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Whither 'Community-Based' Conservation?

Whither 'Community-Based' Conservation?

The concern for biodiversity conservation in recent years has spawned a wide-ranging debate for a return to "fortress" conservation highlighting the inadequacy of community-based conservation. This article examines the nature of the ongoing debate from four key perspectives: incompatibility of conservation and development, viability of strict protection in the current circumstances, moral and economic arguments for conservation and the prevalent orthodoxy of conservation-friendly communities. Despite these limitations, community-based conservation is here to stay. The real issue is not whether communities should be involved, but rather how such involvement can be made effective. Protection of biodiversity must be based on a wide range of approaches to develop a shared understanding of compatible conservation and development goals at various levels.


Whither ‘Community-Based’Conservation?

The concern for biodiversity conservation in recent years has spawned a wide-ranging debate for a return to “fortress” conservation highlighting the inadequacy of community-based conservation. This article examines the nature of the ongoing debate from four key perspectives: incompatibility of conservation and development, viability of strict protection in the current circumstances, moral and economic arguments for conservation and the prevalent orthodoxy of conservation-friendly communities. Despite these limitations, community-based conservation is here to stay. The real issue is not whether communities should be involved, but rather how such involvement can be made effective. Protection of biodiversity must be based on a wide range of approaches to develop a shared understanding of compatible conservation and development goals at various levels.


he current concern for conservation of biodiversity in tropical developing countries is fuelled by debates over effectiveness of two mainstream approaches, viz, “fortress” versus community-based conservation. Widespread dissatisfaction of state-led “fines and fences”, protectionist, i e, the fortress approach led to the community-based conservation approach in the late 1980s. It was promoted with the hope of advancing both conservation and development aims, particularly in protected or threatened areas [Wells et al 1992]. Since the 1980s, a myriad of community-based conservationdevelopment initiatives have been implemented throughout tropical Africa, Asia and Latin America. Despite substantial financial investments and efforts, results to date have been mixed – indeed some quite disappointing. Several observers point increasingly to the fragile conceptual and empirical foundations upon which such initiatives are based [Coomes and Barham 1997; Oates 1999; Barrett et al 2001].

This article explores both the dominant and commonplace conceptual notions and experiences, which inform the current conservation debate on this issue. It primarily focuses on formal approaches in community-based conservation which emerged from the 1980s after the western model of conservation based on separation of nature from culture and people, i e, fortress model did not succeed in protecting biodiversity loss around the world. While attempting to locate the discussions about both approaches and the tensions surrounding them, it argues that implementation of community-based conservation, with the dialectic of a complex, transitional and pluralistic setting is an intricate and in many cases an ongoing process. Therefore, in the current context it may not be the magic potion to cure every conservation problem. But, it definitely is a useful approach for developing a more effective institutional framework to improve conservation-development linkages in several contexts [Hulme and Murphree 1999].

The article is organised in four sections. The first section traces the history of the two mainstream approaches. Based on this, the ensuing section delves into the arguments of both, the proponents and opponents of community-based conservation over some of the commonly debated issues. It is followed by discussion of some of the major limitations of the community-based conservation approach. The last section discusses the role community-based conservation should play in the current context. The article concludes that the implementation of community-based conservation programmes is inevitably contentious, and the key issue is to recognise how an effective institutional framework can be developed for a shared understanding of conservation-development goals.

Recognising that the roots of the debate lie in its origin, it is important to understand the history of the two approaches and the whys and the wherefores of the emanating discourse and its consequences leading to the current deliberation.

Foundations of Fortress Conservation

The rise of modern conservation consciousness and conscience, based on the separation between man and nature, dates back to the late 19th century in America and Europe as wilds disappeared and rural communities became urban [Colchester 1996]. In the third world countries, which are the focus of the current debate and this article, conservation action began before the end of the 19th century primarily due to the initiatives of colonial administrators, foresters and scientists [Grove 1987; Khare 1998]. The influence of conservation thinking emanating from America and Europe and conservation practices, structures and experiences derived from a range of places from Cape Colony to India [Grove 1987], towards the end of 19th century, led to creation of areas reserved for game or wildlife. The defining feature of these areas was exclusion and prevention of use by local inhabitants – nature being separate from culture and livelihoods. This setting aside of areas for “nature” or “wildlife”, where human use is either prevented or severely constrained is the fundamental philosophy behind the fortress conservation approach [Adams 2001].

