Conservation and Society

: 2015  |  Volume : 13  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 221--231

Building Participation in Large-scale Conservation: Lessons from Belize and Panama

Jesse Guite Hastings 
 Current affiliation: Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Singapore; Research carried out at: Duke University Marine Lab, Beaufort, NC, USA

Correspondence Address:
Jesse Guite Hastings
Current affiliation: Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Singapore; Research carried out at: Duke University Marine Lab, Beaufort, NC, USA


Motivated by biogeography and a desire for alignment with the funding priorities of donors, the twenty-first century has seen big international NGOs shifting towards a large-scale conservation approach. This shift has meant that even before stakeholders at the national and local scale are involved, conservation programmes often have their objectives defined and funding allocated. This paper uses the experiences of Conservation International«SQ»s Marine Management Area Science (MMAS) programme in Belize and Panama to explore how to build participation at the national and local scale while working within the bounds of the current conservation paradigm. Qualitative data about MMAS was gathered through a multi-sited ethnographic research process, utilising document review, direct observation, and semi-structured interviews with 82 informants in Belize, Panama, and the United States of America. Results indicate that while a large-scale approach to conservation disadvantages early national and local stakeholder participation, this effect can be mediated through focusing engagement efforts, paying attention to context, building horizontal and vertical partnerships, and using deliberative processes that promote learning. While explicit consideration of geopolitics and local complexity alongside biogeography in the planning phase of a large-scale conservation programme is ideal, actions taken by programme managers during implementation can still have a substantial impact on conservation outcomes.

How to cite this article:
Hastings JG. Building Participation in Large-scale Conservation: Lessons from Belize and Panama.Conservat Soc 2015;13:221-231

How to cite this URL:
Hastings JG. Building Participation in Large-scale Conservation: Lessons from Belize and Panama. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2015 [cited 2020 Jul 10 ];13:221-231
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Big international non-governmental organisations (BINGOs) are now major players in environmental science and conservation. The turn of the twenty-first century brought a shift by many BINGOs to working at larger scales (Olson and Dinerstein 1998; Olson et al. 2001; Pressey and Bottrill 2009), supported by biogeographical theory and data-hungry computer-based tools and models (Margules and Pressey 2000; Groves et al. 2002; Whittaker et al. 2005).

The rise of this large-scale conservation approach came about due to several factors. A perceived failure of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) of the 1980s and 1990s encouraged conservation biologists and ecologists, influential in many BINGOs, to look for alternatives (Wilshusen et al. 2002; Brosius and Russell 2003). An increased emphasis on biogeography in conservation planning offered that alternative, where representativeness was prioritised and ecosystems and species conserved across their 'natural' scales instead of those delineated by political, economic, or cultural boundaries (Whittaker et al. 2005). Donors, such as private foundations and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), opened new flows of conservation investment and necessitated BINGOs' attentions to their priorities, which were also increasingly oriented towards investment at large scales where there would be the biggest ecological impact (Brooks et al. 2006).

This paper analyses the experiences of Conservation International's (CI) Marine Management Area Science (MMAS) programme in Belize and Panama from 2005 to 2010. MMAS was a USD 12.5-million marine science and conservation programme funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF). Belize and Panama were two of the four main sites of the programme, the other two being Fiji and Brazil. Key to the programme's strategy was working across sites and disciplines, and linking scientists from (mainly) North American universities to local scientists at programme sites in the global South. Over 50 studies on marine protected areas (MPAs) were conducted at all four sites, of which 19 were conducted in Belize and Panama.

Through analysing MMAS, this paper aims to achieve two objectives. First, it aims to reveal how large-scale conservation programme objectives are negotiated between BINGOs and donors early on. As a programme run by a major conservation NGO and funded by a prominent conservation foundation, MMAS can be seen as somewhat illustrative of the general move towards large-scale programmes in the conservation landscape. Despite widespread anecdotal knowledge held by many within the conservation community about how these negotiations are done, few have studied the process using ethnographic methods. Rather, existing conservation evaluation strives towards rapid assessment, and does not focus on the entire design-implementation-learning process (Stem et al. 2005). Qualitative, in-depth ethnographic analysis of MMAS' design processes provides both the 'how' and the 'why', and gives a unique view into the workings of BINGOs (Peterson et al. 2010).

Second, through comparing the processes and outcomes of MMAS in Belize and Panama, this paper aims to develop insights into how to build participation at the national and local scales while working within the boundaries of the current large-scale conservation paradigm. A cross-case comparison allows a consideration of context and illustrates how the nature of the implementation can make the crucial difference in participation building. Simply educating national and local stakeholders to with a view to get them on board a pre-ordained agenda does not constitute true participation (Farrell and Jager 2006). Participation must involve dialogue, stakeholder engagement, and integration of knowledge and values (Berkes et al. 2000; Brown 2003; Shackeroff and Campbell 2007; Reed 2008). Insights seek to inform conservation practice, provide lessons for programme managers, and add to literature in anthropology, political ecology, and conservation policy studies (Brosius and Russell 2003; Chapin 2004; Brosius 2010; Brosius and Hitchner 2010; Peterson et al. 2010).

