The editors of SULiNews want to start a discussion, running over a few issues, about the state of play on CBNRM or Community-Based Natural Resource Management. Has this approach to conservation and sustainable use proved to be of any significant value? Is it a broad concept of wide application or a narrow one only likely to produce worthwhile results if a specific constellation of features all come together at the same time? Does it have a future?

We do not want to re-invent the wheel, so a good place to begin is with the EU-sponsored workshop held in Vienna in 2011 under the title “The relevance of CBNRM to the conservation and sustainable use of CITES-listed species in exporting countries”. Several people who are now active SULi members and/or contributors to SULiNews took part in this workshop. Its report “CBNRM and CITES” runs to some 170 pages and is available online or in hard copy from IIED in London. Although the workshop devoted a lot of space to the inter-relationships of CITES, the CBD and CBNRM, which are of interest in themselves, it produced a valuable overview of the theory and practice of community-based conservation.

Many indigenous peoples, of course, managed the natural resources available to them according to agreed community norms over hundreds or thousands of years. Fortunately some still do so. Nevertheless the spread of European influence over much of the world during the colonial era with its powerful tools for exploitation and approach to property and land ownership did huge damage to rural communities and their management systems. We could argue that modern community-based conservation projects of the last thirty years or so represent a structured effort to help communities themselves put back together, in a contemporary context where money, guns and systematic legal systems are here to stay, some of the knowledge and discipline that was destroyed by colonial interventions. Highlighting the conservation capacities and the rights to land and natural resources of indigenous peoples and local communities is the mission and practice of the ICCA Consortium. We should be doing all we can to strengthen links with the Consortium.

In a chapter of admirable clarity dealing with the conceptual aspects, Dilys Roe reminds us that CBNRM is essentially a name coined and used in Southern Africa for community conservation projects that arose from external intervention and generally involved large animals and consumptive use via harvesting or trophy hunting of wildlife. In Francophone West Africa, the language tends to be about decentralised resource tenure and land management (gestion de terroir), while In Central Africa terms such as community outreach (sensibilization), and sustainable resource management (la gestion durable) feature. In East Africa, the approach is widely practised but with relatively sharp divisions between different resource sectors- forests, fisheries, and wildlife. In the wildlife sector, the common terminology is ‘community-based conservation’ while in forestry ‘participatory forest management’ refers to community-based forest management where local people have secure devolved authority over forests and “joint forest management” where forests are co-managed between locals and state agencies.

One common factor among schemes coming under the broad spectrum of community management is benefit to the local community. What varies immensely is the degree of control that the local community may exercise over the natural resources in question. They may be passive recipients of benefits from a protected area, collaborators in co-management with a regional or national authority or the sole authority for the wild resources within a defined geographical area. However, if there is no local management component it is difficult to see how a scheme can come under the CBNRM umbrella, even in its most diluted form.

Incentives are also vital and they need to be sufficient. While income to improve livelihoods always plays some part it may not be the most important factor for local people. Empowerment may be even more significant. This enables people to take their own decisions, manage their own affairs, maintain their traditional knowledge and management of land and natural resources and do what they want to do, e.g. in terms of hunting or fishing. In many cases the restoration of land rights with enforceable legal backing is a critical feature of empowerment. Communities may opt for consumptive use through harvesting, trophy hunting or eco-tourism or for some combination of these activities. A likely outcome of community management is a sharp reduction in illegal off-take of high value species. No scheme will work without real devolution of governance from the national level to the relevant community authority. The biggest challenges to successful schemes are corruption at any level, the reluctance of central governments to delegate power and the opportunity for enhanced income to local communities, and the short-termism of externally led projects designed to support them.

Notwithstanding these issues Colman O’Criodain asserts in the concluding chapter of the symposium report that, based on the information presented, “it is clear that CBNRM is making an important contribution to conservation efforts in many of the poorer regions of the world, and that it is achieving this against a wider background of decline in biodiversity, with a very mixed record of success for other more conventional models of wildlife management.” There is however a long way to go before the governments of the countries concerned or the predominating influences on international wildlife policy fully sign up to these dynamics.

What can SULi contribute to widening and deepening understanding of the value of community-based conservation? Do we need a new “Global Compact” - a brief set of key principles on devolution, to sharpen up the policy debate and move it forward? To what degree do local people need or want external assistance in designing and maintaining projects which benefit both wildlife and livelihoods?  Does there have to be an optimum relationship between the values that wildlife can yield in a particular area and the effort put into management at community level? If it is clear that intensive crop production is not consistent with flourishing biodiversity, are there not also severe challenges arising from the co-existence of pastoralism and large predators? Whatever the answers to these questions, those who are concerned to see wildlife thriving outside protected areas need to do much more to construct a coherent policy framework than currently exists.

We are looking forward to hearing from you.

Robin Sharp is a Co-editor of SULiNews and former Chair of the European Sustainable Use Specialist Group of IUCN/SSC.