After the second world war, several formal regimes of fortress conservation were initiated in the countries in Africa and Asia. In Africa, the history of creation of game reserves dates back to 1892 [Adams and Hulme 2001a]. The Cape Preservation Act of 1886 was extended to the British South African territories in 1891 [MacKenzie 1987]. Reserved and protected forests were established in India in 1878 and with many years of game laws and their implementation, the National Parks Act was passed in 1934 [Khare 1998]. In Latin American countries, the setting aside of areas for natural reserves was initiated from the 1960s onwards [Barker 1980]. This conservation approach also became a part of the specific international discourse through the work of several influential conservation organisations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature and World Wildlife Fund founded during 1930s [Adams and Hulme 2001a]. There were variations in interests and objectives in pursing this approach across different countries depending on a complex set of social, political, economic and ecological milieu. But, the common threads were a set of key factors like economic motives for resources appropriation, both for the use of private capital and as a source of revenue for the state [Gadgil and Guha 1994; Gibson 1999], a response to increasing concern about environmental degradation and climatic change [Adams 2001], and the romantic vision particularly of Africa as “Eden” teeming with wildlife. This resulted in a broad notion of conservation more as a technical exercise devoid of socio-political considerations [Ellis 1994].

The legacy of this approach had dominated programmes and polices of tropical biodiversity conservation till the past few decades. The key characteristics of this has been stricter enforcement regulations for exclusion, creation of several new reserves, parks and sanctuaries in different parts of the world at the behest of state governments, foreign and local conservation scientists, research organisations as well as some donor agencies. The justification for persistence and, in many cases, shifting, to centralised management of these areas for conservation was based on threats from deforestation, habitat fragmentation, overkill, secondary extinction and introduced species [Terborgh and van Schaik 1997], etc. This also included a plethora of other factors ranging from population growth, poverty as well as economic development, political instability, etc [Oates 1999].

The influence of this development was, however, weakened in the 1980s. This was due to an increasing hostility between local populace and park authorities [Neumann 1998], declining economic conditions affecting both effective enforcements of conventional conservation and rural poverty [Gibson and Marks 1995] and overall the increasing loss of biodiversity from around the globe [Wood et al 2000]. These concerns helped stimulate a massive rethinking of an alternative conservation approach worldwide. The success of some of the community-based conservation projects led to the recognition and preference of community-based conservation over the fortress approach.

Advent of Community Conservation

In the mid-1980s, conservationists began realising that governments lacked resources to conserve biodiversity effectively

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    [Wainright and Wehrmeyer 1998; Barrow and Fabricus 2002]. This led to the recognition that local communities must be actively involved, and their needs and aspirations considered, if biodiversity is to be conserved [Gadgil et al 1993]. This wider consensus on community-based involvement was also the culmination of several international initiatives [Adams 2001]. The paradigm shift arose from the recognition that in many parts of the world, conservation was unattainable without the support of the people living in the proximity of the parks and sanctuaries [Ghimire and Pimbert 1997]. These trends led to the development or as some scholars argue the revival of the conservation paradigm of community-based conservation, emphasising natural resource conservation by, for, and with local communities [Western and Wright 1994; Kothari 2001].

    The fundamental philosophy unlike fortress approach has been that biodiversity conservation will succeed only if local communities receive sufficient benefits, participate in management, and, therefore, have a stake in conserving the resource [McNeely and Pitt 1987]. It also arose in response to criticism levelled at conservationists for the ways they ignored the needs, ideas and aspirations of local people in planning and implementation of programme. Accordingly, implementing organisations were encouraged to deliver community development programmes, promote income generating activities and involve local communities in conservation efforts [Mehta and Kellart 1998]. The community-based conservation paradigm considered conservation and development to be compatible.

    With this premise, in the past two and half decades, community-based conservation approaches have proliferated in various parts of the world. A wide range of mechanisms and arrangements for community involvement like integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs), protected area outreach, collaborative management, co-management, joint management and community-based natural resource management have been adopted [Barrow and Murphree 1998].

