Hard truths about inclusive conservation

Three people hover over a document as they discuss livestock production and regenerative ranching in Madre de Dios region of Peruvian Amazon

WWF is committed to inclusive conservation at all levels of its work, especially important is putting people at the forefront of our area-based conservation work. Below, WWF's Becky Chaplin-Kramer, Global Biodiversity Lead Scientist, Global Science, and WWF's Gabby Ahmadia, Vice President, Area-Based Conservation, Oceans share what this approach means to them as scientists:

Historically, conservation has often promoted areas of untouched wilderness preserved behind fortress-like boundaries. Today, the most successful conservation projects are those that partner with local communities who derive benefits from the ecosystems they steward. As understanding of nature’s contributions to people’s well-being and prosperity has grown, these values are increasingly being incorporated across policy, business, and finance.

In the U.S., for example, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently announced its revised guidance on cost-benefit analysis to include benefits that nature provides to people, like water quality regulation, flood mitigation, recreational opportunities and more. And businesses around the world are establishing scientifically validated goals that enable them to set targets for reducing their impacts on nature.

This evolution is a welcome one. And it's challenging conservation scientists like us to seek new solutions to a set of challenging questions. If nature is starting to enter our bottom line, what is the role of protected areas, especially those “set aside” from human use and development? Can protected areas evolve with our changing perspectives on nature and its relationship with people, or will they become relics of a retrograde approach to conservation?

Protected areas can still be incredibly useful, but many must undergo some fundamental transformations to keep up with the latest developments in conservation. It is essential that the interests and values of local communities are at the foundation of the decision-making process. We recently conducted a study analyzing the impact of protected areas on people and nature, and found that, across the board, when local values are marginalized in decision processes, protected areas can cause social harm and actually compromise biodiversity goals. Conversely, we found that protected areas that incorporate diverse views and values result in better outcomes for both people and nature.

Why are projects that do this successfully so difficult to find? Inclusive conservation is hard. Reforming past approaches—those that focused exclusively on the preservation of nature, often to the detriment of local communities—is challenging. But it’s worth it, and indeed, conservation may be destined to fail without it.

Overcoming distrust and a legacy of injustice does not happen overnight. One of the primary hurdles to inclusive conservation is a lack of trust between historically marginalized communities and conservation organizations, governments, or funders. In some cases, local communities have had their livelihoods impacted by conservation efforts and even been displaced in the process of creating protected areas. Transforming protected areas governance toward more inclusive conservation depends upon their ability to be designed and implemented around the values and needs of local people.

Yet local values are not fixed in time, they can be malleable to changing circumstances and incentives. For instance, the increase in the abundance of Colobus monkeys around the Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park in Zanzibar, Tanzania is thought to be a direct result of shifting local values. As the community around this protected area began to value the species as a tourist attraction rather than a pest, they changed their behavior toward it and the Colobus monkey population flourished. When conservationists work with communities to understand and focus on the (in)direct values of nature to local people, we almost always see positive outcomes for both people and the planet.

Conversely, giving non-local values and voices too much weight can result in negative outcomes for an ecosystem and the local people that rely on it. Catering to the expectations of tourists who want to experience an imagined “pristine nature” devoid of humans, for example, can undermine inclusive conservation efforts. Values of tourists may need to be transformed through education and awareness-raising campaigns. Teaching tourists about the importance of people and communities embedded in biocultural landscapes and seascapes as both stewards and beneficiaries of those natural areas can go a long way in ensuring the success of conservation efforts.

While recognizing and respecting the diverse values of diverse actors who have a stake in nature is a precondition of just decisions, it can also make it more difficult to find common ground – especially when values clash. Different groups often have incompatible values and priorities, which can lead to conflict. For example, economic development may conflict with conservation goals. In these cases, additional training around conflict resolution and transformation may be necessary in order to find a sustainable and just path forward that works for all.

That path rarely involves shortcuts. Co-design and co-management of conservation projects take time and are expensive. Meaningfully engaging with local communities means working with communities to support their vision throughout the project's lifecycle, from planning and design to implementation and monitoring. While conservation practitioners often understand the value of this holistic approach, it can be challenging to find the necessary funding for these kinds of projects. It's critical that all funders fully support and prioritize the health and development of people alongside the protection of nature.

People are a part of nature. To make inclusive conservation the norm, we must accelerate the paradigm shift that recognizes the intertwined and complex relationship between people and nature. This means conservationists need to get comfortable with seeing people and signs of people—such as livestock, settlements, and agriculture—in protected areas. Shifting norms and changing perspectives within the conservation community may be difficult, but it’s critical to moving in the right direction.