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From threat to solution: Rethinking the role of communities in nature conservation (commentary)

  • We need to fully embrace that nature conservation, at its core, is a social process. The entire premise of conservation rests on people changing their lives in ways both great and small in order to sustain nature — thus conservation cannot succeed without community support. However, the role that frontline communities play in conservation planning and decision-making remains bewilderingly murky.
  • New research highlights the contradictory roles within which frontline communities are framed: on one hand, they are seen as essential leaders and drivers of conservation; on the other hand, communities are often portrayed as posing threats to biodiversity. Confronting this tension is necessary if conservation aims to minimize trade-offs for both people and nature and ensure that the costs of conservation are equitably distributed.
  • Shifting the paradigm that dominates nature conservation today — our expectations, approaches, models, and tools — to one that brings frontline communities into the planning, delivery, learning, and adaptive processes is essential if we are to keep our natural world thriving.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The imperative for nature conservation has never been greater. A widely publicized intergovernmental report predicts extinction for more than a million species over the next few decades unless we drastically change human consumption and economic growth. This loss of species will threaten the global supply of food, water, clean air, and human health. Societies and economies will be drastically altered and depleted, especially for marginalized peoples who are likely to experience and suffer the consequences of declining ecosystems first.

Faced with the numbers, our combined efforts have not slowed global biodiversity loss, nor the progressive unraveling of our ecosystems and climate, despite decades of efforts to protect nature and billions in funding. Reversing this trajectory and achieving sustainability for both people and nature will require drastic and profound changes in how we extract, use, and protect resources.

However, there is a less obvious, though equally profound, change that must accompany this transformation: We must make changes to the “engagement” of frontline communities — those people who are intimately situated in and around landscapes targeted for conservation. These communities hold key leverage for the sustainable future we need, but the way in which they are currently engaged by conservation efforts is too limited, constraining any significant progress. We argue that the role that frontline communities play in planning and directing nature conservation must dramatically change to one of leadership over both the short and long-term. Solving this problem will carry us a long way towards sustaining nature in ways that can endure, and are the key first steps in a solution to the downward spiral we collectively face.

The relationship between conservation and communities has long been challenging. The historical legacies from colonialism and continuing power imbalances have produced a predominance of nature conservation initiatives driven by “outsiders” — in that, by and large, conservation programming in developing countries, where much global biodiversity occurs, has been driven by global priorities initially identified outside of these countries. Modern nature conservation practices may have evolved beyond this history, but this legacy still lingers. For example, while people, no doubt, pose the greatest threat to global ecosystems, this often devolves into a one-sided blame game that rarely reflects local perceptions, realities, nor needs. Blaming others becomes a road-block to more equitable, respectful, and inclusive efforts to find a balance between the needs of nature and the needs of people.

With this attitude, we have no hope of making progress. Rather, we need to fully embrace that nature conservation, at its core, is a social process. The entire premise of conservation rests on people changing their lives in ways both great and small in order to sustain nature – thus conservation cannot succeed without community support. However, the role that frontline communities play in conservation planning and decision-making remains bewilderingly murky. For example, it is now well understood that sustainability cannot be achieved through coercion, or even persuasion — telling people what to do and how to do it rarely, if ever, achieves the desired effect.

Residents near the forests in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo credit: Samantha Cheng.

Modern conservation has made significant strides in recognizing and addressing these complexities. There are encouraging examples of truly collaborative as well as community-led approaches that are resulting in strong, resilient relationships between nature and people — indigenous cooperatives managing sustainable forests in central Africa, fishing businesses in the Gulf of California helping to enforce restrictions on the species taken and the times they are caught, coffee growing practices in Colombian highlands designed to increase bird habitat. However, many externally-driven community engagement efforts are still limited to “awareness raising”, or “conservation education” regarding a community’s presumed best interests (often by external groups). Failing to fully include local voices in planning, decision-making and action too often results in antagonistic interactions between outsiders and those living in and around conservation areas, rather than engagement based on “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC).

A review of over 50 years of global research, carried out by the Conservation Solutions Lab, a collaboration of conservation and development researchers and practitioners (including the authors and signatories listed below), reveals limited evidence showing how frontline communities interact with, and much less are impacted by, conservation programs. Most of the literature fails to clarify the extent to which communities are engaged, what strategies and tools used, and how these affect conservation results and longer-term impacts. This research highlights a deeper problem of the contradictory roles within which frontline communities are framed: on one hand, they are seen as essential leaders and drivers of conservation; on the other hand, communities are often portrayed as posing threats to biodiversity. Confronting this tension is necessary if conservation aims to minimize trade-offs for both people and nature and ensure that the costs of conservation are equitably distributed. Worse still, community voices are rarely reflected in reports or research on the effects of conservation.

This begs an obvious question: What needs to change in order to create the conditions necessary for communities to pursue sustainability?

We propose two first steps to a solution. First, nature conservation organizations, their funders, businesses, and frontline communities need to work together to create agreements, systems, and norms that will be responsive, resilient, equitable, and sustainable — the backbone of fostering feasibility. Conservation projects commonly occur in extremely complex social and institutional contexts — for example, projects often attempt to address the nexus between large-scale financial investments, extractive industries, and rural community development objectives with a goal to minimize biodiversity loss, maximize ecosystem functions, and also promote economic sustainability and safeguard cultural integrity. These ambitious agendas are messy, sensitive, and often controversial. A negotiation process is inevitable, driven by highly diverse perspectives, wants, and needs.