    Framing the Debate

    Recent reviews of the communityconservation approach has shown that while the benefits to local people has been mixed, there has been notable lack of successful and convincing cases where there has been tangible improvements in biodiversity conservation [Adams et al 2004]. The varied performance of many of the programmes has led to a resurgence of support for the fortress approach, calling for separation of the development objective, as it undermines conservation efforts [Kramer et al 1997; Oates 1999]. There are, however, others who believe that community conservation has the potential and that return to fortress conservation would be disastrous [Wilshusen et al 2002; Berchin et al 2002].

    Based on these reviews, four critical issues are identified, which impinge on these ongoing deliberations more than others. This section synthesises the arguments of proponents and opponents of community conservation on these issues.

    Conservation and Development: Are They Compatible?

    One of the dominant arguments for community-based conservation emphasises that the standard notion of conservation needs to be reworked. It argues for replacing concepts of wildlife preservation with “sustainable utilisation” thinking in which conservation and development goals are seen as co-dependent. Both the issue of sustainable utilisation and linking of conservation with development mainly in the form of ICDPs have been the focus of debate on compatibility of conservation and development.

    In the former case, the origin of the debate dates back to the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in the 1980s which promulgated the concept of sustainable utilisation of species and ecosystems [Adams 2001]. Based on the objectives espoused in WCS the proponents argue that conservation should be regarded as an integral part of economic development in poor countries. Whereas, the opponents point out that this presents a simplistic vision of reality and that the mechanisms proposed to attain this goal will irrevocably lead to loss of biological diversity [Robinson 1993; Oates 1999]. The main critique of this approach has been that sustainable use depletes biodiversity [Redford and Richter 1999]. However, Wilshusen et al (2002) point out that the evidence against controlled resource use is not as conclusive as proponents of the protectionist argument suggest. This view ignores social and political realities (i e, pre-existing use rights) to which interventions must adapt, e g, it leaves out the fact that, in most cases, parks overlap with or adjoin areas with pre-existing landuse rights.

    Another major debate on this issue has been linked to the performance of ICDPs. Over the last decade, there have been over 300 ICDPs world-wide absorbing a major portion of the international conservation funding [Hughes and Flintan 2001]. Though it varies within as well as across the countries, the ICDP approach can be broadly defined as one that aims to meet social development priorities and conservation goals [Well et al 1992]. The underlying assumption is that the local people will stop exploiting resources within parks if they achieve increased incomes or are otherwise economically compensated for “opportunity costs”. Several reviews of the performance of ICDPs, however, have shown mixed results from around the world. Some have judged it to be “promising but unproven” [Brandon and Wells 1992; Adams et al 2004]. The IIED (1994) review of some of the well known programmes in Africa points to some gains, but at the same time, there are numerous difficulties in implementing these programmes.

    This has led to critiques that question the compatibility of conservation with development [Barret and Arcese 1995; Noss 1997]. The criticisms have been mainly about “risk-fraught” large investments made in these programmes, which raised unattainable expectations and in many cases development increased human pressures [Wells et al 1992; Stocking and Perkin 1992; Southgate and Clarke 1993].

    However, its proponents point out that given the broad range of activities that can come under the umbrella of an ICDP, it is unlikely and undesirable, that ICDP can be categorised as definitely successful or failing [Abbot et al 2001]. Malleson (2002) also points out that such criticism misses the possibility that ICDPs’ lack of protection success could be from implementation shortfalls rather than fundamental incompatibility of conservation with development. This also overlooks the impact of intervening variables like conflict, organisation and governance. Hence it would be a mistake to assume out of hand that if ICDPs do not sufficiently address biodiversity protection then we have nothing to learn from the approach and thus it should be tossed out as a policy tool [Wilshusen et al 2002]. Wells et al (1992) conclude in their review that if the commitment to conserve biodiversity is sincere, then the answer is that ICDP approaches must be reinforced and expanded simply because there are few viable alternatives.

    Parks and People: Is Strict Protection a Viable Solution?

    Another dominant argument for community-based conservation approach is strongly rooted in the evidence that in all developing countries, local communities continue a day-to-day interaction with the areas and species sought to be conserved; even if not de jure, there is de facto use, even in case of strictly protected areas [Kothari et al 1998]. Across the world half of the protected areas are inhabited [Borrini-Feyerabend 1996]. A review of the African situation reconfirms this fact that areas of outstanding conservation coincide with dense human settlement or impact [Balmford et al 2001]. The implicit argument of the proponents, therefore, is that attempts to exclude local people will be unrealistic and will inevitably lead to conflicts and resource degradation. Therefore, participation of local people in management is an imperative [Saberwal 1996; Brown and Kothari 2002].

    Another important dimension of this debate is the critique by the proponents that protected area management has often been based on a far too static view of ecosystem dynamics. In many cases indigenous or local management practices can provide the controlled disturbance needed to maintain diversity which strict preservation cannot [Ghimire and Pimbert 1997; Gadgil 1998].

    This viewpoint has, however, been criticised by Spinage (1998) as misrepresentation of ecological theory and halftruth. The main opposition to this view is that such indigenous management was relevant in the low population and hence low pressure on resources context. Since, over the years human densities have changed around parks, the role of local management practices is overestimated. The opponents argue for no compromise with strict protection [Oates 1999]. As Kramer and van Schaik (1997) recommend, protected areas will always be in need of active defence, no matter how great their benefits are to local communities or to society at large. This argument has been further corroborated by the comprehensive assessments of Burner et al (2001), who found out that parks have been surprisingly effective at protecting ecosystems and species despite significant pressures.

    Conservation-Friendly Communities: Myth or Reality?

    The proponents of community-based conservation emphasise that the rural or, especially, “traditional/indigenous” communities were in harmony with local resources and have demonstrated long established patterns of sustainable and equitable resource use of these resources [Colchester 1996]. There are numerous studies, which have documented an extensive evidence of patterns of indigenous people having conserved biodiversity [Warren and Pinkston 1998]. Alcorn (1994) argues that this is, however, not recognised by conservationists who wish to avoid evaluation of their own activities. This argument is further pursued by the call for greater recognition of indigenous/traditional knowledge systems in conservation [Gadgil et al 1993; Kothari et al 1998]. Another strong argument in favour of the presupposition that communities have a greater interest in the sustainable use of resources than does the state or distant corporate managers is that the local communities are more cognisant of the intricacies of local ecological processes and practices. Hence, because of their dependence on these resources in many cases they are more able to effectively manage those resources through local or “traditional” forms of access [Brosius et al 1998].

    However, several scholars point out that the naive assumption of community as a homogeneous group having common vision of conservation is flawed [Agrawal and Gibson 1999; Leach et al 1999]. The homogeneous images of community often encountered in conservation debate, are a poor reflection of empirical reality and hence often a misleading guide to practical intervention strategies [Li 1996]. There is a need for a critical perspective of “who actually conserves” in various conservation activities. Community-based conservation programmes should recognise the internal differentiation with the communities. Some opponents even question the capacity of communities to self govern the resources at their disposal [Alvard 1993; Barrett et al 2001]. They claim that in the current context, due to growing population pressure, increased access to modern technology, increasing market orientation, and steady erosion of traditional cultures, there is no guarantee that biodiversity objectives will be achieved if resource control is placed in the hands of local/ indigenous groups [Spinage 1998; Enters and Anderson 1999]. Terborgh (2000) points out that indigenous people, just like people everywhere, act opportunistically in their self interest in exploiting wildlife.

    ‘Fortress’ Conservation: Are Economic and Moral Arguments Valid?

    The often cited basis for the protectionist approach is based on a combination of economic (pragmatic) and moral arguments [Wilshusen et al 2002]. Kramer and van Schaik (1997) summarise the pragmatic argument by explaining the utilitarian importance of preserving biodiversity in terms of economic use and non-use values. This type of thinking emphasises that humans benefit from wild nature in various ways via ecological services, genetic banks for key agricultural crops, and environmental services etc. Therefore, these benefits should act as a powerful incentive to conserve nature [Balmford et al 2002]. This argument further extends to biodiversity being a common good, and therefore, there are rights of global, regional and local communities to enjoy the aesthetic qualities of nature now and in the future [Terborgh 1999]. In many ways this may seem as valid. However, this line of thinking ignores cultural diversity and how different cultural groups’ perceptions of the natural world might affect dialogue on conservation. It also assumes that local and non-local interests are of the same order and carry the same weight and hide the widely held perception that the “common good” refers to elite special interests [Wilshusen et al 2002].

