I participated in the second day of this symposium - “Protected Areas: are they safeguarding biodiversity?” - held at the Zoological Society of London, 8-9 Nov, 2012. Staff of conservation NGOs, students and representatives of governmental, intergovernmental and research institutions attended the meeting. The symposium sought, amongst other goals, to “identify components of the current protected areas portfolio; how is it funded, managed and monitored, and to ask how protected areas have performed from a biodiversity conservation perspective” and “how we can most effectively manage the portfolio into the future, and identify the new tools and technologies, including governance and financing mechanisms”.

It appears that, overall, the symposium fulfilled its objectives: the presentations show that, under the right conditions and on the whole, protected areas are safeguarding biodiversity. Given the steady extension and multiplication of protected areas all over the globe over the course of the past century, this data is timely. However, given the move – acknowledged and applauded by many working in conservation – towards ever greater inclusion of social issues and perspectives in conservation, I felt there were gaps in the symposium's outcomes. This article deals with those gaps of greatest relevance to people working with or supporting Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories (ICCAs) (see http://www.iccaconsortium.org/).

One symposium presentation, given by Madhu Rao of Wildlife Conservation Society Asia, touched on the topic of ICCAs. She presented a desk-based review of the literature on ICCAs that assessed their ability to safeguard biodiversity. It found that ICCAs were overall not as effective as state-governed protected areas for safeguarding biodiversity, but better than open-access regimes. Ms. Rao acknowledged the paucity of data available for drawing these conclusions, while also recognising that her review had not examined the non-biodiversity (i.e. socio-economic and cultural) benefits of ICCAs. The overall conclusion was that further research was required to draw better conclusions. Given the importance of ICCAs for conservation – the recent CBD Recognition Study on ICCAs states that “ICCAs may number far more than the current officially designated protected areas (which number about 130,000, and are mostly governed by government agencies) and cover as much if not more than the area covered by them (nearly 13% of the earth’s land surface)” – it was surprising that only one out of 22 presentations addressed the role of ICCAs – which are increasingly recognised as de facto protected areas – in safeguarding biodiversity.

Given our ever-expanding knowledge on the inextricable relationships between social, cultural and biological diversity, it would have been constructive and progressive for the symposium to move beyond assessments of protected area success that isolate biological issues from social issues, that address biodiversity as though it hangs in a vacuum. Not only does such an approach threaten biodiversity – as time and again conservation efforts that focus on biodiversity without considering the fact that it is embedded in social, political, economic and cultural life are shown to be unsuccessful – but also does not take into account the demonstrated interrelations between biological and cultural diversity, between natural life and social life. Adopting a broader scope, the symposium might have explored in greater depth the important role of ICCAs in safeguarding biodiversity, drawing on the ever expanding body of interdisciplinary and empirical research on this question. Given the proliferation of academic programmes, researchers, practitioners, funders, publications and practical projects that focus on the interconnections between biodiversity, social life and conservation, it is essential that conservation now begin to embrace this inclusive perspective in all aspects of its work, even – or rather, especially – when it purports to focus specifically on biological issues.

However, despite an avowed lack of data on how protected areas function within landscapes, broader ecosystems and conservation networks, on the effectiveness of different governance systems in comparable ecological and social situations, and on the effectiveness of ICCAs in safeguarding biodiversity in general, the overwhelming discourse presented at the symposium was that more protected areas are required, they must be larger and they must improve their effectiveness. Therefore, much more money is required to establish, expand and manage them.

This discourse remained largely devoid of reference to the relationships between local people and protected areas. The solutions to protected area financing mooted at the Symposium were (i) the green economy, i.e. financing through climate change mitigation strategies (REDD+) and payments for ecosystem services (PES), and (ii) mainstreaming protected areas into development programmes, i.e. establishing protected areas as biodiversity offsets in conjunction with mega development projects. An area in which we are not lacking data is the ‘doublewhammy’ effect that both the green economy and biodiversity offsets can have on the well-being of local populations, leading to equity problems, loss of access and rights to land and resources and threats to livelihoods and food sovereignty (see e.g. Fairhead et al. 2012, Arsel and Büscher, 2012). It is remarkable that such ‘solutions’ for the financing of protected areas are still part of the mainstream discourse when data on their damaging impact for indigenous peoples and local communities are so widely available.

If conservation is to succeed and expand in an ever-more peopled world, it cannot but engage people in place to do so, and ICCAs provide an unparalleled, already-existing opportunity at the interface of biodiversity and human wellbeing to begin that work. Therefore, to ICCA supporters, it is obvious that a far better and more ethical solution to the ‘biodiversity crisis’ than biodiversity offsets and the green economy is to support, enhance, and publish frank evaluations of the work being done by indigenous peoples and local communities to protect and safeguard biodiversity and ecosystem functions in and around their ICCAs. Fortunately, many communities, organisations and research institutions around the world are working to demonstrate that ICCAs are effective in safeguarding biodiversity and enhancing human wellbeing (e.g. Kothari et al. 2012, and the website of the ICCA Consortium). However, the ZSL symposium shows that this perspective appears to still lack traction among those working in the mainstream conservation paradigm.

Despite the supposed ‘paradigm shift’ towards a more socially-conscious conservation (1), it seems that communication between those working with more mainstream conservation approaches and those working with ICCAs is lacking. Attempts to tackle this decades-old problem have had only some degree of success. A first step towards opening more channels for communication might be to invite and encourage both groups to participate more in and speak at each other’s public events. It might also be timely to organise special events that gather leaders in the ICCA movement and the mainstream conservation movement to engage in honest yet solution oriented dialogue about their concerns over the gaps in each other's approaches, with the explicit aim of developing mutually useful tools for safeguarding not just biological diversity, but biocultural diversity. The ICCA Consortium and its members are planning a variety of such events to take place around the 6th World Parks Congress (Sydney, Australia, 2014). Contributions, comments and diverse perspectives on the topic would be most useful and welcome.

Emily Caruso is the Regional Programmes Director of the Global Diversity Foundation.


(1) Redford, K. 2012. ‘The Moral Arc of Conservation’. Blog post, available at http://www.justconservation.org/the-moral-arc-of-conservation

Other literature cited

Arsel, M. and Büsher, B. (eds.) 2012. ‘NatureTM Inc.: Changes and Continuities in Neoliberal Conservation and Market-based Environmental Policy’ Introduction to a special edition of Development and Change, 43(1); all special edition articles are also relevant.

Fairhead, J., Leach, M., and Scoones, I. (eds) 2012. ‘Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature?’ Introduction to a special edition of the Journal of Peasant Studies, 39 (2); all special edition articles are also relevant.

Kothari, A., C. Corrigan, H. Jonas, A. Neumann, and H. Shrumm (eds.). 2012. Recognising and Supporting Territories and Areas Conserved by Indigenous Peoples And Local Communities: Global Overview and National Case Studies, CBD Technical Series no. 64. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, ICCA Consortium, IUCN/TILCEPA, Kalpavriksh and Natural Justice, SCBD, Montreal (Canada).