The unsung heroes of conservation

Piprahar in Chitwan. Photo: MUNA THAPA/WWF NEPAL

Indigenous people and local communities provide the best long-term outcomes for conservation at a time when environmentalists debate strategies best suited for the world experiencing increasingly drastic impact of climate change, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and partners in France.

The study, published today in the journal Ecology and Society, found that conservation success is “the exception rather than the rule” but suggests the answer could be equitable conservation, which empowers and supports the environmental stewardship of indigenous people and local communities.

The research team studied the outcomes of 169 conservation projects around the world –from restoring national forests in Taiwan and community forests in Nepal, to watershed restoration in the Congo, sustainable fisheries in Norway, game management in Zambia, and preserving wetlands in Ghana. They investigated how governance - the arrangements and decision making behind conservation efforts - affects both nature and the well-being of indigenous people and local communities.

“This study shows it is time to focus on who conserves nature and how, instead of what percentage of the Earth to fence off,” says Neil Dawson, UEA’s School of International Development and lead author of the study.

Dawson adds: “Conservation led by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, based on their own knowledge and tenure systems, is far more likely to deliver positive outcomes for nature. In fact, conservation very often fails because it excludes and undervalues local knowledge and this often infringes on rights and cultural diversity along the way.”

Here in Nepal, everything that has worked well since the 1990s has the word ‘community’ attached to it and it’s truer in conservation. Nepal’s model community forestry program has restored canopy cover in the country and has nearly doubled forest area in the past 40 years.

Similarly, indigenous people living near the national parks in the southern plains of Tarai are the unsung heroes of Nepal’s wildlife successes. They played a central role in doubling the number of tigers before the 2022 target as well as in minimising rhino poaching, all despite a decade-long civil war, floods and earthquakes, and now the Covid-19 pandemic.

International conservation organisations and governments often lead the charge on conservation projects, excluding or controlling local practices, most prominently through strict protected areas.

But the study, which is a part of the JustConservation research project funded by the French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) recommends indigenous peoples and local communities at the helm of conservation efforts, with appropriate support from outside, including policies and laws that recognise their knowledge systems.

“Current policy negotiations, especially the forthcoming UN climate and biodiversity summits, must embrace and be accountable for ensuring the central role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in mainstream climate and conservation programs. Otherwise, they will likely set in stone another decade of well-meaning practices that result in both ecological decline and social harms,” explains Dawson.

The authors of the study found that 56% of the studies investigating conservation under 'local' control reported positive outcomes for both human well-being and conservation.

For 'externally' controlled conservation, only 16% reported positive outcomes and more than a third of cases resulted in ineffective conservation and negative social outcomes, in large part due to the conflicts arising with local communities.

However, simply granting control to local communities does not automatically guarantee conservation success. Community cohesion, shared knowledge and values, social inclusion, effective leadership and legitimate authority are important ingredients that are often disrupted through processes of globalisation, modernisation or insecurity, and can take many years to re-establish.

Additionally, factors beyond the local community can greatly impede local stewardship, such as laws and policies that discriminate against local customs and systems in favour of commercial activities. Moving towards more equitable and effective conservation can therefore be seen as a continuous and collaborative process.

Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ knowledge systems and actions are the main resource that can generate successful conservation. To try to override them is counterproductive, but it continues, and the current international policy negotiations and resulting pledges to greatly increase the global area of land and sea set aside for conservation are neglecting this key point.

Adds Dawson: “Conservation strategies need to change, to recognise that the most important factor in achieving positive conservation outcomes is not the level of restrictions or magnitude of benefits provided to local communities, but rather recognising local cultural practices and decision-making.”