Will Indigenous Communities Lead in Biodiversity Conservation?

One million species are threatened with extinction, and transformative change is needed to restore and protect nature globally. Those were the key messages from the recent IPBES Global Assessment report. The IPBES acknowledged that land inhabited by indigenous people worldwide is less degraded and more biodiverse than other terrestrial areas. They recommend that indigenous communities need to be supported in their biodiversity conservation practices.

This is a significant shift from historical perspectives on indigenous people. They have often become ‘refugees’ as a result of nature conservation projects. 
In this article, I will review the role of local and indigenous communities in nature conservation historically. The problems and solutions that have arisen, and what may be next. It seems like local and indigenous communities may soon become the places where cultural, social and economic values in conservation will converge. In addition, not all indigenous systems of land use are inherently sustainable. Therefore, in years to come, it will be crucial that local and indigenous communities are supported by ecologists, social scientists, lawyers, and development advisers (Colchester, 2002). That way we can help them successfully participate or even lead biodiversity conservation.

Local and indigenous communities in conservation

In May 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) presented their most recent Global Assessment Report. As noted by the IPBES, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation occur at a slower rate on terrestrial land inhabited by indigenous people (Díaz, 2019). Indigenous land accounts for over a quarter of land surface worldwide. It is inhabited by 370 million indigenous people in 87 countries (Garnett et al., 2018). The authors advised to support and partner with indigenous people and local communities, to address biodiversity loss. Reviewing how the status of communities in conservation has evolved, this approach is significantly different from historical policies of expulsion or limiting access to protected areas. In the words of Pamela McElwee, one of the lead authors of the report (Sneed, n.d.);

 “This is a watershed moment in acknowledging that indigenous and local communities play really important roles in maintaining and managing biodiversity and landscapes that the rest of us can learn from.” Pamela McElwee

Photo by TNeto from Pixabay

Only one month earlier, the 49 scientists that called for a Global Deal for Nature also acknowledged the reduced impact of indigenous people on their land. The Global Deal for Nature asks for the protection of at least 50% of the earth’s lands and oceans. The scientists behind the GDN now asked to empower indigenous peoples to continue to protect their lands (Dinerstein et al., 2019). These are not entirely new developments, as the field of Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) studies has been expanding fast for years. This development illustrates that the value of traditional and indigenous knowledge has become increasingly recognised (Palmer and Wadley, 2007).

Biocultural diversity

Belém+30: Reflecting on the Declaration of Belém across three decades (Photo: ethnobiology.net)

The connection between indigenous and local people and the protection of species and habitats has led to an increased interest in linking human diversity to biodiversity (Cocks, 2006). In the Declaration of Belem, Posey (1999) called this the ‘inextricable link’ between biological and cultural diversity. This link led to the introduction of the term biocultural diversity. Biocultural diversity emphasizes that land protected by religious taboos, and considered sacred by its community, shows high biodiversity. Other values that contribute to biodiversity and ecosystem health are perceptions of land as part of cultural identity, and as providing a sense of place (Laird and Kusel in Cocks, 2006, p.187).

Indigenous communities in classical conservation

Indigenous Miwok people were forced to leave Yosemite

The first National Park, established in Yosemite in California in 1864, followed a bloody war of extermination of the Miwok people and involved the repeated, forced eviction of remnant Miwok settlements (culturalsurvival.org)

Community-based conservation is not a novel idea. The level of involvement – or exclusion – of humans in protected areas has evolved since the creation of the first national parks. These were initially created when ideas of wilderness excluded any form of human influence.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world”
Henry David Thoreau

In wildness is the preservation of the world, was famously spoken by Henry David Thoreau in 1862 (Cronon, 1996). Assuming it was a risk to allow humans to live in protected areas, much of conservation started from a biocentric view. Most species extinctions are indeed caused by human activity, and the edge effect in conservation refers to this. It is used to describe the detrimental effects on biodiversity and ecosystem health of human communities bordering with local ecosystems. Historically, this edge effect led to ‘fortress conservation’ policies in which people are excluded (Redford, 2018). Conservationists put the preservation of nature above the interest of human beings, and in addition reinforced existing divisions between local people and governments (Colchester, 2002). As a result of the prevailing views on wilderness and prejudices of indigenous people as inferior, the creation of protected areas was often paired with human rights violations. There are all too many instances of local communities that have been displaced and disrupted for the creation of protected areas (Dowie, 2009).

Issues in classical conservation

Indigenous communities in central Africa evicted as a result of conservation projects

Pygmy people in central Africa suffered as a result of being moved from their forests. (Photo by Salomé/Survival International)

As a result of the classical conservation approach, many issues have arisen. The ethical issues of the expulsion of people from their land became obvious. Additionally, there were limits to the capacity of the state to enforce their policies. Poverty was recognised as a driver of biodiversity loss and needed to be included in conservation practices and policies (Roe, 2010). Hostile reactions from excluded local communities also impacted conservation results. For example, resentment among Sherpas at the imposition of the Sagarmatha National Park (Mt. Everest) and the undermining of their traditional community management practices led to increased deforestation (Sherpa, 1993:49 in Colchester, 2003, p.18).

Research in the field of historical ecology also pointed out that no landscape is without influence from human presence, which can be damaging, but can also increase biodiversity and ecosystem health (Balée, 1998). For example, the Kayapo Indians of Brazil’s Amazon Basin have been documented as effective managers of tropical forests. They successfully created biodiverse forest islands, or apêtê, in the savannah (Posey, 1985).

