Research Snapshot #3

Community environmental group workshop, Raglan, May 2014

Grass-roots and responsive to local environmental issues; largely autonomous despite their dependence on project partners for goods and services; effective and resilient despite ongoing resourcing challenges. That’s a summary of the key characteristics of community environmental groups in New Zealand.

I am currently developing a profile of community environmental groups and their projects based on the first half of the questionnaire sent last year to groups throughout New Zealand. The profile is made up of group and project characteristics, objectives, activities and support provided by project partners and is being written up as journal article. My recent blog posts hint at some of the content. Responses from the second half of the questionnaire concerning how groups measure restoration success will form the basis of a second article, with a third article possibly zeroing in on community environmental monitoring toolkit use.

At the same time as pulling together the various thoughts, arguments and rationales that make up a research article, dialogs with group members and their project partners continue. This has helped to ‘ground’ the research and reflect the range of current concerns and needs – my aim after all is to produce useful research that leads to (1) a greater acknowledgement of groups’ contributions to conservation and (2) better support for groups’ activities.

Groups undoubtedly contribute significantly to their local environments, and in doing do have a beneficial impact on their communities. A trawl through various reports, articles and websites shows that groups in New Zealand have improved water quality; re-afforested offshore islands; increased populations and ranges of iconic, threatened or at-risk species such as the brown kiwi, and developed innovative approaches for trapping animal pests. The full extent of groups’ on ground activities can only be guessed at. Given that stoat trapping by Coromandel-based groups alone covers nearly 30,000 hectares, the final figure is likely to be staggering.

Social outcomes of community environmental restoration projects are diverse and include enhancing social cohesion among group members and their wider communities; strengthening ecological literacy and reinvigorating cultural connections to sites where traditional knowledge informs restoration activities. Groups’ dual social and environmental characteristics also feature in Australian Landcare and Canadian Watershed Stewardship projects: environmental protection objectives overlap with educational and community-building objectives.

The economics of community groups are also interesting: on the one hand their value has been estimated at $3 – $4 for every $1 of government funding provided through grants or contracts (Hardie-Boys, 2010), while on the other, groups also contribute to the local economy e.g., by providing contracts to local residents.

Given the diversity factors influencing project design and implementation, we are faced with glaring knowledge gaps concerning how groups operate in New Zealand. By comparison, 20 years’ worth of research provides compelling insights into the social dimensions of Australian Landcare groups – though studies on groups’ collective environmental outcomes are somewhat sparse. What else do we need to know in order to better support community environmental groups? Several areas spring to mind: outcomes of differing types of group operational structures on group effectiveness; power relationships between groups and their partners (given most groups work on public land); the social implications of new predator control and web-based technologies; factors contributing to groups’ resilience / longevity… and then of course there are also the environmental outcomes of groups’ collective efforts.

I’m biased. Of course I am. Having worked for over a decade in coordination and research capacities with community groups it’s impossible to be objective. The more conversations I have with groups and the people that work with them, quite simply, the more in awe I am. It takes a long-term commitment in order to effect environmental and social change and without groups’ hard work and the support of their partners, I know New Zealand would be a much poorer place.

Hardie-Boys, N., 2010. Valuing Community Group Contributions to Conservation (No. 299), Science for Conservation. Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand.

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