How Can Community-Based Conservation Help Save the Planet?

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Community-based conservation comes from the belief that communities protecting the ecology of areas near them is far more effective than external organizations trying to do it from afar. This is the total antithesis of conventional “top-down” approaches, where governmental authorities exert tight control over every bit of land use. 

The problem with this outdated model, an outgrowth of the Western concept of nature being separate from culture, is that it resulted in a dizzying array of undesirable effects. For example, national parks were initially created to preserve what our ancestors deemed to be unspoiled natural areas. However, this was often exclusionary to an extreme degree, with over 20 million indigenous individuals expelled from their tribal lands over the decades. 

This article will cover the history of community-based conservation, how it’s been put into practice, and ways you can use it in your own city or town.

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The history of community-based conservation 

The counterproductive philosophy of top-down conservation was widely used until the ‘70s, when indigenous peoples started to speak out about their lands being unfairly taken away. This resulted in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Parks Congress recognizing the land rights of native citizens.

However, the movement didn’t take off until the 1982 World National Parks Congress, held in Bali. The ideas that emerged from the conference challenged the so-called “Yellowstone Model,” which heavily relied on outside entities to be the sole agent of ecological change.

Traditional societies are part of the solution 

Community-based conservation sees traditional societies and indigenous communities as an integral part of the solution instead of a problem that must be removed at all costs. This is a much more democratic and equitable approach than traditional conservation models, helping communities to feel empowered instead of alienated. 

Instead of trying to make environmental conditions better all on their own, outside organizations support local citizens living next to conservation areas to do the work. This could include things like funding community conservation initiatives and technical assistance with sustainable forestry and agriculture projects.

By being vigilant custodians of their local natural resources, individuals from one corner of the planet to the other are not only protecting the fragile biodiversity upon which all life on earth depends—they’re also improving the quality of their own lives. 

Community-based conservation best practices

Community-based conservation recognizes that the best way to save fragile habitats is by getting local populations to participate in protection efforts. To get local communities to agree to undertake conservation activities in their area, they must see that the benefits of preserving habitats are greater than the costs. 

These benefits could be things like establishing a thriving ecotourism industry or creating lucrative home-based businesses and better living conditions. Indigenous citizens and scientists jointly manage protected areas, combining cutting-edge scientific knowledge with homegrown know-how. 

Community members typically need to be involved from the inception of an initiative. All project stakeholders should gather to formulate a robust plan that balances the needs of the indigenous population with what must be done to ensure the continuation of the local ecosystem. 

Case studies 

The black howler monkeys of Belize 

In 1985, Dr. Rob Horwich traveled to Belize to study the black howler monkey, which was on the verge of becoming extinct. He realized that if he didn’t do something about the situation, the species would join the long list of animals that no longer exist on the planet.

He quickly sprang into action. His vigorous advocacy persuaded Fallet Young, a local landowner, to reach out to other local farmers and landowners to undertake conservation efforts. After three long, exhausting years, the duo got more than 120 landowners to voluntarily sign pledges to engage in agricultural practices that would best protect the species. 

This led to the establishment of a community-run sanctuary. The sanctuary continues to be a resounding success and attracts visitors worldwide. Local businesses benefit from the flourishing ecotourism engendered by the efforts. Best of all, the black howler monkey population has mushroomed.  

Saving the mountain gorillas 

In Africa, the mountain gorilla population is booming today thanks to intensive community-based conservation. These magnificent creatures are crucial to the ever-increasing ecotourism industry in this part of the planet. Because of that, local citizens are passionately engaged in the struggle to protect them from money-hungry poachers. 

The forest habitat of the mountain gorillas has been severely decimated over the years. If that wasn’t bad enough, poaching has significantly reduced their numbers. While mountain gorillas were protected in national parks, more active efforts were needed at the community level to ensure the species survived. 

The World Wildlife Fund worked with local citizens in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda to save the species from extinction. In 1991, they set up the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation and Flora and Fauna International.

