Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Valentina Dinica weighs the balance between business and conservation responsibilities

Is it realistic to expect all businesses operating in national parks and other public conservation lands to provide voluntary services to the Department of Conservation (DoC) as a substitute for sufficient government resources to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystems?

Since 2009, governments have been pursuing major policy and organisational changes guided by two related objectives.

The first is to increase access to conservation land by tourism businesses and non-commercial recreation activities. Bringing more people and businesses in contact with nature is assumed to make them more willing to volunteer labour and equipment, donate and offer corporate sponsorships towards the second objective: bio-environmental ‘gains’.

DoC never specified how these would be measured but they are expected to be achieved through conservation work, ecosystem restoration and/or visitor infrastructure maintenance, while shifting DoC’s role from leader to facilitator of services.

The latter objective is being pursued more widely, at societal level, through a partnership strategy. DoC’s vision is for all public conservation land concessionaires to have ecosystem restoration as part of their business models by 2050–2065 and to be able to carry out conservation work independently.

A Victoria University of Wellington research project challenged the assumptions behind this strategy, testing its feasibility with a diverse sample of 16 tourism concessionaires across many conservation lands.

It may seem reasonable to expect all concessionaires to contribute to restoring environmental quality on lands they profit from. However, institutionalising volunteering or donations and sponsorships across this group may in fact lead to overall inferior environmental outcomes. It could be socio-economically harmful too.

In New Zealand, concessionaires are predominantly operator-owned small-to-medium size (SMS) companies. While there are also some large corporations, many operators employ fewer than 10 staff and struggle with low profit margins.

The SMS concessionaires we interviewed fear that spikes in concession fees, which have increased by 23 percent in recent years, combined with increased competition from commercialising conservation land, may force them out of business.

Only voluntary labour and equipment may be an option for some of them, but this still “feels like an in-kind charge”. It “takes away the feel-good of volunteering”, especially when institutionalised objectives are envisaged, such as targets and time-consuming auditing processes.

Concessionaires are concerned about many resource- and knowledge-related obstacles. Often, sites in need of conservation are in remote locations. Transport and accommodation options are limited and expensive. Staff and equipment would be available in bad weather when visitor numbers are low, but voluntary work would be harder and more dangerous then.

DoC does not plan to cover concessionaires’ costs for certification and drug and alcohol testing, needed to carry out particular conservation and infrastructural work, or costs related to health and safety insurance. Concessionaires can only access DoC funds when partnering with ‘communities’. They are frustrated that DoC already taps into the small financial pools of the few donors and sponsors available regionally and nationally for conservation partnerships.

Concessionaires are concerned the limited activity they can do would likely have very little environmental effect. Many projects are technically complex, needing long-time perspectives and DoC leadership. As one operator put it: “Businesses may support DOC, but not the other way around. This is an ill-conceived idea.”

Concessionaires may volunteer out of fear they will be “kicked out of parks” when their concessions are up for renewal. But they are generally not keen to receive training for skills irrelevant to their products and services.

They are disappointed with DoC’s weak sustainability and its neoliberal discourses on the value of conservation, which “negatively affects DoC branding”.

DoC’s strategy naïvely relies on communication: selling to concessionaires the ‘conservation win-win story’ that ecological quality contributes to their success.

The strategy ignores planning and regulatory constraints. Concession and PCL management plans can, and often do, impose many restrictions (e.g. zones that can be accessed or not, group sizes and operating times, bio-environmental requirements, safety equipment, insurance and training conditions). Regulations often affect the financial viability of SMS concessionaires. This is in addition to the impact of the concession fees they pay, which vary wildly between 1.8 and 7.5 percent, tending to be smaller for long-established large businesses.

The risk DoC’s strategy poses is that, especially when financial pressures are high, concessionaires tend to seek compensation, despite appeals to corporate responsibility and sustainability.

Evidence collected during research reveals some concessionaires expect direct benefits from volunteering, donations and sponsorships, such as reduced fees, lower or fewer environmental requirements in contracts and access to areas currently not zoned for tourism.

There are good-faith businesses that have been volunteering for a long time both within and outside public conservation lands. Others will join their ranks. But if more and longer concessions are issued, bringing in larger numbers of visitors, if the areas zoned for tourism expand, and if concession contracts are redesigned with lower environmental prescriptions, how likely is it that partnerships with concessionaires will result in net biodiversity and ecosystem benefits?

The findings of this research are presented in a chapter of the recently published book Associate Professor Valentina Dinica co-edited, Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility in Tourism: A Transformative Concept (Springer).

Valentina Dinica is an Associate Professor in Public Policy and Sustainability in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington.

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