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Forget the market: competition won’t save species

Collaboration is the only way to preserve biodiversity. Kasi Metcalfe

Plans for conserving Australian species rely on successfully collaborating across regions and across jurisdictions. It makes sense: species don’t recognise state or local government boundaries. But at the same time, funding for conservation is premised on competing, not cooperating. How can these collaborative approaches succeed without secure and stable financial support?

I recently attended a conference on “Innovation for Conservation”, which showcased new approaches to conservation management and governance in Australia.

The science–policy forum, convened by the Australian Commission for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, brought together practitioners, government agency personnel, NGOs and academics to discuss the changing face of biodiversity conservation. Speakers reflected on the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration, the rise of Indigenous Protected Areas, efforts to manage biodiversity at continental scales and innovative approaches to financing conservation.

Two themes dominated the meeting: collaboration and funding. Collaboration, we heard, is vital to conservation, but time and resource intensive. Funding is insecure and inadequate. So much hope was pinned on emerging markets, particularly a carbon price, to bring the elusive pot of gold desperately needed to address biodiversity decline.

The conversations ran in parallel and unfortunately missed the connection, or lack thereof, between the two: funding for collaboration will not respond to or be supported by market drivers.

Market based instruments (MBIs) are a suite of policy tools used to create price signals to drive behaviour change. Based on the idea that a competitive market can be harnessed to achieve environmental outcomes, MBIs put a price on resources previously not counted in conventional economics. We already have a market for water, and with the passing of the carbon tax legislation we will soon have a price on carbon.

If they’re funded competitively, what sort of wildlife corridors will we end up with? Liz Lawley

The carbon market is looked upon as either the last saving grace for biodiversity or the final nail in the coffin. Depending on how the legislation is implemented, the market could drive the creation of monocultures of fast-growing carbon-dense species, or it could be an opportunity to drive much-needed investment into the conservation of biodiverse ecosystems.

Recognising the potential for market failure at the interface between biodiversity and carbon, the carbon tax package includes a $946 million Biodiversity Fund. The fund will support restoration plantings, protecting and enhancing exiting native vegetation and managing threats to biodiversity. Part of the fund is linked to the National Wildlife Corridors Plan, which will support collaborative initiatives to conserve biodiversity across multiple land tenures and jurisdictions.

The catch? Funding is to come through existing Australian Government programs, primarily the Biodiversity Fund and Caring for Our Country(CfoC). Why is that a problem? The Biodiversity Fund is focused on ground interventions to protect or enhance stocks of carbon in biodiverse ecosystems. There’s no money in there to support collaboration. So we turn to CfoC: a $2 billion program nearing the end of its five-year term. CfoC was build on a “business approach to investment” focused on six nationally defined priority areas.

A recent paper, “Crying for our Country” (the title says it all) outlines the multitude of ways that CfoC undermined the existing regional delivery model for natural resource management. Among other things, the business-orientation of CfoC created a more competitive approach to funding and has reduced total funding available to regional NRM bodies.

Creating competition between Landcare groups, NRM bodies and other groups involved in conservation is the antithesis of the collaborative approach at the heart of the corridor plan.

Ecological processes, species and threats to conservation don’t like to stay neatly within the boundaries we impose on the landscape. Collaborative approaches that bring together landholders, indigenous peoples, agency staff, scientists, and conservation groups are therefore vital. Trust, leadership and access to secure, adequate funding are critical factors for successful collaborative partnerships.

Without adequate and secure base funding to support communication, collaboration and institutional capacity, wildlife corridors and other collaborative initiatives are likely to fail.

Markets may provide a more cost-effective approach to conservation funding. But a competitive approach is likely to undermine the relationships and social capital vital to successful conservation actions. I commend the government for creating the Biodiversity Fund to address market failure. However I urge them to consider how the market-driven approach destabilises the collaborative institutions they seek to support.

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