Technology and human-centered environmentalism

Matt Ziegler
Oct 3, 2020 · 4 min read

In Paige West’s ethnographic book “Conservation is our Government Now,” she travels to the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Papua New Guinea to investigate the troubled relationships between the wildlife conservancy’s staff — mostly foreign NGO workers — and the local Gimi people whose land is under management. She describes:

“…a profound disconnect between the goals of the two groups. The NGO workers thought that they would encourage conservation and cultivate development by teaching Gimi to value biodiversity as an economic resource. The villagers expected that in exchange for the land, labor, food, and friendship they offered the conservation workers, they would receive benefits, such as medicine and technology. In the end, the divergent nature of each group’s expectations led to disappointment for both.”

As environmentalists have reflected over the movement’s successes and failures over the past several decades, it’s clear that many of the biggest problems have stemmed from our neglect of social and political factors. The recent wave of scandals with international conservation NGO’s has drawn attention to this problem: well-intended conservationists around the world often have propagated ugly colonial injustices. Here in the USA, many of the protected areas like National Parks were created by violent expulsion of Native people who had lived there. In the developing world, conservation projects are often run by outsiders from places like Europe and the USA, local people’s voices get overpowered in the management processes, and local people are made promises of economic benefits that they never actually receive. Tensions and conflicts are really common for externally-imposed conservation projects all around the world. In some places where people have lived and managed the environment for generations, effective Indigenous practices and knowledge are pushed aside.

In spite of this, the environmental crisis is now more urgent than ever, but recent decades have seen new human-centered environmental movements emerge. The environmental justice movement strives for equity and fairness in environmental governance, of all people inclusive of race, income, nationality, Tribe, gender, and color. Among international conservation organizations, there is a new emphasis on Indigenous knowledge and practices. A paradigm of integrated conservation and economic development initiatives has emerged, with some controversy and mixed success. In 2009, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on collaborative governance of shared environmental resources.

Environmental problems are people problems, plain and simple.

So, is there any role for technology researchers to play in this new human-centered environmentalism? It’s an under-explored research problem, but some community-oriented conservation technology projects have popped up. Gram Vaani has used call-in voice forums to get people talking about water quality issues and hold the government accountable. Some Tribes have worked with geographers and used participatory mapping approaches to demarcate lands and legally assert their borders against loggers. Activists across the globe use social media to organize and to agitate for environmental cause. Additionally in the USA, many Tribes have leveraged monitoring technologies to demonstrate the effectiveness of their forest management programs, and persuade the national government to give them more decision-making power.

In our work, we’re approaching this problem in partnership with the Conservation Tech Lab at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. Ol Pejeta is best known as the refuge for the last two Northern White Rhinos on the planet, but it’s also a regional leader for its community development program. The conservancy’s formal protected area is surrounded by communities on all sides, and they increasingly need to work together with local people to manage shared resources like water, wildlife, pollinators, and security. However, as is the case with lots of conservancies around the world, sometimes these relationships with local people are tense from historical injustices. Ol Pejeta invests tourism money into a variety of projects in the communities like mobile clinics, scholarships, agriculture extension, veterinary services, and others; to try to more fairly share the costs and benefits of conservation. They also hold regular, open community meetings to strive to involve local people in decision-making, and communicate with local leaders daily.

The communities are spread across a huge area and sometimes transportation is difficult, but nearly everybody has access to a basic mobile phone. We wonder if we can use basic phone technologies like SMS and USSD to open communication channels with the communities, improve Ol Pejeta’s service delivery, and improve their abilities to work together when issues arise. So far our early-stage pilot deployments show some promise, but we still need more work to know if we can confidently recommend this approach to other conservancies. You can check out our recent COMPASS paper to learn more, or watch this short video: