Introduction to conservation, communities and equity

Conservation is critical to protecting nature and biodiversity. But many conservation interventions have negative impacts on local people. IIED and partners are helping to build capacity to understand and implement equitable conservation activities and to enhance community voice in national and international conservation policymaking. 

Article, 05 August 2013
Conservation, communities and equity
A programme of work showing how IIED is building capacity to understand and implement equitable conservation and enhance community voice in conservation policymaking
Prioritising positive and negative social impacts of the protected area at Rwenzori Mountain National Park, Uganda (Photo: Rob Small)

Prioritising positive and negative social impacts of the protected area at Rwenzori Mountain National Park, Uganda (Photo: Rob Small)

Nature is being degraded and our planet's biodiversity is being reduced at an unprecedented rate. Conservation is critical to reducing biodiversity loss, and to supporting rural communities that depend on nature for their livelihoods. But many conservation efforts are not delivering good outcomes for local people.

State-managed protected areas (PAs) have been a cornerstone of international conservation – but they have often had negative impacts on surrounding communities, especially in relation to peoples' ability to access resources essential for their livelihoods and to defend their assets from wildlife damage. 

Policymakers have increasingly recognised that conservation should not harm poor communities, and the international Convention on Biological Diversity's (CBD) Strategic Plan 2011-2020 states that protected areas should be equitably as well as effectively managed. But in many countries, practice still lags far behind this policy.   

Community-based conservation has made huge gains across large landscapes. The CBD now recognises community-conserved  sites and “other effective conservation measures” as being critical complements to the formal protected area estate. 

But national and international policy retrenchments – particularly around sustainable use of wildlife, the forms this may take and who may benefit from it – have meant these gains have often not fulfilled their potential. 

Community rights and priorities are often ignored – making it impossible for them to protect the land and resources they own or manage. Communities rarely have a voice in decision-making about conservation (particularly at the international level) even when they are the direct stewards of land and wildlife, and the emergence of conservation “crises” such as the current spate of poaching and illegal wildlife trade (IWT) means that their voices are even more diminished by more distant and/or powerful interests. 

While poor rural communities continue to be marginalised, the huge opportunity – and often the political imperative – for such communities to become major stakeholders in conservation remains largely unfulfilled. 

Even where there is political support for better and more equitable governance and enhanced community voice and agency, there is often very limited understanding of what this actually means, and how to measure progress and learn from experience. 

What is IIED doing?

IIED is working to establish more equitable approaches to conservation, shaped by and responding to community priorities, and delivering improved outcomes for nature and people.  

During the next five years we will be focusing on these pathways to impact:

  1. Delivering more equitable conservation at specific pilot sites where we and our partners work, through supporting social and governance assessment and improving approaches to community engagement in nature conservation and wildlife stewardship 
  2. Generating evidence and experience that can help inform and improve conservation programme and project design and implementation to achieve their social and ecological objectives
  3. Promoting accountability for the implementation of improved policies, programmes and projects, through generating evidence that can be used by civil society actors, and 
  4. Strengthening provisions for equitable conservation, informed by community voice, in conservation policies at national level and international levels. 

Active projects

We are currently collaborating with partners on a range of projects designed to enhance equity and community voice in conservation: