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Building collaboration between academia and conservation

By , 30th April 2018

It is over thirty years since Michael Soulé proposed his model of conservation biology as a “synthetic, multi-disciplinary science”:

Fig 1: Soulé, Michael, BioScience, Vol. 35, No. 11, The Biological Diversity Crisis. (Dec., 1985), pp. 727-734.

It remains a curiously lovely representation – the distinctions between disciplines collapsing around a fragile, dashed circle. But the complex insights required for our natural world to flourish have only expanded in scope in the intervening years. Since everything humanity needs and does is ultimately derived from nature, it is imperative the sciences, social sciences, policy, practice, human rights, international development, legal and financial systems, culture and the arts come together to address one of the most pressing existential crises of our time.

A collaboration between nine biodiversity conservation organisations[1]and the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI)was created to complement existing conservation efforts. Each partner has an active programme of conservation work but, by joining together in strategic collaborations as CCI, they aim to tackle new and existing issues with approaches that cannot be achieved alone.

With generous philanthropic support[2], the Collaborative Fund is the primary mechanism for that collaboration. In eight years, the Fund has distributed over £2.7 million to 50 projects to generate interdisciplinary interventions to meet conservation challenges which, due to their innovative and cross-cutting nature, may not be funded elsewhere.

The Fund is administered by the CCI Executive Director’s Office, and projects are chosen by an independent Selection Panel. Each project must be led by a collaboration of at least three CCI partners, including one academic from a University of Cambridge department and a representative from a biodiversity conservation organisation. Where partners do not have all the skills and expertise needed to deliver a project, other collaborators – especially from developing countries – may also join the team. By thus structuring projects as a nexus between academics and practitioners, the Collaborative Fund deliberately aim to transcend disciplinary agendas, foster deeper and broader insight, and implement meaningful, rigorous outcomes across policy, practice and capacity building.

Recently funded projects include:

  • Evaluating the success of carbon projects aimed at protecting tropical forests and benefiting local livelihoods (2016)

Team: academics from the Departments of Zoology, Plant Sciences, Geography; FFI, RSPB, South East Asian Rainforest Research Partnership, Brazilian National Research Agency, and Permian Global Investment

This project draws on first-hand experience of key organisations involved with REDD+ and other carbon projects. It plans to deliver a quantitative and qualitative analysis, assessing the relationship between deforestation rates, conservation interventions, socio-economic impact on local communities, level of financial investment, and other factors that explain the success or otherwise of REDD+ activities. It aims to address how adequate, predictable and effective financing might be achieved, and expands on earlier Collaborative Fund projects carried out in the Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone.

  • Quantifying trade-offs between yield and environmental externalities in food production systems (2016)

Team: academics from the Departments of Zoology, Plant Sciences’ Sainsbury Laboratory, the Veterinary School; RSPB, UNEP WCMC

The collaborators in this project are testing environmental externalities in four globally significant farming sectors, looking in particular at: greenhouse gas emissions; water use; nitrogen and phosphorus losses to air and water; and soil loss. For each of the four sectors under consideration (cereal and dairy production in western Europe; paddy rice cultivation in south and east Asia; beef production in tropical Latin America) the project seeks to identify promising farming systems characterised by relatively high yields, which nonetheless limit environmental costs by ‘sparing’ land for biodiversity. It will be considered successful when its findings have informed the policies of key participating organisations.

The Collaborative Fund has also produced a number of resources aimed at making conservation easier for the people who are delivering action on the ground: TESSAis a simple toolkit to assess ecosystems services which has already informed community land-use decisions in Vietnam and Cameroon among others; PRISM enables small and medium conservation organisations to evaluate the success of their projects. Both are available as free downloads.

In the future, CCI hopes to grow the funds available for these collaborations, and use them to target specific CCI priorities, including natural climate mitigation, agri-ecosystems, conservation capacity building, and marine conservation. The Fund aims to serve as a seed-project mechanism, from which integrated conservation solutions can be carried to scale.

Working on a crisis takes its toll. The CCI collaboration allows best practice to cascade down from international organisations to grass roots initiatives, and ascend in reverse from citizen and smallholder to effect strategic change. CCI represents a community of commitment, a fellowship of peoples cataloguing and acting unflinchingly to reverse the cataclysmic loss of the natural world, in the belief that a more just, equitable and abundant future is possible.

Isobel Cohen is the Associate Director – Fundraising for Cambridge Conservation Initiative. She has a background in the arts and higher education fundraising, and a deep love for the mountains, lochs and birds of the West Coast of Scotland.

[1]TRAFFIC, United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Tropical Biology Association (TBA), Fauna & Flora International (FFI), The University of Cambridge, BirdLife International, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Cambridge Conservation Forum (CCF), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)

[2]Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin; A.G Leventis Foundation; Grantham Foundation; Isaac Newton Trust ; Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe and Africa; Paul and Louise Cooke Endowment; Rothschild Foundation; Westminster Foundation


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