Environmental Conservation: Involve the People

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NewsChina Magazine, Cartagena, Colombia

The biennial International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB), held in July in Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast in late July, drew more than 2,000 conservation professionals from across the world. The global event is recognised in the field as one of the most important forums for communicating the most advanced and up-to-date conservation methods.

A common theme emerged: social complexity and the importance of community or indigenous people’s involvement. China has its own experience in this field – with varying levels of success. Here we examine the global effort to involve local communities around the world, with examples from China.

Host Country Concern

During the press briefing session shortly after the opening ceremony on July 24, Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, said that “conservation is a matter of culture.” As the country only attained a historic peace agreement last year after over 50 years of domestic conflict, “our preservation goes along with the implementation of the peace process, and institutional reform to meet the challenge of the new era of Colombia,”

Murillo told NewsChina. He described how Colombia is launching new protected areas for indigenous people and has set the ambitious goal of increasing the total protected area from 13 million hectares to at least 26 million hectares in the future. He also emphasized the importance of involving locals, including guerrilla fighters of the country’s largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), since “they know well about local species and environments, and can help Colombia and our next step [in the plans for protected areas] would include communities, particularly communities highly influenced by the conflict.”

The rights of indigenous people have been overlooked historically. The Afro-Colombian leader of the Comunidad de Yurumanguí, a rural autonomous region in Colombia, told our reporter that before 1991, “comunidades” or “communities” – autonomous regions – were not recognised in Latin America, and it was only in 1991 when the government passed legislation to recognise communities in Colombia. Voices of indigenous Colombians started to be heard by the outside world. Community leaders such as Danilo Villafañe Torres (of the Arhuaco Indigenous People of Colombia) among others, have created an indigenous presence in local, national and international arenas through political proposals and territorial demands that promote respect for indigenous identity and environmental knowledge.

According to Villafañe Torres, who often participates in international events, he was appointed adviser to the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development some 20 years ago. His own Arhuaco community nicknamed him “chancellor” because of his outstanding capacity to connect the unknown indigenous community with the rest of the country and with the world. “My role is trying to create links between different organisations, the government, academia, the business sector and the communities,” said Villafañe Torres to NewsChina during an exclusive interview in late July.

The picture is still far from rosy. Despite winning some legal rights, indigenous groups still face a great deal of racism and prejudice. “The very old law considered us savages, only one month ago, in June, the law deleted that part and stated that we are not savages any more,”Ati Quigua told NewsChina. Ati is another outspoken indigenous leader from the Arhuaco Community, and a well-known Colombian pacifist and environmentalist.

Local Knowledge and Expertise

During this ICCB, the themes for symposiums on activating or involving local communities varied, with some emphasising the mobilisation of faith leaders and engaging faith communities in conservation research and practice across the world. Others covered community-based species conservation, such as the reticulated giraffe of Northern Kenya, community-based forest management in Sikkim, or using the ecological knowledge of fishermen for protecting endangered sea turtles in Central America.

In 2007, the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), which runs the ICCB, established its Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group (RCBWG) focusing on strengthening dialogue between

biological conservation and religious communities throughout the world and promoting within the SCB an awareness of importance of such collaboration. According to Jame Schaefer from Marquette University who chaired a session on engaging faith communities in conservation, so far the attempts and practices in this regard have “prompted research and action to discourage religious communities from using ivory that has been brutally removed from the endangered African elephant and to encourage Buddhist communities to adopt ecologically compatible and compassionate ways of practising the release of animals for merit.

A 2016 survey by the RCBWG of its members indicated that conservation projects involving cooperation with local religious groups have been conducted in various countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America (USA and Canada), as well as Oceania. The survey, published in late 2016, also mentioned that “the wide variety of projects included ageing polar bears, bison, climate change, coral rehabilitation, fish, iguanas, kangaroos, rattlesnakes, terrestrial vertebrates, wildlife used for bush meat, forest management and restoration, restoration of rivers, and protective management of shrines and sacred places.”

China has had similar success in this respect. Involving local religious figures and empowering locals to become rangers of their areas are two effective approaches. In China’s Sanjiangyuan region, the “source of the three major rivers,” namely the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong, various wildlife preservation and environmental protection projects involving local Tibetan communities or local leaders of Tibetan Buddhism have been implemented across the plateau in recent decades.

