What is community-based conservation?
Across Africa, millions of livelihoods depend directly on natural resources such as timber and bushmeat. This often conflicts with efforts to conserve biodiversity (the variety of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms found in an area) carried out by governments and organizations.
One solution to this is community-based conservation (CBC). This aims to protect biodiversity and improve social wellbeing at the same time. This is achieved by creating benefits for local communities such as money, healthcare and education when they protect nature themselves. By exchanging knowledge, villages can work with different institutions (governments, scientific organisations and tourism companies etc.). This helps to plan out how to use natural resources in a way that benefits both people and nature.
For 30 years CBC has been promoted as an effective means of protecting nature in developing countries, to varying degrees of success.
Where has CBC succeeded?
Namibia is possibly the greatest success story. Here, any village can apply to create a conservancy, an area of land which local residents manage according to their needs, provided they implement certain environmentally-friendly practices. This setup empowers local communities. For instance, if a tourism company wants to operate on the conservancy, they must negotiate with the villagers – and not the government – to do so. Conservancies have expanded to cover over 20% of the country, generating more than 10 million US dollars a year. A large portion of this money is invested into local education and healthcare. Wildlife has benefitted strongly. For instance, over the last 30 years elephant populations have tripled in size. Black rhino populations have doubled.
What are the barriers to success?
While community-based conservation often has a positive effect on biodiversity, its effect on the wellbeing of the local communities is typically mixed. When governments do not provide legal land rights to local residents, their motivation to protect nature declines. This is because they are unlikely to receive meaningful benefits from their efforts in the long-term. This results in poorly managed conservation areas, and higher levels of illegal activities such as poaching. Only in Namibia has the government given complete land rights to local residents.
Increasing global demand for materials such as timber and biofuel is another threat. Foreign investors who seek to benefit from valuable African land are able to buy vast areas of it. These companies exclude locals from their lands, preventing CBC from being implemented.
How can we improve CBC?
By encouraging all residents – and not just village leaders – to participate in discussions and decision-making we can ensure that community-based conservation initiatives have broad support. The benefits of CBC must be spread fairly across the communities, instead of being pocketed by just a few individuals. Outside groups working with local villages must be sensitive to their cultural traditions, instead of imposing their own cultural beliefs on them. Alongside securing land use rights, designing and implementing CBC plans with these factors in mind is a strong path to increasing their effectiveness.