Shift power to people to preserve natural world, urges report

A major power shift is needed in the way the planet's biological resources are managed, from top-down systems that marginalise the poor to community-centred approaches that sustain local livelihoods, says a report published today (9 October) by the IIED.

News, 08 October 2008

The call — aimed at governments, businesses, international agencies and conservation groups — comes as thousands of delegates from these groups gather in Barcelona, Spain for the 4-yearly congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature on 5-14 October.

The report recommends ways to improve the governance of biodiversity — how it is managed and how decisions about it are made — to deliver more benefits to people and planet. It includes detailed new case studies from India, Peru and Tanzania which show that while some local initiatives are working for both biodiversity and livelihoods, the overall regimes tend to exclude the poor from decision making.

Biodiversity — the variety of living genes, species and ecosystems — is key to the livelihoods of millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It underpins the ecological systems that provide the clean water, food, medicines and stable climate that are essential for human well-being.

"Biodiversity is being lost faster than at any other time in human history," says lead author Krystyna Swiderska. "The current system of top-down governance favours powerful elites such as governments and businesses but is failing to protect diversity and promote social development. It is time to pass power to communities that are able custodians of the biological resources key to their lives and livelihoods."

Historically, biodiversity was under various forms of community management but today rules devised and imposed by government agencies, Western scientists and conservation organisations in a top-down manner can often harm local livelihoods — as when people are excluded from performing traditional practices when areas become protected, despite their knowledge relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

"The Convention on Biological Diversity recognises the importance of communities but countries that are party to the convention do not implement this in practice," says Swiderska. "Indigenous and local communities need a bigger role. By focusing on improving governance, this report seeks to improve outcomes for both biodiversity and livelihoods, recognising that these three objectives are fundamentally inter-linked."

The report recommends ways to strengthen local institutions, involve communities in research, and empower local people to make decisions about natural resources.

"Experience with governance shows that the better the decision-making process, the better the decision will be," says Swiderska. "This means greater transparency, benefit-sharing and stakeholder participation and improved coordination between different levels and sectors."

The three case studies show that top-down approaches to conservation — such as protected areas and centralised control of resources —dominate and that this removes incentives for local people to protect biodiversity.

"All three countries have introduced participatory conservation approaches such as co-management of protected areas in Peru, devolution of wildlife management outside protected areas in Tanzania, and Joint Forest Management in India," says Swiderska. "But, despite these policies, governments have not really shared much decision making power or benefits with local communities."

Kanchi Kohli of the Indian nongovernmental organisation Kalpavriskh says: "India's model of development severely threatens the country's biodiversity, both wild and domesticated. It is aiming for high economic growth of 9% but at a cost to local ecosystems and livelihoods. The government of India is enabling this through changes in policies and laws, such as those that promote the industrial exploitation of natural resources or by allowing corporations to access biological resources that local people are denied rights to."

The report says that alternative approaches based on devolved management and equitable benefits – such as community-based conservation – can be equally effective for conservation without the social costs. Such approaches are critical for delivering on both conservation and poverty reduction objectives, but require changes in policy and governance to succeed on a wider scale.