Big wins in conservation: how do they come about?

How do conservation NGOs influence policy?

There are many tactics and approaches to consider when seeking to create significant conservation outcomes but before I get into those I think it’s important to mention passion.

Big wins don’t come without a campaign by people passionate about the result. Full stop. Conservation has only ever progressed because NGOs and community groups put public pressure on decision makers. Consider the Franklin Dam campaign, saving the Reef from oil rigs, and protecting Fraser Island. Sure, each of those historic decisions involved key political decision makers making the critical decisions, and maybe enacting laws to achieve it, but behind each such decision there was a campaign by people passionate about those causes.

A news columnist observed that the recent dumping of the Queensland Premier and government shows “that muscular, pro-development posturing has lost its appeal with voters.” But that didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Fight for the Reef campaign made dumping of dredge spoil in Reef waters something every politician had to do something about, and voters judged them harshly if they thought they weren’t doing enough.

Recipe for success

A recipe for success in influencing policy includes a) a clear problem statement; b) a clear target; c) a clear ‘ask’, the solution we are asking the target to implement; and d) effective campaigning to give the target a good reason for adopting the ask. More about d) later.

Sometimes the ‘ask’ is a law, sometimes money, sometimes withdrawal of support. For example: a) land clearing is killing millions of native animals every year, and therefore b) the state government needs to c) legislate a ban on land clearing. A poorly identified, vaguely specified problem, target or solution is not a recipe for success.

The target is not necessarily a government. Recently, a tiny burst of adverse media over a violent video game was enough for the target (the department store Target, in that instance) to remove the game from their stores. Pressure exerted through the global 350 campaign has caused some universities to stop investing their endowments in fossil fuels.

Without the underpinning of research well focussed on answering critical questions, any campaign is at a loss.” 


So, how do you get the target to want to adopt your proffered solution? It comes down to effective campaigning.

Campaigning is always about creating the space and setting the stage for a decision maker to act using a combination of media and constituent pressure.

A media campaign is usually indispensable to both demonstrate and also stimulate public pressure. You may be surprised to learn that a well-disposed government often wants the community to raise a stink in the media about the issue of the day, to set the stage for it to ride in on a white horse to widespread acclaim.

Good advocacy is never negative toward the target, only toward the problem. It is usually pitched as “you can be a hero, if you do this one thing”.

Media is either ‘earned’ or ‘paid’. Earned media is generated from stunts like giant melting polar bear shaped ice blocks, by issuing a new analysis or report, or reacting to a decision like an approval of a coal mine. Paid media requires the support of generous donors to pay for ads on billboards, in newspapers, on TV or the internet.

At other times though, a friendly champion within government might be able to deliver on the ask, but please… no media! A softly-softly approach might be preferred to avoid stirring up opposition that is currently asleep or looking elsewhere. Sometimes the opposition can come from within the same government.

May the public be with you

The good news is that we don’t have to convince the public to love nature and wildlife and support conservation. Poll after poll show consistently very high – 90% plus – support for national parks and conservation of nature and wildlife across party lines, age, ethnic, gender…doesn’t matter.

Not sure why we keep polling on this anyway. It’s not like we are trying to get the public to like eating worms. They are already on the side of conservation. The campaigner’s task is to activate and focus that already abundant goodwill and point it at the target.

But this doesn’t mean conservation issues will be top of mind when it comes to a vote. At the ballot box, competence in economic matters usually trumps all other considerations. Campaigners are on a constant quest to cut through this barrier and turn their issue into something that affects or at least appears to affect, decisions at the ballot box, and therefore something that contending parties take very seriously. A campaigner tries to mobilise the constituents with the electorate of key decision makers to write in and express their support for the campaign objectives or attend a forum in the electorate or turn out for a public rally or other visible expression of support within that electorate.

Campaigners place intense focus around election time because that’s when they can pressure the competing parties to dish up election commitments. For example, in the recent Queensland election, in response to relentless exposure in the media and by constituents through the Fight for the Reef campaign, both major parties committed significant amounts of cash to protect the Reef from harmful pollution. Both parties obviously became convinced by the campaign that it was a ‘must have’ to win over the swinging voter.

A common campaign tactic is an election policy scorecard rating the different parties on how well their promises on various policy areas aligned with the campaign asks. Some delicacy is needed because a scorecard looks a lot like a how-to-vote card. NGOs may risk losing tax exempt status by advocating for a political party. They can, however, safely rate each party’s policies for alignment with their interests. Scorecards aside, a hallmark of a successful conservation campaign is that it enjoys bipartisan support.

