So you want to be a conservationist? Think of the community

This post contributed by Lina Oliveros, a native Colombian and administrative assistant/governance at the Ecological Society of America.  

When we consider all the conservation challenges facing our world and society, we know that communicating effectively to the community is not only helpful but necessary. However, many inspiring projects in various conservation areas have failed to succeed—not because the scientific background was not there or because the financial resources were unavailable—but because the community’s support was not entirely there. One of the elements to a successful conservation project is a strong connection to the community, especially during the early stages of project planning. 

The rose-breasted grosbeak migrates to shade-grown coffee plantations in Colombia, Credit: “Steve took it”

For example, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the United States Forest Service and the National Federation of Coffee of Colombia recently completed a census of birds in the coffee zones of the tropical Andes in Colombia, done mainly to study the preservation of resident and migratory birds. As part of the project, Jorge Botero, program coordinator of conservation biology for the Federation, introduced the coffee shadow program. It was designed to connect the “green patches,” isolated patches of native forest, with coffee crops that serve as corridors for migratory and resident birds. 

From the beginning of this project, the team made the community a major component. For example, the Colombian Coffee sub-global assessment categories included human well-being, such as quality of life and economic security, in addition to ecosystem services. Jorge Botero appreciates this connection between community and conservation: “It is critical to link local communities with conservation programs for migratory birds and resident [birds] and thus promote habitat conservation.” 

TNC, the U.S. Forest Service and the Federation have created a strong bridge between the local community and the scientists working there. They produce educational projects for children that live in nearby villages, including posters and educational materials that teach children various topics in bird conservation, such as how to distinguish between migratory and resident birds. 

This community outreach campaign not only touched the children and farmers’ lives, the owners of private coffee areas started the practices as well. Many farmers and owners are now adopting these sustainable ideas and incorporating them into their coffee plantations, not only because it makes sense in terms of conservation, but because it incorporates financial stability. 

Another area crucial to success is being aware of a community’s culture—learning the traditions, language, rituals and history can only work to a conservationist’s advantage. When planning to “sell” a project to a community, conservationists will often find hesitation or even resistance. Therefore, it is critical the team knows who it is they will be working with. What are the community’s rituals? What is their history? Who are their leaders? How long have they lived there? The more questions asked, the more the team will know what exactly the variables are and how to rearrange the projects accordingly. Considering that many people do not like change, conservationists should always step into the shoes of those communities and make reasonable propositions that respect tradition, and of course, that prepare for any resistance.  

For example, Corrie Mauldin, program manager for ESA’s Science Office, worked as an agroforestry extension agent with the Peace Corps in a small forest village in southwestern Cameroon from 1998-2000. She learned that the needs of the small-scale cocoa farmers of the village were complex and crossed many areas, such as improving agricultural practices, infrastructure, education and health. Because these needs were immediate and intertwined, she decided to first discuss the needs with the king makers—the heads of the 14 families who founded the village—and with youth groups, women’s groups and farmer groups, before she introduced any projects. 

Corrie Mauldin in southwestern Cameroon, Credit: C. Mauldin

Each group prioritized the need for more effective farming technology for food and cash crops, and the demand for a bridge across a large river that led to the most fertile farming ground. The food and cash crops suffered from nutrient depletion due to erosion and  slash and burn practices that left the soil depleted after the first one or two seasons. Mauldin created a nursery in which she grew agroforestry tree species for farmers to plant among their food crops. These particularly fast-growing tree species helped to lessen erosion on steep hillsides and provided fuel, fodder and food. Some tree varieties helped to fix nitrogen in the soil, aiding crops such as maize and okra. As Maulden explains: 

Although working on field projects in developing countries rarely goes according to plan, it is necessary that the community be a functioning partner in the process. If a local community is not a key leader in development projects from the beginning, the project will inevitably fail.  

Corrie Mauldin was able to return to this village ten years later and was impressed with the initiative that individual farmers and the community as a whole demonstrated in their improved food and cocoa crop yields. 

Another critical component is flexibility: finding projects that can incorporate a community’s culture while encouraging the conservation point of view involves communication and flexibility. Take Jeff McNeely, former chief scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, who worked for 7 years in Thailand, 2 years in Nepal and 3 years in Indonesia on various conservation projects: 

When I was working in Indonesia back in the late ‘70s, one of my projects was to support the establishment of a protected area on the island of Siberut, off the west coast of Sumatra. This is quite an amazing island about the size of Bali but with only about 18,000 people, most of whom live by harvesting sago palm and hunting pigs and primates. Siberut has no less than four endemic species of primates, including the only gibbon found on such a small island, and the closest relative of the proboscis monkey (that lives on Borneo). Tony Whitten, now at the World Bank, was doing a field study on the gibbon for his Ph.D. but was also helping to lay the groundwork for a protected area. Tony, like several anthropologists before him, had found that Siberut still had plenty of primates, despite the hunting pressure (mostly with bows and arrows).  Various rituals and taboos restrained hunting pressure, and we saw no reason why the traditional hunting could not continue even as we were working to conserve the primates. We therefore worked with the local people and came up with a design that would limit the impact of logging from outside interests while enabling the local people to continue their traditional way of life. This has turned out to be a success. Tony Whitten told me a few weeks ago that he had recently returned to Siberut and was able to see all four species of primates within his first day on the island. 

An important general lesson here is that people living in forested areas have little interest in over-exploiting the resources upon which they depend. Most of the over-exploitation comes from outsiders who have no long-term interest in maintaining healthy wildlife populations. 

Conservationists provide invaluable contributions to the preservation of healthy wildlife populations and enhance the community in ways the members may not fully appreciate. But always remember the impact that the communities can have on the overall success of a project as well. And remember how much of a difference you can really bring to a community as a conservationist, by enhancing ecosystem services without changing the true identity of the community. 

Lina Oliveros earned a B.S. in Marine Biology from Florida International University. She currently works for ESA and is a volunteer for the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Migratory Bird Center.

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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  1. this is a very big help, an inspiration! lets help spread the word. we should be a conservationist in our own simple way. Lets help preserve our wildlife.

  2. Communications is a very crucial aspect of conservation programs. Many of the conservation methods requires a stressful explanation to get the cooperation and support of the affected community. Despite the fact that it is directed towards the sustainability of the environment and the long term sustainability of the community, the cultural and long time practices of these communities often are in conflict with the conservation principles. Most often,you will be forced to explain between the long term effect of conservation against the existing and pressing needs of today especially in poor communities where they are more concerned with the food and needs for today that they can hardly get rather than the issues of tomorrow, whatever they may be.


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