Literature review

BINGOs are now major players in environmental science and conservation, working at and across the local, national, regional, and global scales, to pursue their objectives (Princen et al. 1994; McCarthy 2005). BINGOs now influence the negotiation processes and outcomes of environmental conventions (Gemmill and Bamidele-Izu 2002; Betsill and Corell 2008), provide conservation management services (Derman 1995; Avant 2004), build technical and scientific capacity (Rodriguez et al. 2005), and link scales through advocacy campaigns and partnership networks (Arts 2004; Duffy 2011), among other activities. In the 1990s and early 2000s, some BINGOs conspicuously shifted towards large-scale (national, transboundary, regional or even global) approaches (Buscher and Whande 2007). These approaches are characterised by systematic planning (Margules and Pressey 2000) and supported by biogeographical theory (Whittaker et al. 2005). The world is now divided into 'hotspots', 'ecoregions', 'landscapes', 'seascapes', and other BINGO-created planning units thought to better manage and conserve ecosystems with 'natural' borders in mind (Olson and Dinerstein 1998; Pressey and Bottrill 2009).

This shift to large-scale approaches was influenced by at least two factors. First, biogeographical theory was embraced as the designator of conservation priorities, after the perceived failure of community-based conservation and/or ICDPs of the 1980s and 1990s (Wilshusen et al. 2002; Brosius and Russell 2003). ICDPs were a dominant conservation model funded by the GEF and the World Bank during these decades (Wells et al. 1992; Berkes 2007). As perceived failures of ICDPs had mounted, there was a growing perception among conservation biologists and ecologists, influential in many BINGOs, that biodiversity conservation and development were simply less compatible than thought (Robinson 1993; Terborgh 1999). The ability to analyse large datasets, develop sophisticated models, and utilise computer-based technologies such as GIS and Marxan allowed conservation planners the skill and confidence to identify conservation priorities at a regional or even global scale, as well as resolve the socioeconomic and ecological impacts of past conservation efforts (Myers et al. 2000; Brosius and Russell 2003; Redford et al. 2003; Turner et al. 2007). Second, new conservation funding flows from the World Bank, the GEF, and private foundations caused BINGOs to realign their priorities with those of donors so as to capture these flows (Dalton 2000; Myers and Mittermeier 2003). Donors prioritised large-scale approaches in locations where the return on investment, biologically speaking, seemed to be the greatest, and the BINGOs followed suit (Brooks et al. 2006).

Millions or even billions of dollars were at stake. For example, the GEF had a total of USD 2.8 billion in direct biodiversity investments between 1991 and 2010 (Global Environmental Facility 2010). The World Bank Group had a total biodiversity portfolio of USD 6.2 billion between 1988 and 2008 (World Bank 2008). Private foundations played a growing role in funding BINGOs and the conservation science they conducted (Bakker et al. 2010); in 2005, private foundations within the consultative group on biodiversity fund spent USD 340 million on conservation activities (Zavaleta et al. 2008). In an age of static or declining state funding for conservation, some scientists and practitioners may have seen this funding as professionally irresponsible to ignore.

BINGOs aligning priorities with donors most clearly has influenced what programmes are even imagined, with BINGOs orienting their programmes to retain current and (projected) future donor interest (AbouAssi 2012). Perhaps more relevant to programme implementation, however, is how upwards accountability towards donors (Wunder et al. 2008) has meant that programme objectives can be conceived and funding allocated before stakeholders at the national and local scales are even involved. Literature from anthropology, political ecology, and conservation policy studies has shown that valuing donor objectives over those of national and local actors can reduce interest in building downwards accountability (Wapner 2002) and thus promote exclusion of country representatives from participation in conservation programme design discussions (Novellino and Dressler 2009). This is a problem because objectives across scales may not be the same-donors and BINGOs may prioritise ecological impacts, value for money, and short-term measurable results . Participation must integrate the knowledge and values of different stakeholder groups; it should not be coercive or mere window-dressing (Brown 2003). Communities, national and sub-national governmental agencies, and NGOs and research institutions from the global South are part of social-ecological systems and thus impact the success of programme implementation through their actions (Berkes 2007; Kainer et al. 2009).

Background of MMAS in Belize and Panama

MMAS (implemented by CI, and funded by the GBMF with a USD 12.5 million dollar grant) had three goals-to conduct rigorous, peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary MPA science at multiple comparative sites, to build local capacity in both scientific research and conservation implementation, and to translate scientific findings into concrete management and policy changes. MMAS in Panama and Belize were two of the four main sites, the other two being Fiji and Brazil, whose processes are detailed in other literature (Hastings 2011; Hastings et al. 2012). Over 50 separate studies exploring ecological and social impacts of MPAs were conducted at the four main sites and worldwide. Of the 50 studies, there were 12 studies in Belize and 7 studies in Panama.

In Panama, MMAS studies focused particularly on work in Coiba National Park (CNP) and an adjacent marine and terrestrial buffer zone ([Figure 1]). CNP in the Gulf of Chiriqui is made up of 38 islands and is characterised by contrasting warm and cold ocean currents which make the area nutrient rich. The waters have a high concentration of soft and hard corals, rays, turtles, and numerous species of finfish, lobsters, oysters, and other invertebrates, while the islands possess high terrestrial biodiversity, including over 2000 species of vascular plants (UNEP-WCMC 2011). The government entities Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM; Panama's National Environmental Authority) and Autoridad de los Recursos Acuáticos de Panamá (ARAP; Panama's Aquatic Resources Authority) to manage the park and the associated buffer zone, while several NGOs such as Fundación MarViva Panamá and Asociación Nacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (ANCON) are involved heavily in Coiba's governance. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and the University of Panama, both based in Panama City, are key academic players in CNP research. The MMAS work at CNP was integrated into CI's work in the 'Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape' (ETPS), a 2-million sq. km CI-designated site which includes marine regions of Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama. {Figure 1}

In Belize, MMAS focused on multiple areas inside and outside of the country's system of MPAs spanning the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef system ([Figure 2]). The Belizean section of the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef System covers 1400 sq. km, and is critical to the country's food, income, and tourism opportunities (McField and Bood 2007). There are 18 MPAs in Belize's coastal zone, covering 22% of its atolls and continental shelf (McField and Bood 2007). Belize's research infrastructure is poor; there is little financial or institutional support for in-country environmental research programmes (Young 2008). Government agencies such as the Department of Fisheries are strapped for funds and personnel. Therefore, Belize relies heavily on NGOs, external donors, and external agencies to provide marine management and research capacity. {Figure 2}

 Materials and Methods

As part of his doctoral research, the author studied the processes and outcomes of MMAS at all four sites. Research on MMAS used a multi-sited ethnographic approach (Marcus 1995; Markowitz 2001). It was not oriented as a traditional anthropological project where extended time in the community was emphasised (Wallace 1972). Qualitative methods such as document review, meeting observation, and semi-structured interviews across administrative and implementation sites in the United States of America, Belize, and Panama were used to acquire ethnographic knowledge of a complex, multi-country programme (Geertz 1973). Document review preceded and took place simultaneously with on-site data gathering; it included analysis of materials such as programme budgets and timelines, internal memos, implementation matrices, meeting minutes, programmatic models, e-mails, scientific design proposals, and workplans. Selected documents were provided by informants at CI while others were collected through a detailed objective sweep of all accessible internal and external programme materials.

Meeting observations and semi-structured interviews with key informants allowed a deep understanding of programme design, including giving a detailed look into CI-GBMF discussions and internal CI debate. A two-phased field research design provided opportunities to build informant rapport, comprehend programme changes, and follow-up on emerging research themes. The first phase of field research was conducted from May to August 2009 and the second phase was conducted from April to June 2010, with meetings being observed and interviews conducted at CI's headquarters in Arlington, VA, USA, and at various sites around Belize and Panama. In Belize, field research took place in Belize City, Punta Gorda, Placencia, and Belmopan. In Panama, field research took place in Panama City, Santiago, Remedios, Montijo, and Puerto Muertis.

Key informants were initially selected based on suggestions from CI employees, but subsequently broadly expanded based on peer-referral and affiliation to MMAS processes and outcomes. Of the approximately 150 key informants interviewed about MMAS across all four programme sites, 82 key informants in the United States of America, Belize, and Panama were relevant to this paper. Care was taken to interview a representative cross-section of relevant stakeholders in and outside CI, the GBMF, the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), as well as representatives from government, academia, NGOs, and communities at different sites. Interviews in the United States of America, Belize, and Panama City were largely conducted in English, while those at other sites in Panama were conducted in Spanish. Questions were guided by a semi-structured interview protocol designed to uncover perspectives on the entire MMAS planning-implementation-results process.

With informed consent, the author either recorded or took detailed notes on the interviews. Interviews lasted between 30 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the informant affiliation. Informants were able to request confidentiality or anonymity if they wished. Following transcription, interview text was coded using computer assisted qualitative data analysis software, NVivo 8. Coding was meant to draw out emergent themes, meanings, and ethnographic understanding; hence, the strategy used was that of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Strauss and Corbin 1990). Emergent themes and their connections were developed into the conclusions presented in this paper.

Field research for this paper and broader work on MMAS emphasised principles of participant action research. Thus, research findings were not kept confidential from CI (although respondents' specific identities were) but rather fed back into an iterative process of learning through preliminary reports, in-person meetings, ongoing discussions, node reports, and final workshops. Rigor of analysis and scientific conclusions was protected through a memorandum of understanding which detailed research procedures and ensured researcher control over data and publications. The author had no role in the implementation of any CI programmes (for more information, see Hastings 2012).


MMAS beginnings

In 2003, the GBMF funded a conference in Los Cabos, Mexico, called Defying Ocean's End (DOE). The intention of the CI-organised conference was to produce an agenda to "to address the sharp decline in ocean wildlife, the disturbing increase in ocean pollution and the neglect of policies and resources to solve these problems" ( During the conference, the GBMF agreed to receive a proposal for a major marine initiative from CI. The proposal was originally conceived as a USD 22 million effort, focused entirely on whether no-take MPAs were making a difference ecologically.

