paper is available at online for subscribers or by emailing the corresponding author Duan Biggs.
Biggs, D., Abel, N., Knight, A., Leitch, A., Langston, A., & Ban, N. (2011). The implementation crisis in conservation planning: could “mental models” help? Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00170.x



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