Challenging “parachute science” in conservation

By Philile Mbatha

On 30 May 2024, Hub Deputy Director, Philile Mbatha, gave a presentation as part of the seven-part World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) 2024 “Kathryn Fuller Science for Nature Seminar Series: Beyond Inclusive Conservation” hosted by Nathan Bennett from WWF International – in collaboration with The Fuller Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP). The specific seminar series in which Philile presented was titled “Towards a More Inclusive Conservation Science”, comprising an all-woman panel and over 180 participants online.

Video screenshot – on vimeo

The seminar brought together a group of prominent speakers including Gabby Ahamadia from WWF, Asha De Vos from OceanSwell, and Anne Salomon from Simon Fuller University. The panellists shared a passion and an interest in research focusing on inclusive conservation, and equitable, just and inclusive conservation science and interventions at the global scale. Inclusive conservation can be defined as conservation that takes into account and supports the worldviews, knowledges, rights, needs and voices of local people and communities in decision-making and governance of biodiversity (and the ocean). The discourse of inclusive conservation has gained traction in the 21st century and is pertinent both in global North and South contexts, with numerous examples of conservation interventions that continue to adopt Western science-led conservation governance processes and practices that exclude and marginalise local, Indigenous, and other types of knowing about living with nature or the environment.

The different case studies presented highlighted the need to transform conservation science and practice so that it can embrace diverse approaches to conservation “science”. One of the overarching themes in the seminar, and particularly highlighted in a presentation by Asha De Vos, was overcoming “parachute science”, that is the tendency of scientists and decision-makers to parachute conservation ideas from elsewhere, i.e., the Global North, to the Global South without taking account of the differing contexts, and where solutions needed to tackle issues relating to biodiversity protection and governance require the amalgamation of different types of knowledge over conventional science approaches. Hence, the decolonisation of science from the mainstream in such a manner that is inclusive of local contexts and knowledges is pivotal. In addition, the need to democratise and diversify conservation science and practice were further highlighted by Anne Salomon and Gabby Ahmadia, where questions of gender in relation to equity in conservation governance were also highlighted as important.

Philile Mbatha’s presentation focused on her research undertaken over ten years in a UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Africa to highlight the governance challenges imposed by multi-scalar conservation regimes and how these, when parachuted into Global South contexts with complex colonial histories, can result in governability challenges. Philile also discussed the issue of knowledge hierarchies within conservation science, and stressed the role of history in helping us understand how epistemologies of what conservation science and practice looked like historically have been shaped by colonial processes, and how these need to be transformed and decolonised in order to be more inclusive and sustainable. Philile’s research contributed to Hub arts-based methods and outputs, informing the development of the One Ocean Hub /Empatheatre theatre production “Umkhosi Wenala: Festival of Abundance” and the Mapping for Justice documentary film. Both the Umkhosi Wenala production and the Mapping for Justice documentary highlight the need for conservation processes as practices to be cognisant of the diverse and complex histories, as well as rights, livelihoods and voices of local and Indigenous Peoples in decision-making about conservation.

View the seminar recording here >>

Related SDGs:

  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Climate action
  • Life below water