An ecologist linked to CI took the lead role in writing the proposal. This individual worked collaboratively with people at CI and the GBMF to focus the scientific ideas and to ensure they were in line with shared goals. Outside the USA, CI staff from Brazil gave inputs. After intensive debate, the initial proposal was submitted to the GBMF at the end of 2003. Further conversation between CI and the GBMF led to additional proposal refinements and the amount reduced to USD 12.5 million.

The SAC was established in 2004-2005. The SAC consisted primarily of North-American scientists, and was intended to help further focus the MMAS proposal and guide development of specific studies. The SAC, in consultation with CI staff and the GBMF, determined MMAS' overarching scientific design. Further, using a selection process premised on biogeography, but also taking into account political stability, logistics, site capacity, anticipated site interest, existing infrastructure, and expected synergy with local partners, the committee selected the core MMAS sites over a period of 6 to 8 months in 2004-2005.

A desire to engage with potential sites and work their preferences into the grant was present among staff at CI and the GBMF, and members of the SAC. A high-visibility article in World Watch Magazine (Chapin 2004) which illustrated power imbalances in conservation prompted significant internal discussion and encouraged the GBMF to ensure that their initiatives were connected to 'on the ground' realities. Nevertheless, with the exception of Brazil, there was little ongoing communication with potential sites during the design process. Representatives from Belize and Panama were not included in early discussions. Rather, effort was expended on ensuring that the programme met the goals of CI and the GBMF, as well as reached internationally recognised standards of scientific credibility. It was felt by most that extensive partner consultations would be premature and perhaps even counterproductive, because donor discussions were still ongoing. A reluctance to raise early hopes and waste time at potential sites that may not be selected was also a key concern. A staff member at the GBMF spoke of some of the challenges in engaging local participants early:

… I am sure there could have been better efforts to engage nodes [participating field sites] at the start. I know that that is completely tricky, because you don't want to raise expectations that funding the resources are going to come into the region, and then not have it come through, because there are limited resources and another region was prioritized.

Interviews with the SAC revealed that an inability to engage with sites early inhibited scientific advising. The core idea behind the SAC was to bring multi-disciplinary experts together to give their advisory inputs, and to ensure scientific rigor and objectivity in MMAS planning. Valuable advisory inputs were received through one-on-one conversations between members of the SAC and members of the core MMAS team. However, some SAC members expressed frustration that due to timing of local and national partners coming online, they were unable to provide site-specific inputs. By the end of 2005, MMAS was brought to full staffing and its focus solidified on the three goals mentioned previously, namely, performing MPA science, building capacity at sites (with limited capacity building at CI), and engaging in 'science to action' efforts.

MMAS in Belize

Many MMAS studies started to roll out in Belize in 2005-2006. When MMAS entered Belize, the core MMAS team tried to recruit Belizean Principal Investigators (PIs) to lead studies, and travelled to the country on multiple occasions for discussions with individuals at selected Belizean organisations. The core MMAS team was very adamant that the science was to have applications to Belize's needs, and that local stakeholder groups, particularly senior scientists, should be involved to the extent possible. Meanwhile, foreign PIs for selected studies began their work at various MPAs throughout Belize.

Despite these outreach efforts, the core MMAS team found it difficult to fully engage the Belizean conservation community as the programme was being initiated. There were three main reasons for this. First, CI had no strong local partner. There was no Belizean organisation at that time which systematically linked and informed the wide range of NGO, government, and community stakeholders across the country. A part-time Belizean 'node coordinator'-intended to coordinate studies, connect with managers, and give inputs into the science-policy activities-was hired only in 2006, and thus was just beginning work during programme initiation. Second, working at multiple sites across Belize meant that many stakeholder groups were relevant and needed to be separately engaged, increasing the complexity of gaining stakeholder inputs. Third, Belize's scientific capacity was low-it did not have an extensive cadre of trained conservation scientists, and those who were trained were not available. As a result, foreign PIs ended up leading approximately two-thirds of all of Belize's studies. Foreign PIs were well-trained scientifically, but lacked extensive 'on the ground' networks in country that could be used to gain local inputs. Additionally, since foreign PIs lived out of the country, early attempts by PIs to build participation were dependent on short-term, sporadic visits.

In 2007, MMAS staff arranged a large 'science to action' workshop in Belize City. This workshop aimed to bring the Belizean conservation community up to date on the development of the studies, and engage this wider community in planning the science to action processes. The workshop engendered two responses. First, many were happy that CI was making a serious effect to link science to policy, a recognised area of weakness for conservation research in Belize. Secondly, many were surprised by the extent of MMAS' work in the country. Many Belizean stakeholders felt that their country had been subjected to many non-participative, 'fly-in, fly-out' scientists that worked in the country without an understanding of the context. Stakeholders saw MMAS as fitting into that mold; they felt that MMAS was attempting to post-facto devise applications for studies that had been designed between CI and the GBMF without sufficient coordination with, and inputs from, Belizean organisations. One result of this lack of buy-in was that several NGOs did not end up coordinating their MPA monitoring efforts with MMAS.

