Why Should Indigenous People be on the Frontline of Nature Conservation?

Published September 2nd, 2021 - 06:24 GMT
Akha tribe Villages, Chiang Rai Province, North Thailand.
Akha tribe Villages, Chiang Rai Province, North Thailand. (Shutterstock)
To achieve global conservation goals, secure Indigenous rights.
Conservation success is “the exception rather than the rule”.

Nature is in crisis: Nearly 1 million species face extinction due to human activities and climate change.

To help prevent widespread ecological collapse, many world leaders have rallied around a common goal to protect the planet.

However, the environmental movement has a complicated past when it comes to working with the world’s Indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous Peoples and local communities provide the best long-term outcomes for conservation, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and partners in France.

Lead author, Dr. Neil Dawson of UEA’s School of International Development, was part of an international team conducting a systematic review that found conservation success is “the exception rather than the rule”.

The answer could be equitable conservation, which empowers and supports the environmental stewardship of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

The research team studied the outcomes of 169 conservation projects around the world – primarily across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

From restoring national forests in Taiwan and community gardens in Nepal to watershed restoration in the Congo, sustainable fisheries in Norway, game management in Zambia, and preserving wetlands in Ghana – the team took into account a range of projects.

They investigated how governance - the arrangements and decision-making behind conservation efforts - affects both nature and the well-being of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

The work is the result of collaboration between 17 scientists, including researchers from the European School of Political and Social Sciences (ESPOL) at the Catholic University of Lille and UEA.

Dr. Dawson said: “This study shows it is time to focus on who conserves nature and how instead of what percentage of the Earth to fence off. 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.”

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

The study recommends Indigenous Peoples and local communities need to be at the helm of conservation efforts, with appropriate support from outside, including policies and laws that recognize their knowledge systems.”

“Whether for tiger reserves in India, coastal communities in Brazil, or wildflower meadows in the UK, the evidence shows that the same basis for successful conservation through stewardship holds true. Currently, this is not the way mainstream conservation efforts work.”

Strikingly, the authors 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.

Local institutions are every bit as complex as the ecosystems they govern, and this review highlights that a number of factors must align to realize successful stewardship.

Community cohesion, shared knowledge and values, social inclusion, effective leadership, and legitimate authority are important ingredients that are often disrupted through processes of globalization, modernization 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 favor of commercial activities. Moving towards more equitable and effective conservation can therefore be seen as a continuous and collaborative process.

The role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in effective and equitable conservation is published in the journal Ecology and Society on September 2, 2021.

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