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Conservation initiatives spread ‘like a disease’

Conservation initiatives spread ‘like a disease’
15 Nov
Massive scientific investment has now identified the primary threats to biodiversity, but comparably little research has examined how and why some conservation initiatives spread while others falter

Every year, thousands of conservation initiatives are designed and put into practice around the globe. But despite good intentions, the majority of these fail to reach any meaningful size. Dr Morena Mills is a senior lecturer in environmental social science at Imperial College London. She has been examining what makes a conservation project successful and why it is that a few spread far and wide, promoting real change in the regions where they are implemented.

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In a recent study, Mills and her fellow researchers sought to answer this question. To do so they analysed 22 widely recognised and diverse initiatives from across the globe, including marine protected areas (MPAs), locally managed marine areas (LMMAs), territorial use rights for fisheries (TURFS), coastal protected areas and wildlife management plans. Though the study wasn’t exhaustive, the analysis did reveal consistent patterns across the initiatives studied. Adoption of 83 per cent of the case studies examined started slowly before rapidly going to scale – a pattern Mills describes as akin to ‘spreading like a disease’.

We caught up with Dr Mills to find out more about the ways this research could influence the uptake of other conservation projects.

What prompted you to embark on this research and what were you hoping to achieve?

We are currently facing a biodiversity crisis, and to address this crisis we need many more people, organisations and governments to engage in biodiversity conservation initiatives. Despite billion of pounds having been invested in conservation, many of the initiatives fail because people are not interested in engaging. There are a few initiatives however that did reach widespread adoption and I’ve always wondered what makes these initiatives different. We need to understand how and why conservation initiatives go to scale if we are to design initiatives that can stop the biodiversity crisis.

What type of conservation initiatives did you include in the analysis?

We included 22 different resource management and conservation initiatives implemented around the world. These varied from individuals protecting their private land in the different states in Australia, to village-designated local marine management in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, to World Heritage Areas implemented globally. We were interested in understanding the broad patterns of the spread of conservation initiatives instead of the drivers associated to the spread in a particular country.

Mills map‘Modelling how conservation initiatives go to scale’ by Morena Mills et al. Location of the conservation initiatives analysed

You said that most of the initiatives ‘spread like a disease’ – what did you mean by that?

We found that a slow-fast-slow model, the same that described the spread of a contagious disease, best described the spread of 83 per cent of our case studies. In this model, spread is reliant on interactions between people who had adopted and those who hadn’t, like a strain of flu would spread from person to person.

Importantly, even though most initiatives shared the same mechanism of spread, the speed at which they spread and the percentage of people who adopted them was context-specific. For example, different local policies, funding or the presence of charismatic leaders could influence the speed at which marine reserves spread across different regions in the Philippines.

We did not find any initiatives that were taken up relatively quickly and by a large proportion of the potential pool of adopters. We are seeking to understand more about how local context facilitates or hinders spread, to help initiatives that benefit both nature and people reach scale

What factors did you identify as being key to driving the successful adoption of an initiative?

Unfortunately, we can’t say for certain yet. We’re still investigating this empirically. However, based on insights from other fields, adoption is facilitated when initiatives are consistent with people beliefs and values, highly advantageous yet simple to engage in and involve limited short-term investment.

How could this research contribute to the design of new initiative? Are there any specific things that might make them more likely to reach ‘scale’? 

Practitioners or governments can do lots of things to enable the spread of conservation initiatives. They can develop initiatives that don’t require big financial investments; they can invest in educating people about the importance and benefits of the initiative or implement laws that supports adoption. 

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