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Rethinking the Decentralization and Devolution of Biodiversity Conservation

Thomas Enters
Penang, Malaysia, and
Jon Anderson
Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations, Rome, Italy


This paper re-examines assumptions regarding conservation in light of opportunities for increasing the involvement of local communities in biodiversity conservation and forest management. It focuses on forest and forest margin dwellers and their livelihood strategies in tropical forests. At the same time, it recognizes that the role of policymakers, private sector and other stakeholders in the use of forest resources and their impact on forests are frequently more important. Perrings and his colleagues (1995) remind us of the massive ignorance and uncertainty about the extent and significance of change in the level of tropical forest diversity. Similar deficiencies remain with regard to forest resource use and its impact, although recently it has become evident that not all activities lead to biodiversity erosion and loss. Low intensity use can even enhance forest genetic diversity. Lack of knowledge is compounded by the distance between popular and scientific debate, and diverging perspectives of forest dwellers. Biodiversity means different things to different people.

Traditionally, local people and their economic activities have been viewed as threats to the undisturbed functioning of natural ecosystems. In the classical approach to conservation, people were the "problem" and were to be excluded from protected areas. Protected areas were conceived and designed in terms of biological concepts and scientific inventories. However, it became evident that the social costs of exclusionary conservation projects were sometimes high, and that their success rate, even in biological terms, was disappointing. As a result, the classical approach to biodiversity conservation was replaced by Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDP), with the goal to "enhance biodiversity conservation through approaches which attempt to address the needs, constraints and opportunities of local people" (Wells and Brandon 1993). In this latest approach to conservation, local people are put at the forefront and viewed (at least in theory) as active partners, if not outright frontline managers.

The success rate of ICDPs and the "populist" approaches are also discouraging, however. Despite this, the general belief continues to be that only through the devolution of management responsibilities and authority can the desired result of maintaining ecosystems and their life-supporting functions be achieved. In fact, such is the enthusiasm for decentralization, devolution as well as privatization that it has become heresy to question them.

This paper attempts to re-examine the main assumptions upon which devolution and populist approaches to biodiversity conservation are based. To make a powerful and cogent argument, some positions in this paper have been simplified and a somewhat simplified dichotomy has been drawn.

The paper focuses on forests and local people in tropical countries although its observations may be relevant elsewhere. However, forest or forest-margin residents are not the only, and perhaps not even the most important, stakeholders who "ultimately decide the fate of much terrestrial biodiversity". Industrial logging, large-scale forest conversion, road construction, mining and other activities may, as McGrath (1997) reminds us, pose greater threats. Besides rural people, many influential and powerful stakeholders influence biodiversity and affect the success or failure of conservation projects. They are not considered in this discussion, because first, their activities are easier to regulate (although rampant illegal logging and massive forest conversion to plantation crops in some countries has been equally hard to stop) and second, their dependence on natural forests is not crucial for their livelihoods, meaning that they are able to adjust more easily to a new situation or the imposition of restrictions.

Setting the Scene

The preservation of natural ecosystems has long been on the agenda of institutions concerned with biodiversity. Representative samples of ecoregions have been set aside and put under strict protection. This "northern" vision of an untouched wilderness has permeated global policies and politics for decades and has resulted in the classic approach to meeting biodiversity conservation needs, which is still at the heart of the conservation agendas (Gilmour 1995). Basically the conventional approach requires that we (adapted from Biot et al. 1995):

  1. identify biodiversity loss as serious, indicating that conservation is urgently needed;
  2. design a project in which, if exclusion is not an option, the cooperation of local communities is sought; and
  3. implement plans through a combination of encouragement, persuasion, and subtle threats sometimes by more coercive powers1 .

Key points are that local people are viewed as "the target population" or "beneficiaries" and that they are frequently excluded from the areas considered important for biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, as numerous examples show (Braatz 1992; Pinedo-Vasquez and Padoch 1993; Colchester 1994; Fairhead and Leach 1994), conservation projects and programs that fail to consider the interest of local residents, undermine existing indigenous management systems and restrict local authorities in their decision making on resource management only intensify the loss of biological diversity. Furthermore, they raise highly contentious debates between national and local interests (McNeely 1997) and can lead to open protests and conflicts (Nepal and Weber 1993; Pimbert and Pretty 1995; Hirsch 1997a). Thus it is not surprising that the conventional approach produced disappointing results (see Box 1).

The recognition that the solutions to "ecosystem management" problems lie in social, cultural and economic systems, stimulated the development of a new paradigm which views local people as part of the solution and not as part of the problem. Thus, top-down, exclusionary management has been replaced with forms of participation and devolution. According to the new thinking, the conventional approach failed mainly due to the lack of coherence between interventions and local livelihood strategies and the exclusion of local people in project design, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

Box 1: Provoking resentment of protected areas

By law or by administrative dictate, customary rights and activities have been curtailed in many PAs [protected areas] in India; in some, people have been summarily displaced. Almost never have adequate alternatives or rehabilitation been provided. As a result, village communities now have intense resentment for the PA concept; and it is associated with restrictions on access to resources, harassment by forestry officials, exposure of crops and livestock to ravage by wild animals, and invasion by noisy tourists - now given free rein in the same areas where villagers have been banned.

Source: Kothari (1997)

Further impetus to the earlier critique of the conventional approach has come from studies on traditional knowledge and practices. A consensus appears to have developed according to which local people do not pose a threat to biodiversity but rather they were the victims of its loss and most affected by forest degradation (Malla 1998). When they have been implicated in forest destruction they are seen to have been "obliged" to over-exploit resources because of inappropriate policies and legal systems. Hence, attention has shifted from blaming rural people for deforestation and loss of biodiversity, to identifying the "larger processes" that are the primary cause of unsustainable land-use practices and over-exploitation of forest resources.

In the conventional approach, biodiversity is seen to be at its optimum in undisturbed natural areas. The national government is viewed as the guardian and supplier of biodiversity and has sovereignty and nominal control over the areas required for conservation (Panayotou and Glover 1994). In reality, however, effective control rests with any of a number of forest users (or stakeholders) and particularly with the resident population that live in and around the forests. In economic terms, they are the providers of biodiversity and its fate lies in their hands (Ferraro and Kramer 1997). As a result, use restrictions and the establishment of protected areas can represent substantial opportunity costs (Child 1994). Furthermore, it appears neither politically feasible nor ethically justifiable to deny the use of natural resources to the poor and marginalized without providing them with alternative means of making a living (Wells 1995) or compensatory payments. Thus proposing any activity that is not profoundly grounded in the involvement of local people is considered unacceptable. Even in conservation, the "farmer first" approach seems to be required. Most projects today emphasize community-based participation in decision-making, the devolution of management responsibilities, and tangible incentive systems that favor forest conservation over exploitation - or over-exploitation (Wells and Brandon 1993).

Yet, devolution or the participatory approach in many cases does not appear to be more effective than the conventional, technically oriented approach. An important reason for the poor performance is that genuine participation is still the exception rather than the rule. Most organizations pay only lip service to the goal of involving local communities. In reality, they "adopt a narrow technocratic and, seemingly, apolitical notion of participation" (Utting 1998), collaborate with more influential stakeholders and attempt to reach their, often unstated, objectives which may be diametrically opposed to the objectives of rural people (Malla 1998). Participation is also often part of the language of consensus and does not serve to underline differences but to assure "coercive harmony" around objectives, particularly those of the state or the project, which local people do not share (Brown 1998b; Anderson, Clement and Crowder 1998). In addition, most projects are deficient in clear criteria through which to determine whether local people benefit from conservation and/or whether conservation objectives are reached more effectively by devolving responsibilities and authority.

Challenging Assumptions

Within the realms of devolution and participation many conventional assumptions remain unchallenged, leading to unclear objectives (Wells 1994/95). A major problem is that the concept of partnership in conservation is often based on the following - frequently untested although often contested - assumptions:

  1. Local populations are interested and skilled in sustainable forest resource use and conservation;
  2. Contemporary rural communities are homogeneous and stable; and
  3. Local community-based tenurial, knowledge and management systems are uniquely suitable for forest conservation.

The following discussion responds to Lynch's call for "challenging and revising inaccurate assumptions about the nature and causes of local environmental problems" (1998) and examines these three aspects in light of opportunities for involving local communities in biodiversity conservation projects and for advancing the devolution of forest management.

