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One aspect of community involvement in a conservation project is that members of the community may be involved in activities that contradict, or seem to contradict, the project’s aims – this may include things like fishing, hunting, and culling activities. The idea is to get people to either abandon these activities or adopt a more sustainable method of carrying them out, and the way this is done is through community incentives or benefits.

In Lucy Emerton’s paper on community benefits in Africa, she summarises the general approach to providing community benefits:

In order to achieve the joint ends of conservation and human welfare improvement such projects and programmes have followed a common approach to generating economic benefits for the people who live in wildlife areas. In combination with other forms of local participation in wildlife management, benefits have tended to be provided by returning a proportion of the revenues earned by the state from wildlife back to them through indirect benefit-sharing arrangements and grass-roots development activities mainly the provision of social infrastructure such as schools, water supplies and health facilities.

It’s important to consider that wildlife may have a serious cost to communities which in turn leads to culls. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme refers to this as “human-wildlife conflict”, which includes crop raiding by gorilla, elephant, buffalo, etc. Where this kind of conflict is a problem, building a school is not going to much of a deterrent for culling, because the original conflict remains a problem. Other types of benefit can be implemented instead with some success, provided there is significant community participation to determine the best course of action. The IGCP’s page on community initiatives says this:

In DRC and Rwanda, for example, with support from IGCP, park staff and local communities have been building a dry stone wall (one meter high and one meter thick) around the park perimeter. Building the wall has been a positive step toward reducing conflict between the park and the community as buffalo no longer raid crops and people are able to cultivate field closer to park boundary; thus increased crop production and increasing income. The record harvest in areas already protected by the new wall has encouraged local communities to extend the project.

There was a recent story that was a prime example of blatantly inadequate community involvement (not to mention wildlife assessments) in decision making, where a 4-year $575,000 USAID project to improve the lives of coastal communities in Kenya resulted in the provision of plastic fishing nets, rather than the traditional hook and hand lines (against the requests of the local fishermen’s associations). The plastic nets have been damaging the ecosystem, killing wildlife and coral. That’s quite a lesson right there.

In this month’s Landscape Research there’s an article by Monica Lorenzo Pugholm about potential community benefits for Jamaican fishermen, which largely fall under the category of “alternative livelihoods” (which actually means a career in tourism – see my post on the dangers of ecotourism here). The result was that the benefit may have made sense in terms of financial income, but occupation comes down to a lot more than money, and ultimately the switch from fishing to tourism did not constitute a sufficient benefit.

The actual fiscal value of an area in terms of natural resource products may be huge, so don’t be fooled into thinking there isn’t a substantial financial benefit in fishing to begin with. The Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem, for example, has been evaluated in the last month (by authors from UNIDO, BDCP, IGCC, and the University of Nigeria) at US$49,941.4 million, or over US$20,081 million not including offshore oil. In theory, the value of an area’s natural resources should be an incentive in itself, in that unsustainable harvesting of resources will result in a catastrophic boom-bust dynamic. Unfortunately, that’s a detached and simplified way of looking at it, because in reality fishing less (for example) may not be an option depending on other community or personal pressures, particularly when people are living in poverty. A person has certain requirements for feeding themselves and their families, and it is not enough to say “your requirements are too great.” You need to find not just other avenues of meeting those requirements, but better avenues.

Along a similar vein, I’ve been reading this article in Environmental Conservation by authors from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Kent about the India Eco-Development Project at Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, India (summarised on Nature Data):

The Periyar Tiger Reserve, India, is supported by the India Eco-Development Project (PTR-IEDP), an integrated conservation and development project (ICDP) funded by donors. The project has been internally evaluated as successful, although out of the US$6million received, only 43.2% went to community-based conservation activities. When an independent survey of 180 people (half of whom had benefited from the PTR-IEDP, half of whom had not) was carried out, 71.1% of those who had benefited said their attitude to conservation was not changed by the project, and of the 55 community benefits only 36.4% were still being used.

Unfortunately I can’t see beyond the abstract because I don’t have an athens login or whatnot, but I would love to know what exactly those community benefits were, and why 63.6% of those benefits are no longer deemed beneficial.

The reason I started thinking about community benefits was that I saw the very engaging film The Age of Stupid, which is about climate change and why the switch to green energy pronto is so important. Among other things, it features a group of middle-class English people protesting a wind farm because it will ruin their view and damage house prices and be noisy (despite being right next to a go-kart track), although when pressed they claimed to be very concerned about climate change. The general consensus from those I knew was that the protesters were stupid and selfish, and actually I was inclined to agree, but I think this attitude is not helpful and only succeeds in isolating the green energy movement from local community members. What would be more helpful would be to consider the specific grievances and by collaborating come up with solutions, such as adapting the turbines’ design or offering tax breaks for existing homes near turbines, or some previously unthought-of marvel. Could a community benefits project be applied to middle-class rural English communities? Can’t hurt to try.

