Built on collaboration: how conservation research can benefit local people
A collaborative research project into effective conservation in Uganda showed that building relationships with the authorities can be crucial, resulting in immediate action to tackle a problem, benefiting some of the poorest in the community.
How can we ensure that well-intentioned conservation schemes deliver benefits to local people as well as to wildlife? Building a close relationship with the relevant authorities throughout our research in Uganda: when our findings showed what was wrong, they acted immediately to put things right.
The ideal for conservation areas is that they are "equitably managed" so that measures designed to protect wildlife do no harm, and even do good, for local people.
Making this happen needs a better understanding of what "equitably managed" means for policy and practice. But with much research decoupled from both policymaking processes and practice on the ground, how can research lead to positive change for local people?
We started the 'Research to policy: building capacity for conservation through poverty alleviation' (R2P) project with this question very much in mind. R2P is a three-year research and advocacy project that aims to improve efforts to integrate protected area conservation with development so that local people benefit.
Working with leading research, advocacy and conservation organisations in Uganda, we designed the research framework together so that it linked directly to the project's second phase: using the research findings to influence policies towards the role of protected area management in poverty alleviation.
During this 'thinking' stage, we involved the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government agency responsible for Uganda's protected areas, so they had direct input into the design of the research.
Understanding what's working
Our research was based at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. We wanted to understand who continues with unauthorised resource use and why, despite more than 25 years of Integrated Conservation and Development (ICD).
Bwindi's ICD programme is exceptional in its variety and number of projects. These include poverty alleviation programmes for local communities, for example providing support for sustainable agriculture, as well as projects focused specifically on the links between poverty and conservation pressures such as on-farm tree planting to reduce timber collection from the forest.
The most prominent is the 'Multiple Use' programme where locally elected people collect medicinal plants, basketry materials and honey (from beehives) from inside the national park, at certain times of the year.
Allowing local people controlled access to the forest has been one of the most effective ways for conservation authorities to improve their relations with local people. It has also meant traditional harvesting practices can continue and has provided support to local livelihoods.
Our research showed that local people highlighted the shortcomings of this approach, notably the small harvest quotas, the limited number of resources that they are allowed to harvest and the limited amount of harvesting time. But despite these issues, most described the benefits of this approach at some length, especially the fact that it allows local people to return to Bwindi forest and use its resources.
Our research, however, also revealed that there were restrictions in terms of who can and cannot enter the national park. We found that the poorest people were not granted access to forest resources but those with a leadership position or authority in their community, and less poor than other community members, were given access. In other words, elite capture where more powerful individuals are the ones who benefit.
By the time we presented these results, there was already a momentum – UWA's wardens had supported the field surveys and all project partners were discussing how best to address the significant challenges to conserving protected areas in regions densely populated by the rural poor.
When we presented the results, UWA immediately reviewed the registration process for access to Bwindi with support from our research team. Three months later, they held a ceremony to issue 226 new Harvester Identity Cards to local people, addressing the inequities that our research uncovered.
This marked a significant step towards more equitable management of the national park, overcoming the problems of elite capture that we had identified, and making it possible for the poorest people to be able to collect forest resources. But more than that, it demonstrated how research built on collaboration can lead to immediate, positive change for local people.
Addressing the broader issue
The research also brought up a broader issue. So much conservation research involves interviews and focus groups with local communities. These people give endless amounts of time to talk to researchers, answering their questions during what can be a lengthy session and often having walked far from their homes to do so. How many of these people will gain any direct, tangible and long-term benefit from taking part?
The debate about how research can inform policy and practice often highlights the need for researchers to translate technical scientific arguments into clear, tangible and useful knowledge that supports evidence-based decision-making.
This is important. But it's also important for research to be open and collaborative, especially between international and local partners, and between researchers, conservationists and advocates. And when this collaboration is in place, for all to think through how research will lead to genuine action for protected areas to benefit local people.
Read more about this work:
For this project, IIED partnered with the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC), the Jane Goodall Institute-Uganda, Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Imperial College Conservation Science and Parsons Brinckerhoff.
This project is funded through the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, which assists countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to implement their commitments under the international biodiversity conventions. It is also partly funded by UKaid from the UK government; however, the views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UK government.