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The “Why?” Tree: A New Approach for Community-based Conservation

January 30, 2012

By Matt Artz

“Mommy, why is the sky blue?”

“Daddy, where does rain come from?”

Why do children repeatedly ask “Why?”

And why do parents often have such a difficult time answering these questions?

When children ask “Why?” they are seeking two things: knowledge of their environment, and engagement with those around them.  Repeatedly asking “Why?” is a method of getting to the roots of something.  It is a strategy perfected by those who are young, but can also be used by adults. And it can be an important component in a community-based approach to conservation.

Actively engaging with the local community gives us a chance to step into their world. In a community-based conservation approach, we ask “Why?” as a way to engage in a meaningful dialog and develop solutions that have a better chance of working. It is answers to the most basic, oft overlooked questions that can be most enlightening.  And as outsiders, these are questions we need to not just ask the local community, but also to ask ourselves.

The “Why?” Tree

When confronted with a complex conservation problem, what should we do?  Using traditional conservation approaches, we typically would preserve habitat through setting aside protected areas; protect the species through legislation and enforcement; and educate people about the importance of the species to global biodiversity.  But what we have started to see in many areas of the world is that these actions are not enough.

In a community-based conservation approach, we repeatedly ask “Why?” of both ourselves and of the community, reducing the problem down until it can no longer be reduced. We find that successful solutions to many conservation problems requires going much deeper than traditional acts such as establishing geographic boundaries and instituting legal protection.

As a problem-solving technique, repeatedly asking “Why?” until you get to the root causes of the problem leads to more workable solutions.  Using this method, we can quickly and accurately reduce the larger conservation problem down to a number of highly-focused, actionable issues.

Take deforestation, for example.  Traditional conservation efforts aimed at preserving forests prescribe land protection, policymaking, and enforcement.  While those actions are certainly necessary, they often miss the opportunity to correct the primary causes of deforestation. It is very similar to a dilemma we see in modern medicine: the tendency to treat symptoms with prescription medication, rather than to dig deeper and identify then cure the actual disease.

With the “Why?” Tree approach, we want to cure Mother Earth’s disease, not simply prescribe medication to mask the symptoms.  By asking “Why?”—most importantly, to members of the affected community—we can deduce the problem down to a handful of root causes.  Then, working closely with the community, we can develop solutions to those problems.  In this way, what often starts as a “conservation” issue quickly gets resolved down to a series of “community” issues.  Deforestation needs solutions not just in the forestry realm, but also spanning community development, agriculture, and other areas.

Asking “Why?”

As adults, we often run on assumptions and take many things for granted.  We love looking at a beautiful blue sky, but don’t often think about why it is blue.  And we simply enjoy a rainy day, without ruminating on the physical processes which cause it to rain.

Asking “Why?” is an admission that we don’t know something, which can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. But children are not afraid to ask “Why?” This is a big part of how children learn about the world around them.  If we adults took the time to ask “Why?” more often, maybe we would learn something and be more in tune with our surroundings.

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