Belizean PIs were able to work with CI and customise study methods and design to ensure greater applicability to the Belizean scientific and conservation context. However, due to the lack of engagement at the start, there were some difficulties in coordinating efforts with the managers of the MPAs where the MMAS work was ongoing. Therefore, some Belizean PIs involved in MMAS mentioned that they found the workplan development process to be frustrating, believing that it would have been better to have had more local and national design inputs earlier on:

When project was first suggested, gut reaction was that it was impossible. I had concerns. One was when research project like this comes from external agency, there is not local ownership and buy-in. [In this case] it took 6-9 months to get local ownership and buy-in. People in Belize are skeptical of foreign research coming in… when there is NOT that preliminary stage of getting buy-in, it creates problems and makes people have to backtrack.

For the next 3 years, CI worked to complete the MMAS studies and move to a participatory science to action process. Core MMAS team members organised several visits to Belize and used these opportunities to hold meetings with managers in NGOs and the Department of Fisheries. Foreign PIs attempted to discuss the results during fieldwork, but had to balance time in meetings with time collecting data. A foreign PI discussed the challenges of this approach:

It is sort of the thing that you have to trade off your time allocation. In my case, if I am in country for so many days I have the choice of being in the field collecting data or on land talking about the data that was collected… it would have been better if I had had time, every time I was down there doing fieldwork, to do the rounds and expect to spend one day working with any manager or co-partner down there, to at least give them an opportunity to ask what is going on.

There existed few deliberative processes in Belize into which emerging MMAS results could be fed. The Association for Protected Area Management Organisation (APAMO)-an umbrella organisation focused on bringing together terrestrial and MPA managers across Belize-was established in 2007, but was focused on staffing and gearing up during early days. The Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMA/I), a coastal quasi-government management policymaking and research institution in Belize City, was traditionally a Belizean hub for collaboration, but it was shut down due to lack of funding from 2003 to 2008. The MesoAmerican Barrier Reef System Project (MBRS), another potential venue, was weak and under-resourced at the time. Furthermore, as the MMAS studies were distributed across Belize's entire MPA system instead of all at a single MPA, scientific efforts and inputs into management were diffused over a wide geographic area.

Crossing the science-policy interface in MMAS was premised around the node coordinator having the key role in building participation and local buy-in. In 2007 and 2008, the node coordinator was deeply involved in Belizean marine governance, sitting on the National Protected Areas Commission, acting as an advisor to the Belize Fishermen Cooperative Association, and professionally connected to high-level Belizean policymakers. During participation in these meetings, this individual was able to occasionally discuss results of the MMAS studies. As part-time staff, however, their effort was limited. Additionally, in 2009 the coordinator became occupied with running a private business and moved out of their role on councils and management boards. This meant that the MMAS did not have a strong partner during the key stage of science-policy translation.

Interviews in 2009 indicated that awareness of MMAS studies in Belize was low. Many informants interviewed knew little about the MMAS studies; some were unaware that they were even taking place. The Ecological Monitoring study was visible due to its capacity building efforts. The Department of Fisheries, which had required yearly permit applications from the PIs in order to continue their research, was able to stay informed about the MMAS progress. Other managers and policymakers in Belize, however, were generally unsatisfied with the level of information sharing about, and participation around, the studies during the design, implementation, and dissemination processes.

In partial response to a preliminary report on stakeholder perceptions passed along by this author, the core MMAS team made several shifts during 2009-2010. Responsibility for science to action work was shifted to another Belize-based coordinator. This individual began identifying relevant policy and management issues, distilling key scientific messages from the MMAS studies, promoting MMAS key messages through outreach materials, organising workshops with MPA managers to discuss applications, and holding one-on-one meetings with policymakers to insert results of MMAS studies into policy and management decisions. The MMAS team also set up two additional workshops in Belize City in February and April 2010, where the results of MMAS studies were disseminated to a large audience of government, NGO, and local community representatives.

By the end of 2010, MMAS had succeeded in having modest management and policy impacts. For example, the Ecological Monitoring study trained dozens of Belizeans in marine survey and statistical techniques, and several diving codes of conduct were strengthened through the incorporation of MMAS study data. MMAS contributed to the zoning for the South Water Caye Marine Reserve and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. Despite this, interviews in Belize in 2010 illustrated that MMAS's programme impacts had been somewhat handicapped 'out of the gate' by the inability to effectively build participation around the scientific projects as they were initiated and ongoing.

MMAS in Panama

In November 2005, the head of CI's ETPS programme met the MMAS director, and began talks about how MMAS could dovetail with CI's increased focus on the seascape. CI's ETPS programme had recently received significant funding from the Walton Foundation and UNESCO, and was looking at ways to build the ETPS science programme in concert with other donors. CI ETPS staff together with staff from the CI 'Meso Sur' programme based in Costa Rica (hereafter collectively called 'regional CI staff' or 'regional CI offices') were adamant that MMAS studies be adapted to the needs of Panama, and made cognizant of the management and policy-making cycles on the ground. The regional CI staff insisted that their offices be the first line of contact with local partners and that they would manage programme initiation in country. A regional CI employee:

[It] was very clear from the beginning to MMAS in Washington, saying that this is a project that we [regional CI offices] will manage. [We] will oversee every activity, and this will be the responsibility of their team, and CI Washington should interact with [us]… CI country or regional programmes are the ones that are accountable and liable to the governments and the agencies.

