Science isn’t everything – the importance of interdisciplinarity in conservation policy-making

CITES roleplayCITES role-play, 4/12/2015. Credit to Jenny Wong.

On Friday, our BCM class participated in a CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) role-play workshop. Our simulation was as follows: a proposal to list Cedrela odorata on Appendix II of CITES. Each student was either a delegate from a country or an NGO. As an ‘NGO delegate’ I was in favour of the listing, and on revision of the science I thought it would be a piece of cake to have the listing voted through, as it was the logical conclusion when taking into account the degree to which the species has been declining in recent years. However, it proved to be completely impossible to overcome the economic and political concerns of the developing countries involved.

22825671907_b324dbc5c4_zCedrela Odorata. Image released under creative commons.

After all, in times of economic crisis, conservation takes a back seat to make way for other important issues such as unemployment and human rights. The outcome of our simulation was that the tree was not listed, as developing countries didn’t see the listing as something that was economically viable and also preferred to manage their own natural resources. Following this workshop, I began to think about the importance of interdisciplinarity in conservation efforts, and the necessity of ensuring that science is made relevant to current political and economic issues.

The significance of politics and economics in the wildlife trade

The illegal wildlife trade is the second greatest threat to conservation efforts worldwide and is valued at between $10 and $23 billion annually – being superseded only by drugs, arms and human trafficking. Whether legal or illegal, wildlife trade is one of the main sources of revenue for many developing countries rich in resources that export products such as live animals, timber and seafood to developed, resource-poor countries.

“A TRAFFIC study demonstrated reliance on wild meat is growing in Eastern and Southern Africa in response to increased human populations and poverty.” http://www.traffic.org/trade/

23040_7034870945097c678a2de6Image released under creative commons.

With such strict policing of the wildlife trade, the individuals and communities participating in this trade for economic reasons are often forgotten and international political pressures are frequently applied to developing countries to increase the membership of organisations such as CITES and the CBD.

There has always been evidence of science being adapted to suit political agendas, and a large part of the lobbying is probably done outside of the conference – up to a year before it is due to take place! The conferences themselves are politically charged, with a tendency of delegates to cherry-pick facts in order to strengthen and legitimise the political or economic agenda of the country they are representing (Favre 1993; Singh 2015). It is precisely for this reason that it is vital to translate and align the science with the economics and politics, in such a way that shows conservation to be both good for our planet AND economically and politically beneficial.

Science communicationSam Illingworth, The importance of science communication.

Science is the most important tool we have to show people what is happening in the world (biodiversity loss, climate change, social inequality etc.), but it cannot work alone. Not everyone is a scientist, and not everyone understands the world in terms of cold, hard facts – many of which fail to include a layman’s translation. Is science in fact just a currency through which we enact our politics? Or is this too cynical? Science is undoubtedly an invaluable tool used to influence and inform the decision-making process, earning countries respect and influence at international conferences, but it is not the only element of the decision-making process. The importance of politics, economics and sociocultural values when forming or amending policy is undeniable, and only when science is translated and aligned with these three other areas will we start to see real progress in policy-making for conservation and environmental protection. In a time of increasing global disasters and devastating climate change, it is vital that conservation professionals prove to policy makers and politicians that environmental policy is relevant to their goals.

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