3. The Central Role of People

People can be consumers, builders, destroyers and much else besides. More than three-quarters of the Earth's ice-free land surface shows evidence of land alteration from human residence and land use. From the early years of the global conservation movement, habitat conversion was considered the leading threat to conservation of nature (and to a certain extent still is). People were excluded from protected areas (PAs), following the “Yellowstone Model”, which removed Native Americans from their historical lands in the name of national conservation interests (enforced in the early years by the military).

Human development has now reached such a point that land use is being squeezed between protected areas, agricultural land, forests, and spreading urbanism. People who rely on ecosystems for their livelihoods are demonstrating that natural lands can include people, and that indeed people have long been part of nature. Many argue that local people have customary rights to these resources. Most conservation organizations now recognize how important it is to incorporate people in conservation efforts, though some argue that wilderness areas, where the human footprint is ephemeral, are essential to conserving at least some species (for example, large predators) and conserving “untouched” habitats is required for comparison with those modified by modern humanity.

In the past several decades many conservation organizations, including IUCN, have launched initiatives to harness and focus the institutional capacity of local communities in modern biodiversity conservation. These initiatives have been motivated by the principle that healthy ecosystems deliver essential services to all people. In spite of these efforts, increasing desertification, loss of soil fertility and water pollution have continued to reduce the capacity of ecosystems to meet human needs (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). The 2005 report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) found that 60% of all ecosystem services are degraded. People are decreasingly able to depend on ecosystems, and people are relying on fewer and fewer sources of food. Only four plant species – wheat, maize, rice and potato – provide more than half of the plant-based calories in the human diet (Pirages and De Geest, 2003). Perhaps inadvertently, humans are increasing their exposure to the risks of ecosystem changes and how we manage these risks will have a profound impact on the outcomes.

The conservation community has generally accepted the premise that poverty is correlated with reduced status of biological resources and ecosystem services and the issues of conservation and poverty reduction are discussed in more detail in other chapters.

Conservationists are also recognizing that the impact of wealth on those resources and services is apparent as well. Consumption patterns, development choices, wealth distribution, government policies and technology can mitigate or exacerbate the environmental effects of demographic change. Today's industrial economies consume unsustainable quantities of energy and raw materials, and produce high volumes of wastes and polluting emissions. As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2003) points out, the resulting pollution and disruption of ecosystems often occurs in countries far removed from the site of consumption. Consumer attitudes and preferences have a profound effect on the environment, due to differences in the environmental impacts of the production, use, and disposal of particular goods and services. Moreover, consumer preferences are not static. Consumption patterns are both rooted in and contribute to changing value systems. Cultures that were formerly distinctive and relatively isolated have become increasingly interconnected through market relations, fostering a new, homogenizing culture based on conspicuous consumption and possession of material goods. Traditional cultures that once practised low-intensity uses of natural resources are being rapidly displaced, or are radically transformed to acquire the perceived comparative advantages required to survive in a world driven by economic competition. Globalization has expanded the reach of the mass media and the advertising industry, reinforcing value systems based on ideals of consumption as synonymous with happiness and human well-being. Such value systems are of dubious sustainability and may even contribute to civil unrest.

The increasing integration of international markets – commonly called globalization – has enabled and stimulated the spread of modern “developed” country consumption patterns, with far-reaching implications for the environment and society. The potential of those same markets to contribute to conservation is discussed in Chapter 12.

While people and their needs and desires may be the reason that we are facing the urgent challenges before us, they are also the only means by which we can solve the problems. The development and adoption of the Ecosystem Approach by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was an explicit confirmation by the conservation world that considering people and their needs are fundamental to success (http://www.cbd.int/ecosystem/principles.shtml). IUCN has welcomed these 12 principles, but recognizes that many different ecosystem approaches can be consistent with them, for example forest landscape restoration, integrated water resource management and integrated coastal zone management.

Other issues that need to be incorporated include conservation of cultures and traditional knowledge, promotion of rights-based approaches to conservation, and engagement of local communities and indigenous peoples.


Biodiversity and cultural diversity have a significant overlap, what some people call “cultural biodiversity” (Posey, 1999; Jianchu, 2000). This overlap is evident on maps where cultural diversity “hotspots”, areas of high cultural diversity, overlap quite considerably with biodiversity rich areas (Maffi, 2005). This overlap illustrates that the concept of nature is not separate from people or culture, but rather is integrated with them.

People have always relied on social structures and norms, a reflection of culture, for protection against the risks of environmental change. These social means of adaptation can take the forms of local sharing of resources, dependence on families or lineages, adoption of new technology, migration, or changing behaviour. By incorporating inventions and practices from many cultures, people are better equipping themselves to adapt to change. If such cultural resources are weakened, humans will have less capacity to adapt to changing conditions.

The importance of traditional environmental knowledge and the role of indigenous peoples and local communities in conservation work are recognized in the CBD which calls for the Parties to

respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge innovations and practices.

The CBD legitimizes traditional knowledge as part of a global legal framework. By creating a systematic approach to the relationship between people and environmental protection, it shows that people, biodiversity, and landscapes form a complex and integrated unit. This approach allows for innovative conservation strategies, such as exploring the relationship between indigenous women, resource management, and biodiversity.

