How Can Conservation Psychology Help Save the World?
A traveler's tale of conservation conversations in Mexico.
Posted Feb 11, 2020
On my trip bicycling through Mexico in 2019, I was once again reminded just how important psychology—the science of human behavior and decision-making—is for developing effective conservation programs. This statement might have you scratching your head but, allow me to share a story of yet another experience that reminded me that conservation psychology is, and will continue to be, essential for overcoming global environmental issues.
On our final day at Laguna Miramar in Chiapas, Mexico, I had an unfortunate encounter with food poisoning, locally known as Montezuma’s Revenge. The 7km hike in was worth the breathtaking views, but my untimely illness meant we had to hire a local man, Jose, to carry my belongings back to the village. Little did I know Jose would plant the seed for my doctoral research.
Dehydrated, exhausted, and weak, I dragged my ailing body back step-by-step. My boyfriend, Daniel, always eager to meet new people, chatted enthusiastically with Jose as I trudged along resting every few hundred meters. My ears perked up when Daniel began asking Jose about his land, work, and community.
I had recently learned about a new government initiative, which had piqued my interest, called “Sembrando Vida” (or “planting life”) to plant 1 million hectares of fruit, nut and timber trees across Mexico. I was eager to hear the opinions of the rural communities this program targeted as well as local perspectives on the new administration, conservation, and environmental governmental campaigns.
Though I barely had the energy to speak, let alone walk, this opportunity was too valuable to pass up. I signaled for a break, plopped myself down, and mustered my best Spanish to ask my burning questions.
I was so excited about this reforestation program. From an outside perspective, it seemed ideal. Participants in rural communities in Chiapas and Tabasco would receive 5,000 pesos a month to plant fruit and timber trees in an effort to support rural communities to reforest. I was naïve to think this program would excite rural Mexican communities and Jose outlined the many reasons why this program — just like the many before it — was not the solution for their community.
Jose was part of the Ejido Emiliano Zapato. Ejidos are communally owned land parcels stemming from a land reform program in 1934 that allocated land ownership to communities instead of individuals (Kosoy et al., 2008). Jose practiced traditional agriculture, called a milpa, where farmers intercrop corn, beans, and squash. Recently, however, Jose began growing and selling livestock. He realized that he could make much more money (up to 10,000 pesos a month) as a cattle rancher. Unlike traditional milpa agriculture which is relatively sustainable, cattle ranching is not. Forests are first burned then planted, and finally, grazed by cattle for a year or two until everything is trampled and a new plot is made.
My heart sank as he told me this. But really, I shouldn’t have been surprised. To an outsider, 4,500 pesos a month for reforestation sounded pretty good in a country with an average monthly income in rural communities of about 2,000 pesos. I thought this program was a step towards reforestation but, Jose gave me a reality check.
My attention to my ailing body faded as Jose explained the economic and social reasons why this program wasn’t of interest to him and his community:
- He can earn more grazing and selling livestock and beef.
- He didn’t want government oversight in his life.
- He didn’t trust government programs. They come and go. Why would he trade his long-term economic stability for conservation and short-term profits?
Though Jose’s financial circumstances are not representative of all rural residents,’ government distrust is seemingly pervasive. There really wasn’t much for me to contest. During my conversations with rural people throughout Southeastern Mexico, I heard about the general distrust and exhaustion of the ‘latest and greatest’ government program to solve rural poverty.
Questions began swirling in my mind:
- Did the program developers talk to rural communities about their needs, values, and concerns?
- Did they investigate how profitable cattle ranching was?
- Did they try to build relationships and trust to engage communities where reforestation was needed most?
Though I, nor Jose, had the answers to these questions, I am all too familiar with the lack of attention paid to psychology and behavioral antecedents (i.e., factors that culminate to influence behavior).
There is a burgeoning global reckoning that “conservation is primarily not about biology but about people and the choices they make” (Balmford and Cowling, 2006). As Schultz (2011) summarizes “conservation is a goal that can only be achieved by changing behavior” (pg. 1).
So what is conservation psychology and how can it help save the world?
Conservation Psychology is the “use of psychological techniques and research to understand and promote a healthy relationship between humans and the natural environment” (Clayton & Myers, 2011, pg. 2). Conservation psychology has two goals: (1) understanding human-nature relationships and (2) influencing pro-environmental behavior. It is applied and interdisciplinary, drawing from various disciplines of psychology (i.e., social, environmental, cognitive) as well as other social sciences such as sociology, human dimensions of natural resource management and human ecology (Clayton & Myers, 2011; Saunders, 2003).
Conservation psychologists are scientists asking questions and seeking answers to understand what drives people’s behaviors so that we can find win-win solutions to pressing conservation issues. Because ultimately, if we don’t understand people’s values, beliefs, needs, and aspirations, changing behavior will be difficult, if not impossible.
Through writing this blog, I hope to convey psychology’s importance for solving conservation issues through defining, explaining, and illustrating core concepts, theories, and tales of my life and travel adventures.
Behavior change is hard — for everyone. There is no way around that. Even our own behavior can be puzzling to us not to mention that of others. Therefore, understanding why we behave the way we do, and how psychologists, conservationists, and conservation psychologists can come together to more effectively and persuasively communicate environmental issues, can help us all move towards a more sustainable future.
 Wittily named for Montezuma, the last Aztec ruler before the empire was conquered by the Spanish. It is said that travelers getting food poisoning is “retribution” for the slaughter and enslavement of the Aztec people.
Kosoy, N., Corbera, E., & Brown, K. (2008). Participation in payments for ecosystem services: case studies from the Lacandon rainforest, Mexico. Geoforum, 39(6), 2073-2083.
Balmford, A., & Cowling, R. M. (2006). Fusion or failure? The future of conservation biology. Conservation biology, 20(3), 692-695.
Schultz, P. W. (2011). Conservation means behavior. Conservation biology, 25(6), 1080-1083.
Clayton, S., & Myers, G. (2015). Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature. John Wiley & Sons.
Saunders, C. D. (2003). The emerging field of conservation psychology. Human ecology review, 137-149.