In response to the CBNRM discussion started in SULiNews 5 by Robin Sharp's article CBNRM: Does it have a future?

Natural resource conservation approaches have changed dramatically in the past decades. The socio-economic impact of conservation policies, particularly strictly enforced, exclusionist approaches, has led to controversial conservation policy debates. Critical to these debates has been the realization that large-scale conservation outcomes are based on the cumulative effect of local initiatives, which often rely on individual livelihood decisions. This has led to a re-thinking of ‘who’ should be leading conservation efforts. Resource management and tenure rights are central to current conservations debate but should be framed within a discussion about socioeconomic development at various governance levels to effectively link bottom-up and top-down approaches to nature resource management.

The inclusion of local communities in conservation efforts is not new (see SULiNews issue 5). Whether through Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs), Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) initiatives or Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes, including the United Nations’ flagship Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) programme, there has been a significant shift towards seeing local people as part of the solution.

Support for inclusive conservation strategies comes from several sources. Firstly, the cost of exclusionist conservation initiatives is often borne by those directly affected by natural resource management policies. The loss of rights to land and other resources often exacerbate poverty and may increase inequality across pre-existing divides such as gender, social or economic status. Secondly, conflicts emerging from unpopular conservation policies often lead to a lack of local support, resulting in poor conservation outcomes as people continue to use resources deemed “protected” by law. Thirdly, there is substantial evidence that the devolution of decision-making powers to local communities can have palpable positive effects on natural resource management and conservation outcomes, with numerous examples of local communities developing strong and equitable local management regimes that have successfully mitigated environmental pressures.

Local communities manage large amounts of forested areas in tropical regions, where the incidence of poverty and biodiversity are exceptionally high. The importance of forest to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and their direct link to local livelihoods provide a unique opportunity to understand relationships between socio-economic and natural resource conservation outcomes. Critically, forest-reliant communities will be central to many REDD and other PES initiatives and it is important to understand the socio-economic and conservation trade-offs that influence local decision-making processes.

Tenure and tenure security are central to the community forestry debate and are critical for PES schemes, which require well-defined beneficiaries of payment schemes as well as clearly designated areas and services to be protected. Communities depending on forests for their livelihood needs are often poor yet empowerment and the devolution of rights over natural resources and their management is, in and of itself, not a guarantee to conservation success (1, 2). Firstly, forest resources often provide “safety-nets” for many communities but in many cases forest conservation also represents lost opportunity costs (3). Communities respond to market forces and engage in unsustainable extractive practices to meet acute livelihood needs, trading off short-term economic gains against long-term environmental costs (1). Secondly, customary rights over family plots are often nested within community-level legal rights. Neoliberal decentralisation policies seeking to facilitate privatisation of individual rights can significantly influence community dynamics and collective action. The communal ejido system in Mexico appears to have withstood decentralisation trends, yet this might be a context dependant outcome as privatisation initiatives in other systems have increased inequalities within communities. Thirdly, “communities” are not homogenous static entities. Economic development and migration patterns can significantly alter community social dynamics and increasing urbanisation is already exacerbating pressures on natural resources. How robust community-level institutions are to increasing socio-economic and environmental pressures remains to be seen.
The power to make local management decision is critical for many conservation initiatives whose outcome is dependent on local decisions, yet it should not be seen as a panacea to socio-economic and conservation trade-offs. Economic opportunities providing viable alternatives to unsustainable practices are critical. Whether PES and REDD will help to secure land tenure and provide real economic opportunities to counteract competing land-uses remains to be seen (the Ecuadorian government’s decision to go ahead with oil exploration and extraction in the Yasuni National Park is a case in point). The success of REDD and similar schemes will rely on various factors. Of particular importance will be that local communities managing ecosystem services receive tangible benefits from schemes. This aim relies on supporting institutional infrastructures at various regional, national and international governance levels to ensure the appropriate implementation of payment schemes. Developing these frameworks is largely at the core of ‘REDD Readiness’ programmes currently being implemented in various regions of the world.

Although REDD and PES are currently dominating the community-led conservation debate, the development of governance institutions to support community-led management initiatives should be central to wider socioeconomic development efforts beyond PES schemes. Regional and national socioeconomic changes influence local dynamics (e.g. rural to urban or rural to rural migration patterns), which can have significant environmental consequences. Institutional frameworks that can buffer against social and environmental shocks, including those induced or exacerbated by climate change, will be crucial to locally driven natural resource management initiatives.

Johan Oldekop is a post-doctoral research associate at the Sheffield Institute for International Development at the University of Sheffield.


(1) Oldekop JA et al. (2013) Evaluating the effects of common-pool resource institutions and market forces on species richness and forest cover in Ecuadorian indigenous Kichwa communities. Conservation Letters, 6(2): 107-115

(2) Robinson BE et al. (2013) Does secure land tenure save forests? A meta-analysis of the relationship between land tenure and tropical deforestation. Global Environmental Change, in press.

(3) Angelsen A, Wunder S (2003) Exploring the Forest-Poverty Link: Key Concepts, Issues and Research Implications. CIFOR:1–70.