Death by 1000 projects. That quote came from the recent Environmental Defense Society conference, though apologies, I’m not sure who to attribute it to. The point relates to the inefficiency of having such a large number conservation projects underway around New Zealand that often work independently from one another.
Generally, the meta-objective of most community groups is to fix up a degraded part of the landscape. Poor land management policies may have started the inexorable decline, hastened by the arrival of pest animals and weeds. It doesn’t take much for a small remnant piece of bush or wetland to loose it’s ecological integrity, or mauri – it’s essential life force. It’s a huge bonus that there are so many volunteers who are motivated to come together either formally or informally to stop further declines and to bring back what used to occur in these places. Native birds. Rare plants. Eels and whitebait.
The challenge is the lack of cohesion between groups, as in many cases groups work independently on their project site. In addition, the data they collect is typically used to support funding applications and their own project management. However, there are some excellent models in Northland where the groups with shared objectives, namely protecting kiwi, collaborate and pool resources, with overall coordination provided by partners from the Dept. of Conservation/DOC, NGOs and others. Data are used by researchers to measure whether kiwi numbers are growing using this approach – and slowly, they are!
While applying this model results in various efficiencies (bulk buying of traps and trees; coordinated pest control operations and more opportunities for research), as well as useful data, making it work in other parts of the country is a challenge. It takes time to keep a single group operational let alone coordinate with others. In addition, the interests, capabilities and objectives of groups may differ – the debate around toxins vs. trapping can easily divide communities. Because objectives differ, monitoring needs also differ. I suspect independence, ownership and identity would also surface as important factors for consideration as grass-roots initiatives, the whole point of groups being to tackle work that e.g., agencies would otherwise not carry out.
Across ‘the ditch’ is a different model. The ambitious Gondwana Link project covers a 1000 km swathe of south-western Australia, one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots. Rather than being perceived as one giant project, Gondwana Link Ltd seeks to fit smaller area programs together in order to effect landscape change. Interestingly, this approach doesn’t actually imply that the programs and groups work closely together, “…but that their results fit closely together”. This poses multiple challenges for measuring success – which is still a work in progress. Although Gondwana Link Ltd aims to improve ‘fitting together’, ultimately it is the groups’ responsibility for achieving on ground change in their localities.
For the New Zealand context, I had a quick think about what a future model might look like compared to the current scenario and came up with the following diagrams.
Figure 1. Currently, community groups are individually supported by project partners (white arrows) Community-generated data are self-used (circular black arrows), while data use by partners is weak (dotted black arrows). In contrast, partners are both coordinators and end-users of crowd-sourced citizen science data, so the links there are strong.
Figure 2. A future scenario shows a collaborative model of groups – using the idea of Kiwi Coast. As well as quantifying project objectives, data are shared with project partners (black arrows) and between groups and citizen science projects where research objectives align (black arrows). Community generated data are eventually fed into evidence-based policy-making (black arrow) – this is an area that hasn’t been discussed in NZ though is gaining considerable momentum overseas. An independent organisation supports data integration among groups, citizen science projects, partners and policy-makers. To date, there’s a European, American and Australian Citizen Science Association. NZ should definitely be next!