In 2006, regional CI offices, in consultation with the MMAS team in the United States of America, decided that CNP in Panama would be an ideal site for MMAS within the seascape. Two main factors encouraged its selection. First, CNP had regionally recognised biodiversity, had already been scientifically selected by regional CI offices as being a conservation priority, and was in the midst of drafting a management plan. Second, funding from Walton Foundation and UNESCO was already set aside for enabling deliberative processes during the creation of the management plan, and MMAS funding could complement these activities with science. Therefore, actual implementation in Panama was intentionally designed to connect what was happening systematically at a national and local scale, with the MMAS studies feeding into an ongoing, co-funded process.

STRI, an institution responsible for decades of USA-Panama scientific collaboration, had been previously conducting research in CNP, and had been contracted by the Panamanian government to oversee the drafting of the management plan. Regional CI staff partnered with STRI and asked it to take the lead in coordinating the suite of Panamanian MMAS studies. A STRI coordinator selected local PIs for many of the studies and ensured that the studies' final designs reflected the needs of CNP and the Panamanian scientific community. The conservation community in Panama was small but strong and deep, and the STRI coordinator was able to use their networks to recruit PIs from the University of Panama, the Alliance for Conservation and Development, the Conservation Strategy Fund, and other local Panamanian research institutions and NGOs. Many of these researchers had years of professional experience working in and around CNP. As a result, all of the Panama MMAS studies were led by local PIs.

Specifics of the communities studied, methodologies, and other design elements were open to adaptation by local PIs in concert with CI. Adapting the studies to local needs took many rounds of revisions and back and forth discussions between the MMAS team in the United States of America, the regional CI staff, STRI, and the PIs. A 2006 workshop in Santiago hosted by STRI and CI gave representatives of ANAM, the University of Panama, national NGOs, and local fishing and tourism groups an opportunity to provide inputs into the design of the studies. The reception of stakeholders to this workshop was excellent; there was a general level of excitement that their inputs were being sought.

Most of the Panama MMAS studies started data collection in 2007. As data collection continued and results started to come out, they were shared through several mechanisms. The small size of the Panamanian conservation community meant that MMAS PIs attended the same workshops and meetings, enabling frequent informal exchanges and discussions about emerging results. Additionally, the STRI coordinator and other PIs were involved in CNP's Scientific Council and Directive Council. The Scientific Council was designed to have a small group review and discuss science relevant to CNP; the Directive Council was a larger multi-stakeholder sharing network which enabled repeated communication, trust building, and learning across a diverse range of groups. Meetings were conducted every 2 to 3 months on average; there were a total of 30 meetings of the Directive Council between 2005 and 2009. Meetings brought in representatives of ANAM, ARAP, national NGOs, fishermen, tourism representatives, and mayors from the municipalities of Santiago.

Preliminary MMAS results were communicated to local communities through Directive Council representatives, and during select participatory workshops previously organised to get local inputs into the management plan. There were a total of 27 participatory workshops and a total of 1,000 community participants. Discussions of preliminary zoning, identification of information needs and priority sites, and definition of regulations and rules for artisanal and commercial fishing provided opportunities for solicitation of local knowledge while enabling the discussion of MMAS study data. MMAS PIs and STRI consultants felt that as the workshops continued, stakeholders started to feel like they had an adequate opportunity to participate and contribute their knowledge to the process. A Panamanian scientist shared:

First it was really aggressive, because they had been in many previous workshops and meetings with little or any benefits or been depressed by people. It took us a while to gain their trust and their confidence. Once they saw the process was clean, straightforward, and would really take into account the… they started to work with us. For example, with fishermen, we started with five or six fishermen per meeting. We ended with 100 or more fishermen per meeting, voting and taking decisions on this is going to be the regulations for the area.

Interviews with community fishermen representatives supported this claim. A representative of the Fishermen's Association in the community of Remedios voiced the dominant theme coming out of multiple fishermen interviews, when he said:

MarViva had workshops, ANAM had workshops, and the fishermen contributed their opinions about what should happen… It was more difficult at the beginning, and as the plan was explained it became a little bit better, not 75%, not 100%, or something like that, but maybe 25% better.

In 2008, MMAS hired a science to action coordinator from Panama City to develop scientific outreach materials. Outreach materials were the main way in which MMAS final results were presented to local groups, the media, and the general public. Production of the materials finished in mid-2010, and the coordinator subsequently organised an extensive campaign to distribute the materials and return scientific findings.

