Taken in Mar de Cortez, Baja California Sur, Mexico. —Cecilia Simon, 2014 Fellow


Resources about the practice of market-based conservation.

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a seismic year for all of us. For conservationists it has involved responding to the impacts of the COVID pandemic on projects, figuring out how to do our jobs without community meetings or jetting around the world, and contemplating − in light of the year’s social justice movements − the drastic inequality in our sector. We’ve been forced to take a fresh look at the work we do, and to adapt.

By Kitty Brayne (2018 Fellow) & Jen Chapman (2013 Fellow)

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a seismic year for all of us. For conservationists it has involved responding to the impacts of the COVID pandemic on projects, figuring out how to do our jobs without community meetings or jetting around the world, and contemplating − in light of the year’s social justice movements − the drastic inequality in our sector. We’ve been forced to take a fresh look at the work we do, and to adapt.

We're both Kinship Fellows working for Blue Ventures, a marine conservation organisation supporting communities to rebuild fisheries. Jen coordinates our work in Belize, while Kitty is in the UK, supporting field teams around the world, particularly colleagues in the Indian Ocean. Despite our differing vantage points, when we compared notes on 2020, we found our reflections covered similar ground.

The first signs of COVID’s impact on Blue Ventures’ work in early 2020 were relatively inconspicuous. Crab exports from Madagascar to China stopped, and seafood buyers sounded the alarm about potential wider impacts on markets and supply chains. We briefed colleagues and set up handwashing stations. But when the global disruption from the pandemic finally hit in March, it came as a tidal wave. We were helping colleagues in different parts of the world get home before borders closed; facing up to the reality of shuttering our volunteer ecotourism business; speculating how the lockdowns might impact partner fishing communities across over a dozen countries; and figuring out how we might respond.

The impacts of the pandemic on coastal livelihoods have been profound and multi-faceted, and our ecotourism business will never go back to the way it operated before.

Aside from the pandemic, part way through the year the global focus on Black Lives Matter also shone a spotlight on inequality and structural racism, and made us look at our work and our sector with fresh awareness and perspective.

Despite the shocks, we’ve seen that fishing communities are adaptable, and as it turns out, so are entrepreneurial conservationists. Standing back from the stress and chaos of the last year, it’s inspiring to see the remarkable learning and pivoting of work that has been happening within our teams and partner organisations in order to cope with the crisis. Here’s a flavour of what we have learned (so far):


Global markets are fragile

Over the years we have put a huge amount of our energy into developing market-based solutions that rely on lucrative international markets to provide financial incentives to conservation. For example, we’ve spent years developing a Fisheries Improvement Project for the southwest Madagascar octopus fishery, with the hope that the octopus product can be marketed to higher-paying international markets interested in sustainability and responsible sourcing. Yet so far, we have not managed to tap into these markets, and we suspect we’re not the only ones struggling to get similar projects off the ground. When the pandemic struck we were confronted by the vulnerability of our models that relied on international supply chains or tourism to global disruptions in trade. We saw fishers turn to the less-valuable, but much more resilient, local and regional markets to get through the crisis. This made us wonder whether our focus on high-value international markets had blinkered us to the opportunities in local markets. Smaller, incremental changes in local supply chains might add up to a bigger transformation than that one high-gain model based on international supply chains.


Immediate financial motivations may not be needed

In our quest to develop these market-based models, short term financial incentives for conservation behaviours have been the holy grail, with the assumption that people will require a direct and immediate financial motivation to change behaviour and invest in conservation practices. Yet when we looked around us during the pandemic disruption, we saw that, despite the collapse of certain markets for seafood, in many places communities continued to organise conservation or fisheries management measures, with no clear ‘incentive’. For example, the Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area Association, the local management body overseeing Madagascar’s longest standing community-run MPA, set about expanding coverage of permanent no-take areas right in the middle of the pandemic, when seafood supply chains were operating at half-pace, and no short-term financial gain was on offer. Again, we wondered whether our thirst for neat economic models with built-in financial incentives may have blinkered us to exploring the multitude of motivations for conservation. While financial gains can be an important tool to get activities started, and break down preconceptions about conservation, some of the most powerful and enduring motivations seem to be connected to feelings of ownership, agency, respect, rights, and culture.


Community leadership is resilient

Seafood processors responded differently as global market shocks hit, exposing the importance of inclusive management and governance. In Mexico, some well-organised fishing cooperatives supported their member fishers financially through an extension of their seasonal closure. Transparency and participatory governance meant that fishers were able to make informed and economically-sound decisions about how and when to harvest lobster. Fishers also maintained an on-the-water presence to monitor compliance with the extended closure. This is in stark contrast to Belize, where fishing communities approached the opening of lobster season with nervous uncertainty, unsure whether the lobster they caught would be accepted by the processors, at what price, or for how long. Many fisheries and protected area managers feared intense fishing effort beyond the capacity of the stock, and lamented the opportunity cost of harvesting at a time when prices were rock bottom. Although Belize’s fishing cooperatives are led by fishers, their broader membership was not included in discussions about prices and market impacts leading up to the seasonal opening in mid 2020, sowing distrust. It was the participation of fishers in Mexico in on-the-water and post-harvest management that drove transparency, and enabled decisions that left high-value lobster in the water to grow until prices improved.


The sector needs to be fundamentally reimagined and rebuilt

The COVID pandemic shone a spotlight on drastic inequalities in people’s ability to cope with the impacts of the crisis, and alongside this the Black Lives Matter movement, , triggered widespread introspection and reflection on issues of privilege, race and justice. In many parts of the world, the conservation sector arose out of a colonialism mindset, and despite the obvious moral imperative to disrupt unjust power dynamics, the reality is that many organisations, including the most powerful and influential, are still dominated by leaders that benefit from white privilege. This includes our organisation, Blue Ventures, and we also recognise our individual roles and responsibilities, as white managers who have benefitted from privilege throughout our careers. Despite the fact that our organisation’s mission focuses on supporting local leadership and empowerment, our leadership and management structures do not reflect this. And we’re not alone. 

Conservation organisations have the ability to transform these inequalities. Funding may be competitive and insufficient, but the lion's share of what is available goes to medium or large international NGOs, often headquartered far from the countries they work in. A key part of the solution has to be redirecting funding away from existing power structures and supporting local leaders and organisations, but this must be done through true devolution of power, not through entrenching paternalism.

Beyond this, conservation organisations themselves need to reconfigure how they work, diversify leadership and do better at holding people accountable. Everyone is prone to unconscious bias, which constrains inclusion; logically the only way to overcome this is by redistributing power. The traditional hierarchical management models deployed in most large NGOs appear ill-suited to this, developed as they were in corporate structures with the inherent goal of expansion and centralisation of power. Alternative models of non-hierarchical leadership are out there. If we know that the traditional structures aren’t working for us, then surely now is the time to be brave and embrace new options.


So where does all this leave us?

We may have raised more questions than answers in our learnings from 2020. But one of the most important lessons we took away from the Kinship Fellowship was the power of questions. We both began our careers in conservation through the lens of science, seeking ‘solutions’ − technical models rooted in academia. But what we have developed instead is a new perspective, and a realisation that a capacity to listen, question, compare, and draw out more powerful learning is even more important.

So we don’t have the answers yet - but 2020 has helped us to figure out what some of the important questions are, and where to focus our efforts going forwards. We know that we must keep learning and listening, keep challenging norms and the status quo, as well as speaking up and advocating for change. We must do the work within our organisations and spheres of influence, using the power we have to achieve the best outcomes for the communities that we serve, and learning along the way.