European members of SULi have worked in two European Commission co-funded research projects during 2006-11. Findings reported below have resulted in two new knowledge systems which may have wider value.
At the end of the last ice-age, human societies were based on small communities. With the development of agriculture and increasingly efficient transport, societies became more urbanised and multi-layered. Within European countries today, there are typically 3-6 layers of government, including national, regional and 1-3 local levels. For European Union members like the UK, the European institutions are a sixth level. Information transmits downwards through these layers, albeit slowly at times, but less easily upward. However, the individuals at the base of democracies periodically combine forces to elect a new layer at the top.
The individuals at the base also make huge numbers of decisions which affect the environment, by deciding what, when and how to remove biota or cultivate it. The frequency of these management decisions, per hectare of land, is 4-5 orders of magnitude greater than formal environmental assessments supervised by local authorities. These informal local management decisions are made within an envelope of top-down regulations, and of market forces which may be remote, but are also affected by local soil, topography, weather, biotic factors and social attitudes. Like an election, these decisions sum up to create change, in this case to the environment.
Top-down incentives (regulations, subsidies, trade, fashions) have been affecting environmental decisions at local level increasingly for decades. This has secured habitat remnants in protected areas, and changed attitudes to some predators that were unpopular when previously common, but has not halted overall decline in biodiversity.
SULi members estimated that about 100 million of the 500 million people in Europe benefit directly from biodiversity, e.g. through watching, fishing, hunting and gathering wildlife, and together spend more than €60 billion annually on these pursuits (a sum similar to state spending annually in the Common Agricultural Policy). What if the spending and efforts of the 100 million stakeholders could help make local decisions that improve rural livelihoods and biodiversity?
It would be a complex process to optimise the many cultural and productive uses of land, based on different sources of funding. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that a review of local case studies showed the most important factors for enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem services to be use of monitoring-based adaptive management and of knowledge leadership from above. However, computers and the internet could provide central brains and links for information from millions of eyes to be combined as guidance for millions of hands. Systematic records of results from myriad local decisions could inform policy to make such a central-local system better and better.
In principle, a central-local system could dramatically improve information flows on the environment. However, building it is hard to fund, because the greatest advantages would take longest to develop. Survey showed that administrators and individuals most wanted best-practise examples and detailed maps for habitats and species, so a multi-lingual portal called Naturalliance was built to focus first on these. Intriguingly, it is attracting nearly as many visitors in Russian and Polish together as in English.
Case studies showed local communities to be enthusiastic about mapping and good at it, so another portal has been built to engage local communities. Systematic engagement, for mapping that is widespread enough to inform policy, needs something that attracts wide use by communities, such as websites that are easy to edit locally. Subscription for sites that link centrally for information and survey (1) could fund development of the whole system if uptake is good across the 120,000 local administrations in Europe.
If local people can be enlightened and enthused for community-based conservation in Europe through engagement in citizen science, as ours and other projects suggest, would this be relevant beyond Europe? This may depend on two things. One is whether appropriate technology will spread, and the other is whether such central-local systems would build administrative trust and hence encourage governments to increase empowerment of communities at local level. Uptake of mobile technology seems to assure a positive answer to the first question. For the second, time will tell.
Robert Kenward is Chair of the European Sustainable Use Group and European Vice-Chair of SULi.