Postgraduate Winner: People and nature – are we listening to the right voices?

In the New Year of 2019, I was fortunate to be surrounded by outlandish natural beauty in the Galápagos. What struck me most from this adventure was not the archipelago’s infamous wildlife oddities, but the humans to which these islands are called home. In our changing world the Galápagos represents many of today’s conservation pressures when humans and nature co-exist. During my stay I lived with a welcoming mother and her son: a water taxi driver, general handyman and by night, island DJ. This close experience with the people of the island immersed me in the human lives that are central to wildlife conservation, in a place where wildlife not only dominates the global news headlines but literally rules the streets. 

Santa Cruz, Galápagos Island. Shared waters; wildlife, bathers, boats, and surfers.

Photo: Alix Zelly

A tunneled view of the world

As conservationists we cannot untie nature from its context and the people it shares the landscape with, this would be to view nature as a static object that can be compartmentalized and assigned categories based on our own limited interpretations. Within landscape management, certain westernised outlooks can create divisions of nature and people in areas where this has never existed. Titles of ‘the wild’ are often assigned to natural areas which has an inherent absence of any human presence in its definition. Business and tourism tap into this concept of re-connecting with the wild and selling a wild encounter when, in reality, there is very little untouched or unmanaged wilderness remaining (Watson et al, 2018).  For all our own species’ flaws, we are an integral component of what now constitutes the natural world.

Our conceptions of nature are a social construct, our tolerance is tied to our financial situation, our viewpoints developed from our experiences, cultures, and peers. Therefore, due to these contrasting perspectives, the concept of nature can be different for a foreign researcher to the local communities living amongst the nature we wish to conserve. Conservationists acting globally will therefore inherently operate with preconceptions of the best conservation action to take. Connecting to the cultural and spiritual components of nature has been a particularly beneficial tool for conservation, with sacred sites often already being assigned a high level of protection (Dudley et al, 2009). The spiritual guardianship of nature by indigenous communities is often applauded and incorporated into conservation decision making, but what happens when the values and needs of these communities do not align so well?

All in the name of conservation

While we may be making successful steps in the modern era towards a greater understanding of the social issues and human aspects entwined within nature conservation, many local communities are still feeling the repercussions of our wrongdoings of the past. As conservationists we have been quick to highlight our successes, and rarely explore our mistakes. In some instances social issues are side-lined with publications focusing on the ecology result; in 2001 it was shown that fewer than 25% of protected areas had undertaken any detailed examinations of displaced rural groups and the impact of their resultant livelihood changes experienced (Brockington, 2001).   

Protected areas are highly debated in terms of land rights and the displacement of indigenous communities (West et al, 2006). The first national park system created in Yosemite Valley; Yellowstone, resulted in the forcible removal of indigenous inhabitants (Spence, 1999). The treatment of communities in protected areas is highly variable, historically when we consider the Amazonian people, we have been quicker to treat their culture and settlements as one entity alongside nature (Shepard et al, 2010). In the instance of native communities living within the Manu National Park, Peru, founded in 1973, their settlement remained within the park. However, 20 years later came calls to resettle the indigenous population outside the park due to westernized influence making the community now a threat to wildlife, a situation that we induced ourselves (Terborgh, 2000). An alternate solution was named ‘tenure for defence’ in which the community helped to defend the park from incursions while receiving benefits from ecotourism to service investment (Shepard et al, 2010). While this approach brings important socio-economic benefits from conservation, which is an approach quickly being adopted in many cases from education to alternate livelihoods, the terminology of ‘tenure’ still doesn’t acknowledge that the protected area was created around their traditional land originally. This is the mindset and terminology we must be conscious of as conservationists. 

Bringing benefits

Benefits to local communities has become a big part of conservation, however their disproportionate allocation has created its own problems. Despite the growth and success of community governance and decentralized management structures (Oldekop et al, 2019), which incorporates conservation benefits, this can cause the marginalization of certain groups including poor, women, lower castes and landless. This was found to be the case in the Nepal Annapurna Conservation Area (Giri and Darnbofer, 2010). A separate study of forest community conservation governance showed that having more women in decision-making positions resulted in significantly greater ecological outcomes, including better forest regeneration and canopy growth (Agarwal 2009). Furthermore, women in local communities often have different knowledge of the environment compared to men as they use resources and the environment in different ways, traditional knowledge is not gender neutral (Howard, 2003). A study of NGO’s in India showed many projects included elements of gender equity and empowerment, however this was being done ad-hoc and with a lack of empirical grounding (Ogra, 2012). The paper proposed the need for formal gender policies and baseline data collection. Conservation is well positioned to bring social benefits and empowerment to communities, with much greater capacity than providing financial benefits alone. A study of conservation programmes in Maasailand, Kenya showed the strategy of ‘Lion Guardians’, which draws on cultural values and traditional knowledge, decreased lion killing more than livestock compensation payments alone (Hazzah et al, 2014).

