Planning for conservation within a social-ecological systems framework

Humans and nature are intrinsically linked. Humans depend on nature for food, shelter, energy, cultural values and other services. Likewise, for its preservation nature depends on people, their behaviours, rules and regulations, procedures, and policy instruments. Thus to be effective, conservation decisions must be cognisant of the social and institutional context in which actions are to be implemented.

Factors such as competing social values and objectives, political agendas, social norms, organisational and governance processes and technological and financial constraints can all facilitate (or inhibit) the implementation of conservation programs but are not commonly considered in conservation plans. But to date little attention has been given to utilising social data to inform the implementation of conservation strategies.

In our recent paper on Conservation Biology we show a well-known framework developed by Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom and colleagues can be used to guide the integration of social and ecological data to be included in conservation planning studies. The Social-ecological Systems Framework (SES) permits understanding of the complex relationships between humans and nature. We explain how the framework (Figure 1) can help organise the conservation planning task by directing attention to the variables affecting the relevant social-ecological interactions. These interactions are those that influence the effectiveness of conservation and management activities, and thus outcomes, in the social-ecological system of interest.



Figure 1. General framework for analysing a social-ecological system. Boxes depict the social and ecological factors that can affect sustainability, livelihood and biodiversity outcomes, at multiple ecological scales (e.g. habitat, landscape) and socio-political scales (e.g. local, regional, national, global). Arrows depict how the different subsystems (RU, RS, GS and A) interact in a focal action situation. Interactions (I) influence different types of outcomes (O) – including biodiversity outcomes. Figure is based on Ostrom (2007, 2009) and McGinnis and Ostrom (2014).



We illustrate the approach utilising data from a large-scale conservation initiative in the south west of Australia. The Fitz-Stirling region is situated in Western Australia in one of the world’s 34 global biodiversity hotspots (Myers et al. 2000). Multiple stakeholders are involved in efforts to achieve conservation objectives for the Fitz-Stirling including property owners, state and local government agencies, regional natural resource management groups, non-government organisations, community groups, university and research organisations, private organisations and independent contractors. These stakeholders engage in diverse activities, including revegetation, protection of bushland, invasive species management, livestock management, fire management and land use planning.

We applied the SES framework to conceptualise the Fitz-Stirling region as a social-ecological system (Figure 2).



Utilising semi-structured interviews, an on-line survey and publicly available data we derive measures for the variables identified. This included measures of ecological importance, stakeholder presence, collaboration between stakeholders and their scale of management. We combined the different measures obtained to ascertain how areas associated to different levels of ecological importance coincide with areas associated to different levels of stakeholder presence, stakeholder collaboration and scales of management.

We identified areas that could benefit from different implementation strategies, from those suitable for immediate engagement to areas requiring implementation over the longer term in order to increase on-the-ground capacity and identify mechanisms to incentivise implementation (Figure 3). The application of a social-ecological system framework can help conservation planners and practitioners facilitate the integration of ecological and social data to inform the translation of priorities for action into implementation strategies that account for the complexities of conservation problems in a focused way.

figure-5_editedFigure 3. Vegetation clusters with different levels of ecological importance and implementation capacity: (a) near-term conservation opportunity, (b) opportunity to redirect conservation efforts, (c) low conservation opportunity, and (d) future conservation opportunity. Implementation capacity metrics include stakeholder presence (proportion of stakeholders working in the area), stakeholder collaboration (degree-centrality metric [i.e., total number of collaboration relations pertinent to each cluster]), and the scale of management. Size of circles is proportional to the degree of stakeholder collaboration.

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