The main goal of the MMAS studies in Panama was to strengthen the CNP management plan. Interviews in 2009 and 2010 revealed that MMAS studies enabled a rigorous scientific baseline for the plan, and that the strengthened plan would guide how local, national, and even international groups interact with CNP in the future. MMAS studies contributed significantly to management and policy impacts around CNP. Results from the Fisheries Assessment, showing the importance of maintaining snapper reproductive stocks protected by no-take areas, and the Socioeconomic and Governance study, determining the areas and frequency of fishing activity, helped in convincing the Directive Council and local fishermen groups to collectively agree to a fishing no-take zone ringing Coiba. This no-take area was established by legal decree and is 20% of CNP. Besides the no-take zone, the studies, combined with local knowledge, contributed to decisions on resource management zones, absolute protection zones, primitive zones, cultural zones, natural recuperation zones, and special use zones.

Due to MMAS studies' participatory methods, findings also contributed to locally supported conservation and development decisions. For example, another fisheries assessment result showing that fishermen were catching sexually immature snapper catalysed local public support for shifting from small to medium hook sizes. Hook sizes were discussed during three fishermen workshops and two broader stakeholder workshops in 2008. Fishing associations made the decision to change hook sizes and encourage compliance of this change among their members. When the socio-economic and governance study showed that increased representation, coordination, and information exchange between groups connected to CNP was needed to effectively tackle projected Coiba's management obstacles, four sub-commissions of the Directive Council were created for discussion and action.


This paper offers perspective on how conservation programme priorities are negotiated between BINGOs and donors early on. Individuals from CI and the SAC worked with the GBMF to develop MMAS' overall scientific design. The early focus was fourfold-adding value to CI, aligning the programme with the GBMF's interests, determining core scientific questions, and meeting international standards of scientific credibility. Individuals at field sites, with the exception of Brazil, were not included in design discussions. Extensive partner consultations were seen as premature due to the donors' timeframes, and there was a related reluctance to engage when funding was not assured. Thus, MMAS (in regard to Belize and Panama) fell into the common pattern of, early on, prioritising the BINGO's and the donors' needs over those at the local and national scale (Benson 2012), and excluding their representatives from design discussions (Novellino and Dressler 2009).

This model reduced both scientific advice (i.e., the SAC could not advise on site issues) as well as national and local participation. The reaction of stakeholders in Belize at the 2007 workshop illustrated that there was a strong feeling of exclusion and lack of buy-in. While Belizean stakeholder groups did appreciate MMAS' desire for policy applications, they nonetheless resented being brought into the process late and being informed rather than consulted on programme objectives. The spillover effects of this lack of early participation were myriad-several NGOs in Belize ended up not coordinating their MPA monitoring efforts with MMAS, and there needed to be an extended period of time "massaging" managers and building buy-in later on.

While MMAS was not able to have early national and local engagement in either Belize or Panama, it was ultimately able to build strong stakeholder participation in Panama. Why Panama and not Belize? In other words, what lessons emerge from the differences in processes and outcomes between sites? Four recommendations, relevant to conservation managers who wish to build participation during programme implementation, arise: 1) focus engagement efforts, 2) realise that the site's historical and scientific context matters, 3) build horizontal and vertical partnerships, and 4) use deliberative processes that promote learning.

Focus engagement efforts

In Belize, the programme began working at multiple MPA sites across the entire MesoAmerican Barrier Reef System. Working at multiple sites may have been correct from a scientific perspective, but from a participation perspective it diminished the visibility of the work and made it more difficult to focus on priority stakeholder groups at each site. On the contrary, MMAS in Panama made the decision to focus on one site within the seascape-CNP. Instead of trying to address the issues of multiple MPAs and the needs of dozens of stakeholder groups, MMAS could easily identify the key players and connect to the ongoing CNP management plan creation process.

Focusing engagement efforts on one or a few sites is not an argument to return to local scale, ad-hoc conservation approaches of the past. Focused engagement can be done within large-scale conservation during implementation and may even lead to better chances of achieving biological and socio-economic programme objectives. For example, a ecosystem-based management conservation programme in Fiji funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation was envisioned at a large scale in 2004, intending to cover a 1.3 million sq. km ecoregion; local adaptation and understanding of needs during implementation led it to focus primarily on a 81 sq. km site in Kubalau and sites totaling 175 sq. km in Macuata (Hastings et al. 2012). Five years later, MPAs established in Kubalau with local and national inputs led to higher reef fish biomass and increased community livelihood opportunities (Jupiter and Egli 2011).

Realise that the site's historical and scientific context matters

Context was a lens through which MMAS' efforts were viewed. In Belize, MMAS entered a setting where local scientific capacity was low (Young 2008), and there was a history of non-collaborative research. There were early one-on-one discussions with select Belizean organisations to further develop the MMAS studies, and a strong effort to engage with the Belizean conservation community by the USA-based team. However, these discussions could not provide full information to the very broad swath of NGOs and other stakeholder groups in the country, and were viewed through a historical lens. In Panama, MMAS could tap into a deep pool of Panamanian scientists and benefit from existing scientific networks. It could also 'piggyback' on the respect held for STRI, an institution with a decades-long history of linking Panamanian and American scientific efforts.

