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Can Conservation Succeed in a Silo?

By David Johnson and Carina Hirsch, Population & Sustainability Network, 7th September 2016

Seldom are ‘environmental’ issues ‘merely’ environmental issues; often they are part of larger, connected and complex resource, social and health concerns. Responding effectively to these connected challenges requires integrated solutions, but two problems are faced in doing so. Firstly, few conservationists take the multi-dimensionality of the issues into account when designing programmes. Secondly, few funding partners realise that existing funding policies often prevent one of the most suitable approaches to many conservation issues being implemented in the first place.

Consider Africa, a continent where the UN projects the population will more than quadruple by the end of the century. Given this demographic reality, we believe many traditional conservation programmes cannot possibly be sustainable in the long term. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are not only critical for the health and empowerment of women, but also to the conservation sector. Barriers to family planning services are, generally speaking, greatest in rural areas in the developing world. Lack of access to unrestricted family planning services leads to higher levels of fertility, unintended pregnancies and increased family size – which in turn puts greater pressure on families, resources and the environment.

Population, Health & Environment (PHE) programmes take these realities into account and address connected conservation, health and livelihood issues by simultaneously helping communities conserve natural resources (by providing alternative and sustainable livelihoods), whilst also improving access to healthcare (particularly family planning) services. PHE programmes have demonstrated greater conservation outcomes than single sector conservation programmes, whilst also leading to greater health outcomes: everybody wins.

In South Africa the Population & Sustainability Network is launching a PHE project in partnership with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The project site, the Marico River catchment, is a National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Area and, given the headwaters are one of the few remaining free-flowing stretches of river in the country and benefit from high biodiversity and cultural value, it is a flagship river of national importance. But it is being impacted by climate change, an on-going drought, and increasing demands on its water from localised population pressures.

The project will protect this strategically important water by empowering the marginalised agricultural community living in the arid area around it, which suffers from erratic rainfall and erosion issues. Actions will include enabling women to engage in income generating activities through training and support in livelihood diversification and micro-enterprises which are appropriate in a water-scare setting. Furthermore, health improvements will remove barriers to family planning which will lead to reduced fertility levels, improve women’s and infants’ health and, with fewer unintended pregnancies, reduce population pressures on local resources. The largely agricultural community, which has recently had land returned to it subsequent to successful land claims post-Apartheid, will become better placed to support its families from the climate change impacted land on which they farm and pressures on the water will reduce. The Marico River flows into the mighty Limpopo River, which traces the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, before entering Kruger National Park and eventually spilling into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. The headwaters are critical to every ecosystem downstream.

There are many benefits from integrating. For instance, we anticipate we will see a greater percentage of men supporting their partners’ contraceptive choices. This is partly due to barriers to discussions being broken down by integrating health, population, conservation and livelihood messages. In a PHE programme in Ethiopia, for instance, over 30% of men supported their partners’ contraceptive choices, whereas only 7% of men not involved with the PHE project supported their partners’ choices. Women whose husbands supported their use of contraceptives were 17 times more likely to use them.

Sounds great. So why isn’t everyone doing this kind of work?

Securing funding for the South African project has taken two years, with different funders supporting the health component and the conservation component. To find a ‘conservation funder’ who is also prepared to support the health actions of an integrated project or a ‘health funder’ to support the conservation actions of an integrated project is almost impossible, even though integration leads to greater conservation and health outcomes. Discussions with the board of one of the world’s largest company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes on PHE are a case in point. Our presentation promised much, given the CSR programme’s three areas of support are conservation, health and livelihoods. The CSR programme’s management team agreed that PHE projects were therefore exactly what they should be supporting. But there was a problem. Any application needed to be made either to the ‘conservation’ fund, the ‘health’ fund or the ‘livelihood’ fund within the CSR programme, and only ‘conservation’ actions could be included in a ‘conservation’ application. Designing a PHE project which responded to all three interrelated sectors would automatically invalidate any application. The CSR managers were apologetic, they really understood PHE and wanted to support it, but their hands were tied. The same applies when government funding agencies and departments call for proposals – they call for health proposals or conservation proposals, never integrated PHE proposals.

Integration remains a much overused phrase, but when we continue to fund in silos, we can only implement in silos. By working together, related sectors can produce stronger and more sustainable projects: the Population & Sustainability Network understands this, and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (and a few notable others) are working with us to change it. We hope that funding partners will quickly see the benefits of PHE too, because the world population is projected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, up a third from today’s 7.4 billion. We question whether many of today’s conservation programmes can be successful in the long term given that, generally speaking, so few projects currently pay any attention to the health of rural communities in their programme design or activities.

David Johnson and Carina Hirsch are Chief Executive and Advocacy & Policy Manager at The Population & Sustainability Network, a global network of 17 health, conservation and development organisations, which understand the connections between people, their sexual and reproductive health, the environment and other priority development areas. With a diverse membership including the Endangered Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Earth (as well as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and UNFPA), and with recent admittance into the membership of the IUCN, we are making progress convincing the conservation sector that it would benefit from partnering with the health sector, but we need more funders to make that leap.

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