Community-Based Conservation (Final)

This topic submitted by Micah Vieux ( at 10:33 AM on 5/18/07.

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Community-based Conservation
Micah Vieux
May 18, 2007

Contemporary conservation methods are focusing on the increased potential of community-based, bottom-up, cooperative approaches to natural resource conservation and management (Brosius et al., Wondolleck and Yaffee, Habron). Community based conservation seeks to involve local stakeholders in a way that traditional, top-down policies have not. This is in large part because within the contemporary politics of conservation, it has become difficult or counter-productive to ignore the interests of local or indigenous communities (Alcorn). That is, traditional resource management strategies have failed to a certain extent because they have ignored the existing connection of local and indigenous people to the land under conservation management. As such, there is a growing consensus that “we must understand the history of beliefs, meanings and practices applied to those environments under conservation management by the groups who have occupied those areas through time; beliefs and practices which in many cases have fashioned the very environments that are the subject of contemporary conservation efforts” (MacDonald). This goal of understanding and cooperating with those beliefs may help to reveal the dynamics that influence conservation outcomes and, further, may help to develop contemporary conservation strategies that provide a useful framework for “science-citizen” partnerships.

Marginalization of indigenous communities is an artifact of Colonialism. As MacDonald points out, while historically the colonial attitude may have worked to exclude local or indigenous interests from conservation practice (often blaming them for the environmental degradation that led to a need for conservation), the politics of conservation has altered dramatically so that most initiatives ignore indigenous or local interests at their peril. Conservation strategists realize that to ignore or contradict local interests sets up on-going resistance to conservation projects that may ultimately compromise their effectiveness.

A contemporary focus on indigenous or local conservation also flows from scholarly work that has produced new categories of knowledge—termed indigenous, local, or traditional. Most importantly this body of work has been used to provide a basis for interpreting local practice as contextually rational and as contributing to social and ecological sustainability. While a desire to minimize resistance may be the motivating factor, it is this link between knowledge, practice and sustainability that is used to promote the inclusion of ‘local’ communities in the planning and implementation of conservation initiatives. For these same communities, participation in these activities is often not so much an issue of conservation as it is a way of retaining control over surroundings that they have historically considered themselves a part of (MacDonald). The key to community-based conservation, then, is to understand the concerns of local and indigenous people as well as the institutional constraints/opportunities under which a conservation strategy is administered. If the two match, then a higher probability exists that a community-based approach will yield ecologically and socially suitable outcomes (Habron).

Participatory, community-based conservation strategies are being crafted and implemented in Costa Rica. They find their basis in adaptive models for problem solving, which eschew the command and control mentality in favor of stakeholder participation. Adaptive management is an iterative, circular problem solving strategy that starts with problem identification, and moves through brain storming, modeling, hypothesizing, designing, experimenting, monitoring, and evaluating steps. The goal of this model is to provide stakeholders with access to a transparent process that benefits from inclusion through each step. In Costa Rica these methods have been used to establish alternative resource management arrangements to those of traditional top-down strategies. Areas such as Tortuguero and Gandoca are excellent examples of this:

The small village of Tortuguero (translated as "Region of Turtles") lies on the northeastern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, approximately 50 miles north of the principal Port of Limon. Tortuguero beach is regarded as one of the most important nesting site of the endangered green turtle in the Western Hemishpere. Giant leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles also nest here. The green turtle population was believed to have come perilously close to extinction in the 1960s, when nearly every female turtle arriving to nest in Tortuguero was taken for the export market for turtle soup. In alliance with many non-profit organizations (NGOs), Tortuguero National Park was established in 1970; offering protection to the turtles and strictly limiting the number of turtles that could be harvested. (

Gandoca Beach is situated on the southeastern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and also serves as a nesting site for four species of Sea Turtle. Until 1980 the sea turtle nesting population at Gandoca remained largely unknown. Turtle eggs were harvested by the small local population at levels that were probably sustainable. However, with the re-emergence of the Banana Companies and the improved road system in the area, poaching became a serious threat to the Sea Turtles. Asociación ANAI helped to establish the Gandoca/Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge in 1985 and since that time has been running the Sea Turtle Conservation Project at Gandoca Beach. (