Degree of interest and skill in sustainable forest resource use and conservation

Devolution of natural resource management and conservation activities is predicated on the fact that local people have the motivation and the skills necessary for this management. This assumption will be questioned with examples from the management of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), often held out as a pathway to conservation of forests and natural ecosystems. Despite the contemporary forest dependence of many forest dwellers and local small-scale industries, it appears that many natural products are not managed sustainably, and over-exploitation is common. The fragility of extractive economies in general, and the unsustainable use of NTFPs in particular, have been pointed out by Homma (1992), Hall and Bawa (1993), Gupta (1994), Ros-Tonen et al. (1995), Antolin (1995) and Parnwell and Taylor (1996). While the diminishing natural resource can be partially explained by forest conversion and destructive logging operations, the reasons for over-exploitation in remaining natural forests are more complex.

In the past, a number of social and environmental constraints held over-harvesting of NTFPs and timber for local purposes in check (Peluso, 1991). Where population numbers were low, accessibility was restricted and subsistence use predominated, these factors combined to produce a scale of sustainable activities even if the same techniques on a larger and more intensive scale would produce resource depletion. In low-use areas, most products were still used sustainably and traditional restrictions and regulations were heeded. Today, however, even remote areas are often accessible, resulting in the breakdown of traditional controls and subsequently aggressive collection behavior for commercially important products. Empirical evidence suggests that few wild resources can sustain commercial exploitation, and that trade will either result in local depletion, extinction or initiation of the domestication process (Wilkie and Godoy 1996). As Peters (1996a) explains "although the fact is seldom mentioned in much of the literature on the subject, a large number of NTFPs are actually harvested destructively", which at times seriously reduces the abundance of particular species. Examples of various forest products include ironwood (Peluso 1992), wild honey (Kaplan and Kopischke 1992), sandalwood and fruits (Balachander 1995), mushrooms, rattan, bird nests and gaharu (Peters 1994), and mahogany and cedar (Kaimowitz et al. 1998).

Traditional collectors suffer most from the intensification of harvests, which partly explains why they are usually more concerned about the threats to forests posed by intrusions from outsiders than ecological sustainability per se (Utting 1998). Traditional collectors are often poorly organized, if at all. Their ability to take collective action in managing common pool or wild resources, including controlling access, is limited. Furthermore, the existence of monopolistic buyers leads to inefficiency in marketing and very low returns on labor to collectors. Market expansion for many products has led at the same time to greater competition among collectors and traders. As Basha (1996) pointed out for bamboo, the conventional NTFP sector is less harmful to the resource than the newer commercial sector.

Box 2: Unanticipated Environmental Change

"...villagers acting in this Kalimantan case are moving away from field and food crop agriculture and toward greater production of forests and agroforestry products. Over the past three generations, villagers have altered the hillside vegetation from a mixture dominated by swidden fields and fallows with patches of managed forests to a heavily managed forest landscape dominated by selected fruit trees. The villagers' increasingly intensive tree planting on village lands was stimulated not only by land scarcity engendered by enforced sedentarization and by the loss of their formal access (legal rights) to ancestral land when the colonial government carved a nature reserve from the villagers' land but also by the increased market access that resulted from road improvements, urbanization, population growth, and sedentarization."

Source: Peluso (1996)

While other studies generally confirm this finding, the issue is complex, particularly because there is no clear distinction between subsistence and commercial use. First, with the increasing monetization of local economies, forest products have become more important for income generation (Balachander 1995; Malla 1998). Second, the forest products sector is very dynamic. Products recently classified as belonging to the subsistence and traditional sector belong, today, to a very organized commercial sector (e.g., rattan and bamboo).

Even in the past, many traditional societies were not conservationist per se, but rather manipulators of the natural forests (Sekhran 1996). This is perhaps nowhere more evident than on the island of Borneo where many Dayaks have manipulated old-growth and secondary forests in order to raise their productivity for several hundred years (Peters 1996b). Such practices have been termed "forest agriculture" and Colfer (1993) has described the Dayaks as managers of the forests not as "marauders". Even though they exploit their forest fruit gardens actively, such forests have a species diversity and a vegetation structure resembling natural forests (de Jong 1995). Their impact on the forest cover - although not necessarily on plant composition and biodiversity - is minor, as long as population densities remain low and no other stakeholders appear on the scene. This is rarely the case. Colfer and Soedjito (1996) explain that an area that until the early 1960s was a lowland primary dipterocarp forest is today covered by a significantly different forest affected by fires, extensive large-scale logging and small-scale agroforestry activities. Landscape changes can often take on very different forms (Box 2), although the directional change of biodiversity under Dayak' forest management remains unclear.