    To summarise the debate based on the arguments presented in the previous sections, greater protection measures cannot safeguard rapidly disappearing tropical biodiversity. Neither can conservation with development be a singular strategy, most likely it will not provide sufficient protection of biodiversity. In such a situation, should communitybased conservation be abandoned? This paper argues instead for search for alternatives, it is important to first diagnose the problems of the community-based approach as it still has the potential to address conservation problems.

    What Ails Community-Based Conservation?

    It is amply clear from the discussion that support for community conservation is by no means universal. The main reasons for this include issues such as the practice of not keeping pace with policy rhetoric, a simplistic understanding of complex intra-and inter-community interactions, inequitable distribution of the rights and responsibilities for natural resource management and losses of power [Barrow et al 2000]. Empirically, there is little doubt that many of the projects implemented with this paradigm shift – including some of those touted as major success stories – are experiencing problems [Berkes 2003].

    One of the key constraints of the community-based conservation approach has been its inability to reconcile the complexity of facilitating development with conservation. The assumed simplicity of linking conservation with development is fraught with problems for both practical and conceptual reasons. These range from lack of delivery of sufficient tangible benefits impacting significantly on people’s livelihoods [Inamdar et al 1999] to the arguments that if conservation is to be based on economic benefits then people who accept it might reject it for a better economic alternative [Hackel 1998]. While project failures could be attributed to several reasons, what is critical is that the links between the two are not predictable [Abbot et al 2001].

    In many cases traditional “community” institutions have been weakened by high levels of political, social and economic uncertainty, and by high levels of population movement. Many communities are now extremely diverse and divided, and often unable to cooperate internally [Sekharan 1996]. The most daunting problem is that different interest groups subsumed in the category community interact with the local environment and its resources in different ways. These interactions are constantly changing and the challenge of community conservation lies in its ability to cope with this [Enters and Anderson 1999].

    Issues of governance have a strong influence on the conservation, i e, rules and regulations under which power is exercised for the conservation purposes and the relationships between park managers/ government agencies, local people, private sector and even among communities [Brown et al 2002]. The impacts are demonstrated in various forms of conflicts ranging from those emanating due to differing priorities between authorities and local people to managing financial benefits and its distribution [Karlsson 1999; Songorwa 1999]. Whereas conflicts in the pre-community conservation era took place mainly between communities and conservationists, there is now a new source of tension, within communities. Corruption, nepotism and jealousy raise their heads as soon as community conservation produces meaningful benefits [Barrow and Fabricus 2002]. This is further complicated by the lack of technical and administrative management capacity for an effective monitoring and evaluation of conservation measures and therefore, the scene is set for disillusionment amongst project managers and donors. Added to this is the issue of political struggle over wildlife particularly in many African countries [Gibson 1999].

    Another concern is the fact that many conservation authorities and their technocrats still seem unconvinced of the desirability of building true partnerships with communities. They still view rural communities as technically unable and politically unprepared to play a serious role in conservation. In many cases projects have been affected due to the lack of willingness amongst conservation biologists to support the devolution of the control of forest resources to communities and their failure to accept that difficult trade-offs [Malleson 2002]. Little (1994) also cautions about the fact that factors such as the reluctance of the central governments to devolve authority, the difficulty in ensuring compliance with “participation” guidelines, and the large amount of time spent in administration, etc, may work against community conservation in future.

    These and many other arguments lead even proponents of community conservation to recognise that community conservation is not a panacea for all environmental and conservation problems [Kothari et al 1999; Berchin et al 2002].


    Based on the discussions in the previous sections, it is obvious that neither the fortress nor the community-based conservation approach is a uniformly reliable foundation for tropical-biodiversity conservation. The failure of both the approaches has multiple sources. This article has dwelled on four key assumptions informing the debate on current conservation paradigm. It also seeks to highlight that the failure of communitybased conservation mainly stems from improper conception and implementation of conservation projects. There is a need for better recognition of the fact that conservation and development cannot be linked in all the contexts.