Unsurprisingly, the creation of the national park and Wildlife refuge had a tremendous impact on the traditional ways of living for the local people. Park managers and NGOs had to find a way to work with the local people, as they realized that the cultural demand for sea turtle meat and eggs would be hard to overcome, and that both parks would likely see many poachers. At both Tortugeuro and Gandoca Beach, pubic-private partnerships were established between government agencies and NGOs educate and find employment for the local people. The focus of the outreach was to promote ecotourism as a more sustainable use of the sea turtles.

In 1971, NGOs began hiring Tortuguero villagers to walk the 22-mile stretch of black sand beach and count turtle tracks. Gradually, local shops and hotels have sprouted offering villagers a steady source of income. Each year, tens of thousands of tourists come to Tortuguero to see the nesting sea turtles and the other natural treasures of the national park. After receiving certification through an NGO training program, villagers are issued government permits authorizing them to guide tourists on nightly turtle watching excursions. Villagers take great pride in receiving a guide permit, and those that do are staunch defenders of Tortuguero's turtles (

Starting in 1984, NGO workers patrolled the beach with the assistance of the Wildlife Authorities and the community members at Gandoca Beach, aiming to keep poachers away from the nesting turtles. By 1990 poaching was fairly well controlled, with up to 90% of nests being protected. In the same year a conservation volunteer program was started along with formal research activities at Gandoca. Volunteers working on the project lodge in the homes of local families and provides an income-base for the local community. Guide and transport services for volunteers and tourists also generate income and provide a future economic potential for families living on the coast

The examples of Tortuguero and Gandoca Beach demonstrate that live sea turtles on the beach have greater value for the local people than dead turtles in the stewpot. Tourists pay considerable fees to watch sea turtles nest on Tortuguero Beach. Some 50,000 tourists visit Tortuguero annually to see nesting turtles and visit the tropical rainforests of Tortuguero National Park. At Gandoca Beach, though far less developed than the area of Tortuguro, sea turtle conservation income far exceeds the income locals would receive if all the eggs layed on Gandoca beach were sold on the black market.

The case of Torte Guerre has is parallels throughout the world. Evidence suggests that giving users a role in managing their own resources can lead to projects that are more effective than their top-down predecessors (Takasaki). Community-based approaches have changed the nature of conservation efforts in a positive direction by refining the way programs are developed and implemented, and further contribute by adding depth to research agendas which heretofore may have ignored topics such as organizational behavior and conflict resolution with local peole. The participatory nature of community-based conservation sees the potential in research methods in which formal educators and researchers and local people work together to define problems, evaluate solutions, and move forward with strategies that benefit both communities. The mutualism in this system varies depending on the objectives of the conservation program and the capacity and interest of local stakeholders. Thus, establishing collective research models and learning capacity in local and indigenous communities is of great importance if contemporary conservation strategies are to achieve their goals (Johnson et al.).

The use of participatory, community-based conservation methods is growing, but these methods are far from institutionalized in contemporary practice. Local empowerment is not always aligned with the political or social agendas of program administrators or governments, but it is clear that the ability to achieve long-term program sustainability hinges on incorporating all local and indigenous stakeholders in their appropriate roles. MacDonald lays out specific recommendations for conservation managers to more effectively incorporate local communities into their practices:

• Conservation practitioners must develop accounts of local practice that reveal the ways in which human-environment interactions are affected by their social, economic and ecological situation, and how these interactions can alter that situation. They must recognize that practice changes through time as do the ways in which people understanding, interpret, and act upon their surroundings. Local practice must be seen as temporally dynamic.

