For co-existence, (bio)diversity and justice in conservation

Exploring the theory and practice of convivial conservation: CONVIVA special section now published in Conservation and Society

By Judith Krauss, Kate Massarella, Wilhelm Kiwango & Rob Fletcher

The special section ‘Exploring the theory and practice of convivial conservation’, co-guest edited by CONVIVA team members Kate Massarella, Judith Krauss, Wilhelm Kiwango and Rob Fletcher, has just been published in the journal Conservation and Society, featuring 11 papers by authors from diverse disciplines, backgrounds and research foci. Building partly on the POLLEN20 double-session on convivial conservation, the special section brings together important insights relating to convivial conservation from both within and beyond the CONVIVA (convivial conservation) research project funded by NORFACE/Belmont Forum, offering crucial reflections on convivial conservation’s strengths and possibilities from a diversity of perspectives. 

In the introduction ‘Exploring Convivial Conservation in Theory and Practice: Possibilities and Challenges for a Transformative Approach to Biodiversity Conservation’, Kate Massarella, Judith E. Krauss, Wilhelm Kiwango and Rob Fletcher highlight three emerging themes from the eleven papers. The first is justice, conceptualised through the prism of epistemic justice, participatory and multi-species justice, and distributive justice. The second theme is the link between convivial conservation and human-wildlife coexistence, and the third is transformative methodologies, which includes considering diverse ontologies and more-than-human thinking and approaches. They argue that convivial conservation has the potential to be transformative, but only if it continues to evolve through engagement with a plurality of diverse perspectives.

The first of 11 contributed papers to the special section is by Christine Ampumuza: ‘Living with Gorillas? Lessons from Batwa-Gorillas’ Convivial Relations at Bwindi Forest, Uganda’. Drawing on story analysis, interviews and in-depth ethnography, Ampumuza emphasises an ontological discord between indigenous and Northern ways of being with Nature, arguing that open-mindedness – i.e. learning from, being affected by and affecting fellow (non-)human dwellers – is vital for living together. The article underscores the importance of conservation taking seriously and learning from indigenous knowledges and ontologies. 

In her paper ‘Conviviality in Disrupted Socionatural Landscapes: Ecological Peacebuilding around Akagera National Park’, Elaine (Lan Yin) Hsiao brings together ecological peacebuilding and convivial conservation. She assesses human-wildlife conflict interventions – an electric fence, compensation for wildlife damages, traditional ecological knowledge – in a disrupted socionatural landscape in Rwanda. She emphasises that genuine convivial – living with – conservation would require not only negative peace (i.e. freedom from direct violence), which most interventions are aimed at, but positive peace, meaning freedom from physical, cultural and structural violence. 

Mathew Bukhi Mabele, Judith E. Krauss and Wilhelm Kiwango enrich convivial conservation with decolonial deconstruction in ‘Going Back to the Roots: Ubuntu and Just Conservation in Southern Africa’: they highlight how the Ubuntu concept, indigenous to southern Africa, would help not only address past and present injustices perpetrated in the name of or in conjunction with conservation. As an ethics of care which incorporates both human and nonhuman nature, its attention to past, present and future generations could help transform economy and society, including to incorporate decolonial thinking into the convivial conservation proposal of promoted areas.

Paolo Bocci’s ”Rooting’ For Change: The Role of Culture Beyond Resilience and Adaptation’ shares fascinating insights from the Galápagos. Drawing on ethnographic research, the article shows how local farmers affirm arraigo, a culture of belonging, in contrast to the imaginary of inhospitable islands that can only be visited for tourism or scientific research. The article highlights how convivial conservation can reframe the traditional, limiting framework of what local participation in conservation looks like, towards conservation agendas which are driven by social justice and local voices. 

