Story | 15 Aug, 2021

Centering social equity in global marine conservation efforts

CEESP News - by Nathan Bennett, Chair, People and the Ocean Specialist Group, IUCN CEESP

There is a growing recognition of the need for more socially equitable conservation. Yet, in both policy and practice, greater attention is still given to what, how much, and where to protect, rather than how to go about protecting biodiversity and who should be included in the process.

A new peer-reviewed article by a global group of marine conservation practitioners and scholars aims to bring greater attention to this topic through reviewing how social equity can be better integrated in marine conservation policy and practice.

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Photo: Conservation International/Janny “Heintje” Rotinsulu

Single fisher on a small boat in the open sea. Photo credit: Conservation International/Janny “Heintje” Rotinsulu.

We must continually reflect on past successes and failures to adapt and improve conservation policies, practices, and investments.

In recent years, there has been lots of attention in marine conservation science and policy circles to what, where, and how much of the ocean to conserve and to the effectiveness of management. These considerations are, of course, important foundations for establishing targets, understanding priority areas, and ensuring conservation actions preserve marine species, habitats, and ecosystem services. Yet there is a real and present danger that the current push to rapidly achieve spatial conservation targets may lead to negative social consequences. There is evidence, for example, that past conservation initiatives have resulted in exclusionary decision-making and management, violent displacement, human and Indigenous rights abuses, the widening of economic inequalities, and increased poverty due to livelihood impacts. More attention is needed to how to go about protecting biodiversity and who should be included in the process.

One challenge is that marine conservation targets and objectives are often treated as an end goal on the voyage to social equity, Instead, social equity should be viewed as a means to achieve more ethical, effective, and robust marine conservation. Greater consideration of social equity concerns – such as Indigenous rights, livelihoods, collaborative decision-making, local participation in management, and the social outcomes of conservation - can pay dividends through creating local allies and long-term support for ocean sustainability initiatives. More inclusive marine conservation models include Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs), Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) and collaboratively managed large-scale marine protected areas such as Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

In a recent peer reviewed publication titled “Advancing social equity in and through marine conservation”, a global group of marine conservation researchers and practitioners highlight six considerations and corresponding actions that need to be taken to center social equity in marine conservation efforts:

  • Recognition through acknowledging and respecting the values, knowledge, rights, needs, and livelihoods of diverse peoples;
  • Distribution of social outcomes through maximizing benefits and minimizing burdens to local populations;
  • Procedures through fostering participation in decision-making and good governance processes;
  • Management through championing and supporting local involvement and leadership;
  • The environment through ensuring the efficacy of conservation actions and adequacy of management to ensure benefits to nature and people; and,
  • The context through addressing structural barriers to and institutional roots of inequity in conservation.

Centering social equity in global marine conservation efforts       Photo: Oceanswell / Asha De Vos
Overview of aspects of social equity to be considered in marine conservation. Image credit: Oceanswell / Asha De Vos 

The application of these considerations to the varied contexts where marine conservation occurs will require mindful implementation based on a solid understanding of local social, cultural, economic, and political realities.

The broader marine conservation community has a shared responsibility when it comes to advancing social equity. Marine conservation organizations - including government agencies and NGOs - should reflect on their history and identify ways that equity can be incorporated into and supported through their policies, programs, and management practices. The philanthropic community also has significant power, and thus substantial responsibility, for supporting socially equitable marine conservation efforts and actions.

Yet, many marine conservation organizations lack the institutional, procedural, and operational capacities to adequately incorporate social equity considerations into their work. At the institutional level, organizations may need to establish a guiding philosophy, overarching mandate, theory of change, leadership ethos, and team culture that embraces and supports actions to advance social equity. Having a diverse and inclusive team is foundational for embodying the ideals that these organizations hope to promote. At the procedural level, marine conservation organizations might adopt social codes of conduct that are incorporated into the culture of institutions, supported by clear guidance on actions that need to be taken, a culture of learning from both successes and failures, and mechanisms to ensure accountability. At the operational level, marine conservation organizations will require adequate expertise in the human dimensions and knowledge of social contexts to be able to make informed and socially aware marine conservation decisions. Sufficient financial resources will be needed to hire and build capacity within each organization, to support conservation projects and activities that intentionally incorporate more inclusive processes and promote equitable outcomes, and to enable local involvement in and leadership of all aspects of marine conservation.

To meaningfully support the pursuit of socially equitable conservation, the marine conservation community and organizations must commit to and take immediate and ongoing action. This call to action is supported by various international agreements (e.g., UN Declaration on Human Rights, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Aarhus Convention) and conservation policy mandates (e.g., Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets, Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, UN Sustainable Development Goals).

There are many steps to take to advance social equity in marine conservation - but nothing happens overnight. Each organization’s journey begins with a first step. What are your marine conservation organization’s next steps to advance social equity in and through marine conservation, and how will you track your successes and failures to ensure accountability?


Reference: Bennett, N. J., Katz, L., Yadao-Evans, W., Ahmadia, G. N., Atkinson, S., Ban, N. C., Dawson, N., de Vos, A., Fitzpatrick, J., Gill, D., Imirizaldu, M., Lewis, N., Mangubhai, S., Meth, L., Muhl, E.-K., Obura, D., Spalding, A., Villagomez, A., Wagner, D., White, A. & Wilhelm, A. (2021). Advancing social equity in and through marine conservation. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8.