The Case for Capacity Development in Community-Based Conservation Efforts

Capacity Building for Community-Based Conservation

Village Earth community mapping workshop. Ucayali Region – Peru

In the protection and management of natural resources, it is widely agreed that human social, political, cultural and economic systems must be part of the equation (Berkes 2004; Kates et al. 2001; Gunderson & Holling 2002). In recent years, community-based and collaborative conservation have been increasingly recognized as alternatives to the dominant paradigm of top-down, expert-driven management (Berkes 2002). However, the literature suggests that collaborative and community-based conservation efforts should be cautious about moving forward too quickly since low levels of organizational capacity at the community-level may pose a challenge to rapidly developing institutions capable of managing complex natural system (Barrett 2001). This is especially true in collaborative efforts that involve multiple stakeholders (Berkes 2004). In such efforts, taking into account historical and contemporary relationships of power among stakeholders will help ensure greater equity as well as the promotion of local livelihoods and sustainability (Gruber 2006: Berkes 2004; Brosius and Russell 2003). The literature also suggest that special emphasis should be placed on empowerment at the community-level and especially with traditionally marginalized groups. According to Agrawal (1999):

“local groups are usually the least powerful among the different parties interested in conservation. Community-based conservation requires, therefore, that its advocates make more strenuous efforts to channel greater authority and power toward local groups. Only then can such groups form €effective checks against arbitrary actions by governments and other actors.”

If, as Agrawal suggests, empowerment at the local-level should be our priority, where do we start? Brown (2002) has identified a set of internal and external challenges that community-based organizations face. Externally, community-based organizations are challenged by a lack of legitimacy and accountability with the general public; relating with institutions of the state, such as government agencies; relating with institutions of the market, such as businesses; and relating with international actors, such as development agencies that provide funding support. Internally, they face challenges of amateurism, restricted focus, material scarcity, fragmentation, and paternalism. However, efforts by governments and NGO’s to build the capacity of community-based organizations without destroying what makes them so unique in the first place (e.g. local focus, their spirit of volunteerism and solidarity) is not easy (Powers, 2002; Brown, 1989). Powers et al (2002) offers the following advice:

“We believe it may be most effective if INGOs go beyond decentralising their operations and cease being operational in the field. This can be done by forging ties with autonomous local NGO’s which have a proven commitment and track record in handing over controls in the development process to the communities where they are working. To the degree that terms for partnership can be negotiated equitably, the imperative for standardised and impersonal mass reproduction of one strategy, which ironically is often only magnified (rather than adapted) in the process of decentralization, can be significantly curtailed.”

According to Berkes (2004) the specific approaches to building capacity of community-based conservation organizations is a current area of interest for the conservation community. Furthermore, the success of community-based natural resource management has lead to an explosion in support from international agencies and subsequently, the number of new local natural resource management organizations (Gruber, 2010; Armitage 2005). According to Gruber (2010):

“[w]hile CBNRM has proven to be a successful model in numerous cases, this approach may be outpacing a critical analysis of the key characteristics of effective community based environmental initiatives which can ensure long-term successful and sustainable programs in a variety of settings.”

Village Earth offers several courses focused on supporting community-based conservation efforts, this includes: Participatory Water Resource ManagementBuilding Climate Change Resilient CommunitiesCommunity Participation and Dispute Resolution, & Agroecology for Sustainable Communities.

References Cited

Agrawal A, Gibson CC (1999) Enchantment and disenchantment: the role of the community in natural resource conservation. World Development 27:629–649

Armitage, D. 2005. Adaptive Capacity and Community-Based Natural Resource Management. Environmental Management 35:703-715

Barrett, C.B.,K. Brandon, C. Gibson, and H. Gjertsen. 2001. Conserving tropical biodiversity amid weak institutions. BioScience 51:497-502

Berkes, 2004 Rethinking Community-based Conservation, Conservation Biology, Volume 18, No. 3 July 2004: 621-630

Berkes, F. 2002. Cross-scale institutional linkages: perspectives from the bottom up. Pages 293-321 in E. Ostrom, T. Dietz, N. Dolsak, P.C. Stern, S. Stonich, and E.U. Weber, editors. The drama of the commons. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.

Brosius, J.P. and D. Russell. 2003 Conservation from above: an anthropological perspective on transboundary protected areas and ecoregional planning. Journal of Sustainable Forestry 17 (1/2):39-65

Gruber, 2010 Key Principles of Community-Based Natural Resource Management: A Synthesis and Interpretation of Identified Effective Approaches for Managing the Commons. Environmental Management 45:52–66
Kates, R. W., et al. 2001. Sustainability science. Science 292: 641-642

Expanding Our Support of Community-Based Conservation

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In the protection and management of natural resources, it is widely agreed that human social, political, cultural and economic systems must be part of the equation. In recent years, community-based and collaborative conservation have been increasingly recognized as alternatives to the dominant paradigm of top-down, expert-driven management. However practitioners of collaborative and community-based conservation efforts must be cautious about moving forward too quickly, as community groups often have low levels of organizational capacity that may pose a challenge to rapidly managing complex natural systems. This is especially true in collaborative efforts that involve multiple stakeholders. In such efforts, taking into account relationships of power among stakeholders will help ensure greater equity as well as the promotion of local livelihoods and sustainability. The literature also suggest that special emphasis should be placed on empowerment at the community-level and especially with traditionally marginalized groups. According to Agrawal (1999) “local groups are usually the least powerful among the different parties interested in conservation. Community-based conservation requires, therefore, that its advocates make more strenuous efforts to channel greater authority and power toward local groups. Only then can such groups form effective checks against arbitrary actions by governments and other actors.”