There is archaeological evidence from areas west of the inland delta of the Niger River in Mali, West Africa, that traditional natural resource use was highly dependent on the ability to migrate. Renewable natural resources, particularly vegetation, were extensively used and depleted over a period of a time and the populations then migrated to other areas. This allowed the environment time to recover and regenerate, to be later subject to another periodic episode of intensive (and unsustainable) use (Haland 1980). With increasing population levels the "sustainable migration strategy" is more and more difficult to sustain. Populations may be forced to remain in one area while not having faced the necessity to develop the wherewithal (knowledge, skills, techniques, etc.) for sustainable management.

Local communities' interest in forest conservation depends, at least to some degree, on how much they are still part of the ecosystem and how much their behavior directly affects their own survival. It appears that cultural mechanisms that have been developed as adaptations to the forest environment over hundreds of years are easily cast aside when trade and new technologies free people from traditional ecological constraints (McNeely et al. 1995). That means that traditional resource use patterns are only sustainable under specific circumstances, usually characterized by low population densities, land abundance, use of simple technologies and limited involvement in the market economy (however, compare with Box 2). On the other hand, as Alvard (1993) points out, under such conditions people can be exceedingly wasteful of resources "yet not have a large enough impact to cause a significant negative impact...". Accordingly, it might as well be that they do not use their indigenous knowledge to maintain an ecological balance; they just happen to be biodiversity custodians by default.

But how many people still live under these conditions, and how many people want to live under these circumstances? Human relationships with the landscape are dynamic, not static activities that can be categorized as interactions independent of time (Zube and Busch 1990). It is particularly important to gain insights of the perspectives of the next generation. There is considerable evidence that younger people do not want to step into the footsteps of their forefathers, and non-farm employment opportunities are favored over agriculture (Parnwell and Taylor 1996; Rigg 1997). In Papua New Guinea, for example, younger people are alienated from traditional culture and oblivious to past natural resource management practices. Their harboring of high development expectations is viewed as a serious threat to biodiversity conservation (Sekhran 1996). Local people, whether the hill tribes of Northern Thailand, tribal people of India, Dayaks of Kalimantan, the Penan of Sarawak, or the native population of Amazonia desire many of the same material benefits that other more developed - in a technological and economic sense - peoples enjoy, including adequate nutrition, shelter, health care, education, watches, TVs and VCDs (Alvard 1993; Langub 1996; Ferraro and Kramer 1997). A common feature of community-based forest management and the devolution of decision making is that local people have difficulty recognizing just what benefits are supposed to come their way (GTZ 1995). Also, most people prefer immediate and secure returns over long-term and risky ones (Sekhran 1996), in particular when control over natural resources is constantly shifting (Malla 1998).

To assume that there are always ways to improve local incomes without depleting biodiversity is, at best, naive (Wells 1994/95). Even if it was possible, it is just as naive to assume that people are interested in conserving biodiversity and sustainable forest management and that they prefer to hang on to traditional practices and knowledge. Instead, many local people (even in remote locations) welcome the material goods they can obtain, although they knowingly destroy the resource that they depend on (Rajasekaran and Warren 1994). At the same time, they are reformulating their images of themselves, seeking the benefits of a fuller citizenship and demanding access to roads, education and health facilities, which in their view are symbols of modernity and development (Li 1995a).

The assumption that local people have an interest and knowledge of conservation and sustainable management needs to be reassessed. The low scale of impact may sometimes gives the illusion of sustainability when local people are in fact - like other stakeholders - susceptible to incentives to over-exploit natural resources.

The reality of contemporary local communities

Images of intact resource-managing communities are often used as a basis to advocate stronger legal rights and government recognition for community-based systems. Forward looking in intention, advocacy of this kind sometimes replaces the description of local communities, past and present, with descriptions of an ideal type (Li 1996; Hirsch 1997b). Many project surveys conducted for project implementation are biased towards men, the older generation, and people making their living primarily in subsistence agriculture and forest-oriented work (see Box 3). The voices of the younger generation, whose activities, interests, perceptions and views are far more important for the long-term sustainability of conservation, are often not heard.

Box 3: The Continuous Problem of Survey Biases

It was decided to direct questions only to household heads over 25 years old. Younger men could provide only limited information about conditions before 1982 in households they now head. Thus, the survey was biased toward the perspectives and blind spots of middle-aged men, at the expense of those of women, younger men, or other groups. In addition, in the few villages where a substantial portion of the population support themselves primarily by work other than agriculture and agroforestry, the farmers and longer-resident ethnic groups are over-represented. This bias reflects the tendency to interview older and longer-term residents, rather than younger people and newcomers.