With the establishment of the Sanjiangyuan National Park last year, both academic circles and local governments have championed the power of local communities in preservation efforts. Li Xiaonan, director of the Sanjiangyuan National Park Administration Bureau told NewsChina that the local government in Qinghai Province had so far employed some 10,000 Tibetan rangers in the Sanjiangyuan area and provided each household within the region a monthly financial

incentive of 1,800 yuan (US$270) for fulfilling duties such as monitoring and preventing poaching. With the financial support to sustain locals’ preservation efforts, more and Tibetan nomads have joined the force for conservation.

Scientists at the congress admitted the importance of local knowledge in assisting scientific research, with some knowledge even proving to be the key factor in completing a piece of scientific research.

At one symposium during the ICCB, Paulami Banerjee, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso, shared her personal experience of engaging locals for her project on the endangered hawksbill sea turtle in Central America. As she admitted, her research into where the turtles should be found, her history of where they have been found through time, as well as the on-site in-water capture and skin shell sampling all benefited from the assistance of local fishermen.

“In the end, it is our project, not mine alone,” concluded Banerjee as she reemphasised the importance of establishing a mutual relationship between academia and the locals. At the end of her presentation, Banerjee quoted the late Colombian researcher and sociologist Orlando Fals Borda: “Academic knowledge plus popular knowledge and wisdom may give as a result a total scientific knowledge of a revolutionary nature.”

China’s Lingering Management Issues

Despite the reality that in China, placing an emphasis on community participation in conservation has gained more momentum, and practices of community-based preservation have mushroomed across the country including the far flung Sanjiangyuan region, the practice of community involvement in the management of protected areas differs significantly.

During this year’s ICCB, He Siyuan from Beijing Normal University, as one of a few Chinese participants at the event, gave a presentation entitled “Setting China’s National Parks Within an Ecosystem Services Framework,” focusing on ensuring communities’ interests in China’s National Park System. He Siyuan chose Wuyishan National Park in southern China’s Fujian Province as her study area. The park covers a total area of over 900 square kilometres, encompassing over 23,000 local residents, with most being tea farmers.

A survey by He’s team in 2016 and 2017 of some 380 local households in Wuyishan indicated that “more than 50 percent of local resident interviewees expressed the priority of increasing locals’ income in setting up of the national park system” inside Wuyishan Mountain National Park, a protected area listed as a World Heritage Site in 1999. In the eyes of most of the local community, it is apparent that the “preservation of the ecosystem” and the purposes of “conducting scientific research” are both less important than the material provision of the ecosystem which sustains their traditional livelihood via tea planting and other agricultural production.

Survey results also show that 48 percent of interviewees expressed they have some knowledge of the national park’s pilot project at Wuyishan and are willing to participate in the process, while 46 percent said that they do not know about the pilot and thus do not know how to participate.

The remaining six percent expressed they do “not believe in or will not support [the project] at all.” “Fair and sustainable interest-sharing in natural resource management is vital for the management of protected areas,” He Siyuan told NewsChina. “That’s why we emphasise the importance of an ecosystem service framework.”

Despite the concept of community as a main stakeholder in conservation being widely acknowledged by both academic circles as well some of the local Chinese governments, such as that of Qinghai Province, there are still some local authorities which drag their heels when it comes to making changes.

Xu Shanwei, 55, a tea farmer from Tongmu Village in Wuyishan National Park, told our reporter by phone in August that so far, communications between the local government and community on the management of the national park are almost non-existent. “The management and regulations of the Wuyishan Protected Area Administration Bureau have significantly restricted our production activities, limiting our sale of tea products through prohibiting tourist numbers in previous decades, and we expect the national park system to be set up in a way that will allow a certain number of tourists to come in, meaning our village livelihood could be improved through additional income,” Xu told NewsChina.

According to Xu, neither the local government nor protected area administration bureau have ever tried to set up a platform for selling the local tea farmers’ products as compensation for their sacrifices for the protection of the area.

“Despite the acclaimed new National Park in Wuyishan, we see little change so far, and there have not yet been any opinion-gathering efforts by the government or Wuyishan National Park authority of local community members,” said Xu.

There is an urgent need to activate the local community in preservation efforts for Wuyishan National Park. The survey by He and her team shows that if asked to express an opinion about how to improve community management, quite a significant number of interviewees will share their anticipation that the National Park system will “enhance the communication between the government and local community, and provide opportunities for local participation in preservation activities.”ê