Community-based conservation emerges

As a result of the problems and insights that arose, community-based approaches started in the 1980s, particularly for wildlife management in Southern Africa (Hulme and Murphree, 1999). Initially, these new approaches to protected area management aimed to build support among local communities by sharing the social and economic benefits of the project (Beltrán, 2000). Yet community-based conservation now comes in so many different forms. It can’t be recognised as one single approach but as a wide range of approaches (Adams and Hulme in Kumar, 2005, p. 278). These conservation interventions can be placed on a continuum of traditionally imposed projects with no agency for the local community, to fully community-led projects (Beltrán, 2000).

Integrated Conservation and Development

Poverty in local communities need to be addressed in conservation projects

Poverty in Madagascar (Photo by 2Photo Pots on Unsplash)

A variety of terms have been used to describe these community-based approaches (Wells and McShane, 2004). Wells and McShane make a case for using the term Integrated Conservation and Development Project or Program (ICDP) for such conservation goals combined with social and economic goals. This term also illustrates the convergence of policy agendas of conservation and development. These both have biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation at the forefront. The similarities in their agendas are visible in their global policy frameworks, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Sustainable Development Goals (Gardner et al., 2013). However, it must be noted that not everyone is in agreement about this convergence of the goals of conservation and development. Conservationists often disagree with such aims of poverty reduction and economic development as ‘mission drift’ (Salafsky 2011 in Kareiva and Marvier, 2012, p. 967).

Some case studies, for example of Velondriake and Tsimembo-Manambolomaty in Madagascar, have demonstrated promising outcomes (Gardner et al., 2013). However, in spite of the efforts, the experience and outcomes of such ICD projects have often been disappointing (Wells and McShane, 2004). And there is a shortage of literature that highlights projects which such successfully address both poverty alleviation and conservation (Gardner et al., 2013). Complexities around the concept of community, and a lack of self-determination and attention to equity, have been quoted as potential causes for the issues arising in ICD projects.

So what is a community?

Overall, the concept of community has been embraced by conservationists, donor agencies, NGO’s and grassroots activists, and indigenous people spokespersons alike, to address a wide range of goals, from protecting biodiversity, local participation, equity, and empowerment, to indigenous rights and culture (Kumar, 2005). But what defines a community? The lack of clarity of the concept community was discussed by Agrawal and Gibson in their influential paper in 1999. This was motivated by observing the disappointing outcomes and issues of ICD projects.

Assumptions around the concept of community that tend to occur are; defining community as a spatial unit, as a social or ethnic unit, and omitting inequalities in age and gender. The realities of local and indigenous communities are far more complex and diverse then ICD projects are accounting for (Agrawal and Gibson, 1999). For example, in a ‘community’ forestry program in Nepal the definition of community excluded certain marginalised groups, such as the kami. The kami, the blacksmith caste, was dependent on the production of charcoal. Since they were not regarded as part of the community, their activities were criminalised as charcoal production was made illegal under forest legislation (Garner in Kumar, 2005, p.281).

Indigenous and local communities in conservation

A local community in Kathmandu, Nepal (Photo by Joshua Watson on Unsplash)

Alleviate poverty and reduce inequality

Additionally, Sayer (2009) argues that the lack of success in ICD projects has been a result of externally imposing these projects. They tended to follow the limiting procedures of external funders, rather than being truly locally driven. The importance of self-determination and equity may be of equal importance as poverty alleviation, for an ICD project to succeed. Sayer argues that deforestation will continue if it remains profitable for people to do so. Not only to meet their subsistence needs, but also because they want to improve their way of life with better education, healthcare, and jobs. People are aware of the possibilities of the economically developed world (Sayer, 2009). The importance of equity also became clear at the ICD project at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Harrison et al. (2015) researched why unauthorised resource use is still taking place after 25 years of the ICD project. Results suggest that unauthorised harvesting of resources is motivated by poverty, but also resentment. This resentment is a result of crops being raided by wild animals, inequity of revenue sharing and lack of employment options.

Indigenous communities suffer from crop raiding outside conservation projects

Mountain gorilla in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park sometimes raid crops of the local community (Photo by Leila Boujnane, Unsplash)

To address the issues that emerge in community-based projects, it is argued that there is a need for transparent management and increased equity (Harrison et al., 2015). In addition, Sayer (2009) offers a number of principles for future ICD projects which include operating at larger spatial scales, deeply connecting to social processes, less planning, and instead exploring options with local stakeholders. Kareiva and Marvier (2012) also emphasise the importance of taking lessons from projects, whether successful or not, to build an evidence-based database of learnings. This is currently being undertaken by the journal Conservation Evidence.

A new role for local and indigenous communities?

Parallel to these developments, new conservation increasingly looks at market-based conservation strategies. Kareiva and Marvier (2012) argue conservationists must work with corporations. They suggest that large global corporations can be considered ‘keystone species’ that can’t be ignored, due to their resource use and waste production. Perhaps not surprisingly, the environment was at the top of the agenda at the recent 2020 World Economic Forum. Corporations themselves also realise there can’t be a growing economy without preserving biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

With the converging of interests of conservation, development, and corporations, local and indigenous communities may likely take an important role in conservation efforts. However, cultural, societal and economic needs and values are complex and dynamic. And not all indigenous systems of land use are inherently sustainable. In years to come, it will, therefore, be crucial that local and indigenous communities are supported by advisors, ecologists, social scientists, lawyers, and development advisers to help them achieve their new role in biodiversity conservation.


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This article is adapted from an essay I wrote for my current Ethnobotany MSc at the School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, England.

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