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Study delves into overlooked community perceptions of conservation impact

  • A new study measures the impacts of conservation projects on people’s lives by letting the people define what matters to them.
  • The study has adapted the Global Person Generated Index (GPGI), an index that has previously been used in the health sector to see what people consider important for their quality of life, and lets the people rate the performance of those domains.
  • The study found that overall, the local people were most commonly concerned with agriculture, health, livestock, education, jobs, and family-related activities, but more than 50 percent of the people who were interviewed said that the conservation projects had had no significant impacts on these aspects of their well-being.

Most conservation projects today must answer a key question: How does the project affect the local people? But high-quality studies that measure the impacts of conservation projects on people’s well-being remain few and far between.

Whatever rigorous research does exist tends to focus on a narrow range of economic indicators, such as household income or expenditure, serving as proxies for people’s well-being. But well-being can mean different things to different people. And indicators like income, while objective, may not capture aspects of well-being that are actually important to the people themselves, some conservationists argue. Instead, the conservationists have called for complementing the more objective methods with approaches that measure what the people think are important to them, because people’s perceptions of impacts can determine future support for conservation projects.

To that end, a new study published in World Development has found a novel way of measuring impacts on people’s lives, by letting them define what matters to them.

To see how a strictly protected area and community forest management in Madagascar are affecting people’s quality of life, Ranaivo Rasolofoson, currently a researcher at the University of Vermont, U.S., and colleagues adapted the Global Person Generated Index (GPGI), an index that has previously been used in the health sector to see what people consider important for their quality of life, and lets the people rate the performance of their self-chosen domains.

This is the first time the GPGI has been used to assess the social impacts of a nature conservation strategy, Rasolofoson said. “Well-being includes many things; from wealth and health, to family and culture. The GPGI captures these multiple dimensions, which is important to do because different individuals have different conceptualization of well-being, and a focus on one or two dimensions or indicators gives a very limited insight of what’s going on.”

Rasolofoson and his team interviewed people living in both Zahamena National Park and the Ambohilero community managed forests, and found that, overall, the local people were most commonly concerned with agriculture, health, livestock, education, jobs, and family-related activities.

The people reported both positive and negative impacts of conservation on these aspects of their well-being. However, more than 50 percent of the people said that the conservation projects had had no significant impact on the things that matter to them the most.

“If you think about it carefully, there’s an awful lot of things going on in people’s lives; there’s politics and family dynamics, for example,” said study co-author Julia P.G. Jones, professor of conservation science at the Bangor University, U.K. “And many of the things that people consider to be important for their well-being may have nothing to do with the conservation project.”

Most communities living in and around the Zahamena National Park and Ambohilero community managed forests in Madagascar are very poor. Photo by Julia P.G. Jones.

The use of the GPGI yielded some other surprises too. For instance, despite the common expectation that community forest management is better for local people than strict protection, the study found no difference between the overall impacts of the two interventions.

“This reflects that the rhetoric of community conservation often doesn’t match the reality on the ground,” said Emily Woodhouse of University College London, U.K., who studies the social impacts of conservation projects. Woodhouse was not involved in the study.

However, while there was no overall difference, people living within the strictly protected area and the community managed forests did perceive the same domains differently. For example, some people in the national park said the creation of the park had reduced their access to agricultural land that belonged to them.

By contrast, people living in the community managed forests felt more secure about their agricultural land. The forest land still belongs to the state, Rasolofoson said, but the local people can take management decisions about the lands and forests under community forest management, which has made some people feel more secure about their activities and agricultural lands in the forests.

One of the interviewees, for instance, said that community forest management “has allowed and legalized our stay and agricultural activities here in the forests … and we have been granted the rights to practice our agricultural activities without fearing eviction.”

Objectively, though, it is not clear whether community management has actually improved their land tenure security or not, the researchers say.

People in the study area depend on clearing small patches of forest to grow their crops, and conservation inevitably aims to stop this. Photo by Julia P.G. Jones.

However, people living in community managed forests were dissatisfied with access to education. And they attributed this dissatisfaction to the community forest project.

The problem, the researchers said, was that the conservation agency pushing the community forest management project in the area had promised it would build a school. And while it did build one, local parents couldn’t afford to pay the teacher’s salary. So while objectively the villages were not worse off than before, Jones said, the people now had an empty school with no teacher, which they perceived as a negative impact.

“Well-being is not just about where you are currently in life but where you want to be,” she said. “So by raising expectations you’re making people believe they’re worse off. It’s like when you’re happy with the salary you’re earning, but then you hear about your colleague, who’s at the same level as you are, but is earning much more. Now, you’re no longer satisfied with what you earn. That’s just human nature. The problem is that a lot of conservation bodies do raise expectations and then do not fulfil them.”

Conservation agencies often make promises that raise expectations and can lead to negative perceptions. Photo by Julia P.G. Jones.

Overall, the GPGI was simple to use and generated a huge volume of information, said Rasolofoson. “Conservation can impact different aspects of people’s lives: It can impact their income, but people may also perceive it as affecting their community cohesion, health and other things,” he said. “GPGI can help in the development of activities that address these perceived impacts and therefore help in efforts to make conservation acceptable to the local communities.”

Woodhouse added that the study’s use of the GPGI “shows the importance of prioritising the people who are most impacted by conservation rather than using the standard economic indicators which do not reflect the aspects of people’s lives that they really value.”

“There is a lot of focus on ‘gold standard’ impact evaluation designs with sophisticated quasi-experimental designs which have their place,” she said, but added that this study demonstrated the value of understanding communities’ “own experiences of change.”

Rasolofoson cautioned that the GPGI was a subjective measure, and might not necessarily be accurate.

“The fact that people perceive something does not mean that this thing is real,” he said. “Their perception can be biased by mood, cultural norms or even the timing of the interviews. Then, there is people’s adaptation. That is, conservation may indeed be impacting their lives, but they may have adapted and re-conceptualized or redefined their well-being, so that the measurement of overall subjective well-being detects nothing.”

More quantitative indicators like income are important for external stakeholders like donors, governmental and non-governmental agencies, Rasolofoson said. Yet the GPGI, despite being subjective, can bring out very useful information.

“The GPGI cannot give information on the magnitude of impacts, but it provides a wealth of information on what people think are important and is relevant for people seeking support for conservation from local communities,” he said. “Thus, these different methods for impact evaluation are complementary and are relevant for different purposes.”

An indri (Indri indri), a critically endangered lemur that is found in Madagascar’s Zahamena National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

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