Source: Mayer (1996)

The result of biases and advocacy is a normative image of community and household behavior, particularly indigenous people, as having "a different world-view, consisting of a custodial and non-materialist attitude to land and natural resources, and want to pursue a separate development to that proffered by the dominant society" (Verlaat 1995). In fact, rather than being non-materialistic and separate from dominant society's development, examples from around the world indicate that local communities at the forest margin, and in the forests themselves, are increasingly affected by rapid marketization and modernization processes especially in the economies of Southeast Asia (Rigg 1997).

The term "local community" is often used quite loosely. As Gilmour and Fisher (1991) argue, it is a loose synonym for a group of people and of little use in implementing community forestry projects. They suggest to work instead with "interest groups", i.e. "a group of people who have similar sets of interests in respect of a particular situation". They acknowledge that shared resources and livelihood guarantees are characteristics of small groups, such as small tribes, neighborhoods or extended families, but seldom of whole village communities which tend to be rather heterogeneous, factional and stratified. This heterogeneity is dynamic and constantly changing, which explains why community regulations for forest use fail sometimes to continue effectively (Utting 1998).

Since conservation means different things to different people (Elliot 1996) and interest groups (Kremen et al. 1994) it is absolutely crucial to avoid a situation where a project negotiates with the wrong people due to ignorance about local power structures and the distribution of interest (Ingles 1996). However, who is to choose who is right and who is wrong?

The premise that local communities should be given a central role in reaching conservation objectives has the inherent dilemma of defining the "local community", their "indigenous knowledge" and "traditional culture". The attempt to catalogue tradition and locate an authoritative source able to present "the community" or "culture" leads to simplifications inevitably ridden with power (see Box 4), as articulate spokesmen, rendered more powerful by state support, overlook ambiguities in the meaning of indigenous terms and practices (Li 1996). It should also be noted that discourse and practice in support of community participation, organization or control remain problematic in some countries such as Indonesia (Barber 1997). In Thailand, on the other hand, it is the hierarchical nature of the society which provides much of the explanation for disappointing performance of participatory projects and grass-roots development (Rigg 1991).

Box 4: Inventing Traditional Communities and Imagining Communities

In an effort to consolidate land rights [in Upland Sulawesi, Indonesia], the state looks for simplified notions of tradition; in particular, it is interested in identifying the individual "owners" holding "traditional" rights to land. The 1947 Agrarian Law which recognizes the land rights of "traditional" communities (so long as these are compatible with the national interest) requires that the identity of this "community" and its "tradition" first be defined and pinned down. It is now, in these modern conditions and in the context of the commoditization of land that the Lauje are being "traditionalized" or "tribalized" for the first time. Historically, the Lauje were a scattered and individualistic group, without a strong sense of ethnic identity, and with little need for a formalized adat articulated in terms of "Lauje Tradition". They must now, however, begin to make land claims based on being a "traditional community". Without a centralized leadership structure, here is no agreement on who should speak for the group in articulating these questions of identity, community and tradition. Meanwhile, as some become quite effective in making and defending claims, colonizing and monopolizing land and having their names entered into government records, others are struggling to hold on to land and livelihoods.

Source: Li, T. Murray (1995b)

... the biodiversity issue in agrarian societies in the South revolves around competition for scarce resources, strategies for gaining access and struggles which sometimes involve direct physical confrontation as well as the creation, use and manipulation of legal means. There is a comforting and misleading notion of "community" which is used in many conservation documents. It has become a social construction which policy makers and foreign donors need and upon which they base assumptions about local management of resources. Anderson (1983) talks of "imagined communities" which meet policy objectives. In reality, "communities" are often highly differentiated - along lines of gender, age, wealth, for example - and therefore their members may have very different perceptions and definitions of biodiversity. Also, the implications of biodiversity loss - as well as the costs of conserving biodiversity - must be differentiated according to wealth, gender and age. There is a need to "deconstruct" the notion of community.

Source: Blaikie and Jeanrenaud (1996)

In addition, many local communities are not asking for less state involvement and more isolation, but rather a better state; a state that is more responsive to their needs and offers them access to services and facilities.

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. This interaction is constantly changing and depends as much on the type of prevailing agroecosystem as it does on the local economy and influences of external forces.

