How to effectively engage local communities for conservation? Become PARTNERS

To save endangered species, we need to work with the people who live alongside them. From over 20 years of experience in engaging with local communities, our team has developed a set of principles for successful partnerships.

This post originally appeared in The Applied Ecologist’s Blog

We’re currently witnesses to – and in many ways complicit in – the sixth mass extinction of species.

There may be as few as 4,000 snow leopards left in the wild. Photo: SLF Pakistan / SLT

Those of us striving to protect our biodiversity feel an urgent need to act. Driven by this mission, many lobby to enact stronger laws, erect fences, and equip rangers with guns. Yet, the depletion of forests and wildlife continue.

Imposing science or policies and legislation onto communities without consideration of their well-being has rarely been effective – let alone appropriate or ethical. In our frantic attempt to turn the tide and protect endangered species and their habitats, we often haven’t paused to consider how these interventions might affect the people sharing these habitats – often economically disadvantaged rural communities who depend on those very ecosystems.

Traditional conservation programs haven’t always taken into account the needs and rights of local people. Photo: NCF India / Snow Leopard Trust

We didn’t ask what a hunting ban would mean to them, how a fence would alter the grazing patterns of their livestock, or how the land use restrictions of a protected area would interfere with their lives, livelihoods and rituals.

As a result, wildlife conservation is littered with examples of inappropriate interventions that have led to serious injustice to local people and have also set back conservation efforts in the long-term.

Fortunately, things are changing. An increasing number of scientists, practitioners and policy makers working to conserve wildlife and biodiversity recognize the need to engage with local communities who live in areas of concern.

Real partnerships can make a big difference for people and wildlife. Photo: SLCF Mongolia / SLT

But while the need is increasingly clear, there are still very few guidelines – let alone a clear framework – for how to do so in a manner that can benefit all involved parties, especially the wildlife and natural habitats.

Many of us get into conservation because we care about the natural world and are interested in ecology. We want to go off and “save the world”. But we have little training in how we should engage with communities and what aspects we need to think about when we do.

In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, ‘Building partnerships with communities for biodiversity conservation: lessons from Asian mountains‘, we attempt to fill this gap, and introduce a framework for community-based conservation.

The idea of community-based conservation has taken hold across the world, but there are very few frameworks for how to do go about it sustainably. Photo: SLCF Mongolia / SLT

We distill our learnings from over 20 years of experience of our field teams working with communities in the mountains of South and Central Asia to save the endangered snow leopard and its habitat. We suggest a set of eight principles that ecologists and practitioners need to consider when engaging with communities to effect conservation.

These principles are described by the acronym PARTNERS -not just because it’s easy to remember, but because the notion of a genuine, respectful partnership with local communities to effect conservation lies at their very heart.

The PARTNERS Principles, a blend of the practical and the ethical, are born out of the realization that one size does not fit all, and that even within the same landscape, conservation challenges and opportunities can vary between one community and the next, and often even within villages or families.

The PARTNERS Principles offer a framework for engaging with local communities. Photo: SLT

The PARTNERS Principles include:

1) Relationship-building through the sustained and long-term Presence of conservationists amidst the local community

2) The Aptness of specific community-based interventions with respect to addressing the main threats to biodiversity, the underlying science, the local culture, socio-economics, the available or potential social capital, and the value of multi-faceted program

3) A relationship that views the community with dignity and Respect, and interactions based on beneficence and non-malfeasance

4) High Transparency in interactions with local communities with truthful and open communication regarding each other’s interests, and visible equitability in program benefits to community members

5) Integrative Negotiations with local communities and interventions based on formal agreements and conservation linkages

6) The ability to view problems, constraints and opportunities from the community’s perspective with a high level of Empathy

7) The ability to adaptively improve the programs and address emerging problems and opportunities with a high level of Responsiveness and creativity.

8) Strategic support to increase the resilience and reach of community-based conservation efforts through partnerships with governments in management planning and implementation, and policy and legal support.

These principles have been developed in the context of snow leopard conservation – but we suggest that with contextual adaptations, their relevance for applied ecologists and conservation practitioners is universal.

‘Strategic Support’, including the support of governments, is one of the components of successful community engagement. Here, SLT’s Charu Mishra (center) and Michael Despines (right) present a copy of the PARTNERS Principles book to President Atambayev of the Kyrgyz Republic. Photo: SLT

We encourage conservation practitioners to adapt and employ these principles for engaging with local communities. We also encourage them share their experiences and challenges. That would help other practitioners to learn from them. Conservation, after all, needs friends. It needs PARTNERS!

The full paper, Building partnerships with communities for biodiversity conservation: lessons from Asian mountains, is available to read in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

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