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Building BRIDGEs | Cross-Sectoral Approaches to Biodiversity Conservation: Governance, Natural Resource Management, and “Thinking and Working Politically”

The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program, in partnership with USAID’s BRIDGE project, held the second panel in a three-part virtual series with researchers and practitioners discussing lessons learned and entry points for action in the integration of biodiversity conservation, governance, public health, and food security.

Date & Time

May. 12, 2020
1:00pm – 2:30pm ET


“You might know what to do,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a Senior Fellow for Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But if you don’t think about how to do it, your reform isn’t going to move forward.” She spoke at a recent Wilson Center virtual event on how to think and work politically while supporting biodiversity conservation goals. It may sound counterintuitive, she said, but undertaking what’s considered the best intervention may not be the best approach.

Factor in the Opposition

Many development questions today have a political component, Kleinfeld said. Logging in Indonesia, the right to hunt whales in Japan, and the murder of environmental activists in Central America are just a few examples where powerful families, military power brokers, or powerful business interests with links to government power stand to gain. When opponents to biodiversity conservation are quite powerful, reformers will need to rally support.

“Programs that get adopted in that kind of an environment are rarely the technical best practice, because to rally a large base of supporters, you need to give each of them a reason to come to the table,” she said. Supporters may have different reasons, even self-interested ones that aren’t simply about choosing the technical best practices. “So, insisting on that best practice,” said Kleinfeld, “may make it impossible to amass technical support.”

A realistic policy only emerges from a process of contestation and finding common ground among a group of people with different views. “But because best practices are already settled based on technical knowledge—and often that technical knowledge comes from outside a country, where there’s no constituency to back it—they can’t accommodate this process of compromises, this very political process of coalition building between competing factions,” she said.

Earning Trust

“Biodiversity as a technical term means the heterogeneity and interconnectedness of species, genes, and ecosystems,” said Diane Russell, the President of SocioEcological Strategies, Inc. “But biodiversity conservation is a social action, it is carried out by people through institutions, from small groups to global policy organizations and agencies.” To foster the institutional relationships and adaptive governance needed for successful biodiversity conservation, she said that trust is a key component.

As an anthropologist, she has seen how long it can take to establish and build trust. In some areas, it’s taken from six months to a year or longer to establish trust, she said. To lay the groundwork for trust, she recommends applying the “PITA principles” of participation, inclusion, transparency, and accountability. But building trust is not easy. Conflict, corruption, and mismanagement erode trust and undermine conservation efforts. One tool that can be used to address these problems and build trust is political economy analysis (PEA), which helps identify the incentive structures and networks of actors that may be eroding trust, as well as those who could be or are already champions for better governance or anti-corruption.

Teams for biodiversity programs should be inclusive, said Suzanne Kelly-Lyall, Founder of Wildcat Research & Advisory Services. Team building brings together stakeholders, usually with the opposition, to build coalitions and agree on organizing principles. “We need a starting place to build trust among these groups that often have a long history of mistrust,” she said.

Historically, those working on governance and those working on biodiversity and conservation operated in separate universes, said Kelly-Lyall. And they have a hard time speaking to one another. People need to integrate “thinking and working politically” from the outset and build a political economy infrastructure within projects so that cross-sectoral benefits can be produced from the beginning. In practice, she said, a strong political economy results from design and research that is cross-sectoral to reduce siloed thinking.


As development practice has moved towards evidence-based decision-making, the need for more robust qualitative and quantitative input to analyze our political economy work is vital, said Kelly-Lyall. It’s time to move outside our traditional comfort zone of academic journals, donor reports, and books, she said, and also look at the utility of data mining on social networks. Facebook and other social media platforms are vital to data capture and analysis related to environmental defenders. Better use of tools, even machine learning, she said, could help augment and anchor observational primary field research.

Sailboats, Not Trains

Development projects, many assume, move slowly like trains that can chug along a single track, hitting pre-determined targets at pre-determined intervals, and move in one direction, said Kleinfeld. “But development efforts that require policy or political change move like sailboats. No matter how skilled the crew, they just can’t generate any power to move on their own,” she said. They must work with prevailing conditions. This means they might spend time motionless due to lack of wind, then they’ll gust forward with a favorable wind. And they might have to tack into the wind to move forward to get to the ultimate goal.

Adapting to these conditions requires flexibility and a willingness to take small bites at a time. We need to be more humble about where we are going, she said. “The train chugging down a track that assumes it knows where it’s going, assumes a lot about a country remaining fairly static,” she said. “But even if a best practice works at one period of time in one part of a single country, it might not find fertile ground in another part of the country or at another time.” Under pressure from international donors, a country might pass a best practice reform and get it adopted into law, but ignore it if it lacks domestic supporters. “So some humility about where we’re going is also necessary,” she said, “when you’re a sailboat and not a train.”

Written by Wania Yad and Amanda King, edited by Sandra Yin. 

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Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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