Conservation works better with social justice

Poverty threatens wildlife conservation despite widespread efforts to integrate conservation and development so that local communities benefit. So what's going wrong? Our research suggests it's social justice that's missing.

Julia Baker's picture
Insight by 
Julia Baker
20 August 2014
A family guards their crops from wild animals on the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Photo: Mariel Harrison)

A family guards their crops from wild animals on the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Photo: Copyright Mariel Harrison)

All too often, Integrated Conservation and Development (ICD) projects fail to stop poaching, encroachment and other activities that threaten the world's most endangered animals. One example is Uganda's mountain gorillas, living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Bwindi is home to around half of the world's population of this critically endangered species. And it lies in one of the poorest and most densely populated regions of Africa. Bwindi adopted an ICD approach shortly after it became a national park in 1991 and ICD has been a key way for park authorities to improve relations with local communities.

But now, more than 20 years later, with illegal bushmeat hunting and timber collection continuing, IIED and partners are researching how ICD can do more for both protected area conservation and local livelihoods.  

Who are the poorest of the poor?

The poorest people live in the 'frontline zone', extending about 0.5km from Bwindi's boundary where crops and livestock are frequently raided by wild animals. They are at greater risk of disease because they have fewer sanitation facilities. They have less education, making it harder to find work, and they live far from trading centres and transport that others within their community benefit from.  All of that creates a perpetuating trap of poverty.

Do they benefit from ICD projects?

Some ICD benefits are reaching people in the frontline zone. But few or no ICD benefits are reaching the poorest people living there.

The poorest people also feel less involved with decision-making and less ownership of ICD projects. From investigating why this was so, it appeared that most ICD projects occur near trading centres and roads, but not in remote areas where the poorest live.

Who and why?

We wanted to understand who uses Bwindi's resources illegally, and why, despite ICD. People who have been arrested for illegal resource use were generally poorer than other local residents and lived close to the national park and far from trading centres – suggesting poverty is the major issue.

But not everyone undertaking illegal activities is arrested, so we used indirect questioning and focus groups to explore further. 

Bushmeat hunting

Bushmeat is the forest resource that local people of Bwindi want and consume the most. Bushmeat hunters often live in remote areas and the frontline zone. Many hunt because they cannot afford meat or livestock, or want bushmeat for medicinal needs. So again, the evidence points to poverty.  

But we found that some hunters are not the poorest in their community. There were traditional hunters who sold bushmeat locally for a small, modest income. But others hunt not from necessity but because they feel the national park's conservation is unjust. They hunt to compensate themselves for the crops and livestock taken by wild animals. As one of our focus groups explained, "the present management is not controlling the problem of crop raiding animals, which makes people angry so they go into the forest". 

People also hunt bushmeat because they resent jobs with the national park going to outsiders, and that ICD projects fail to benefit people suffering because of the national park. Another focus group told us "people are angered by the giving of goats; those receiving goats are not living near the park, so we are angry and go to the park and poach".

These feelings of injustice over national park conservation were as important a driver of hunting (and other illegal activities) as rural poverty.

Social justice is needed 

When presenting our research findings at workshops to Ugandan policy makers and conservation practitioners, we focused on the critical need for equitable management of protected areas. But what does equitable protected area management look like?  

The Uganda Conservation and Poverty Learning Group members (U-PCLG) took on this challenge and, for the second stage of our project, are advocating for four key outcomes – greater equity in tourism revenue sharing, more national park-related jobs filled by local people, reduced human-wildlife conflict and better access to sustainable resource use.

Around Bwindi, our research and U-PCLG's advocacy activities are helping ICD interventions through equity become more effective in both conservation and poverty alleviation. And at the international level they support wider developments for social justice within conservation.

While equality is part of social justice, the meaning of social justice is much broader. It has developed from what was a revolutionary idea to encompass issues of human rights, governance and power into mainstream political, legal and academia thinking.

We're working with partners to show that social justice is not only a moral obligation, but a necessity for effective and sustainable conservation.

Julia Baker ( is a biodiversity specialist at Parsons Brinckerhoff

Read more about this research:

Linking Conservation, Equity and Poverty Alleviation: Understanding profiles and motivations of resource users and local perceptions of governance at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, UgandaLinking Conservation, Equity and Poverty Alleviation: understanding profiles and motivations of resource users and local perceptions of governance at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

Project partners

For this project, IIED partnered with the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC), the Jane Goodall Institute-Uganda, Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Imperial College Conservation Science and Parsons Brinckerhoff.


This project is funded through the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, which assists countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to implement their commitments under the international biodiversity conventions. It is also partly funded by UKaid from the UK government; however, the views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UK government.