• Community-based conservation initiatives, if they are to be effective in the long-term, must be grounded in long-term ethnographic, ethno-historical and eco-historical research. A lack of historical context and local perspective in the interpretation of seemingly traditional institutions has contributed to the failure of many local experiments in community-based management. Greater attention to these can be useful in making effective policy decisions.

• Do not look for global solutions or replicability. Each context is distinct. Universal
models annihilate context, yet it is clear that problems in human-environment relations are local before they exist at any other scale. The desire to transcend that local scale may satisfy demands for institutional efficiency and relevance but it does little to address the contextual reality of conservation issues.

• Understand the bases for legitimate authority at a community-scale, the conditions that produce legitimation and the practices that constitute a threat to legitimation and hold the potential to create resistance to conservation interventions.

• Research that identifies the environmental and social function of traditional institutions of authority, how those functions have changed through time, and the mechanisms of
legitimation for those institutions

• Historical research designed to reveal how external challenges to institutions of authority
have altered the range of activities governed by those institutions and their legitimacy.

• The establishment of conservation planning processes that incorporate, build on and contribute to the integrity of legitimate institutions of authority.

• Build a capacity for flexibility into co-management agreements rather than adhere to rigidly defined pre-conceived standards of how agreements should be defined and implemented

• Recognize the multiple interests of the state in promoting conservation (extension of sovereignty, extension of surveillance, extension of access, etc.), and that while
Conservation agencies tend to share organizational interests with the state, the goals of the agency may be more closely allied with the community than with the state.

• Develop a reflexive capacity to overcome institutional adherence to normative definitions of conservation and normative mechanisms for achieving it. This means that the input to conservation planning needs to be broadened to include non-standard and innovative ways to satisfy the interests of the multiple interests involved in conservation activities. This has occurred in Europe, North America and Australia/NewZealand where communities have been empowered to participate in the planning process, but less so in other parts of the world where small-scale societies exercise less power.

• Establish mechanisms (e.g., Insititution-wide, rather than project specific, monitoring and evaluation) and an institutional culture that allows for sincere self-study rather than self-study that amounts to self-promotion.

• Create mechanisms for open dialogue with and between communities. This includes facilitating dialogue between communities outside of the presence of power (i.e., representatives of conservation agencies or national governments), in situations where people feel free to speak openly. In many parts of the world where conservation agencies operate, communities are not readily able to interact and share the benefit of comparing their different experiences with conservation interventions. Conservation agencies, on the other hand, have the benefit of widespread information accumulation and a capacity to communicate with whomever they choose. The ability of communities to acquire a wider base of information and communication can only enhance their ability to evaluate the choices they are confronted with by conservation initiatives.

These recommendations provide an excellent foundation for governments, NGOs and other resource managers to move forward toward more participatory forms for program establishment and execution. To the degree that programs can reduce bureaucracy, foster productive discussion and understanding among stakeholders, provide financial support and economic opportunity, and give a technical and coordinating framework for conservation activities, contemporary conservation programs will be met with success.


Alcorn, Janis (1995) Big Conservation and Little Conservation: Collaboration in Managing Global and Local Heritage. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Bulletin, 98, 13-25.

Brosius, P. et al. (1998) Representing Communities: Histories and Politics of Community-based Natural Resource Management, Society and Natural Resources, 11, 157-168.

Habron, Geoffrey (2003) Role of Adaptive Management for Watershed Councils. Environmental Management, 31, 1, 29-41.

Johnson, Nancy et al. (2001) User Participation in Watershed Management Research. Water Policy, 3, 507-520.

MacDonald, K.I. “Community-Based Conservation: A Reflection on History”. Dept. of Geography and Programme international Development
Studies, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ont., Canada, M1C 1A4

Takasaki, Yoshito and Bradford Barnham. (2001) Amazonian Peasants, Rainforest Use, and Income Generation: The Role of Wealth and Geographical Factors. Society and Natural Resources, 14, 291-308.

Wondolleck, Julia M., and Steven L. Yaffee. (2000) Making Collaboration Work. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

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