Written by Sébastien Boillat, Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland

This blog post was written as part of a series of external contributions on topics related to telecoupling.

Biological diversity on the planet is declining fast. To curb this crisis, governments, associations and private foundations have joined forces to create vast networks of national parks on all continents. Nowadays, protected areas represent the largest category of land use globally. However, in developing countries, efforts to conserve biodiversity in many parks have not been effective and have often negatively affected poor and vulnerable populations, leading to resistance from and conflicts with these communities. Social equity is thus crucial in managing parks (Martin 2017). Having the poorest people affected by conservation so that affluent consumers can enjoy nature raises strong ethical concerns. How can we make nature conservation more just1 and ensure that the benefits and costs are equitably shared?

Looking at the Cochabamba valley from the Tunari National Park, Bolivia (Picture by Sébastien Boillat)

In our recent article (Boillat et al. 2018), we seek to understand in greater detail the mechanisms that lead to more or less just conservation by using an innovative approach: instead of considering protected areas as isolated spaces, we analysed them in relation to the globalized economy and the distant demands for natural resources.

We thus used the concept of “telecoupling” that focuses on how distant locations are connected to each other through flows of matter, species, people and ideas (Liu et al. 2013). Protected areas in developing countries are often “telecoupled” spaces: they can rely on international funding and technical advice; be visited by international tourists; and “local” use of natural resources can be tied to distant demand.

We investigated four national parks in Madagascar, Bolivia, Ethiopia and Ecuador, looking at flows that connect the parks to demands for conservation or extraction of natural resources. In parallel, we looked at indicators of equity, including the distribution of costs and benefits of each of these processes, the participation of actors in decision-making, and their mutual social recognition.

Walking along the beach in Masoala National Park, Madagascar (Picture by Gerhard Zähringer)

In all four cases, the parks relied on international funding and expertise, mainly from USA and Western Europe. They also faced pressure from the extraction of natural resources tied to Asian demand for timber and marine products, and to domestic demand for resources, such as water, fuelwood, and land for urban areas. We observed that these competing telecoupling processes can make visible the relations of power that are barriers for just conservation, and that these barriers exist at international, national and local levels.

Interactions between a guide, a tourist and a Galapagos land iguana in Galapagos National Park, Ecuador. (Picture by Jean-David Gerber)

One of these barriers is the prevalence of wilderness framings2 and negative narratives on traditional uses and practices, even when the relationship between traditional practices and biodiversity is not fully understood. These ideas were found at all levels including in international support to protected areas, national policies and local management. Consequently, the ecological knowledge of local communities tended to be neglected and a constructive dialogue between park management and local people could not take place.

Another barrier is the dependence of parks on international funding, which makes accountability difficult. It also makes the future of the parks uncertain. In all cases, international support was removed or reduced at some point in time, opening up opportunities for park encroachment and illegal extraction of resources. These processes were usually led by external actors who reaped large benefits, while those benefits that might arise for local communities were small and short-term. Furthermore, illegal extraction also had negative social consequences besides degrading the environment, such as increase in crime and social disruption.

Our research assessed how local communities can make conservation practices fairer while trapped in the cross-fire between conservation and extraction demands coming from distant places. Communities resisted inequitable conservation practices in all four cases, but were more likely to succeed when they targeted actors at different decision-making levels and in distant places.

We conclude that by identifying distant actors and decision-making processes, the concept of telecoupling can help to identify leverage points to make conservation more equitable. Nevertheless, to do this, the telecoupling framework needs to incorporate a justice perspective to account for power asymmetries and for desirable transformation options.


Boillat, Sébastien, Jean-David Gerber, Christoph Oberlack, Julie G. Zaehringer, Chinwe Ifejika Speranza, and Stephan Rist. 2018. “Distant Interactions, Power and Environmental Justice in Protected Area Governance: A Telecoupling Perspective.” Sustainability 10 (1): 3954.
Liu, Jianguo, Vanessa Hull, Mateus Batistella, Ruth DeFries, Thomas Dietz, Feng Fu, Thomas W. Hertel, et al. 2013. “Framing Sustainability in a Telecoupled World.” Ecology and Society 18 (2). https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-05873-180226.
Martin, Adrian. 2017. Just Conservation. Biodiversity, Well-Being and Sustainability. Oxford: Earthscan, Routledge.


1”Just” conservation refers to equity and fairness in conservation practices in a broad sense. It connects conservation issues with the environmental justice community by incorporating concerns for communities and non-humans, issues of power in global and cross-scale interactions, different dimensions of justice such as economic, political and cultural, and the actions of the global environmental justice movement. For more details see Martin (2017).

2In social sciences, framing refers to “a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies, organize, perceive, and communicate about reality” (Wikipedia entry on framing, accessed 4th April 2019). A “wilderness” framing refers to a narrative used by conservationists to “erase” the history of human settlements (often pre-colonial) in a place, and thereby justify interventions linked with conservation and tourism as legitimate (see DeLuca K, and Demo, A. 2001. Imagining Nature and Erasing Class and Race: Carleton Watkins, John Muir, and the Construction of Wilderness. Environmental History 6(4):541-560).

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