Robust ways to meet objectives of environmental conservation and social and economic development remain elusive. This struggle may in part be related to insufficient understanding of the feedbacks between conservation initiatives and social-ecological systems, specifically, the ways in which conservation initiatives result in social changes that have secondary effects on the environments targeted by conservation. To explore this idea, we sampled peer-reviewed articles addressing the social and environmental dimensions of conservation and coded each paper according to its research focus and characterization of these feedbacks. The majority of articles in our sample focused either on the effect of conservation initiatives on people (e.g., relocation, employment) or the effect of people on the environment (e.g., fragmentation, conservation efficacy of traditional management systems). Few studies in our sample empirically addressed both the social dynamics resulting from conservation initiatives and subsequent environmental effects. In many cases, one was measured and the other was discussed anecdotally. Among the studies that describe feedbacks between social and environmental variables, there was more evidence of positive (amplifying) feedbacks between social and environmental outcomes (i.e., undesirable social outcomes yielded undesirable environmental effects and desirable social outcomes yielded desirable environmental effects). The major themes within the sampled literature include conflict between humans and wild animals, social movements, adaptive comanagement, loss of traditional management systems, traditional ecological knowledge, human displacement and risks to livelihoods, and conservation and development. The narratives associated with each theme can serve as hypotheses for facilitating further discussion about conservation issues and for catalyzing future studies of the feedbacks between conservation and social-ecological systems.
©2012 Society for Conservation Biology.