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Briefing: International Conservation

Are conservation efforts in developing nations getting it all wrong?

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Our planet continues to lose its natural habitats. Tropical forests, coral reefs, native grasslands and other precious havens that provide humans with the biodiversity necessary to support life are disappearing at an increasingly alarming rate. To remedy this, well-meaning conservation organizations urge third world countries to set aside portions of their pristine places as "national parks." But will this action really avoid deforestation, conversion to agriculture or wildlife poaching?

Far too often, experience has demonstrated that a mere declaration of land as a protected park creates just another "paper park," and is a far cry from achieving real conservation. Rosaleen Duffy, in her 2010 book Nature Crime: How We're Getting Conservation Wrong, investigates and exposes the failings of international conservation movement. She told the Guardian that when wildlife reserves are established, local communities suddenly find that their everyday subsistence activities, such as hunting and collecting wood, have been outlawed. This outcome could be the opposite of what's intended.

Many environmental groups are recognizing that to achieve valid habitat and wildlife protection you must have the buy-in of local people. Here are comments from the CEOs of three effective conservation organizations on the role of the people who live in these communities:

George Fenwick, American Bird Conservancy: "Community engagement is a necessary component of our conservation work in almost every project in which we work. Local people need to be aware of the benefits that the birds, the biodiversity and the ecosystem services provide them, and they need to be offered ways to make a living while still respecting the protected area. While guards may be critical in stopping many illegal activities, without the support of the local community there can never be enough guards to keep a reserve protected." [From their website: "American Bird Conservancy is a 501(c)(3), not-for profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. We envision an Americas-wide landscape where diverse interests collaborate to ensure that native bird species and their habitats are protected, where their protection is valued by society, and they are routinely considered in all land-use and policy decision-making."]

Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy: "We need to get better at connecting nature to what concerns people most -- how to make their lives better, protect their health, create jobs and get the economy moving." [From their website: "The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. We address the most pressing conservation threats at the largest scale. Thanks to the support of our more than 1 million members, we've built a tremendous record of success since our founding in 1951."]

Brett Jenks, Rare Center: "The people who inhabit the world's most biologically diverse forests, grasslands and coastlines have a disproportionate influence over the conservation of natural resources. Conservation is about people. Without their involvement, without their active leadership, conservation never works. This is the philosophy that guides all of Rare's work in 50 countries and thousands of communities around the world." [From their website: "Mission: To conserve imperiled species and ecosystems around the world, Rare inspires people to care about and protect nature."]

If you have the privilege of traveling to areas of high biodiversity that are being pressured by the forces of development, recognize that the dollars you spend on restaurants, lodges, nature guides, etc -- especially those sponsored by local conservation organizations -- all help with their enduring protection. Many ecotourism companies set aside a portion of your fees just for this purpose. Travel aside, support these and similar groups that protect the natural world and improve the lives of local people.

This article was authored by Chicago-area conservationist Donnie Dann and appears here by permission.
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