Critics pointing out the downsides of large projects may not have noticed the success of smaller projects.

Large conservation projects which try to protect biodiversity AND help with community development at the same time are sometimes criticized as being “less successful.” However, critics of people-focused conservation are usually looking at very large “International Conservation and Development Projects” (ICDPs).

They often overlook the fact that the issues faced by these large projects are rarely a problem for grassroots, community-based efforts.

People-focused conservation projects that are very large often struggle to achieve results because…

  1. They struggle with implementing changes, because the change comes from the top down.
  2. They are simply too big in scale (geographically) and cover too short of a timeframe.
Rwanda, 2014

We have seen many grassroots-level conservation projects succeed over the long run. How has this been possible? People-focused conservation projects work best when they start at the community/village level, are either led or co-led by local people, and are supported over a longer period of time (often 5 years or more).

Later, these grassroots projects can be scaled up and spread to neighboring villages – and then even whole regions (as we have seen for example in Assam, India and Myanmar) for even greater impact.

One of the most important differences between many large people-focused conservation projects and the ones we’ve had success with is their outlook:

Successful community conservation projects see local, rural people as the solution to the problem of habitat loss, while many big projects see these people as the problem.

Myanmar, 2019

Looking back over more than 20 projects in more than 14 countries, here’s what we’ve found works best:

  • Ideally, the desire to conserve natural resources begins from within the community. Example: The villagers of Sumaco, Ecuador were the ones to reach out to us and our partners, asking for assistance as they explore a possible community-managed sanctuary and conservation-based tourism.
  • The village/community leads or co-leads, and is willing and excited to participate. People are invited to participate and participation is voluntary. Ultimately, a self-sustaining community organization is formed. Example: 8 community groups and 6 locally-managed reserves were established in Northern Peru to protect endemic species of monkeys.
  • Relatively small but frequent amounts of funding are needed in order to take the project from the first couple years through to the self-sufficiency stage. This funding is used primarily for community training sessions and skill-building, small construction projects, research support and supplies. Example: $5,000 per year for five to ten years is average for our projects.
Nepal, 2020

In short…

Huge international “conservation and development” projects are sometimes criticized, but the type of projects we have been a part of over the years have a high success rate. This is because of their:

Size – Community-based conservation projects work best at small, decentralized scales and involve small infusions of funding over a long timespan.

Leadership – Community-based conservation projects work best when the local people see the benefits of conservation, and take ownership of it.

Myanmar, 2019

More information about people-focused conservation for conservation practitioners and for the general public can be found on our Resources page.

This post was paraphrased from “Community conservation: practitioners’ answer to critics” written by our founder Rob Horwich and Jonathan Lyon:

Robert H. Horwich and Jonathan Lyon. (2007) Community conservation: practitioners’ answer to critics, Oryx, 41(3), 376–385. DOI:10.1017/S003060530700101

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