Reducing the social cost of conservation: How to safeguard local communities' rights

When the Bwindi rainforest in Uganda was designated a National Park in 1993 there were good reasons to consider it a high priority for conservation. Home to nearly half the world’s population of mountain gorillas and a high species biodiversity, it was under threat by commercial loggers and hunters. However conservation came at a cost, the indigenous Batwa people were relocated from the forest and other communities living on the fringes of the park lost access to an important way of making their livelihoods. The conflict that arose led to the creation of a number of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs), designed to share the benefits and income from mountain gorilla tourism with local communities. However a recent paper by researchers at the University of East Anglia, supported by ESPA, demonstrated that the benefits have not been equally shared and ICDPs may not be an effective quick fix after all.
Batwa community on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park - Image: Adrian Martin
The researchers developed a justice framework for assessing conservation efforts and found that those in non-tourism areas and the poor, particularly the Batwa people, had less access to benefits. The benefits which people get from their environment or ‘ecosystem services’ not only covers basic services, such as access to food and water, but also those which are less obvious, including cultural services such as spiritual sites or traditional methods of hunting. In the developed world the globalised economy and technology has distanced people from this direct reliance on the environment, but in developing countries people are dependent on the flow of the full range of ecosystem services.  It is easy to see why conflicts arise, especially for those in poverty, when all these benefits are not taken into consideration.
In the Bwindi region whilst local infrastructure, such as schools and roads, and other non-monetary benefits had improved, many were forced to diversify their livelihoods to become less dependent on the forest. For the poorest the loss of foods and forest medicines is a major problem and they are also least likely to access significant monetary benefits such as employment. There are also impacts on wellbeing including a loss of traditional livelihood practices and skills and a sense of discrimination. Concerns were raised about the lack of consultation by authorities who were perceived to have set the agenda for park governance and excluded some of the issues most important to local communities. The findings led the researchers to make several recommendations on how conservation can better align with social justice outcomes;
  • More investment needs to be made in the level and quality of consultation with local communities at the start of conservation and associated ICDP initiatives
  • Communities should be involved in decision-making about solutions to conservation and associated social problems. A more open approach is needed to allow indigenous groups access to park resources and spiritual sites. It is also important to take into account that distributing economic benefits cannot compensate for all forms of loss.
  • Revenue sharing should benefit those living in tourism and non-tourism areas equitably
  • Alternatives to tourism benefits, such as multiple use zones, which allow some access to a park’s resources, should be properly targeted to non-tourism areas
The problem is not just limited to Uganda, concerns over justice in conservation are growing around the world with many major international conservation organisations issuing new policies to safeguard people’s rights. Getting the approach right can be difficult and a recent review, also led by researchers at the University of East Anglia, has highlighted that a broader approach to analysing justice should be applied by managers of natural resources and conservationists. 
In particular, analysing justice should involve capturing and examining influences at local, national and global levels and take into account the full range of ethical concerns. The typical concerns at the heart of conservation, such as the rights of animal or plant species and responsibilities to future generations, can create situations in which the ends are justified even if it makes some people worse off. The review found that these limited notions of justice are particularly damaging in the global south, where economic inequality and poverty are common. Often the loss of non-monetary benefits, such as access to spiritual sites which contribute to wellbeing, are not taken into consideration.  Even when the loss of more tangible benefits, such as access to land to grow food, is recognised the schemes set up to distribute benefits, monetary or otherwise, are often victim to corruption or inequality. One of the most common issues is the capture of benefits and income by local elite groups.  There is also controversy about the ethics of monetary compensation, which can look like bribery if the loss of non-monetary benefits are not addressed. 
The review highlights that issues relating to justice should be looked at in the early stages of designing conservation and natural resource management projects. This is vital as injustices relating to the recognition, participation and distribution of benefits to local communities are often a result of lack of consideration and consultation in the project design.
Even in conservation initiatives that have been designed specifically with the benefits of local communities in mind are not immune from these challenges. In Kenya, a payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme was designed to capture the value of coastal mangrove forests which act as carbon sinks and help to fight climate change. The international carbon market created an opportunity to secure income for local communities for conserving mangroves - which also provide many other benefits such as nursery areas for fish and protecting the coast from storms. 
But in many developing countries where mangroves grow the land is communally or state owned. Often governance at national and local levels can be weak, unstable and prone to inequitable resource sharing. To add to this local factors can sometimes result in inequalities based on gender or ties with local elites.  If PES and other similar schemes are to create win-wins for the environment and local communities then agreement needs to be established early in the project, with full understanding and support from local communities, on how to manage natural resources and share the benefits fairly.