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.

Should conservationists resort to bribery?

Imagine having several million dollars to spend on nature conservation--and not being able to get a thing accomplished.

Time for the bribery quickstep?

Time for the bribery quickstep?

That's the position the leader of a prominent European nature organization finds himself in.  He and the organizations he represents are trying to save endangered forests in Sumatra, Indonesia, but they've been at a standstill for years. 

Why?  Because the only real way to get things done there is to pay off the right people.

"Corruption is a nightmare," he said.  "We are ready to buy forests for conservation and put millions into it, but we are not really making any progress because we don't pay under the table."

He continues: "It is unbelievable how difficult it is to save the forests for the local people, the nation and the global community by honest (and generous) payments for ecosystem restoration.  We are being overrun by bad governance and individuals giving away common goods for private profits."

This is a real and serious dilemma for those working to advance nature conservation in certain parts of the world

As conservationists, we hope we're above such things... but is it naive to pretend bribery isn't part and parcel of the way business is done in some places

One thing is certain: Many resource-exploiting corporations working in Sumatra and elsewhere in the developing world use bribes to get what they want

It's a debate worth having.  If the stakes are high and there's no apparent alternative, should conservationists consider crossing some palms to advance a just cause?  

 

Does ecotourism help or hurt nature?

Some people worry that nature-loving tourists might be loving nature to death

It's fair to fret about such things, but a new study suggests otherwise.  At least in Costa Rica, ecotourism is good for nature and helps local people--a lot. 

Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Those are the conclusions of a study just published in the top-flight journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Economists Paul Ferraro and Merlin Hanauer found that local communities near Costa Rican conservation areas had considerably lower poverty than those in other locations.  They attribute most of the benefit to ecotourism, despite the fact that deforestation was reduced near reserves. 

Overall, the authors concluded that two-thirds of the poverty reduction associated with protected areas results from tourism.

Other studies have suggested another big benefit of nature lovers: illegal poachers and encroachers avoid places with tourists and also scientists.  "They don't dare show their face," says veteran ecologist John Terborgh, who has spent decades working at Manu National Park in Peru.

One recent analysis suggested that "no other sector spreads wealth and jobs across developing countries like tourism does". 

With ecotourists now spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually, it's gratifying to know that local communities and nature are also seeing some real benefits.