Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Measuring the Costs and Benefits of Conservation to Local Communities

Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Measuring the Costs and Benefits of Conservation to Local Communities

Article excerpt

Paradigms of community-based conservation that emerged in the 1990s proposed to link the twin goals of conservation and sustainable development under a single rubric. This was and is a very sexy idea, linking as it does the protection of biodiversity and the alleviation of poverty for the most marginal human societies. More specifically, it links the protection of wildlife and wild landscapes with the protection of traditional indigenous peoples. In fact, ideas of wilderness and traditional societies are inextricably linked in the western psyche. To quote Niezen (2003:5), indigenous peoples are "the estimated three hundred million people from four thousand distinct societies, strongly attached to what were recently, and in a few instances still are, the world's last wild places."

This is a paradigm out of which international conservation organizations have squeezed a lot of mileage in the past ten or fifteen years. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund (1997) went so far as to suggest that the future of biodiversity conservation and the future of indigenous societies are inextricably linked on a global scale. The secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2004) also goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of protecting biodiversity and the livelihoods of those people who still depend on direct access to natural resources for their livelihoods (see Nugent 1994 for a comprehensive and accessible critique). Indigenous activists have also used this linkage in advocating for their rights and in building a global indigenous people's movement, but with limited, and sometimes self-defeating, results (Conklin and Graham 1995; Igoe 2005b; Niezen 2004).1

Not surprisingly, the past ten years have seen an explosion of anthropological work on traditional environmental knowledge and the promotion of 'people-centered' biodiversity conservation. As a graduate student doing research with Maasai communities in the mid-1990s in Tanzania, I was very excited when I heard the idea of community-based conservation. The people with whom I worked were fed up with traditional approaches to conservation. Many of them had been evicted from Tarangire National Park when it was gazetted in 1971. It seemed to me that a new approach to conservation, one that would prioritize community needs and incorporate local people's environmental knowledge, was definitely needed in my research area.2

However, local people believed that community-based approaches to conservation were simply a new ploy for limiting their access to the natural resources. So far, I haven't seen anything that would contradict that notion. Large conservation organizations, the Tanzanian Government, and a few of the Maasai activists have used the idea of community conservation to promote themselves and their agendas-especially in terms of fundraising. In the meanwhile, Maasai and other rural Tanzanians continue to be marginalized and divested of land and other natural resources. It took me some time to come to terms with this schism between what I actually saw in the field and what I expected and wanted to see.3

I have since learned that the types of problems I saw in Tanzania are far from unique. In response, I have been working within Dan Brockington's research project called the Social Impacts of Protected Areas.4 The project emphasizes the need to recognize that protected areas have displaced and impoverished people on a global scale. Before we can understand the benefits of conservation to communities, we must first understand the opportunity costs of protected areas-otherwise we cannot know whether communities are experiencing a net loss or a net gain (Brockington et al. 2006; Brockington and Igoe forthcoming).

As Brockington, myself and others have argued elsewhere, little is actually known about the social impacts of protected areas. There are very few systematic studies, let alone anything like a global understanding of these processes. …

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