Today, many rural communities do not view society and nature as indistinguishable and regard themselves as controlled by the natural environment. Rapidly evolving social systems and community values defy any broad generalization but it appears that increasingly rural communities perceive that natural resources may be dominated and sacrificed for personal gain. Furthermore, the normative images of intact resource-managing communities are in many cases not only misleading, but defeat the purpose of constructive consensus building and frustrate those who view the empowerment of local communities as a precondition for successful biodiversity conservation.

As Neumann (1996) stresses, it is crucial that project design addresses the fact that villagers are often politically fractured and socially differentiated. Fractures in the local community may run along gender, wealth, class, age or ethnic lines of identity. Also, divisions within the communities shift perhaps as communities present a unified front to a perceived threat from outside, sometimes multiplying in internal struggles over land and resources.

Appropriateness of community-based tenure, knowledge and management systems

Community-based tenurial systems are rarely acknowledged by national governments or logging operators in any meaningful way (Lynch 1998). While changing forest ownership and transferring authority over forests to local communities is not a panacea to the problem of resource degradation, it is usually viewed as a prerequisite for biodiversity conservation. Increased tenure security has been linked to sustainable farming practices (Cook and Grut 1989; Lutz and Young 1992) and is assumed to also apply to forest management. People are only willing to invest their scarce resources if they know that ultimately they will reap the benefits of conservation activities.

Recent experiences with decentralization in Bolivia suggest that much uncertainty remains regarding the implications of tenure change and devolution for resource conservation (Box 5). Positive examples are just as common as negative ones and it remains to be seen "whether decentralization will lead to greater conservation of natural habitats and reduced threats to biodiversity" in the long run (Kaimowitz et al. 1998).

Although necessary, tenure security is not a sufficient condition for sustainable forest management and conserving biodiversity. In Papua New Guinea, for example, many communities have been campaigning for years, for various reasons, including the desire for rent capture and consolidating power, to attract extractive development, mining and logging, to their communally held areas (McCallum and Sekhran 1996). The benefits that miners and loggers can offer substantially outweigh the ones of conservation (Box 6). Freedom to use their natural resources as they please leads to forest degradation, which is not unlike the situation in other countries where natural resources belong to the state.

Resource and property rights are also changing in tune with the transformation of agrarian societies and livelihood strategies as well as the influx of migrants. For example, in parts of Kalimantan many of the forests managed by Dayak families, but communally shared for many products are rapidly being privatized (Peluso 1996; Peluso and Padoch 1996). In particular, where roads change the relative isolation of formerly remote areas and markets for land develop it is not uncommon to find parcels of forests, that de jure belong to the state, but de facto are traded in the market. The interest in communally held resources or common property is thus diminishing.

Box 5: Decentralization and biodiversity conservation in Bolivia

Local governments in the indigenous areas of San Ignacio de Moxos and in Alto Ivón in Riberalta patrol their areas to avoid encroachment from logging companies, ranchers, or agricultural colonists, ... In other cases, local indigenous governments have suffered from petty corruption and sold their timber resources to logging companies with little concern for sustainable production. In balance, the regional experience suggests that giving indigenous communities greater control over their natural resources, by strengthening both their land tenure security and their local governments positively affects resource conservation....Most groups concerned are still more concerned with their access to existing resources and short-time incomes, than with long-term sustainable development.

Source: Kaimowitz et al. (1998)

Box 6: Communal Forests for Wholesale in Papua New Guinea

Many communities have a world view that is inclined towards the short-term, planning for their perceived immediate needs rather than for their long-term welfare necessities. The medium to long-term social, economic and environmental consequences of their current land use practices are poorly understood and often ignored.

In this context, forest-edge communities are opting to sell harvest rights to timber companies as a means of obtaining cash and social services. This provides "development", as they perceive it, and addresses their concerns regarding economic exclusion. The fact that it does little to establish a framework for durable development rarely enters the decision-making calculus. Conservation, because it yields future, diffuse and often intangible benefits, many of which have no direct monetary value, tends to be undervalued in this context and seen to conflict with community aspirations. This ethos tends to be reinforced by many developers and Government agencies.

Source: McCallum and Sekhran (1996)

The relationship between devolving responsibility and community-based tenure on one hand and biodiversity conservation on the other defy any broad generalizations. However, if biodiversity conservation requires some management, the contested issue of land tenure cannot be spared in the discussion of viable options, but as the evidence suggests it should not be viewed as "the solution" for all the problems.


