How well do community-managed lands promote nature conservation?

When it comes to conserving nature, how well do the vast expanses of land managed by local and traditional communities fare compared to formal protected areas?

  Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

This is becoming an increasingly topical and key question, with some arguing that community-managed lands garner local support for conservation and are therefore a better long-term strategy for protecting wildlife and ecosystems.

Others, however, assert that formal protected areas -- such as national parks, World Heritage sites, and other kinds of reserves -- are generally the best strategy, protecting vulnerable species and populations that rarely survive outside of such areas.

Who is right?  The answer, it seems, is (1) not so simple, and (2) clouded by a serious lack of reliable data.

Advocates of community-managed lands often blend at least two different arguments together: such lands are seen as socially and economically beneficial and important for securing the land rights of traditional or rural landowners, while also benefiting nature. 

Such advocates often assert that, because community-managed lands produce tangible local benefits, they are likely to be more viable in the long term than protected areas -- a sizable number of which are being imperiled to varying degrees by human encroachment.

The devil, however, is often in the details. 

For example, in a recent study in northeastern India, Nandini Velho and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) found that Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary -- a protected area famed for its rich biodiversity -- protected quite different sets of species than did nearly lands managed by resident tribes.

The study, based on animal-sign surveys, camera-trapping, and interviews of local residents, concluded that:

- Eaglenest harbored much larger numbers of large-bodied wildlife species, such as Asian Elephants and Gaur, a species of wild cattle, that are vulnerable to poaching. 

  Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

- However, the community-managed lands supported a number of smaller species, including several of high conservation significance such as the Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, and Golden Cat.

The Velho et al. study is notable for being one of very few that have compared matched protected areas with nearby community lands, using carefully standardized sampling in each area.  Clearly, more rigorously-designed studies like this are much needed.

In addition, when assessing the effectiveness of community-managed lands for nature conservation, other issues can become very relevant.  For instance:

- Are community-managed lands being used to augment protected areas, or replace them?  The latter could be a much higher-risk strategy for nature, whereas the former is likely to be beneficial.

-  There could be a big difference in environmental impacts when long-term local residents or indigenous peoples are involved, versus recent immigrants.  The latter may much more environmentally destructive, as evidenced by massive deforestation in government-sponsored agrarian settlements in the Amazon and transmigration programs in Indonesia.

-  Rapid population growth can defeat community-based conservation.  Many areas can sustain sparse to moderate populations but become unsustainable when human numbers swell.  This is a serious issue in many developing nations.  For instance, in Papua New Guinea, escalating human numbers are increasing a range of social and environmental pressures on traditional lands.

Some highly preliminary conclusions: Community-managed lands are no panacea but under the right circumstances, they can clearly help to augment traditional nature-conservation efforts such as protected areas.  Determining just when and how community lands become part of the solution is an urgent priority.