Conservation Next? Getting Real about Rural Stewardship

February 10, 2014

Zebra, Kenya. Image credit: Heather Tallis/TNC

Conservation organizations spend a lot of time working with people in developing countries who rely on the earth for a living — ranchers, herders, fishers, hunters, gatherers.

There are good reasons for collaborating with these people: They know a lot about their environment, and there are a lot of them. And if they can sustain their traditional way of life, they keep their culture and we have ready stewards of the environment. Many millions of them.

But the way conservation engages with rural people in these contexts — indigenous and non-indigenous people alike — is starting to look like a pretty short-term conservation solution.

The current approach generally goes like this:

1. Identify areas important for biodiversity that also house communities dependent on natural resources that are in decline.
2. Work with these communities to improve management of these resources so there’s more for nature and for them.
3. Assume that, by improving the resources, we improve livelihoods and help people in these communities stay on as enduring stewards of nature. (Fishers who see a stock recover, we think, will understand the livelihood benefits of fishery closures and management practices and continue those approaches. Herders who see grass rebound and stay plentiful through a drought will take up improved grazing management and stay on as keepers of a healthy grassland.)

But what really happens when conservation improves resources? It means more stability and more income for these communities — enough for kids to be sent to school or for adults to move to the city themselves.

Both students and adults then abandon the traditional livelihoods conservation is relying on for durable stewardship of nature.

In other words, our present approach to natural resource management with rural communities is leading to short-term conservation success, but a long-term conservation vacuumWe’re losing the land stewards. The conservation problem is really also a development problem.

I’ve seen this dynamic play out in the last year in two places that couldn’t seem more different:

+ In Kenya, the northern two-thirds of the country is home to not just some of the healthiest wildlife populations in Africa, but also 6 million pastoralists herding cattle, sheep, goats and camels. Conservation is investing in indigenous herders, working together towards more sustainable grazing that should provide more food for wildlife and livestock alike.

But at the same time, more and more indigenous children are going to school, where they move away from some of their traditions like dress and herding practices and emerge into different life trajectories. Instead of herding, young men are finding other jobs like trading livestock in the markets, organizing sporting events, or finding day labor.

+ In Mongolia, nomadic herders are improving grassland management patterns and seeing good forage on the vast, open steppe where Saker falcons still soar and takhi, the world’s only wild horses, run free.

Yet the most sincere wish for many of these herders is for their children to have a different future, one in the city with a settled home and constant income. At the first chance, they send their kids off to school — and off the land.

Pastoralists, Kenya. Image credit: Heather Tallis/TNC.

So how do we address such conservation vacuums? In my view, we have two options.

People will almost always choose better living conditions, more opportunity, education and higher income levels over subsistence living. And rightly so.

So the first option dictates that we provide these millions of people with another development alternative to breaking their backs over the land for decades to come — one that allows progress in place, rather than migration to the city.

Education and health have to go the village, likely in novel forms. Opportunities and amenities have to go to the village. The full right to govern has to go to the village. Only by finding serious ways for all aspects of wealth to accrue in these communities will their people remain in place as active earth stewards.

In the second option, we stop these kinds of engagements, given their likely short-lived returns, and deal with what comes next.

Conservationists know this act of the play well. If rural communities move off the land and into cities, the land left behind seldom just sits there as a thriving haven for nature. Most often, the space will be filled with large-scale corporate resource exploration and extraction, or subdivision and urban or residential development.

Even swooning success in establishing protected areas on some of these lands will leave small remnants of the remaining large landscapes at play. If we choose this option, we need to move much more quickly and boldly to embrace large corporate and government actors and find novel and compelling ways to align their activities with conservation.

Either path is a hard sell — not nearly so nice as the romantic notion of rural people as eternal earth stewards.

But in the developing world, the market economy hasn’t given these people a viable path to live comfortably off the land, and conservation hasn’t either.

Which path will we choose? 

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