However, this is a problem that can be largely solved by including, elevating, and empowering local voices in conservation leadership. Steps need to be made to guarantee transparent and honest negotiation and a shared production of solutions between conservation and frontline communities.

To achieve this change, we will need to rethink and revamp the role of groups that fund, implement, research, and experience conservation. We can solve the wider global problem by collaboratively uprooting the deeper drivers of resource overexploitation, and recognizing the resilience and potential of existing traditional management practices and visions of a better life. Conservation approaches, particularly those driven by entities external to frontline communities, must also recognize and strive to address the deep power imbalances rooted in wider political and economic forces and historical legacies. These have too often resulted in entrenched inequities in access and rights to productive land, alternatives to low-performing technologies, technical and institutional capacities, and resources for effective governance. Frontline communities are further constrained by external industries that intrude into their traditional landscapes, often facilitated by their governments, with few avenues for recourse or mitigation.

The Congo River is a lifeline for people and biodiversity. Photo credit: Michael Brown.

Each of these factors shapes a community’s ability to generate, maintain, and participate in conservation and development processes. Monetary compensation or “novel” alternatives for changing unsustainable practices will not be enough to overcome these constraints. Simple value substitutions tend to fail to meaningfully build on local management foundations. A more powerful and sustainable path brings communities and conservation planners together towards commonly established goals, while building new coalitions to demand systemic change in how industries, economies, and governments affect and take responsibility for environmental changes with both local and global impacts. Conservation organizations should be there to provide capacity and support adaptive planning, design, and management, but should do so without trying to own the process (or the landscape). Thus, frameworks for collaborative planning and implementation must be negotiated as projects are established in order to find the best fit for the communities involved.

Second, we need an approach to nature conservation that facilitates continual and iterative learning that includes the input of frontline communities. Despite a proliferation of data, our understanding of how and why conservation approaches work (or more often, do not work) is still bewilderingly poor. While there have been cases demonstrating success from customary management and collaborative approaches to conservation, these cases are scattered, making it difficult to understand how to replicate, adapt, and scale across different experiences. Furthermore, much of existing research tends to, more often than not, reflect just a few perspectives, those of academic researchers or conservation organizations themselves. In order to further our understanding of how collaboration in conservation can improve, there must be greater inclusivity of affected communities in the learning process.

Increasing learning across conservation necessitates changes to the culture of sharing knowledge in conservation. Lessons, experiences, and evidence from conservation projects should be shared broadly across the entire spectrum of conservation actors (practitioners, communities, researchers, policymakers) as opportunities to learn and generate additional results. There are some positive movements worth noting — for example, donors like the US Agency for International Development and the Danish International Development Agency promote pause and reflect workshops or midterm learning that foster exploration of what is working and what is not, evaluating environmental changes, and resulting adaptation. These approaches must become more widespread and mainstreamed if conservation practitioners are to truly create an inclusive learning community, with far greater input from indigenous peoples and other key communities.

The post-2020 conservation and sustainability agenda strives for a future where we are “living in harmony with nature.” There is no doubt that major transformations in how we do business, govern natural resources, and envision and seek economic prosperity will be essential to do this. However, frontline communities worldwide will inevitably bear much responsibility moving forward. They will be encouraged to not only adopt resource use changes, but also identify and commit to options for resource use that may be suboptimal for their well-being. Nature conservationists must adopt a complementary shift to serve frontline communities through far more effective capacity building and partnership than ever before, so all frontline communities, can realize a lead role in conservation.

Shifting the paradigm that dominates nature conservation today — our expectations, approaches, models, and tools — to one that brings frontline communities into the planning, delivery, learning, and adaptive processes is essential if we are to keep our natural world thriving.

Fisher harvesting aquatic plants on Inle Lake, Myanmar. Photo credit: Samantha Cheng.

CITATION

• Ferraro, P. J., & Pattanayak, S. K. (2006). Money for nothing? A call for empirical evaluation of biodiversity conservation investments. PLoS biology, 4(4), e105. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040105

Michael Brown is the Environment/Natural Resources Director at Chemonics International. Samantha Cheng is a Biodiversity Scientist with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Jim Tolisano is a Principal at Innovations for Conservation and an adjunct professor at New York University. This work was developed with and supported by a diverse collaboration of conservation and development researchers and practitioners from the Conservation Solutions Lab: George Akwah, Patricia Dunne, Janet Edmond, Mark Infield, Emily Maistrellis, Shauna Mahajan, Robin Martino (DAI), Peggy Ochandarena (Chemonics), Diane Russell, Anne Marie Tiani, Beth Polidoro (IUCN Red List), John Waugh (Semaphore Inc), Supin Wongbusarakum (Principal at Sustaining Nature), Ana Porzecanski and Eleanor Sterling (Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History), and Arizona State University researchers (Rimjhim Aggrawal, Megha Budruk, Candice Carr Kelman, Aireona Raschke, Leah R. Gerber).

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