As noted in the anthropological and political ecology literature, conservation programmes take place at sites with complicated histories and significant social, ecological, and cultural complexity (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Brechin et al. 2002; Brosius and Hitchner 2010). Closer attention to context and greater knowledge of complexity may help inform programme choices in site selection or stakeholder engagement. For example, when making country selection decisions in 2004-2005, the SAC (in consultation with CI and the GBMF) did attempt to judge site capacity and the desire of stakeholder groups for a partnership with MMAS. However, these judgments were based largely on personal perceptions and knowledge. Site assessments, carried out in a detailed and systematic way, would have helped illuminate context and may have indicated that siting MMAS in Belize could mean significant implementation challenges.

It is recognised that systematic site assessments take funds and (perhaps more importantly) time to implement, conflicting with the movement towards short donor timelines (Bottrill et al. 2011). It is also recognised that donors and BINGOs may want to work in particular countries for a variety of reasons including personal donor interest or biogeography (Myers et al. 2000). However, a site assessment which indicates challenges does not necessarily imply that the site must be abandoned. Rather, contextual information can be used to identify and address barriers to programme implementation early on. For example, findings suggesting limited scientific capacity and a history of non-collaborative research could mean that programme managers would need to push for longer internal timelines, an increased emphasis on stakeholder engagement and networking, and increased funds towards capacity building.

Build horizontal and vertical partnerships

Horizontal and vertical partnerships enable increased information flow, perspective exchange, and local adaptation (Berkes 2007). In Belize, there was no effective local partner through which to feed work. A part-time node coordinator was hired early in 2006, but this individual ended up not being as effective a partner as envisioned. Foreign PIs were well-trained scientifically and eager for local engagement. However, scientists could not be as effective as local partners because they lacked extensive in-country networks, and they had to trade off their in-country time between data collection and collaboration. In Panama, the first partnership created was between MMAS staff and regional CI offices. CI offices had an in-depth understanding of the political, economic, and conservation context, and ensured the studies quickly fed into ongoing conservation activities. Additional partnerships in Panama were created with many other organisations in the country. Local Panamanian PIs were able to adapt the MMAS studies to meet Panamanian research needs.

Partnerships are crucial to the success of any conservation effort. While it is certainly important to build networks of partners so as to connect scales (Arts 2004; Berkes 2007; Duffy 2011), in conservation programme implementation it is equally (if not more) important to focus energy on forming one or several partnerships that add significant value. As evidenced by MMAS in Belize and Panama, in-country partners with a deep understanding of local conditions, rich networks, and insights into ongoing conservation processes were able to assist in implementation activities more than foreign scientists who-while well-trained scientifically and eager for impact-have less of these strengths to leverage. Local partners are also more attuned to country-specific conservation priorities (Smith et al. 2009).

Use deliberative processes that promote learning

Deliberative processes enable learning across scales, and bring together groups united by common learning, practice, or domain interests (Berkes 2007). In Belize, while APAMO, MBRS, and/or the Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute may have been able to provide access to deliberative processes, the timing of these organisations being offline made that difficult. On the contrary, when MMAS rolled out in Panama, it was fed into the drafting of the CNP management plan, and designed to synthesise with funding from other international donors. Being inserted into CNP gave access to the Scientific Council and the Directive Council, which allowed representatives of the NGO, scientific, government, and community sectors to share MMAS data, meet repeatedly, and iteratively learn and reflect on the MMAS findings.

MMAS in Panama confirmed that use of deliberative processes during programme implementation helped to create respect, common ground, and trust, while contributing towards positive environmental conservation outcomes (Brown 2003; Reed 2008). Programme managers should consider expanding use of deliberative processes where they exist, and working with partners to create them where they do not. While creating deliberative processes from scratch can be complex and time consuming, they may pay for themselves by enabling a better reflection of national and local priorities in conservation design as well as implementation (Smith et al. 2009). In South Africa, deliberative processes bring together representatives from government, local and international conservation NGOs, academia, and the private sector. Deliberative processes have helped provide local partners with new contacts and technical skills while also identifying local conservation priorities, thus creating a roadmap for future conservation research salient to the country's needs (Smith et al. 2009).


This paper had two objectives-to give an insider look into how large-scale conservation programme objectives are negotiated between BINGOs and donors, and to offer insights into how to build participation-rich programme implementation while operating within current large-scale conservation paradigms. While this paper has focused on a marine-focused program run by CI and funded by the GBMF, insights are broadly applicable for a variety of conservation programmes.

Explicit consideration of geopolitics and local complexity alongside biogeography in the design phase of any conservation programme is ideal. However, design is not the end of the story-actions taken during programme implementation by programme managers can still have a substantial impact on positive conservation outcomes. For MMAS in both Panama and Belize, participation was disadvantaged early on by the need to create a programme that spoke first to the priorities of CI and the GBMF. However, in Panama it was ultimately able to substantially build trust and stakeholder confidence, while incorporating stakeholder inputs. MMAS in Panama illustrates that it is never too late to build 'people-centered conservation' (Brown 2003).


We would like to extend special thanks to the Duke Marine Lab, the Oak Foundation, the Duke Dissertation Travel Award, Conservation International, and dozens of informants in Belize, Panama, and the United States of America for making this research possible.[67]


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