Crossroads blog | 28 Nov, 2023

Understanding power and politics for better conservation outcomes

Good intentions alone aren't enough. As WWF's Micol Martini writes, by understanding and engaging in power dynamics, conservationists can be more effective—and avoid unintended and sometimes harmful consequences of their work. 

Despite a longstanding moratorium on logging in the Congo Basin, illegal forest concessions granted by governments in the region are rife. In the Amazon, companies involved in illegal gold mining and logging often use political connections to protect their interests, or hide millions of dollars in profits in US real estate. In Brazil, bribery in the judiciary has facilitated land grabbing by agri-business. In Bangladesh, more than a third of climate adaptation funds are embezzled. And globally, supply chain collusion means around 30% of all timber is illegally harvested.

Illegal and unsustainable natural resource exploitation enabled by crime and corruption, and related social and environmental impacts, occur because powerful groups and individuals benefit. Environmental corruption is ubiquitous and intentional—it is also frequently the elephant in the room that conservationists need to understand and address.

How PEA can help

Tackling harmful vested interests (those ways in which groups and people benefit from damage to the natural environment) and corruption (the abuse of power for private gain) requires us to understand who has power and how they are using it.

That’s why WWF and others are increasingly turning to and championing the use of political economy analysis—or PEA—across the conservation community. PEA is all about power: who has it, how and why they use it, and with that, how change happens. And there are two big reasons why we use it. 

PEA Sidebar

Firstly, by understanding and engaging in power dynamics, we can be more effective. We see the profound impacts of vested interests on people and nature. Unless we tackle these, we will struggle to prevent injustice and environmental harm. Understanding power dynamics can help us uncover the root causes of the problems we are trying to address and find ways to work with political realities to effect change. 

Secondly, good intentions are not enough. For anyone with a humanitarian background, this adage will not be new. Nearly 40 years ago, Live Aid galvanised over £50 million in famine relief for Ethiopia, only for funding to become enmeshed in controversy over claims that its efforts inadvertently prolonged war and suffering in Ethiopia. Humanitarianism’s long struggle to balance a neutral, impartial mandate whilst working in highly politicised environments has given rise to the principle of Do No Harm, committing aid groups to preventing and mitigating negative impacts of their actions on people where they work. 

A similar challenge faces the conservation community. As conservationists, we operate in political contexts, both in the countries where we work and in our own daily lives, and we bring resources, influence, and power to the places where we engage. In complex, political environments, efforts to prevent and address climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental injustice can sometimes risk unintended consequences.

For instance, conservation efforts undertaken without understanding the political economy context may exacerbate inequalities. In addressing biodiversity loss and climate change, we must be alert to these risks and plan interventions that avoid and mitigate them. This can help ensure that conservation contributes to better governance and more equitable outcomes, benefiting those who live in and around biodiversity-rich areas.

PEA allows us to pay explicit attention to these kinds of risks, unpack how our work might have unforeseen impacts, take more informed decisions about where and how we work, and make conscious choices about the balance of risks. See the scenario below for an illustration of how PEA can work.

PEA Scenario: What is the impact?

The scenario: A conservation Theory of Change identifies a problem in a landscape as being ‘a lack of citizen engagement in decisions around forested land conversion.’ The project produces an impact statement describing the desired outcome: ‘Citizen voice is included in decisions around forest use management.’ When the project starts, more citizens do get involved, but conversion of forested land accelerates because high-level officials are getting kickbacks for granting concessions. The initiative has inadvertently exposed citizen groups to new, unintended risks related to bribery and safety.

How can PEA help? PEA allows the team to see that exclusionary processes are just one of a range of drivers of land conversion, and the team adjusts the impact statement to ‘slowing unsustainable conversion of forested land in this area.’ This frees the team to work on other facets of the problem and to modify how they address exclusion to mitigate risk to partners.


Getting started with PEA

PEA imagePhoto: WWF/Basel Institute on Governance

The great news is that there are a growing number of resources available to conservationists who want to understand and apply PEA. WWF has produced a framework for Political Economy Analysis for Conservation Practice and this month, together with the Basel Institute on Governance under the Tackling Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project, has published a six-step guide (see summary diagram above) on using PEA in developing and adapting conservation theories of change. The Policy Practice has also started a regular series of short courses on PEA for climate action. And last year, WWF, alongside Transparency International, the Basel Institute on Governance and TRAFFIC launched the Countering Environmental Corruption Practitioners Forum. This network of 500+ conservationists and governance experts is open to all, and offers a place to collaborate and get support in tackling these tricky challenges.

Share your challenges 

In conservation, we often shy away from power and politics, but they aren’t inherently ‘bad’ or problematic. They exist everywhere we work, and they are instrumental both in blocking and shaping positive change. PEA can help us understand and harness them for greater impact.

Many conservationists are embracing PEA enthusiastically but conducting and applying it can be daunting. We need more exchange, more learning, and more examples, so do reach out to share your work and your challenges.

For more information, please contact Micol Martini on For a short introductory online course on corruption and natural resources, visit the TNRC site here. And please register here for a TNRC webinar on 18 December, 09.00 EST/14.00 GMT on how conservationists can use PEA.


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