If, as Agrawal suggest, empowerment at the local-level should be our priority, where do we start? Brown (2002) has identified a set of internal and external challenges that community-based organizations face. Externally, community-based organizations are challenged by a lack of legitimacy and accountability with the general public; relating with institutions of the state, such as government agencies; relating with institutions of the market, such as businesses; and relating with international actors, such as development agencies that provide funding support. However, efforts by governments and NGOs to build the capacity of community-based organizations without destroying what makes them so unique in the first place (e.g. local focus, their spirit of volunteerism and solidarity) is not easy (Powers, 2002; Brown, 1989). Powers et al offers the following advice: “We believe it may be most effective if INGOs go beyond decentralizing their operations and cease being operational in the field. This can be done by forging ties with autonomous local NGOs which have a proven commitment and track record in handing over controls in the development process to the communities where they are working. To the degree that terms for partnership can be negotiated equitably, the imperative for standardized and impersonal mass reproduction of one strategy, which ironically is often only magnified (rather than adapted) in the process of decentralization, can be significantly curtailed.”

Heeding to the advice of Powers and others, over the past 8 years, Village Earth has developed and refined, what we believe to be a viable approach to supporting local organizations. However, we face our own challenge in scaling-up. On Pine Ridge and in Peru we have had to develop numerous innovative strategies to catalyze the development of local voluntary organizations. In both cases, funding was not available from the outset.

Rather than seeking out large, all-encompassing grants which require specific predetermined outcomes and timelines, which oftentimes function to alienate local organizations from their founding mission,

we have sought to work together with community organizations to help them do their own fundraising for strategic sectors that they identify. Our “Adopt-A-Buffalo” program is a perfect example of this sort of grassroots fundraising where the idea and the model came from a local organization, and Village Earth simply helped them to implement it. In exchange for our help we are able to retain a percentage of the income raised. This not only created a sense of accomplishment amongst the local group, but also gave the them a sense of ownership and commitment to the success of the fundraising program.

We have found that one of the primary obstacles for community-based initiatives is the lack of organizational legitimacy and accountability needed by informal community groups to access resources. For example, in our projects on Pine Ridge and in Peru we have found that there exist many informal community groups who have great projects, but have not quite been able to access resources because they are not incorporated, they do not have a bank account, that they have not fully articulated a decision making process, etc. Village Earth has catalyzed the development of these groups by serving as a temporary fiscal sponsor, allowing them to “piggyback” on our organizational structure while we work together to build the capacity of theirs. As the flow of resources increase, we gradually help increase the organizational capacity of these groups to match the increased need for accountability, while avoiding structuring too fast. As a wise Lakota Elder said, “community groups are like pails of water, if you move too fast, the water sloshes out.”

Our vision, in the next few years, is to refine and expand our package of support services to dozens more local voluntary organizations around the world. Affiliated organizations would have access to a number of helpful services that would expand their capacity to reach their goals and receive funding.

We are currently starting discussions with potential partners in new regions and are working to develop a system for formalizing these relationships to expand our support of grassroots groups.

Village Earth Offers New Course in Community-Based Forest Management

In recent years, more prominence has been given to the potential of community-based use, management and conservation of natural resources as a way to sustainably use and conserve natural resources, while improving the livelihoods of rural people. Community-Based Forest Management has been hailed by advocates for its effectiveness in promoting conservation and maintaining traditional livelihoods, while simultaneously developing local economies. For these reasons, Village Earth has developed an online course on the topic, as we believe that it will help  development practitioners in applying this innovative and respectful approach to resource management.

In the past, forest policy was based on the notion that indigenous people using the forests were ignorant and destructive. However, many practitioners and experts are now realizing that these local communities are actually the most interested parties in the sustainable management of their forests, given that it is their source of life. Additionally, local communities are often top experts on the forest ecosystem. Using these concepts, community-based conservation (CBC) approaches aim to involve local people in the management of natural resources and to adjust management practices to their needs. This course will review the scope and significance of CBC, as well as the best practices in the support and establishment of such initiatives. If you are interested in joining GSLL 1520 Community-Based Forest Management (which will run for its first time starting June 24, 2011) please visit our website for more details. You can also review our other course offerings in our growing program.