Top-down versus Bottom-up

A centralized top-down conservation management framework can fail in the real local social-cultural contexts which has a bias towards certain knowledge types and quantitative approaches. These formal approaches can result in a low understanding of the social, political and economic context, which is less straight forward to interpret. We must ensure that the correct information is collected to make culturally and socially appropriate conservation decisions. A recent suggestion was made that a single biodiversity target could be set aiming for ‘fewer than 20 extinctions a year’, similar to that of greenhouse gas emissions targets for reducing climate change (Editorial, 2020). Proposed as a clear galvanisation point, its reality is far from clear with questions on what species to conserve and how we would begin to monitor such a target. Furthermore, I believe it misses the mark in terms of the progress we have made in combining biodiversity and socio-economic objectives. We should not be working towards stopping extinctions but a sustainable human-natural world. This aligns with an emphasis in recent years on frameworks for conservation management which include economic and social-cultural objectives and designing management frameworks that consider both nature and people (Diaz et al, 2015).

There have been multiple calls for increased local leadership and capacity in conservation as large international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can fail to connect to local agendas, including issues of sovereignty and imposition (Rodriquez et al, 2007). Local NGOs and grass-root initiative are often best positioned to design socio-economic objectives along-side their conservation goals, particularly within the framework of community governance. However, these bottom-up approaches can also be hampered by the historical socio-political contexts of the situation. The non-profit organisation ‘American Prairie Reserve’ has a mission to “create the largest nature reserve in continental United States”, named the “American Serengeti” by buying up ranches across Montana (American Prairie Reserve, 2020a). Despite the organization setting up initiatives with local ranchers and paying a competitive price for lands (American Prairie Reserve, 2020b), the group has faced severe backlash from the local community as their approach of buying land has created an image of wealthy elite conservationists (Blakley, 2013). The external socio-economic factors of agricultural intensification, modernization and the decline of traditional ranches has made a bad situation worse for ranches who see their communities decline in size year after year. Furthermore, the area is influenced by the fall-out from the incomplete Homestead Act of 1862 and a policy reversal in the early 20th century which has created a patchwork of private and public land. Therefore, before any conservation management occurs, we need to fully assess the opportunities and viability of conservation success by understanding and accounting for the socio-economic and political factors affecting the land, wildlife and local communities. This is something that needs integrating into conservation planning at the earliest stage and into the mindset of every conservationist.

A positive look towards the future

Top-down versus bottom-up approaches do not have to be at odds and at opposite ends of a spectrum, there are grounds for synergy to exist which incorporates both western and traditional knowledge. When scientists provided evidence that forest clearing would reduce water supply to an Ecuadorian village the community quickly modified their land allocation patterns and established the first community owned forest reserve in western Ecuador (Becker and Ghimire, 2003). The sharing of appropriate knowledge, resources and tools is just one example of a collaborative approach towards conservation management in which western frameworks become less imposing when strong partnerships are formed with local communities and conservation practitioners. Elsewhere in the Kakadu National Park, Australia, an alliance between locals and NGOs enabled the blocking of uranium mining in the region (Lawrence, 2000). Both these examples took place in the early 2000s showing these ideas of a collaborative approach are not revolutionary, but it needs up-scaling to a wider scope and political level. Furthermore, international NGOs can provide important funding, resources, and access to global contacts for local conservation organisation when the right relationships are formed.

As for the Galápagos the island faces some major challenges ahead, as its population grows, at a rate three times higher than mainland Ecuador (Epler, 2007), innovative approaches are needed to maintain the needs of wildlife and people. This is taking place alongside growing external pressures such as a large Chinese shipping fleet hugging the perimeter of its marine protected area (Alava et al, 2017). However, the recent approval of a Galápagos Conservation Trust project ‘Plastic Pollution Free Galápagos’ provides hope and demonstrates an exciting opportunity for a collaborative force between the national park, local communities, NGOs and international teams of scientists (Galápagos Conservation Trust, 2020). Importantly, alongside the ground-breaking research ambitions of this project, education, outreach and community empowerment are said to be at its heart, with a three pronged approached tackling the physical, biological and human.

The next steps in the field of conservation will be critical, we need to facilitate the citizens in developing countries to have active involvement in their own country’s conservation management, beyond consultations and as solely participants in research papers. An important change is to reimagine the conservation terminologies we apply as to not over-simplify or overlook the local reality. Our priority should be in increasing diversity in conservation and creating a rich collaborative tapestry (Tallis and Lubchenco, 2014) while understanding the socio-political contexts that make for successful collaboration and successful conservation for humans and nature together.


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Zelly, Alix “Postgraduate Winner: People and nature – are we listening to the right voices?” ECOS vol. 42(1), ECOS 2021, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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