The Ethics of Systematic Conservation Planning: Trade-offs and

David M. Frank
PhD Candidate
Department of Philosophy, Biodiversity and Biocultural Conservation Laboratory

1. Introduction

The Biodiversity and Biocultural Conservation Laboratory, in collaboration with members of the University of Texas department of philosophy, is currently engaged in research on the ethics of systematic conservation planning. This short essay will introduce the goals of systematic conservation planning, and then discuss two important ethical issues: trade-offs between different values and cooperation between many agents. The argument throughout will be that the sustainability of biodiversity conservation projects requires careful attention to issues of human values and social justice. Philosophical reflection and analysis are relevant to the clarification, justification and criticism of conservation policy, and thus serve crucial roles in public debate.

2. The Goals of Systematic Conservation Planning

Systematic Conservation Planning (SCP) is a protocol for the selection of conservation area networks (areas for the protection of biodiversity features in the landscape) and the design of management policies for these networks.1 The first goal of SCP is representation of biodiversity features: preferred biodiversity features (ecosystem types, species, biocultural practices, etc.) should be included in the network. Which biodiversity features to include is not a scientific question, but one of human values.2 The second goal is persistence or sustainability. To the greatest extent possible, these biodiversity features should be protected so they may persist indefinitely into the future. The third goal is economy: the first two goals should be achieved efficiently, using minimal societal resources. Accepting this third goal involves recognizing that all decisions about land-use allocation involve trade-offs and opportunity costs. For example, setting aside land in central Texas for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, partly in order to protect habitat for the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, means that this land cannot be used for economic development or the satisfaction of other human needs and desires.3 Although there are scientific tools, particularly from economics, to deal with the problem of trade-offs, it is fundamentally a problem of human values and ethics.

3. Trade-offs

As recognized by SCP, the ethical problem of trade-offs between different values is quite general and applies to every attempt at biodiversity conservation. Table 1, below, shows the possible outcomes when considering trade-offs between conservation and economic use of a landscape.

Table 1

  More conservation Less conservaiton
More economic use “Win-win” (+/+) Trade-offs (+/-)
Less economic use Trade-offs (-/+) “Lose-lose” (-/-)

While conservation organizations and governments often claim to pursue “Win-win” (+/+) outcomes, these are extremely difficult to achieve in practice.4 Rather, conservation decisions almost always involve trade-offs.

Another example, this one from Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park (CNP), should illustrate the ethical tension between conservation and economic use. CNP, located on the Pacific coast of the biologically rich Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica, protects one of the few remaining lowland tropical rainforests in Central America. In 1986, roughly 800 gold miners who had settled in Corcovado were evicted by the government. About 1500 people had come to Corcovado in the early 1980s seeking subsistence agriculture and mining opportunities after their former employer, the United Fruit Company, abandoned its plantations in the region due to labor unrest. Some miners used traditional (artisanal) panning methods, while others used more intensive and ecologically destructive methods like trenching and sluicing. The miners were not disturbed until conservation scientists reported the ecological damage resulting from these mining operations. Many of the miners had negative views about conservation projects in the region and misconceptions about conservation in general.5

In February 1986, the miners were evicted from the park: over 500 left voluntarily, while the Costa Rican National Rural Guard and National Park Service arrested and coercively removed over 200, with the support of the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation NGOs.6 The government provided housing and food assistance to the evicted miners in Golfito for the following nine months, and later provided many of them with land parcels near Sandalo or cash payments in compensation. However, it is still unclear whether the government’s policy of eviction for conservation was just. Many rural Costa Ricans retained the historical “frontier” mentality that it was their right to exploit “unoccupied” land, and perceived the coercive protection of CNP as “equivalent to selling a piece of Costa Rica to foreigners.”7

The example illustrates the complex trade-offs that take place when decisions are made in the interests of biodiversity conservation. For biodiversity projects to be sustainable, these trade-offs need to be handled in ways that do not create social injustice and resentment towards conservation proponents. It is still an open question whether the Costa Rican government and conservation NGOs handled the case of the miners with such sensitivity.

4. Cooperation

Biodiversity conservation projects almost always involve many autonomous individual and group agents, each with their own interests. Problems of cooperation arise in cases where, if every agent acts rationally according to their own interests, all agents end up worse off than if they had collaborated on a “social contract” or made a group decision.8 This problem is well-illustrated by the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory, shown in Table 2 (preferences are given for row player first, then column player):

Table 2

  Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 2nd best, 2nd best Worst, 1st best
Defect 1st best, Worst 3rd best, 3rd best

Each agent (row and column) may either cooperate or defect. If each agent cooperates, the 2nd best outcome is achieved for both parties. However, each agent has an incentive to defect, since defecting is a better strategy no matter what the other agent does: they are guaranteed either their 1st best or 3rd best outcome, as opposed to their 2nd best or worst outcome. Thus the mutual defection outcome is a “Nash equilibrium”: no agent has an incentive to unilaterally deviate from their strategy. However, this is a worse outcome for both parties than if they had both cooperated.

This type of problem may arise when there are common-pool resources without restricted access.9 This so-called “tragedy of the commons” may affect conservation outcomes in fragile habitats, for example in coral reefs. According to John McManus, roughly 350 marine species from the Bolinao reef area in the Philippines are sold in local markets. In spite of the practice being banned in 1979, fishers continue to use explosive fishing techniques and have a strong financial incentive to do so: dangerous homemade bombs are cheap to produce at U.S. $1–2 and can generate a catch worth $15–40 while the average fisher, using non– destructive techniques, generates only about $1 a day. McManus reports that informal surveys of the reef area in the mid–1980s showed that much scleractinian coral was dead, apparently due to fishing with explosives.10

As shown in Table 3, we can model the fishermen’s dilemma as a simplified 2-agent game, where each fisherman can either limit their fish take, or maximize their short-term take.

Table 3

  Limit fish take Maximize short-term take
Limit fish take 2nd best, 2nd best Worst, 1st best
Maximize short-term take 1st best, Worst 3rd best, 3rd best

Again, the Nash equilibrium, where each attempt to maximize their short- term take (perhaps via ecologically destructive fishing techniques), is worse for each fisherman than if they had both decided to limit their take.

Several solutions to problems of cooperation like those faced by the Bolinao fishermen have been proposed and implemented, including economic incentives, state-enforced conservation, and community-based conservation norms. Which solutions are preferable, and in which contexts, raise difficult empirical and normative questions that are the subject of current research. However, it should be clear that any solution must take social justice into account, for pragmatic and ethical reasons. Members of the Biodiversity and Biocultural Conservation Laboratory here at the University of Texas are addressing these questions primarily by philosophical analysis of case studies, as well as paying close attention to the social scientific debates surrounding these controversies. The importance of such analysis lies in clarifying the role of human values and empirical science in these debates, and providing critical reflection that can influence the public policy discourse.


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