A broad human rights-based approach is vital for removing barriers to community engagement in conservation.
This is the striking conclusion of new research published in Global Environmental Change evaluating an integrated health-environment programme in Madagascar.
People-Health-Environment (PHE) programmes combine family planning and other health services with community-based natural resource management and livelihood diversification initiatives.
These programmes are thought to generate important benefits for communities while advancing conservation.
There are three main theories (detailed below) for how health services advance conservation outcomes.
Yet robust evidence to support these theories is limited.
Social scientists from Blue Ventures set out to explore these theories by studying a long-standing PHE programme in coastal southwest Madagascar.
The study looked at how the provision of family planning and other health services might be advancing conservation in the Velondriake locally managed marine area.
Almost 300 household and individual surveys were conducted.
20% of households
10% of the adult population
Closed (quantitative) and open (qualitative) questions covered a number of topics, from family planning use and livelihood activities to engagement in marine management.
The findings provide evidence to support parts of all three theories. They also highlight some important limitations and assumptions that do not hold true in this context. Awareness of these limitations can allow implementers to refine their programmes to mitigate any unintended consequences and enable greater community engagement in conservation.
The goodwill effect
Hover over the boxes to reveal evidence for/against each step in this theory of changeA theory of change is a flow chart outlining step-by-step how programme activities are believed to generate certain outcomes. Each arrow shows how one thing is thought to lead to the next thing.
If community health services are delivered locally by community members trained as community health workers, they may not be perceived as being provided by the conservation organisation and this may reduce the possibility of any goodwill effect.
For goodwill to be generated for the conservation organisation and/or environmental initiatives, it may be helpful to make it clear that community health services are being supported. However, this should be balanced with a focus on local ownership and sustainability / handover of services.
The fertility effect
Community members are trying to improve their living conditions from a very low baseline. They are fishing the same amount (if not more) in order to be able to give each child more.
Rising local consumption levels should be welcomed from an equity and poverty reduction perspective. Support for non-extractive livelihoods is needed to avoid any increasing pressure on natural resources.
The empowerment effect
Patriarchal gender norms continue to restrict women’s participation in marine management.
Limited availability of alternative livelihoods may mean that women fish more with their free time.
These findings suggest that the provision of family planning and other health services is highly valued by communities for numerous reasons, yet may not have immediate or direct conservation benefits.
In the areas where Blue Ventures works, many communities are unable to engage in marine management or alternative livelihoods without improvements to their health.
Nevertheless, it’s unrealistic to expect increased access to health services to automatically lead to increased community engagement. Good health is necessary but not sufficient for engagement.
This is why a holistic approach is needed
This study has reinforced our commitment to a holistic approach while drawing our attention to areas that we can work on refining with communities and partners.
We have three important lessons to share:
Putting down roots with communities
Increasing access to health services is a long-term strategy and a true commitment to human rights means that support cannot be withdrawn if linear expectations of ‘success’ are not met. People’s right to healthcare should be upheld on principle – not as a means to an end.
Questioning assumptions about population-environment dynamics
Voluntary uptake of family planning can certainly prevent unintended pregnancies but this doesn’t necessarily reduce demand for natural resources in the short-term – particularly in resource-dependent contexts where people are rightly trying to raise their living standards from a very low baseline.
Considering livelihoods as a third dimension to health-environment programming
Upholding one right can only go so far in advancing sustainable development and conservation. Family planning and reproductive rights are not a panacea – other rights (such as those relating to food and decent work) are also relevant. Support for livelihood diversification can mitigate the risk of family planning services leading to increased natural resource extraction.
We move forward from this research with a renewed commitment to the communities that we serve – recognising that a full constellation of human rights must be upheld in order to remove barriers to their engagement in sustainable fisheries management and marine conservation.