The discourse at the global platform on how do governments come to an understanding with local peoples in finding best practices towards nature-based conservation is the most crucial discussions happening across the globe at different levels.
By Salam Rajesh
The World Conservation Union’s recent report on the intrinsic relationship shared by local people with their natural surroundings gives food for thought on do how governments consider roping in the proactive participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities in long term conservation of nature reserves. The report titled as ‘Communities, conservation and livelihoods (2021)’ brought out by IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) CEESP (Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy) spells out strategies that work on feasible action plans for communities and governments to go hand-in-hand in slowing down the pace of destroying nature reserves for humanity’s short term benefits.
The IUCN report brought out in partnership with the Community Conservation Research Network (CCRN) and edited by Anthony Charles, focuses on three main themes, namely, (1) The nexus, or interaction, of conservation and livelihoods in local level communities, and the actual or potential involvement of governments and civil society; (2) The values and goals that underlie decisions, and the institutions within which decisions are made; and (3) The nature of success in conservation-livelihood linkages, and the potential for increased attention within the conservation field to action at the local level.
Sharing her views on the proactive role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in nature conservation, Kristen Walker Painemilla, Chair of IUCN Commission on Environment, Economics and Social Policy (IUCN CEESP), has this to say: “Indigenous peoples and local communities are, and remain, at the forefront of protecting the planet, and share with us a wealth of knowledge, experience and sustainable practices that the world desperately needs”.
In defining the suggested priorities for going forward in community conservation and its role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as framed by the United Nations and in contributing proactively to global initiatives, the report highlights few concrete examples. These are broadly outlined as: (1) How local-level community conservation initiatives can be self-sustaining and successful; (2) How they can benefit both conservation and livelihoods when effectively supported by government policy and practice: and (3) How recognizing community knowledge helps to improve both economic and environmental outcomes.
The discourse at the global platform on how do governments come to an understanding with local peoples in finding best practices towards nature-based conservation is the most crucial discussions happening across the globe at different levels. These discussions are the result of intense forms of conflicts between governments and communities over issues of disrespect of fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), wherewith governments push for developmental projects in pristine nature reserves in utter disregard of the lives of the IPLCs or of the negative impacts on nature.
The report is specifically critical of the fact that IPLCs controlled and managed nature reserves have fared far better than those in governments’ hands. “There has been a universal recognition of the need for greater attention to local-level community based conservation and stewardship. Indeed, abundant evidence shows that over the centuries, local ecosystems and resources have been managed successfully at the community level. Many Indigenous and other societies continue in this way, using forms of management that reflect the need to address human issues more fully, in contrast to top-down control”.
This observation comes from the viewpoint that all along these years, the one singular objection by IPLCs over governments’ policies has been that these policies are primarily top-down models without much reflection on the cost-benefit analysis likely to impact local peoples. In Manipur, as in other parts of the world, there has been a long standing issue over non-participation of IPLCs in designing models of conservation that incorporates people’s concerns from the very first drafting of the policy(ies). The end result is that at the time of implementation of the projects or policies, IPLCs have enough reasons to lodge protests over the arbitrary moves of the government. At the end of day, the ensuing conflicts of interest halt all processes, losing money for the government and sleepless nights for the IPLCs.
Quite interestingly, the report states that the evidences emerging from field-based studies suggests that community-based approaches are most likely to succeed in conservation under certain specific conditions. This strengthens the view that academic and scientific inputs have suggested that forest ecosystems under the control and management of IPLCs are far better than those in government hands.
The suggested conditions under which community-led conservation can be truly achievable as highlighted in the report are detailed as: Firstly, land and resource rights must be secure, with authority and responsibility devolved to the local level. Such empowerment is necessary for bottom-up management, but also requires capacity development for all players for communication to be effective.
Secondly, community-based approaches and joint management need to include not only ‘participation’, but also deliberation involving all of the parties in order to achieve equitable and effective outcomes. Passage of time for social learning and trust development are often necessary as well.
Thirdly, respect for Indigenous elders and other knowledge-holders are necessary before local and traditional knowledge can be used. In this regard, empowering local resource users and communities has the advantage of leading to greater acceptance of conservation measures and in improving effectiveness. Local communities in rural areas, such as in Africa, Latin America, South Asia and in Southeast Asia, often rely on natural resources for livelihoods, and engage in conservation practices to maintain those livelihoods.
Fourthly, it is useful to draw on effective community mechanisms to resolve conflicts over resource use. If communities have developed their own strong local rules and institutions, the shared resources (the commons) can be used sustainably; and fifthly, community-based approaches succeed subject to the basic lesson of commons theory where people and communities are motivated to conserve resources if they are likely to benefit from their own stewardship, their restraint in using available resources.
In Northeast India, much of the land is with the community. And where customary practices and laws prevail, the State does not have an over-riding say in the management of those lands. Whereas, in many cases conflicts of interest arises when governments introduce policies that either were not consulted with IPLCs in the first place or that are detrimental to the lives of the IPLCs. Other than the conflicts of interest, forest ecosystems under the oversee of IPLCs are seen thriving efficiently as these are intricately relevant to the food and water security of those who are directly dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods and sustenance.
As in the case of Loktak Lake, or for that matter the other associated wetlands like Pumlen, Waithou or Ikop, the conflicts are intense as there is no mechanism where government has an understanding with IPLCs to manage the wetlands in such manner that benefits both State and local people. As the IUCN report suggests, community-led conservation can truly be successful if their land rights are secure.
(The writer is associated with IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic & Social Policy. He can be contacted at email@example.com)Communities, conservation and livelihoods