Reconciling power imbalances in conservation

Community-based conservation is key to safeguarding global biodiversity and human wellbeing. Yet entrenched power imbalances get in the way of progress. Nafeesa Esmail and Jana McPherson discuss 15 hot topics to define how we move forward – and why all voices must count.

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Nafeesa Esmail is a conservation research and strategy advisor and Jana McPherson is a senior manager for community conservation projects, both at Wilder Institute
11 May 2023
Women hands weeds to another one in a field

Farmers weeding a paddy field in Belanpur village of Banke district of Nepal (Photo: Nabin Baral/IWMI, via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

A recently published article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution identifies the top 15 topics expected to support or hinder community-based conservation worldwide over the next 10-15 years. This is the result of a community conservation horizon scan undertaken over the past two years by a global group of 39 conservation researchers and practitioners.

Coordinated by Wilder Institute, the group analysed online survey responses from 555 individuals and 36 groups made up of local community and civil society members (representing 109 nationalities) across a range of knowledge backgrounds and expertise.

Horizon scanning encourages proactive strategies, taking advantage of new opportunities and addressing threats while they are still manageable; this exercise focused on implementing more effective community-based conservation to safeguard biodiversity and human wellbeing.

The top 15 topics ranged from movement away from conventional economics to mass climate-induced migration. The topics are grouped into six broader themes, ranging from global biodiversity policy to economic reform.

One topic speaks to power shifting towards local actors. Recent momentum shows a move towards redressing power imbalances in conservation and development initiatives that to date have favoured powerful elites over local and marginalised voices.

Another speaks to the widening recognition of the rights of often-marginalised Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPs and LCs). They and other marginalised peoples have long-standing and frequent interactions with natural resources. This makes them particularly attuned to challenges and opportunities in jointly alleviating poverty and biodiversity loss.

The growth of marginalised voices in decision-making gives hope that fair, transparent and inclusive governance will advance conservation approaches that are socially just and culturally sensitive – and with meaningful community benefits.

Shifting power imbalances: what progress has been made?

A collective desire to unravel historically entrenched power imbalances has grown dramatically in recent years among academics and the wider public, the global participation in the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement being just one example.

Similarly, there is growing emphasis in the global policy arena on the need to incorporate Indigenous, traditional and communities’ rights, knowledge and practices. Such widespread recognition of injustices provides momentum to decolonise perspectives within conservation and to seek more socially just and culturally sensitive approaches.

The term ‘decolonisation’ often focuses on power dynamics between international versus national or local actors. However, similar power dynamics also exist within countries. Examples include the marginalisation of Indigenous Peoples, or urban groups imposing norms and values on rural constituents; caste or other ethnicity politics can also determine the social status of different groups.

Power imbalances and mismatched goals within society create conflicts in decision-making and accountability, from objective setting to implementation and evaluation. This can deprive communities of decision-making power, furthering powerlessness and dependency, undermining trust in partnerships, and tarnishing the reputation of conservation organisations and the conservation sector as a whole.

Despite progress, imbalances continue. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework explicitly values and encourages the contribution of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, women and other marginalised groups. Yet in the process leading to the framework agreement, voices of African states were dismissed, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) objection (based on inadequate financing to uphold the agreement) was ignored.

UN negotiations claim to rely on credibility and consensus – not to mention the fact that Africa holds much of the world’s biodiversity and that the DRC is home to the world’s second-largest rainforest. Would the response have been different if the same objection had been made by a party from the global North?

Ethical fieldwork: beyond box-ticking

Genuine equitable and ethical considerations in conservation policy, research and practice cannot be based on ticking boxes to indicate whether certain individuals or groups are merely in the room. They need to be listened to and their voices need to count. Local knowledge should not only be respected, but integrated into initiatives.

Local staff and researchers should be encouraged and trained to lead projects. Research should be co-created and findings shared with local staff and impacted communities, in an accessible format and appropriate language. A recently developed code of conduct for ethical fieldwork provides some excellent guidance.

Working with local people and communities also requires establishing culturally and socially sensitive ways of working, including considering what ethical principles can be committed to. Examples include prioritising dignity, safety and wellbeing over project goals. Team members who are vulnerable (eg due to their gender, sexual orientation or religion) should be protected and accountability mechanisms put in place so ethical practices are adhered to.

Ways forward for shifting power imbalances and increasing accountability

Accountability could be improved, for example, by integrating grievance mechanisms into conservation initiatives via third- or multi-party moderated platforms such as Loop (a remote tool for communities to self-initiate feedback). It is currently only available in a handful of countries, but the concept is moving in the right direction: it allows people to voice their needs in their own language, ensures accountability (and transparency) in relation to safeguarding rights, and provides a means to reporting and addressing the abuse of rights.

To be truly accountable, fair and transparent governance is key. Those given governance responsibility must also be given the financial and human resources required to support their mandates and capabilities. Partnerships with local actors need to be restructured to base relationships on accountability both upwards and downwards.

Final thoughts

As a sector, we have a long way to go to transform the system and reconcile inequitable power imbalances. But discussions are happening – and momentum is building.

If you are interested in learning more, Conservation Science and Practice recently published a special issue on confronting parachute science in conservation (when global North actors ‘parachute’ into the global South but fail to invest in, fully partner with or recognise local governance, capacity, expertise and social structures). And at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in July, WE Africa will be hosting a roundtable discussion on increasing diverse voices in conservation research and steps to do so.

About the author

Nafeesa Esmail is a conservation research and strategy advisor at Wilder Institute, and a Women for the Environment Africa fellow

Jana McPherson is a senior manager for community conservation projects at Wilder Institute

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