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.

The next big environmental crisis: Indonesian New Guinea

We had a bit of fun with our 'Drop Bears' blog last week -- which was based on a legitimate scientific paper but was entirely in jest -- but we're being deadly serious now. 

In brief, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea -- one of three great remaining tropical wildernesses on Earth -- is under dire assault.  This is an issue that should light up the radar of conservationists throughout the world. 

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea  (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

The other half of the island of New Guinea -- the nation of Papua New Guinea -- has certainly suffered its share of environmental ills, with rampant industrial logging and mining development, severe fires in the highlands, and the notorious SABLs -- Special Agricultural and Business Leases -- that have often been snapped up by foreign logging firms and now span some 11% of the nation's land area.

But the situation in Indonesian New Guinea -- the Provinces of Papua and West Papua -- is, if anything, even worse.  And it is likely to become one of the major rainforest crises of our time.

People in the know say its only a matter of time before environmental chaos descends in Indonesian New Guinea.  First, the government there places little emphasis on the rights of the island's many indigenous communities, who have lived on their traditional lands for millennia.

Second, the Indonesian government has transmigrated millions of Javanese and other Indonesians to New Guinea, displacing traditional peoples and destroying native ecosystems in the process.  This program has been enormously unpopular with native New Guineans.

Third, oil palm is exploding across Indonesia New Guinea.  The Indonesians have a saying, "Sumatra was yesterday, Borneo is today, and New Guinea is tomorrow", reflecting their wildly ambitious plans to expand oil palm, logging, mining, and other developments across the island at the expense of native ecosystems.

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction  (from Mongabay.com).

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction (from Mongabay.com).

And finally, Indonesia President Joko Widodo has just announced a scheme to build a 4,000 kilometer-long 'Trans-Papuan Highway' across Indonesian New Guinea.  This has the potential to open up the island like a flayed fish, exposing it a range of new environmental pressures -- the results of which are often fatal for forests and biodiversity

We've been accustomed to hearing about environmental crises in Borneo, Sumatra, and the Amazon.  Unless the international community can convince the Indonesian government to change its tack, get ready to start hearing a lot more about environmental crises in Indonesian New Guinea too.