It’s risky for a conservation issue to become ‘a political football’, that is, tied into the political identity of one party, making it very difficult for the other party to take up the cause, because it’s perceived to be in conflict with their political identity.

Conservation should be above politics. Conservation objectives should be bipartisan. They should be based firmly in sound science.

Room for science? 

Is there any room in this seemingly highly partisan space for objective, dispassionate science, with NGOs determined to get their favoured solution adopted? The answer is a definitive yes.

If it were not for the many decades of marine scientists studying the Reef documenting its biodiversity and quantifying the threats posed by overfishing and pollution, NGOs wouldn’t have had any basis for the campaigns: first, to shut fishing out of a third of the area a decade ago; and, now, to try to get reductions in agricultural and industrial pollution.

A campaign that runs counter to scientific evidence is not necessarily going to fail, but to succeed it will need a lot of cash and influence to overcome the weight of evidence. The fossil fuel industry’s global campaign to sow doubt about climate science is a textbook example of that. Any campaign always has to anticipate and deal with the inevitable backlash from vested interests who are the cause of, or who benefit from the conservation problem. Again, there is a constant demand for solid research to interrogate and unravel the myths, disinformation and counterclaims that vested interests fight back with. It’s no easy task.

Effective conservation campaigns rely on close coordination with scientists working in the area. Conservation science is at the heart of the ongoing story about the problem and the solution that’s needed to address it. Without the underpinning of research well focussed on answering critical questions, any campaign is at a loss.

Sometimes the critical questions have simple answers, often just one number. For example, how many species have no habitat inside a protected area? (see Decision Point #45, p4,5 for the answer!)

Beyond research papers, scientists can also write media and opinion articles in the popular press that can assist in a campaign. For example, in 2013 when a new Queensland Government decided to undo the land clearing laws, scientists throughout the state banded together to express their concern that this was not a good idea. And again, more recently, to express dismay with the resurgence of land clearing that has resulted. This second commentary appeared in the The Conversation. The Conversation is a recent science media innovation of great potential benefit for conservation efforts because it allows scientists a direct outlet for accessible, plain language explanations of their work.

No time for rest

A final and sobering reality to face is that securing conservation progress is an uphill and never-ending task. Even a favourable government usually cannot deliver everything that’s needed to address the enormous conservation problems we face, with expanding human impacts, declining wildlife and shrinking habitats. One has to be pragmatic and “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, giving credit to decision makers where credit is due.

Finally, you cannot take a win for granted, as we found with land clearing laws. A change of government can undo years of campaign work with the stroke of a pen. The only answer is to start all over again, keep building or refreshing the science, keep making the case, keep mobilising public opinion. The IPCC is a wonderful and inspiring example of that at the global level. Take comfort that the public is, most likely, already on your side.

A report card on Australia’s NRS

87__Page_13_Image_0002Here’s an example of one of our efforts to influence conservation policy in Australia. WWF’s Building Nature’s Safety Net is a regular report card on Australia’s National Reserve System (NRS), the national mosaic of over 10,000 discrete protected areas on land on all tenures: government, Indigenous and private (including on-farm covenants), as well as marine parks and reserves. The NRS is the single most important asset for the conservation of Australia’s unique and globally significant biodiversity. In successive Safety Net reports we review progress toward agreed biodiversity targets, the state of financing for both expansion and maintenance of the reserve system and the gaps that need to be filled to ensure Australian biodiversity is relatively secure.

The reports form the basis of an ongoing campaign to increase funding for the National Reserve System program, a federal grants program, and matching budget allocations in states in territories.

The most significant success was the announcement by former Environment Minister Peter Garrett of $180m allocation for the program over the period 2008-2013. The announcement came a few weeks after he launched the 2008 Safety Net report in Parliament House. Unfortunately, the program was cut by his successor in late 2012 and has yet to be restored.

The report pictured here is the fourth in a series with the three previous reports published in 2006, 2008 and 2011.

More info: Martin Taylor 

87__Page_13_Image_0001Martin Taylor is WWF-Australia’s Protected Areas Policy Manager and has published important analyses of the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act in the United States, threats to international whale habitats, and the effectiveness of conservation actions in Australia including protected areas for threatened species. He has served on the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission and as an NGO observer at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Martin is pictured below at a CITES conference) . He is a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

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