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ASU professor earns MacArthur Foundation grant

February 14, 2007
Researchers in the Amazon Basin are excited by the possibility of finding new drugs that can be extracted from standing forests. But many people who live there want to use the land to grow food. Conservationists fear the consequences of the loss of forest habitat for endangered species.

This type of tug-of-war is repeated daily, around the world, in every country, and not enough research has been done on ways to balance the “twin goals” of conservation and human development.

Now, thanks to a $4.3 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a global team of researchers – which includes Ann Kinzig, ASU associate professor of Life Sciences, as a core member – will address the question of how to assess the benefits of conservation and weigh those against other potential uses of the landscape.

The grant, “Advancing Conservation in a Social Context,” is one of the largest the MacArthur Foundation ever has awarded to a public university, and it will have its administrative home in the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

Kinzig and the other participants have just completed an 18-month planning process to map out the longer-term interdisciplinary program of research to “advance conservation in a social context.”

The research will be carried out on two levels, nationally and globally, Kinzig says.

“The national case studies – which include Peru, Tanzania and Vietnam – ­will allow researchers to study how the trade-offs between conservation and development depend on specific ecological, economic, political and social contexts,” she says. “At the same time, we will launch a program of global study that will seek to extend and generalize the insights from the case studies.”

Kinzig became involved when the MacArthur Foundation, which has a long record of supporting conservation research, invited a group of people to Chicago more than two years ago “to advise the foundation on how it might launch a program in this area,” she says.

“That led the foundation to convene a core planning team of about half a dozen people, and ASU was chosen to be the host institution for the planning grant,” Kinzig says.

The project has a far-flung staff besides Kinzig. Tom McShane, a part-time ASU employee and a part-time adviser to World Wildlife Federation (WWF) International who resides in Switzerland, leads the overall effort.

Other team members are Sheila O'Connor, a part-time ASU employee who also is director of conservation measures for the WWF International and lives in England; Peter Brosius, a professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia-Athens; and representatives from each of the three partner countries: Manuel Pulgar-Vidal and Bruno Monteferri from Peru, Peter Coppolillo and Alex Songorwa of Tanzania, and Hoang Van Thang and Nghiem Phuong Tuyen from Vietnam.

“Ultimately, conservation does benefit many people,” Kinzig says. “The question is, what is the right balance between conservation and other human uses of the environment? This isn't just a question of what happens in the tropical rainforest. We face the same issues here in the Sonoran desert, where urban growth affects the desert's capacity to deliver many amenities to local residents.

“We need to balance what we want from our economy, our homes and communities, and our ecosystems. Sometimes conservation will make sense, and other times it won't. We often have to forego the conservation of environmental resources to get other things we might want, but we should never do so lightly. In many cases, we do need to maintain the biodiversity that ultimately supports human well-being, and is a source of spiritual and moral value.

“There's no easy answer for where, and how much, to conserve. It depends on what people value.”

In the past, Kinzig says, “conservationists haven't always been good at either recognizing trade-offs between conservation and other activities, or negotiating those trade-offs. What happens, for example, if conservation is beneficial at the global level, or in the future, but the costs are borne by local people today? This research will increase the capacity of conservation actors to recognize those conservation efforts that are the most beneficial, and then to figure out how to make them happen in a world where the people who carry the costs of conservation are not always the same as the people who reap the benefits.”