The human capacity to change its behaviour enables people to be resilient to environmental change, to reduce their impact on natural systems, and to promote conservation, if they choose to do so. IUCN is actively integrating culture and livelihood concerns throughout its programme of work. Examples include the Programme on Forest Landscape Restoration and the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), through its working groups on Protected Landscapes and on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. Increasingly, this integrated perspective is becoming part of virtually all conservation programmes.

One challenge with this shift in policy and in overall conservation thinking is that many local communities are now expected to manage conservation projects, often without the full range of skills and capacities needed to successfully deliver on what may be an unfamiliar approach to resource management. A solution would be to use conventional techniques to support and reinforce local capacities, technologies and traditional knowledge that are already in practice in local and indigenous communities. Many local cultures already manage their lands and resources well, but need help in adapting to the new pressures of a modern globalized society. The challenge will be in finding the appropriate ways to incorporate both local processes and conventional conservation practices into the new national and global resource governance structures.


Many large development projects, such as dam construction, urbanization, roads, timber concessions, and new approaches to agriculture, have given insufficient attention to the rights of affected local people. Similarly, the conservation community is recognizing that “conservation practices can affect human well-being and at times have undermined human rights, including local livelihoods, through human rights violations, forced resettlements and impacts on local livelihoods, especially of indigenous peoples and local communities” (IUCN, 2008e). With that in mind, IUCN's vision of “A just world that values and conserves nature” will require application of rights-based approaches to the Union's work. This will ensure full consideration of human rights, tenure and resource access rights, and customary rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

The issue of rights-based approaches to conservation is particularly relevant for minority indigenous peoples who, as recently as 30 years ago, had few rights in most countries. This strongly influenced conservation thinking prior to that time, with remnants in some of today's conservation practices. Until relatively recently, indigenous groups often had no legal standing or formal land rights, making it difficult for conservation organizations to work directly with them. With the promotion of human rights and the wider use of human rights-based approaches in development, indigenous peoples' rights are now being recognized and promoted through the explicit mention of the values of traditional knowledge and indigenous communities. The 2003 adoption of the Durban Accord by the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress and the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples make it unthinkable for IUCN to carry out activities affecting local people without the free, prior and informed consent of the people directly involved.

This focus on rights and legal status is linked with the global democratization process. With an emphasis on transparency and public participation, resource management has shifted to become more community-based, presenting both challenges and opportunities for IUCN.


Local communities, and especially indigenous people, are often the most politically and economically marginalized peoples. At the same time, they are often the stewards of the most biologically-rich areas. According to Sobrevila (2008), traditional indigenous territories cover up to 22% of the world's land surface and support 80% of the planet's terrestrial species diversity.

Conventional modern conservation practices are often rejected by local communities, especially when they are not fully involved in decision-making. One result is continuing habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity. The Yellowstone model of national parks, for example, has been strongly resisted in West Asia, North Africa and elsewhere. This does not mean that these regions lack protected areas, but rather that local people have found their own means of protecting resources outside formal legal frameworks; some of these arrangements are being undermined because they are not recognized by international and national law. But traditional approaches to conservation, such as hema in West Asian grazing lands, can be adapted to provide viable approaches to conservation under modern conditions.

Most conservation programmes require long-term maintenance and management, which can also benefit from working with local communities. Conservation can be seen as a public good and therefore arguably should receive public funding, but this is seldom sufficient (especially in developing countries under IMF spending restrictions). Foundations, development agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and philanthropists have been extremely helpful, but conservation requires perpetual support, far longer than most donors are willing to fund. As a result, conservation projects have suffered systemic weakening as funding fades away. To overcome this difficulty, conservationists are building links to local social structures and turning to local communities for support. For many projects, local ownership of the project's maintenance and survival is both more cost-effective and has produced more successful outcomes, such as decentralized and locally-supported protected areas programmes.

One promising development which has recognized the importance of local communities in managing protected areas is the new approach by IUCN's World Commission on Protected Areas toward self-governance and management by indigenous communities. Some 86% of areas classified as National Parks in Latin America are either the permanent or temporary home of indigenous or local communities (Amend and Amend, 1995) so this approach capitalizes on the already-strong presence of indigenous communities within and around protected areas. Self-governance of local resources can also help reduce poverty in local communities, including through opportunities such as integration of conservation and tourism.

Working with local communities must involve support for engaging with environment-related challenges such as climate change, invasive species, sustainable livelihoods and health. Each of these is discussed in more detail in other chapters. Traditional knowledge is an important basis for climate change adaptation and decreasing vulnerability to extreme events and its loss can increase local people's vulnerability to change (Ford, 2006).

Engaging all stakeholders in conservation will require tools and skills development including providing resource managers with manuals, technical assistance and other easily accessible practical guidance on how to balance natural resource management with economic development needs. Access to complementary skills necessary to achieve sustained poverty reduction and sustainable development should be facilitated.

Local communities must be empowered to conserve and manage the natural resources upon which they depend and enhance cooperation with neighbouring institutions when managing wide-ranging resources.

At the same time, governments must be encouraged to improve land tenure, give collective title legal status for indigenous peoples and empower civil society to manage renewable natural resources for sustainable use, through rights of access that are based on social and gender equity. Donors and governments should develop and implement policies that incorporate environmental and biodiversity conservation in the poverty-reduction activities they fund. Finally, a policy on conservation and human rights, including rights-based approaches to conservation, means of implementation, ways to promote sharing of experience, and responsibilities of governments, communities, the private sector and conservation organizations is urgently needed.

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