Community-based Conservation

The traditional conservation approach is to establish a protected area. Typically, local people are relocated outside the park boundaries. An alternative response, known as community-based conservation, seeks to protect larger areas of land by encouraging local stewardship and integrating social and environmental priorities.

Since community-based conservation was first advocated at the 1982 World National Parks Congress with the promotion of the biosphere reserves model, it has taken many shapes and forms. Debate has grown regarding “how to do it” and whether this approach has lasting value and impact.

To inform the broader global discussion, in 2007, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation commissioned Future Generations to conduct a global review on the scientific evidence relating to community-based conservation. The purpose was to better understand the role and contribution of local people in:

  • Conserving biodiversity
  • Managing natural resources
  • Meeting social needs, such as maintaining local culture, increasing opportunities for income generation, and improving health and well-being
  • Lowering management costs
  • Sustaining outcomes over time

Through a global literature review and an analysis of four case studies, this report offers an analysis of current thinking and trends in community-based conservation that draws from the scientific literature.  
Highlights include:

  • Economic Costs and Benefits: For projects to be successful, active community participation and partnership is required. The benefits to the community must be clear and of such value to offset the expected demands and sacrifices of conservation. Benefits may be concrete such as income from ecotourism and sustainable resource use or they may be in the form of noneconomic cultural and social enhancements.
  • Community Capacity for Conservation: To be active partners in conservation, communities need linkages with outside groups as well as new local institutions to develop ongoing, adaptive capacity.
  • Social and Community Impact: Local institutions with goals of equitable social change and nature conservation also introduce a range of social and community benefits.  These include: improved social status of women, improved health, social capital and infrastructure, and micro-credit and livelihood opportunities. 
  • Biodiversity Conservation: Communities can be strikingly effective at enforcing locally determined regulations. When communities buy into conservation goals, they bring knowledge and local resources, including surveillance and social controls.
  • Sustainability Analysis: Ongoing community partnership in conservation requires 1) a true local partnership vs. outside groups manipulating community participation, and 2) a local management approach that adapts to changing ecological, economic, and social dynamics.

This report also raises several challenges. While the literature almost uniformly endorses community-based conservation, it gives scant guidance as to how to do it.  Another limitation is the lack of measurement tools to understand the interrelationships and integrated results of communities interacting within protected areas.

In addition to the evidence and challenges raised by this report, Future Generations partners with community and government partners to bring forward new strategies for “how to do” community-based conservation.

With imaginative local partners, significant national parks and nature preserves were started in Nepal, Tibet/China, and Arunachal Pradesh, India. This two decades-long work has led to core features that guide Future Generations on-the ground conservation approach.

Core Features of Future Generations Community-based Approach to Nature Conservation

  • Local people live within the protected areas
  • Instead of hiring outside wardens, communities are trained as stewards and learn conservation concepts as well as skills to improve health, nutrition, governance, and income
  • Protected areas follow pre-existing political boundaries to promote ease of management and to increase the acreage under protection
  • Instead of a centralized management bureau, costs are reduced and local ownership promoted by integrating conservation management into the daily functions of existing county and state administrative offices
  • Using the science of conservation biology, local scientists and administrators classify and manage land according to different land uses (modeled after biosphere reserves, which classify land use according to core restricted areas, buffer zones, and sustainable use zones).

The approach has been successful in a number of places, but of particular importance is the 46 million acre Four Great Rivers ecological environment protection plan in southeastern Tibet, China. Using the above approach, in a region the size of Washington State, wildlife, trees, and endangered plants are thriving along with 800,000 people.

This is an evolving process. The organization also continues to learn from its students, like alumnus Kelly Brown, an award-winning land-use manager with the Heiltsuk Nation in British Columbia, Canada, and student Tsering Lham of the Bhutan Royal Society for the Protection of Nature.

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