Community conservation hubs: an introduction

The term ‘hub’ has been used a lot over the last year. As projects increase in complexity and more groups and individuals become involved across a landscape, better infrastructure is needed to support their conservation activities. This is where ‘hubs’ come in, the idea generally being that a hub coordinates and supports collective community conservation action. 

It’s well known that individual community groups (running one or more projects) are challenged to secure funding for basics such as administration. But firstly, what defines a community environmental group?

Defining ‘Community Environmental Groups’

NZ is unique in that much conservation is ‘grassroots’. Although groups have mostly operated independently of one-another across urban, peri-urban and rural landscapes, most identify as part of a community conservation movement that aims to restore/enhance biodiversity. Groups range from small, very local and informal (e.g., meet on an as-need basis to manage a local reserve), while many have become large-scale, long-term projects with paid coordinators and contractors in addition to volunteers. Overall, these groups understand the urgency of tackling the pest animals and weeds that have invaded our fragile island ecosystem.

What is a ‘Hub’?

A hub can be described as a formal (i.e. has recognised charitable status) or informal entity that coordinates and supports collective community action across a defined geographic area. Although each participating community group may have local objectives (e.g., controlling a specific weed; working more closely with area schools), biodiversity-related meta-objectives connect the groups to the hub and vice versa.

A bewildering array of terms are used to describe initiatives that variously bring together, support, and contribute to community-led conservation around NZ

Hubs generally form in 2 ways:

  1. A well-established community group actively connects with existing community groups e.g., across a swathe of landscape or catchment. Seed funding may be provided by an agency to help formation.
  2. An new entity is brought together specifically to create an umbrella/platform for multiple community groups/projects – Northland’s Kiwi Coast is a good example, providing support a wide range kiwi protection and habitat restoration initiatives across public and private land.

Hubs clearly don’t form overnight – they are built on many years (even decades) worth of conservation action by community groups in a region.

Hub activities

Hubs generally foster and support community groups’ work to restore habitats (incorporating e.g., pest plant and animal control, and revegetation using native species) along with a wide range of social objectives (e.g., education, advocacy). Arguably, community restoration overall contributes to social cohesion where communities of shared practice are underpinned by shared philosophies. Some groups actively support skill development. By employing local community members initiatives such as Puniu River Care and Windy Hill Sanctuary, funding is returned to the community.

Another layer of bureaucracy?

There’s no doubt that the landscape of conservation has become more complex. There are new sources of funding (e.g., via the Department of Conservation and Auckland Council), more support via national programmes (e.g., PFNZ 2050 and the One Billion Trees Programme), a flourishing ‘Predator Free’ movement, better ways of sourcing and sharing information (e.g., social media), easier ways to harness data (e.g., apps) as well as view and understand the landscape (drones, spatial data visualisations). The question of bureaucracy remains an open question – charitable status is still needed to apply for much current funding, resulting in thousands of trusts and societies. In the UK, the Wildlife Trusts appear to take some of the administrative burden from smaller groups and this model is being used in the Bay of Plenty.

The Tasman Environmental Trust’s ‘value add’ component is as an independent coordinator, free from government and regulatory responsibilities. As a charitable entity, the Trust can source funds not available to agencies, and can… act as ‘banker’ for community groups’ funds. A further advantage is the responsiveness and agility of the Trust in comparison to large, multi-layered organisations…

Skye Davis, Tasman Environmental Trust

The independence highlighted by Skye is an important point – 40% of wetlands (classed as significant natural areas) lie on private land and are under threat. Robertson et al. (2019) showed that converting wetlands for agricultural uses destroyed 3452 ha of wetlands in Southland between 1990 and 2012. If one hectare = approx. one international rugby field, that’s a vast area.

Wetland near Kapuka South in 2014. Photo: Forest & Bird

Photograph of same area in 2014 with wetland remnants highlighted. Photo: Forest & Bird

Will hubs make a difference?

It’s early days for hubs – most have formed within the last 5 years and are coordinated by a skeleton crew (or just one part-time individual). If the purpose is to upscale conservation, plugging gaps where agency-led initiatives can’t or don’t extend to, then how do we know how effective hubs are adding efficiencies to community-led conservation? Given the diversity of hub governance, resourcing and objectives (to name a few variables), that’s what we need to know in order to advocate for better support rather than short-term funding cycles.

Further reading

Robertson et al. (2019) Loss of wetlands in Southland New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 43(1): 3355

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