    Hence, the key question which this article seeks to ask is should community-based conservation be allowed to wither? The answer is no! The relevance of the community-based conservation approach lies in the fact that despite its limitations and problems, there is no denying the reality that the ground rules have changed: no protected area is an island and people and conservation are difficult to separate [Barrow and Fabricus 2001]. As Adams and Hulme (2001b) put it, “love it or hate it, community conservation (in one guise or another) is here to stay”. Having said that, it is also imperative to recognise that the real issue is to find ways as to how can it work.

    There is a need to build upon the experiences of community conservation approach. One of the key lessons from the community-based conservation approach has been that that biodiversity conservation cannot be done in isolation and that approaches must involve effective partnerships at various levels, i e, development of new institutional framework [McShane 2003]. Conservation planning without an adequate local partnership is unattainable. However, there is a need to move beyond a single approach to understand what works where and how. As Hackel (1998) point out, to succeed wildlife conservation policy should be a mix of protectionism, community involvement, public relations, conservation education and revenue sharing.

    One possibility as suggested by Barrett et al (2001) is that the strength of distinct organisations (community, government, NGOs, etc) should be combined through vertical coordination within nested hierarchies. For example, many communities performing certain tasks in exchange for resources from a few regional governments operating within the bounds of policies established by central governments. Alternatively, horizontal coordination within a level in a hierarchy, such as through federations or union of neighbouring communities around a protected area is another possibility. Berkes (2003) suggest that it may be more useful to rethink community-based conservation as shorthand for environmental governance and conservation action that starts first from the ground up but deals with cross-scale relations.

    One of the greatest challenges facing conversation today is to be able to engage itself with a broader set of stakeholders and civil society at various levels rather than being confined to debates on success and failures of either top-down or bottom-up approaches. Coalitions composed of conservationists, local people, the forest department and social activists are likely to achieve far more than the current fragmented approach that pits conservationists and foresters against the local community and social activists.

    To be effective, programmes for protecting biological diversity must use a wide range of approaches. It certainly starts with more effective participation at all stages of preparation and implementation, from a full range of stakeholders, to reconcile the interest of different interest groups. There is a need for more flexible designs, improved monitoring and introducing adaptive management to the changing internal and external environments. This calls for more attention to develop an effective institutional framework to engage with a broader set of civil society stakeholders.

    The difficulties in putting these suggestions in practice, lie in the fact that it would entail several years of institutional experimentation and adaptation before these initiatives are established. It is evident from the above discussion that conserving remaining biodiversity with the dialectic of complex, transitional and pluralistic settings is an intricate and in many cases an ongoing process. However, given the increasing threats of loss of biodiversity around the world, it is time now to focus on integrating approaches which strengthen the community-based approach.




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    V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA

    Course on Research Methods in Labour History (19-23 February 2007)

    V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA invites applications from young researchers, teachers and activists concerned with labour issues for participating in a Course on Research Methods in Labour History, during 19-23 February 2007. The objective of the course is to discuss methods of research and theoretical approaches as well as historiography of labour in India and abroad. The course is also intended to provide a historical context to the contemporary issues concerning the Indian Working Class. The course would be organised around lectures and interactive presentations by a team of eminent scholars led by Professor Sabysachi Bhattacharya, Honorary Fellow of the Institute. The participants are also required to make presentations on the themes of their individual research work as part of the course activity. No programme fee will be charged and VVGNLI will provide to and fro sleeper class fare and free boarding and lodging in the Institute’s Campus. In the selection of applicants, preference would be given to those with postgraduate degree in history or allied social sciences and to those who are actively involved in labour organisations. Application along with the bio-data and a brief statement of the participant’s research interests in labour studies may be sent to Dr. Babu P. Remesh, Associate Fellow, V. V. Giri National Labour Institute, Sector-24, NOIDA-201301, (0120-2411469 Fax: 0120-2411474, 2411536; E-mail:

    Last date for receiving the applications: 25 January 2007.

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