Tracing ideas of conservation, convivial and decolonial potentials in SDG 15, life on land: articles published in Globalizations and Journal of Political Ecology

By Judith Krauss, University of Sheffield

How transformative is SDG 15, Life on land? This is the central question for two new papers out in Globalizations and in Journal of Political Ecology. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs for short) have permeated all walks of life: businesses, governments, universities, civil society now all assess their progress at least partly based on the ‘indivisible’ goals which aspire to help ‘transform our world’. There is one goal, SDG 15 Life on land, which is dedicated to protecting terrestrial biodiversity, which I analyse in two papers as part of the CONVIVA – convivial conservation research project (funded by NORFACE/Belmont Forum).

SDG 15 consists of outcome targets 15.1 to 15.9, setting goals for:

  • – protecting terrestrial ecosystems and important sites of biodiversity (15.1)
  • – sustainable forest management (15.2)
  • – halting land degradation (15.3)
  • – mountain biodiversity (15.4)
  • – combating species extinction (15.5)
  • – access and benefit-sharing (15.6)
  • – illegal wildlife trafficking (15.7)
  • – invasive alien species (15.8)
  • – incorporating biodiversity values into planning, development processes (15.9)

In addition, there are three means of implementation targets, 15.a to 15.c:

  • – increasing funding for biodiversity (15.a)
  • – increasing funding for sustainable forest management (15.b)
  • – capacity-building to combat illegal wildlife trafficking (15.c)

What does SDG 15 say, and why does that matter?

In the open access Globalizations article, I review SDG 15 through a critical social-science lens, which has not been done in much detail in the past. This is important because there are many different ideas of what conservation is or should be, what nature to aim for, and how different humans relate and matter to that nature (Brockington, Duffy & Igoe, 2008; Cronon, 1996; Sandbrook, 2015; Sandbrook et al., 2019). These ideas, implicitly or explicitly, shape conservation approaches by scientists, governments and civil society. As SDG 15 informs conservation, it is important to unpack its conceptual underpinnings and practical implications. The paper does this by analysing the goal, targets and indicators, prior conservation agreements, prior and alternative suggestions for indicators (e.g. by the Indigenous Peoples Major Group), and UN progress reports on SDG 15.

SDG 15 perpetuates problematic ideas of conservation. There are various structural shortcomings (cf. below) which risk placing the SDGs in a similar intellectual vein as other large-scale conservation planning and mapping efforts which have been criticised for lacking recognition of human lives, livelihoods and lands (Agrawal et al., 2020; Dutta et al., 2020; Kashwan et al., 2021; Schleicher et al., 2019). While this may not seem a very surprising finding, it is important to trace in the detail of SDG 15’s targets and indicators how these framings contradict the SDGs’ stated objectives of transforming our world.

SDG 15 and disavowal

SDG 15 indicators lean heavily on prior conservation-related agreements, which is necessary for continuity on the one hand, but also links with Žižek’s idea of disavowal, i.e. a ‘means for an ideology to take its own failure into account in advance’ (1989, p. 142; cf. also Fletcher and Rammelt, 2017, on disavowal and decoupling in the SDGs). For instance, 15.1 and 15.1.2, which aim to protect a certain percentage of the planet, have gone through prior iterations in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2010 biodiversity target and in Aichi Biodiversity Target 11. 15.6, on installing mechanisms for equitable benefit-sharing, has no year attached to it, unlike Aichi Biodiversity Target 16 with the same aim. Reusing the same language both fails to attain the SDGs’ objective of going beyond previously agreed language, and highlights a prior failure to attain them (Silva and Topf, 2020).

Non-inclusive, non-people-centred conservation

Sandbrook et al. (2019) identify people-centred conservation as giving voice to those affected by conservation and advancing human well-being. However, SDG 15 only once implicitly mentions poverty, in connection with incorporating biodiversity values into planning (15.9), while communities are only referenced in means of implementation target 15.c, on capacity-building to combat wildlife trafficking. Arguably, this constitutes a step back on the Aichi Targets, which emphasised in Target 14 communities’ roles in preserving ecosystem services, and in Aichi Target 18 the importance of incorporating indigenous knowledge (Baptiste & Martín-López, 2015). Different advocates have called for conservation approaches which include diverse knowledges and contributions (Kashwan et al., 2021; Sze et al., 2021), and have less agenda-setting by few, largely male, largely Global Northern voices (Rodríguez et al., 2007; Kothari, 2021; Mbaria & Ogada, 2016). While the 2018 High Level Political Forum’s (HLPF) progress review on SDG 15 emphasises the importance of co-management with local communities, SDG 15 has no mechanism to protect and respect indigenous and local communities’ lands, rights and knowledges, despite their expertise and positive conservation track record (Tauli-Corpuz et al., 2020; Sze et al., 2021).

