Seeing the forest through the trees: Supporting development for conservation

Seeing the forest through the trees: Supporting development for conservation

Seeing the forest through the trees: Supporting development for conservation

Safeguarding lush rainforests rich in biodiversity and with unique ecosystems is a lofty ambition, but it’s nothing but a dream if the needs and desires of some of the poorest people on earth are ignored.

If you had to choose, which would you rather save: a community living in poverty or a forest rich in biodiversity?

The question is tough and, some would argue, unfair. But for forest-dependent people, development practitioners and conservationists, tough and unfair situations are a daily reality.

Rather than seeing development and conservation as opposing forces, JCU’s Development Practice Program sees them as part of the same process. They acknowledge that long-term and sustainable conservation can only be achieved if, at first, impoverished communities are able to develop. Having worked around the world as action-researchers in development practice, PhD candidates James Langston, Rebecca Riggs, and Dwi Amalia Sari, have seen how conservation efforts fail when people’s desires to escape poverty are not taken into consideration.

“Conservation can never obstruct development,” James says. “You have to have development leading to conservation. Conservation will never succeed where people are living in poverty.”

James, Rebecca, and Dwi use an integrated landscape approach when it comes to development. They define it as a long-term collaborative process bringing together diverse stakeholders aiming to achieve a balance between multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives in a landscape or seascape. Using this approach involves engaging with the community and stakeholders to facilitate identifying problems and potential solutions, as well as emphasising the need to build place-based consensus before taking action.

JCU PhD student James Langston in Lombok, Indonesia. The background shows a multi-functional landscape with agriculture, conservation, reforestation and ecotourism happening side by side. Photo: James Langston

The Development Practice Program at JCU emphasises the need to work and research in development rather than researching on or for development. “We are not a development studies program in that sense,” James says.  To achieve this they use sentinel landscapes — landscapes with which they have long-term engagement for embedded research and development outcomes.

“As development practitioners, we take a different view from purist conservationists in that they want to protect an area and keep people out — their number one priority is preservation of some environmental values,” Rebecca says. “As development practitioners, we look at the people living in that area and, while we also desire conservation outcomes, we’re acknowledging the trade-offs and complexities. People’s priorities change and therefore their landscapes are dynamic. Forest losses are inevitable as people use their natural assets to develop. The aim is to ensure capital is eventually reinvested in those natural assets as they develop.”

While it may seem counterintuitive that development will lead to conservation, James says not valuing the needs of the community will only result in short-term conservation solutions. Coming to an understanding of what forest-dependant people want requires discarding romantic notions that they are content with their traditional lifestyles and being disconnected from cash economies. If a community wants to escape poverty and their only option is to develop an area at the expense of a forest, it is understandable they will choose development over conservation.

“You can’t have a conservation program come in and tell you what you can and cannot do, people will do what they see fit for their development needs and aspirations,” James says. “It’s the local practitioners who really see our approach as being right because they’ve seen the forest degrade no matter what project they bring in because it is ineffective in the long-run.”

James says paying communities to stop development activities that threaten forests might work for a few years, but will ultimately fail because priorities and livelihood expectations change.

“This can’t be sustained for generations,” Dwi says. “Paying people to stop doing something is fundamentally flawed because more often than not, people can get more economic benefit in the long-run by converting to other activities.”

The WWF and a local small scale oil palm farmer map community lands in the heart of Borneo. Mapping small scale oil palm plantations among large scale corporate plantations ensures local tenure is just. Photo: James Langston

The PhD students say having a long-term view, being prepared to “muddle through the process with communities” and being open to compromise will result in development that can lead to conservation. Rebecca says moving from a project mindset of working in a community for two or three years to a long-term mindset of working in a place for 10 or more years can be difficult.

“It can be hard for conservation groups to sacrifice some short-term losses for long-term gains,” she says. “I can understand why groups would be focused on short-term wins, especially when you are working in developing countries, some of which are highly unstable — you don’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years.”

The Development Practice Program is in for the long haul with a small remote community in Borneo. They are engaging with stakeholders from the community, big private organisations with interests in crops and mines, representatives from governments and big international NGOS including WWF. They have been working in the community for about three years and plan to be there for many more to come.

“Our goal is to create a place for long-term deep collaborative engagement where we learn from them, they learn from us and we create a vision for the future that is better for everybody,” James says. “What you want to see is a transition where people use their natural capital, they extract whatever their natural assets are, but they use that wisely. They take that natural capital, it turns into financial capital, which then you can reinvest back into human capital. Once you get human capital that grows a constituency for conservation, you reinvest in that natural capital.”

For conservation to follow development, the landscape approach to development includes prioritising what goes where in a landscape.  Priorities ideally should ensure evolution can continue in a way that supports healthy, resilient environments. “That prioritisation has to be determined locally, with buy-in from all the stakeholders, it can’t be mapped by external experts,” James says. Steps must be taken as well to ensure that development actually benefits the people who live in those communities.

“What we don’t want to happen is seeing wealth taken out of that landscape and not being redistributed to the people living there,” Rebecca says.

Improved prosperous agriculture endeavours in Lombok, Indonesia. Photo: James Langston

The Development Practice Program have made a long-term commitment to the village in Borneo, but they worry that another project might arrive and have disastrous impacts on the community’s future.

“Our greatest fear is that you have a group that comes in with three years’ funding and they want to preserve a plot of land and they provide some sort of alternative livelihoods for communities, which really just keeps them trapped in poverty,” James says. “In the long-run the protection of that land is not secure because the people are not given a credible development pathway compared to if they had cleared that land and planted oil palm or had done something similar. Any conservation activity that gets in the way of development is really shooting yourself in the foot in the long term.”

James, Rebecca and Dwi emphasise that they do not endorse free-for-all development. They are concerned about how development happens but also champion conservation opportunities that can arise from it. James says Cairns is the perfect landscape to illustrate how development can lead to conservation.

“Originally this was a landscape of deforestation and mining that went through a period of economic growth,” he says. “That financial capital was reinvested in human capital and people became educated and it attracted a different mindset, and now you have secure world heritage forests around you.”

If you want to make a difference in the world, check out JCU’s Bachelor of Environmental Practice or the Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics and International Relations. If you want to hone your skills to tackle the global challenges of poverty, health, conservation, climate change and agriculture, check out JCU’s Master of Development Practice. For more information about the Development Practice Program, please email the Director, Intu Boedhihartono, on

If you have a passion for building a brighter future for the Tropics, visit State of the Tropics. The 2017 State of the Tropics report will focus on sustainable infrastructure.

Cover Image: A development project funded bridge in a resettlement village. The bridge links the village to farms in Gorontalo, Indonesia. Photo: James Langston

Published 10 May 2019