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URPP Global Change and Biodiversity

From environmental conflict to congruence: Developing a relational values approach to align environmental values in conservation policy


Environmental conservation efforts are often based on either the intrinsic value of nature or of its instrumental use to humans. Yet neither of these approaches effectively captures a wide range of values that motivate many people to care for land, ecosystems and species. For many people, relationships with nature and with other people via nature better characterize how they value and view their biophysical environment. This research project seeks to elaborate a relational values approach to conservation. Interviews with farmers in the vicinity of the Swiss National Park along with philosophical analysis will serve to elaborate a typology of relational values and develop the conceptual foundations of this emerging research area.


From climate change to biodiversity loss, agriculture to forestry, urban to rural areas, more sustainable management of Earth’s life support systems is an urgent challenge. A host of policies, programs and movements seek to address these diverse challenges on local to global scales. Increasingly, conservation practitioners recognize that not only an understanding of the natural world, but also of the social world, is necessary for success. In particular, the conservation movement has shown great interest in the role of environmental values as motivators for everything from stewardship on private lands to voting behavior. Yet efforts to incorporate the role of environmental values into conservation policy and programs have often relied on an overly simplistic understanding of values. Debate has focused on intrinsic (nature for its own sake) versus instrumental (nature for people’s sake) motivations for conservation. Yet neither of these categories reflects the ways that many if not most people and cultures understand and value nature—in particular for many of the people most impacted by conservation efforts: resource producers (e.g., farmers, fisher and foresters), indigenous peoples (who often manage land of conservation value), and peoples in the Global South (who may be impacted by conservation projects).

This project is focused on conceptual, methodological and empirical research around a third category of values—relational values. Pertaining to the values of relationships between people and the natural world or between groups of people as facilitated by particular species, landscapes or ecosystems, a relational values approach seeks to understand environmental values in an inclusive way, reflective of diverse peoples and cultures.[1]

To this end, qualitative interviews are planned with agricultural producers in the Lower Engadine and Val Müstair. Swiss landscapes are multi-functional, providing a suite of cultural ecosystem services such as recreation, tourism, landscape aesthetics, and heritage alongside production of agricultural goods. In this study we focus on the relational values farmers have with managed and protected landscapes, building on Chapman’s previous research on farmers’ relational values.

This research is part of the interdisciplinary project, "People’s Place in Nature". The project started in August 2018. The project aims at developing a better understanding of the role of relations in people’s evaluation of nature and to develop an ethical argumentation for environmental responsibilities based on the relationship between people and nature around them.

This research is made possible by the NOMIS Foundation, URPP GCB, and UZH Forschungskredit.  

Research partners:

Biosphere Reserve Engiadina Val Müstair (including the Swiss National Park)

[1] Chan, K. M. A., Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., Chapman, M., Díaz, S., Gómez-Baggethun, E., et al. (2016). Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 113(6), 1462–1465.