‘”They Belong Here”: Understanding the Conditions of Human-Wolf Coexistence in North-Western Spain’ by Hanna Pettersson, Claire H. Quinn, George Holmes and Stephen M. Sait reflects on Sanabria-La Carballeda, one of the regions with the highest wolf densities in Europe. The study shows how areas of functional coexistence have been neglected in policy, leaving them vulnerable to depopulation, low agricultural profitability, loss of biocultural diversity. When institutions fail to support functional coexistence, there is a risk of losing knowledge, traditions and trust of those who have sustained Europe’s largest carnivores.

In ‘Convivial Conservation from the Bottom Up: Human-Bear Cohabitation in the Rodopi Mountains of Bulgaria’, Svetoslava Toncheva, Rob Fletcher and Esther Turnhout describe a case of human-bear cohabitation in the Yagodina-Trigrad area. In light of brown bears’ relatively newfound protection under national and EU legislation, the study explores local adaptation and coexistence mechanisms developed to live with bears and strategies to benefit from their presence, highlighting a bottom-up approach and factors which have promoted relatively successful cohabitation which may be tested elsewhere.

A call for ‘Transforming Convivial Conservation: Towards More-Than-Human Participation in Research’ comes from Severine van Bommel and Susan Boonman-Berson, who highlight the need for a structural shift in methods and methodology to avoid reproducing the dichotomy between human and non-human. To promote greater conviviality, a more expansive sense of research participants, recognising their inter-subjectivities, multi-sensory communication of situated knowledges are required, with the article proposing multi-species research methods developed in collaboration between natural and social scientists.

Revati Pandya’s ‘Micro-Politics and Prospects for Convivial Conservation: Insights from the Corbett Tiger Reserve, India’ utilises a feminist intersectional lens to draw attention to micro-politics. Using findings from two forest villages near the Corbett Tiger Reserve, she emphasises that convivial conservation needs to engage with the ways that intersections of class, gender, caste, and other identity positions shape micro-politics of power around land rights and opportunities for benefiting from conservation interventions. The Forest Rights Act is highlighted as a cautionary and potentially transformative example for furthering local people’s engagement. 

In ‘Convivial Conservation Prospects in Europe—From Wilderness Protection to Reclaiming the Commons’, George Iordăchescu draws on ethnographic research in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains. In light of EU-policy discussions around strict protection of wild nature which amplify concerns about environmental and social injustices, he emphasises efforts by indigenous peoples and local communities who combine resource governance with biodiversity conservation beyond free-market logics and human–nature dichotomies. The Romanian forest commons can offer valuable lessons to help transition towards more democratic and just forms of conservation.

The importance of re-politicising coexistence to facilitate real transformation becomes clear in Valentina Fiasco’s and Kate Massarella’s ‘Human-Wildlife Coexistence: Business as Usual Conservation or an Opportunity for Transformative Change?’. Coexistence has become a popular buzzword, yet critical exploration of the term remains lacking. Through exploration of how coexistence is being used by conservation professionals, they argue that although it is framed as being transformative, coexistence largely manifests in practice as a positive-sounding label for standardised packages of tools and incentives. Activists, academics and practitioners must work to reclaim its transformative roots.

Last, but certainly not least, Wilhelm A. Kiwango and Mathew Bukhi Mabele highlight ‘Why the Convivial Conservation Vision Needs Complementing to be a Viable Alternative for Conservation in the Global South’. While convivial conservation may be considered a radical and plausible alternative to half earth and new conservation, it faces key problems in the Global South: path dependencies, a heavy reliance on tourism revenue, and political interests. Convivial conservation’s viability in the Global South is predicated on incorporating the rights and responsibilities of different conservation stakeholders from the perspective of procedural, recognition, distributive, and environmental justice. 

The full collection in Conservation and Society can be found here, while a summary twitter thread is here.

Two podcasts also detail the special section: firstly a conversation with the guest editorial team and Wilhelm Kiwango, and secondly a chat with Revati Pandya, Hanna Pettersson, Valentina Fiasco and Kate Massarella.