IGCP assists local government officials to better manage protected areas. The organization works with businesses in the region to develop mountain gorilla ecotourism. This gives the local population an incentive to keep the animals safe instead of destroying their precious habitat through excessive agricultural development. 

The tireless work of the IGCP has paid off handsomely. A 2010 census showed 480 gorillas in the area, an increase of 100 since 2003. 

Protecting the Central American sea turtle 

On Central American beaches, up to 90% of all sea turtle eggs are stolen by poachers. This is tragic when considering that a baby sea turtle’s chances of making it to adulthood are less than one in 1,000. 

Maike Heidemeyer, a German-born marine conservationist and lecturer, launched a community-based conservation initiative in El Jobo, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, to save the sea turtles. The people living near the beaches have been living with sea turtles their entire lives. Because this experience provided them with considerable expertise in turtle ecology and biology, Maike knew he could harness this wealth of knowledge to protect the species. 

Maike meticulously explained her plan to local citizens, including patrolling beaches to minimize poaching, relocating turtle nests, and conducting research. Maike offered them a healthy salary, abundant ecotourism opportunities, and the chance to make the planet a little better. 

Within three years, the organization experienced runaway success. Sea turtle poaching has decreased by 97%, and ecotourism is booming. 

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4 community-based conservation actions you can take

  1. Beautify roads and waterways 

Assemble a group of friends to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program. You and your buddies select a highway stretch of at least two miles to keep blessedly free from all trash. You can make the roadsides even more lovely by planting native wildflowers. 

Your group can also clean up the lakes, rivers, and streams in your area. Try crowdfunding one if you think you might need a boat to do this. If you need to buy anything else to carry out your environmental projects, consider using Aspiration Zero, a carbon-neutral credit card

  1. Create wildlife habitat  

Wildlife is continually being made homeless through wholesale destruction of habitat. You can stem this insidious tide by creating nesting sites and places for them to feed. 

Providing a safe space for woodland creatures in your own backyard not only boosts your local ecosystem—it also provides you with endless visual delight as you watch your previously desolate property transform into a thriving ecological community. Construct bluebird houses, bat boxes, or wood duck nest boxes and either put them up on your own land or give them away to others so they can do it.

When creating your backyard wildlife sanctuary, consider adding native plants that attract pollinators like bees, birds, and butterflies. Here are several you might want to plant: 

  • Strawberry 
  • Common juniper 
  • American beech
  • Trumpet honeysuckle
  • Crabapple
  • American holly 
  • Zinnia

3. Lead a conservation workshop 

An excellent way to galvanize community members to take decisive conservation action is by offering workshops on things like building rain barrels, ways to conserve energy, and identifying invasive species. 

You don’t even need to have any teachable skills. For example, when considering possible workshops, ask your friends if they have any relevant expertise. For instance, if someone has woodworking know-how, they might want to volunteer to teach participants how to build birdhouses. 

4. Become a cargo bike evangelist 

An increasing number of individuals realize how devastating cars are for the environment. Because of that, bicycling as a mode of transportation is starting to catch on. 

One of the best ways to get around town is with a cargo bike. These eco-friendly machines are like a human-powered version of a small truck. You can buy a week’s worth of groceries, transport your children to daycare, and run all kinds of errands on one. 

These bikes typically have a longer wheelbase than a conventional bicycle, with space for carrying heavy loads either in the front or back. If you need more “oomph” than you think you can provide with your own body, consider purchasing an electric version. 

You might find yourself filled with unending delight as you use this carbon-neutral way to zip around your city or town. You’ll never have to put up with the irritation of finding a parking spot again. 

This might make your friends so insanely jealous that they buy their own cargo bike. The more friends that do this, the less environmental destruction there is. 

Make a difference with Aspiration

Community-based conservation is a highly effective way of harnessing the energies of local populations to save the planet. Its paradigm-busting power has the potential to make a significant difference in how we treat the beautiful world on which we all live. 

Want to know another way to make a difference? 

By signing up for Aspiration Zero, a carbon-neutral credit card. Every time you use it, we’ll plant a tree. Think about how much this could add up to in a year of typical use.

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