The Failed Conservation Model
Mainstream conservation efforts that seek to separate humanity from nature, such as the establishment of national parks with fences and armed guards (otherwise known as protectionist or fortress conservation), fails to see the possibility of what can be achieved when you put people at the centre of conservation. Protectionist conservation assumes that local people use natural resources in irrational and destructive ways, and as a result cause biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Critics of this approach have emphasized that these strategies are done without including local users in important decisions. This can cause former local resource users to become “conservation refugees” with few livelihood alternatives. Meanwhile, protected areas rarely have the monitoring and enforcement capacity to control large areas of land without local support, creating what is known as “paper parks” — conservation areas which only exist in a legal document. The result is that the condition of our natural landscapes, and the people who depend on them, declines.
It is time to do away with an outdated model which disregards the integral role that humans play in the ecological order which sustains biodiversity, all whilst continuing a colonial legacy of gross environmental injustice. If we are to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the 2050 vision of the Convention for Biological Diversity, conservation efforts must be inclusive and diversified.
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) is an alternative approach to conservation that empowers people and restores the vibrant cultural and natural diversity of our planet. It recognizes the interdependence of community well-being and ecosystem health, treating the physical environment as part of the community and the community as part of the landscape.
It is important to point out that CBNRM is not a new phenomenon, but rather, what rural communities have been doing for centuries. For generations, Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the world have acted as stewards for the world’s most valuable natural landscapes and resources such as forests, fisheries, and grasslands.
In the 1970s and 80s, a global drive of grassroots initiatives pressed for community-based solutions to larger environmental problems amid growing concerns regarding the social injustices associated with protectionist conservation. Academics emphasized that because local people already used, relied on and managed resources, they were most suited to conserve them, though with extra-local support.
CBNRM has still yet to take off to its full capacity due to the lack of awareness around the strategy and its benefits. This article is intended to inform readers so that they can push for change.
What is CBNRM?
Community-based natural resource management is a people-centered approach to natural resource governance, i.e., the governance of water, forests, rangeland, fisheries, wildlife, and other biodiversity. At its core, CBNRM aims to create the right incentives and conditions for groups of local resource users within defined jurisdictions to sustainably profit from the conservation of natural resources.
CBNRM involves the full participation of Indigenous peoples’, local communities and/or resource users in natural resource management activities to simultaneously achieve three goals: (1) environmental conservation, (2) community empowerment, and (3) economic development. Governments grant control of natural resources to local groups to manage in accordance with conservation goals, and in return, the groups can profit from any sustainable activity associated with the resource.
One example of CBNRM is Brazil’s extractive reserve systems in the Amazon Rainforest, which aims to benefit both the rainforest and local Indigenous people. Beginning in 1990, the Brazilian government granted Indigenous peoples land rights in the Amazon Rainforest to securely continue their traditional lifestyles (including sustainable harvesting methods of non-timber forest products for income generation). The monetary benefit to local people living around extractive reserves stops them from turning to more environmentally damaging economic activities, like logging or cattle-ranching. At the same time, forest loss is further minimized from their management which deters private companies and actors from encroaching upon the land.
What Makes Community-Based Natural Resource Management Work?
Key characteristics of effective community-based environmental initiatives which can ensure long-term successful and sustainable programs in a variety of settings include:
- Devolution and Empowerment: CBNRM is based in the community! Control over natural resources and decision-making must be redistributed from central governments to local communities. Local groups must be given a significant voice in planning, implementation, and monitoring/enforcement of all initiatives. Uneven or inequitable distribution of power will compromise the success of community-based projects.
- Strong Management: For CBNRM initiatives to be successful, there must be strong and clear rules or regulations governing how, when, or in what quantity the resource can be used. These rules must be recognized and respected both within and beyond the community.
- Enabling Environment: To make management decisions, communities need legislative rights over their land and resources. This includes security of tenure: the knowledge that these rights will not be arbitrarily removed by the government and are secure over time. CBNRM’s success also depends on help from law enforcement agencies to help curb activities such as illegal encroachment leading to ecosystem degradation.
- Collaborative Partnerships: CBNRM initiatives require multi-stakeholder collaborative partnerships from the regional, national and international levels. Partnerships help to leverage resources, support implementation, and lend expertise to meet different needs. Partnerships must promote learning, trust, and accountability.
- Balanced Costs and Benefits: The key to sustained success in community-based natural resource management is creating the right incentives and conditions for the group of resource users. The costs of managing the resource cannot exceed the benefits of the initiative, as this could lead locals to abandon the project or engage in resource exploiting activities which are more profitable.
What are the Benefits of CBNRM?
Community-based natural resource management contributes to rural development and poverty reduction by providing communities with:
- Income for social welfare projects or infrastructure development
- Jobs and additional income that can increase household assets
- Diversified land uses and livelihoods
- Support to local safety nets
- Strengthened local institutions
CBNRM initiatives also empowers communities by:
- Providing rights over land and natural resources
- Building skills and capacity
- Establishing community decision-making bodies
- Promoting community advocacy
- Enabling women to take leadership positions
ALL while contributing to environmental conservation goals!
What are the Challenges?
Complex Systems: Natural resource management takes place in highly interconnected and complex systems. These systems are influenced by a variety of geophysical, ecological, social, cultural, political, and economic factors.
Incomplete Information: Due to the complexity of these systems, it is difficult to collect and analyze all the information that might influence a given initiative.
Change: Due to changing climates, environmental damage from slash and burn farming, the overuse of pesticides, and many other causes, people who depend on the land for their livelihoods are suffering. Changing circumstances make ecosystems less predictable, leaving people that rely on those ecosystems vulnerable.
Despite these challenges, the benefits of community-based natural resource management are very promising to help move forward both conservation and poverty-reduction goals. Multi-purposed solutions need to become more commonplace; because of the direct link between people’s welfare and their environment, it is important that new approaches and ideas are developing and implemented in natural resource management. The alternative is that people will become poorer and the environmental resources upon which they depend will become scarcer, thereby worsening the already serious poverty trap.
You as an individual can help by pushing for recognition of tenure rights of local and Indigenous communities, particularly in areas facing pressures of agro-industrial expansion, extractive industries, and infrastructure development.
Community-based natural resource management is not necessarily the appropriate strategy for addressing all conservation or rural development problems. It is one among other strategies that can be included in national poverty reduction frameworks and as part of national conservation efforts. To date, CBNRM approaches have tended to work best in environments that are relatively intact and provide opportunities for generating substantial financial incentives to change the way people perceive and manage their land and resources.
M. W. Murphee. (2000). Community-Based Conservation: Old Ways, New Myths and Enduring Challenges. Key address at the conference on African Wildlife Management in the New Millennium. College of African Wildlife Management, Mweka, Tanzania, 13-15 December 2000.
Reid. (2016). Ecosystem and Community-Based Adaptation: Learning From Community-Based Natural Resource Management. Climate and Development, 8(1), 4-9. https://doi.org/10.1080/17565529.2015.1034233
Stirling. (2012). Deconstructing ‘community’ in community-based natural resource management (CBNRM): Investigating traditional method of subsistence (TMOS), traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and ethnic diversity for more effective resource management in the Kedougou region of Senegal. University of Waterloo.
United States Agency of International Development. (2022). What is Community-Based Natural Resource Management? https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pa00jrv1.pdf
World Neighbors. (2022). Community-Based Natural Resource Management. https://www.wn.org/what-we-do/community-based-natural-resources-management/
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