Conservation efforts and programmes can make a huge impact for local communities by incorporating community-based enterprises that will incentivise and empower individuals to protect biodiversity, support traditional ways of life, as well as help build political support for existing protected areas. 

Conservation does not occur in isolation from people. 

Especially in less developed countries, it’s not uncommon for people to live in protected areas or surrounding buffer zones. These communities often rely on natural resources for subsistence, livelihoods and traditional cultural practices.

Sometimes this use is sustainable, sometimes not. 

Let’s face it – most threats to conservation and cultural heritage values have an economic basis. Deforestation, overgrazing, overfishing, urban encroachment, intensive agriculture, pollution, water and resource scarcity, poaching, trafficking, desertification, climate change and so on. All have a human element and so they can, at least in theory, be controlled.

In practice, conservation can hardly be separated from economic issues at all. What good is a plan of management that diligently identifies all the risks facing the conservation values of a protected area if those threats are not tackled in the context of the local economy?

But why is “the decade ahead” particularly important for conservation programmes to incorporate community livelihoods? 

It’s widely understood that we are at a crossroad in terms of how we use the ecosystems services, species, habitats and life support systems that underpin our economy, if not our entire existence. 

Natural capital is in severe decline and we are using resources faster than natural systems can replenish them. Around 77% of land and 66% of the marine environment has been significantly altered by human activity. Populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by 60% in the past 40 years. Around 25% of animals and plants are threatened and it is projected that more than one million species face extinction in the coming decades. 

While targets for protection set under Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 in 2010 have been met, there is now widespread agreement that they are inadequate. Furthermore, existing protected areas are not necessarily ecologically representative, and they don’t fully include enough of the most important sites for biodiversity (Key Biodiversity Areas). 

To provide a stable climate and enough food and water for the 9 billion people who are expected to be on the planet by 2050, and to prevent the mass extinction of wildlife, we can’t lose any more natural spaces. 

More than that actually. 

We need to increase the footprint of existing protected areas, ensure they are effectively managed, and establish new ones by formally protecting intact landscapes and restoring damaged landscapes.

More than 1.1 billion people globally depend on protected areas for a significant percentage of their livelihoods. If we expand the footprint of protected areas, then that number is likely to increase dramatically.

How will larger numbers of people in rural and remote areas support themselves and their families? We need to foster sustainable economic activity in and around protected areas to support community-based livelihoods. 

Here are the top 5 reasons why conservation programmes should always include a focus on community livelihoods in order to succeed long-term. 

1. People Protect What They Are Invested In.

Given that many local communities live in and around protected areas, it’s not surprising that they rely on natural resources for food, shelter, energy and trade. While this use can be sustainable, sometimes even low-level use can add pressure to already strained wildlife populations and ecosystems. It’s also the case that natural resource use can be highly exploitative, especially if it’s a commodity that commands high prices on the black market (e.g. ivory, bush meat, old-growth hardwood species, rare plants and animals with medicinal properties, etc). 

One of the best ways to halt or reduce practices like poaching, trafficking, unregulated fishing and illegal harvest is to provide alternative sources of income through community-based enterprises that are sustainable, inclusive, culturally appropriate, and can deliver financial returns. This same sentiment is at the basis of WWF’s Nature Pays initiative, led by its Markets Practice team: “For conservation to be effective, local communities must benefit from conservation efforts”.

When communities generate income and other non-cash benefits by protecting, rather than exploiting, conservation values, then direct use pressure decreases, communities protect those values from use by outsiders and they are more likely to engage in restoration activities. 

In short, community-based conservation enterprises incentivise the protection of biodiversity.

2. Indigenous People and Local Communities (IPLCs) Have Rights To Practice Traditional Ways Of Life.

IPLCs continue to occupy large portions of protected areas and to practice traditional ways of life that rely on use of natural resources in those areas. To expand protected areas or create new ones will likely mean infringing on the territories and traditional lands of IPLCs.

Removing Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands or eroding their rights to access and use resources for the purpose of establishing formal protected areas is unjust and would not improve environmental outcomes. Not only would it raise serious human rights issues and restrict Indigenous peoples’ capacity for self-governance and economic self-determination, but it is also counterproductive from a conservation point of view.

A study based on the use of publicly available geospatial resources reports that Indigenous people manage or have tenure rights over at least 38 million km2 in 87 countries or politically distinct areas across all inhabited continents. This represents over a quarter of the world’s land surface and coincides with about 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes. It’s further reported that Indigenous-managed lands generally have higher biodiversity values and are more vertebrate species rich than existing protected areas or randomly selected non-protected areas

Community-led conservation enterprises that are owned and operated by IPLCs on their traditional lands can also strengthen culture by providing opportunities for communities to proudly celebrate, share and continue practicing their traditional ecological knowledge.

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3. Economic Empowerment of Women and Inclusion of Marginalised and Vulnerable Groups Helps Improve Their Social Status and Reduces Poverty Within Communities and Households.

It’s well recognised that women’s involvement in conservation, economic development and decision-making can create more prosperous and healthy futures for themselves, their communities and their environment.

Let’s review why:

In short, women’s economic participation helps to reduce poverty within communities and households. Community-based conservation enterprises that are led by women create better lives for people.

Conservation enterprises can also provide opportunities for people with physical disabilities and mental health conditions to work. These groups are traditionally marginalised in the formal economy. When they have paid jobs, their contribution is more likely to be valued, their status is likely to increase, and they are more likely to be included in broader community decision-making.

4. The Supply of Ethical Goods and Services Provides Choices For Conscious Consumers. 

There’s never been a better time to be a socially responsible business than right now. 

According to the 2018 Purpose Premium Index, one-third of consumers are more likely to buy products and services from a purpose-driven business. Furthermore, the Institute for Business Value reports conscious consumers are willing to pay an average premium of 35% for brands that are responsible and sustainable. The same report states that nearly 6 in 10 consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact. 

Community-led conservation enterprises are ideally positioned to produce purposeful product and service choices for conscious consumers. Given that these enterprises are developed in culturally diverse contexts, they often give rise to truly original products and services.

Not only then is there a supply to meet the demand for sustainable, ethical goods and services, but others in the market can also see that these enterprises are succeeding, leading to a snowball effect.

5. Local Engagement Builds Political Support For Protected Areas.

Protected areas are one of the best and cheapest solutions to conserve ecosystems, biodiversity and natural capital, as well as halting – if not reverse – climate change. But the expansion of protected areas globally can be problematic. There is often both political and local opposition to creating new protected areas because it is perceived that economic activity will be restricted. 

Economists often fall back on the case for valuing ecosystem services to ‘the economy’. However, this is vague and can only go so far. At the end of the day, people are more likely to support protected areas if they see immediate, direct benefits. If local communities themselves are against protected areas, then it’s just one more reason for governments not to set aside land for conservation.

Ensuring IPLCs are able to continue traditional ways of life and supporting them to create sustainable, inclusive livelihoods that are compatible with conservation objectives can help build political support for protected areas.

Featured image by: Flickr