Why some people chose not to participate in conservation

Indonesian village

Local community involvement is a key contributor to the success of conservation projects developed to reduce forest and biodiversity loss. However, it is not always clear how to best get people interested in participating in these initiatives.

Recent research from Adam Miller and colleagues at the NGO, Planet Indonesia, in conjunction with academics in the UK including Dr Jacob Phelps from Lancaster University, seeks to understand the reasons why some people chose not to engage in conservation projects.

The study interviewed people across nine indigenous communities in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, where Planet Indonesia is working to reduce logging and hunting of protected species. The project offers local communities benefits like free agricultural support to improve livelihoods and access to free public health. Given these benefits, participation rates were high in some communities, but low in others. The researchers sought to understand why.

Explaining their focus on people who did not participate, rather than those that did participate, Dr Phelps explains, "It's easy to understand why, when a project offers benefits, people chose to get involved. But it's often harder to understand why some people chose not to participate. Understanding this non-participation is key to designing stronger, more inclusive projects.”

There researchers could not identify any specific demographic trends to explain why some people chose not to participate. However, they uncovered several explanations for non-participation that could help strengthen the project. The most reported reason for the not participating was time constraint. Many found it challenging to dedicate time to participate in the project because of demands from their jobs, families, and social obligations. The researchers highlight that many of the parts of the project, such as accessing the free benefits, were not time consuming, but may have still been perceived as burdensome. Some respondents chose not to participate because they did not understand how their involvement would benefit them. Others felt that, although everyone in the communities were invited to participate, they have not been specifically invited, and so they were not sure if they were truly invited. Interestingly, some of these challenges were more common in larger communities, probably because it is more difficult to communicate across larger groups.

Lastly, a small but significant minority of non-participants opposed the programmes ideologically, believing the environmental initiatives did not reflect their beliefs. The researchers suggests that these may be people actively involved in activities like hunting, for whom conservation messages may not resound. This is especially true because there is a fraught history between many of these communities and the nearby government-designed protected area that has limited their livelihood options.

Interesting, the NGO staff involved in developing the project also gave a range of explanations for non-participation -- but these did not strongly match the reasons given by the respondents themselves. This research aims to help overcome these disconnect to expand participation and inclusiveness. In particular, improving communication is crucial; providing clear, relevant, and accessible information can boost engagement. Increased efforts to directly invite and welcome community members at the beginning of the programme would be valuable, and regular progress reports and participant feedback would help to sustain participants' interest and involvement. Adjusting programme components to better reflect local values, time constraints and concerns could expand community support. This includes local concerns about time availability, and designing formats, schedules and design to better meet local needs.

By focusing on these areas, conservation programmes can become more inclusive, ensuring broader and more meaningful participation. This is essential for the long-term success and sustainability of conservation efforts.

Dr Phelps added, “This is not only more ethical, but also important because it is likely that many people who do not immediately choose to participate are those who we most want to participate -- because they are most actively involved in activities like hunting and logging."

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