The discussion has focused predominantly on problems of involving people in "a project" or of devolving responsibilities for resource management during the course of "a project". There is more to biodiversity conservation than demarcating a protected area on the ground and implementing "a project". In fact, a project-based approach has inherent limitations that are often overlooked. Many factors leading to deforestation and forest degradation can neither be influenced by local communities, nor by project personnel during the course of even a long-term project. Neumann (1997) notes, "local participation and local benefit-sharing, however, are not the same as local power to control use and access, which, in the end, is what many communities seek".

Identifying the human consumers of natural resources requires considering all socio-economic and political groups. The needs and interests of other stakeholders frequently contradict those of the direct users. There is a need to recognize the stratified nature of many rural societies. While they may have been traditionally egalitarian and non-hierarchical (although this seems unlikely), internal divisions are emerging due to marketization, modernization and the commodification of the natural resources.

An important lesson is that biodiversity conservation must ignore or consciously abandon those areas where communities have already made choices that will likely cause long-term conflict with the imperatives for conservation. The solution to forest loss is not in finding additional economic incentives for the rural poor and in devolving more and more responsibilities, but in generating more attractive alternatives elsewhere. Although in certain low population areas livelihood enhancement may be a better option (Brown 1998a). There will always be the potential for conflicts of interest between rural people's ability to earn a living and the conservation of areas of high ecological value, especially when "communities are anxious to leap-frog the development process to get the rewards quickly" (McCallum and Sekhran 1997). Conservation projects can aim to mitigate such conflicts of interest by focusing on alternative income sources and education programs. However, some conflicts will persist and the need for protecting forest areas through policing and enforcement will often be inescapable (Wells 1994/95; Ferraro and Kramer 1997).

Finally, the results of devolving management responsibilities have been disappointing because the linkages between socio-economic development for local residents and the needed behavioral response to reduce the pressure on the remaining forest resources and adjust use intensities are not well established. In large parts, the inability to establish these linkages results, first, from a lack of understanding of livelihood strategies at the forest margin and their relationship with the forest resource. Second, our limited knowledge of household behavior prevents us from predicting the effects of many interventions. The assumption that the living standards of forest residents can be improved and biodiversity conservation objectives can be reached simultaneously remains untested. Hence, Ferraro and Kramer (1995) conclude that "if you cannot identify a very precise conceptual link between a proposed intervention and household decision-making, do not proceed with the intervention".

The significance of this conceptual link is perhaps the most important conclusion. It should motivate us to re-examine our perceptions of what rural livelihoods and communities are all about. It should make us understand that communities are not only homogeneous entities but that also substantial differences among villages, districts, economies and forests exist. It should spur us to examine the potential nexus between the interest of resource users in devolution and the objectives of biodiversity conservation. This nexus and the ability to conserve and manage forests depends on numerous variables, such as: population density, the arrival of technological innovations (e.g. chainsaws), and improved access to infrastructure including education and markets. They are good indications of the extent of market penetration and modernization within a community. The more integrated - here again in a technological and economic sense - a community is, the more stratified are its members, which makes the introduction of community-based conservation and the devolution of forest management a considerable challenge. Education and modernization lead to a fast disappearance of local knowledge. It is futile to work with the oldest community members in an attempt to fix tradition when it is the younger people whose involvement in sustainable activities ultimately counts more.

While the "Coperican" revolution that takes governments out of the center of the universe is welcome, the reaction of uncritically putting local communities at the center may be equally unsatisfactory. Partnerships and dynamic interactions between different stakeholders may be at the heart of the future of biodiversity conservation.

Most important for the development of conservation strategies is to challenge the "received wisdom" about forest dependence, stakeholder involvement, community cohesion and the interest of local people in biodiversity conservation and forest management. It is just as crucial as reconsidering the conservation-development orthodoxies that have historically influenced project designs and are leaving their marks on today's devolution, decentralization and privatization policies too.

A final point that needs to be stressed is what the purpose of protected areas is. If the purpose is the conservation of biodiversity, then the following observation by Melvin Bolton (1997) emphasizes that successful protected area management strategies are insufficient:

"It has become fashionable to say that `parks are for people', but the other 97% of the Earth's surface is also for people so the important thing is to be clear about why parks are special."2 


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1 For more information on the use of coercion in conservation projects see Peluso (1993), Enters (1996) and Lee (1996).

2 We are grateful to Douglas Williamson for bringing this issue to our attention

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