Cementing blindness

In its metadata, SDG 15 has no acknowledged connections to the SDGs for poverty (1), climate action (13) or gender (5), despite the 2018 HLPF progress review emphasising biodiversity’s inherent connection to these issues. This chimes with wider criticism of the SDGs for failing to acknowledge trade-offs and interdependencies (Pradhan et al., 2017), and equally continues a tradition of seeing humans and more-than-human nature as being separable and separated (Plumwood, 2003). The absence of mechanisms to trace these connections not only questions the SDGs’ indivisibility; it also risks placing this SDG in the same intellectual vein as other contemporary conservation planning and mapping efforts. These efforts have been criticised for failing to see systematically what effects protecting e.g. 30% or 50% of the planet would mean for those who have historically conserved and live on and from those lands (Schleicher et al., 2019; Dutta et al., 2020; Kashwan et al., 2021). This lack of connection equally leaves the door open for implementing protected areas in the name of SDG 15 in ways that do not recognise sufficiently their impact on lives and livelihoods. In sum, the diagnosed blinkers and blind spots raise questions about the SDGs’ ability to create equitable benefits for nonhuman and human nature, particularly for individuals and groups disadvantaged by status, gender or (dis)ability inequalities.

No emphasis on structural drivers and justice

The failure to interrogate equity concerns equally extends to an indifference to economic-structural drivers of biodiversity loss. Focusing on protected areas arguably connects biodiversity loss specifically to those who live on and from the land in question, rather than the resource extraction necessary for global trading and wealthy tourists. There are no mechanisms in SDG 15 to trace imports or exports of biodiversity losses nor connect to limiting resource extraction by the rich. This means that SDG 15 overall fails to recognise environmental issues as justice issues (Lele, 2017; Menton et al., 2020).

Please follow this link for the full article in Globalizations and list of references.

What can be done to make SDG 15 convivial and/or decolonial?

The Journal of Political Ecology article analyses SDG 15 through a convivial and decolonial lens. First, I highlight the key tenets of Ivan Illich’s conviviality, a philosophy aimed at prioritising human-environmental interdependence, democratic participation in decision-making and justice, while thinking them with important decolonial approaches such as buen vivir and Ubuntu. Second, I set out Büscher and Fletcher’s ‘convivial conservation’ idea, and juxtapose the two manifestations of conviviality in terms of their potentials as decolonial options (Tlostanova and Mignolo, 2009). Finally, I review SDG 15 from convivial and decolonial perspectives.

In terms of Illich’s conviviality, SDG 15 fails to implement Illich’s aspiration for the rich to live within limits. A convivial principle – which mirrors Ubuntu’s ethic of care for humans, environment, unborn generations, and buen vivir’s responsibility for humans and environment – would require respecting ecological limits beyond specific biodiversity hotspots, while safeguarding equitable resource-sharing.

From the convivial conservation perspective, a key principle would require promoting rights and decision-making of residents, rural peoples and the disenfranchised. Making an explicit commitment in SDG 15, overall and for protected areas, to bolstering under-heard communities, including women, would also align well with both conviviality and decolonizing.

From a decolonizing viewpoint, perpetuating conservation trajectories which have produced racialized socio-ecological injustices and power asymmetries is problematic (Domínguez & Luoma, 2020; Kothari, 2021). Incorporating social-equity indicators into SDG 15’s conservation management would be vital (e.g. Zafra-Calvo et al., 2017).

Finally, a flaw on which both convivialities and decolonizing converge is the lack of recognition of interdependencies between and within humans and the environment. A convivial and decolonizing alternative would need to reflect and capture the many interconnections between the social, economic and environmental aspects of conservation.

Please follow this link for the full article in the Journal of Political Ecology (JPE) and list of references.

The Globalizations paper thus demonstrates through a critical social science lens problematic, inequitable ideas of conservation which persist in SDG 15: identifying objectives which are unattainable, previously unattained or less ambitious than previous agreements (disavowal), perpetuating ideas of conservation which do not explicitly respect the rights and lands of people living near it, not recognising the repercussions of strict conservation for livelihoods, and failing to understand environmental questions as justice issues with structural drivers.

The Journal of Political Ecology paper then builds on the analysis to highlight what a more convivial and decolonial SDG 15 could look like: this could be done by taking seriously the need for the rich to live within bounds, promoting rights and decision-making of those living near conservation interventions, promoting social equity given racialized hierarchies of difference, and recognising interdependencies between and among humans and the environment.

I am very grateful to Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy, the June 2019 Sheffield Political Ecology and October 2019 ICTA-Autonomous University of Barcelona Decolonizing Conservation and Climate Change workshops and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the papers, the opportunity to be part of the special issue in JPE edited by Dan Brockington, Esteve Corbera Elizalde and Sara Maestre Andrés, and the Globalizations and JPE editorial teams for all their support, as well as the CONVIVA project for the intellectual space to pursue these questions.