In the latest issue of Ocean & Coastal Management, there is an article by Gerhardinger et al. (1) about management of marine reserves and the influence of local fishermen’s knowledge in management practice, in which several reserve managers and local government authorities were interviewed. The conclusion was that although most management is still science-based, using local knowledge provided “an essential means of achieving a broader and more diverse knowledge basis”.

The authors also talk about an interesting flipside to this, which is public involvement and responsibility. As a park manager or warden, it can sometimes seem like the best thing to do to preserve your park/whatever would be to deny all access to visitors or charge through the nose to get in, because people bring all sorts of undesirable things: pollution, theft, damage to property. Particularly in a parks/whatevers that are well-established locally, it can also be hard to convince local groups to stray from aesthetics or commercial production in favour of scientific conservation. You may see a wildflower meadow, but to someone else it just looks like someone’s neglected to cut the grass, and they can’t even pick the flowers. The temptation is to believe that if you cut the people out, the environment will flourish.

Of course, that’s a totally blinkered view-point, for various reasons. As Gerhardinger et al. show, local knowledge can enhance one’s own knowledge base, and thereby guide better management practices. So why not just restrict access to laypeople and kids who couldn’t identify a cinnabar moth in a line-up?

Oh, have a heart.

For starters, the benefits of green spaces to people, especially kids, are huge. See these .docs from Natural England: “Benefits of Green Space for Mental Health” and “Benefits of Green Space for Children” for a whole list. Highlights include improved concentration (including in ADD) and academic performance, less domestic violence and other aggressive behaviours, lower anxiety, lower incidencde of obesity and high blood pressure, alleviation of pain, greater self esteem and sense of identity and belonging, and longer life. By ensuring access for people of all ages to a natural space, you are also ensuring that people can live better lives. Feel good about that!

And even if you’re going to be Machiavellian about the whole thing, don’t forget that continued funding of any park hinges on public support. Kids who have access to green spaces grow up to appreciate their value (2, abstract here), and a report funded by the Forestry Commission (3, full pdf here) suggests that kids who do shocking things like climb trees and build dens are more likely to visit parks when they’re older. So by ensuring access to parks, you are also securing public support and funding in future years.

In the specific case of Marine Protected Areas in Brazil, an example of a successful community-driven marine reserve is Corumbau Marine Extractive Reserve in Abrolhos Bank (off the coast near Caravelas), supported by Conservation International. The area had been suffering overexploitation of its natural resources, which was cause for concern not only to conservationists but also to the local people who rely on those natural resources for survival. Involvement of the community instills a sense of responsibility as well as entitlement to use the area, so with some efforts to spread the gospel of science, the methods of using natural resources for survival turn to sustainable ones. Commercial fishing is now banned, but local fishermen are still able to fish using sustainable practices that have resulted in a successful return of fish stocks.

Just this January a community marine reserve, the Karkum Conservation Area, was set up in Papua New Guinea, supported by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. I shall be watching with interest to see what happens. There are many things that could possibly go wrong if insufficient effort is given to education and involvement, or private interests start to rear their head, but it’s a promising project.

Gerhardinger et al. make a worthwhile suggestion for an approach to co-management:

co-management schemes might benefit from the adoption of a ‘knowledge-building’ instead of ‘knowledge-using’ approach during a ‘problem-solving’ instead of ‘decision-making’ management process.

And that’s the kind of quote I want to keep on my fridge.


1. Gerhardinger LC, Godoy EAS, Jones PJS, 2009 “Local ecological knowledge and the management of marine protected areas in Brazil” Ocean & Coastal Management, 52(3-4): 154-165, doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2008.12.007: co-funded by ECOMAR NGO, ICMBio, Diretoria de Unidade de Conservação de Proteção Integral, Coordenação do Bioma Marinho e Costeiro, SCEN (IBAMA HQ), Brazil, and UCL, UK.

2. Bell S, Thompson CW, Travlou P, 2003 “Contested views of freedom and control: Children, Teenagers and urban fringe woodlands in central Scotland” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 2(2): 87-100, DOI: 10.1078/1618-8667-00026. Openspace Research Centre, Edinburgh, UK.

3. Bingley A, Milligan C, 2004 “Climbing Trees and Building Dens” Report for the Forestry Commission July 2004.