Participation, community engagement, equitable development, sustainability – all terms familiar to conservation and development practitioners, public philanthropic contributors, and the donor community. Since virtually all espouse to these “pillars”, clearly they must be being adhered to, evidence must abound, and progress toward participatory, equitable, and sustainable development that engages communities as pivotal stakeholders in conservation and development processes must be the norm.
But is it?
A network of researchers and practitioners have been examining the evidence around participation and community engagement with indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) for several years. In fact we have learned that evidence is weak that organizations working in conservation and development can clearly explain how communities are engaged, whether they ever play a lead role in driving conservation and development, if they do not how this impacts project or program outcomes, and why this nebulous state of affairs would be the case after billions of dollars have been spent globally on conservation and development efforts over the past 20-30 years. This is at a time when the metrics for forest loss and biodiversity declines continue to raise tremendous alarm. And still, the strategies and approaches that most organizations take appear to perpetuate outcomes that do not reverse the course.
Historically, strategies for projects in economic development or biodiversity conservation are driven by economists in the case of the former, conservation scientists in the case of the latter. Donors support these “expert” driven initiatives because, naturally, experts know best. Yet, do they always?
Community, be they indigenous or simply “local” – meaning they are comprised of heterogenous peoples who may or may not have indigenous or strong ethnic backgrounds in dynamic contexts where social change has occurred over hundreds of years – often understand the contexts they live in best. They understand their priorities. They understand most of the constraints to their development or conservation of their resources. What they may lack are options for realizing how to balance their priorities in a way that their development aspirations and conservation of their resources remain compatible.
At the heart of achieving this balance, their must be equity and justice. Too many contexts in remote forested countries, governance and judicial systems are weak. Corruption on a grand scale, or “simple” administrative corruption abound and constrain people daily.
Justice for indigenous peoples and local communities must be taken seriously regardless of its impact on nature. Evidence increasingly shows that when the rights of IPLCs are recognized through secure land tenure and national constitutions, nature thrives as well. While most who work on conservation and development issues know this, few are prioritizing this as a core objective. So too, community and local NGO capacity building to enable self-reliance after decades of acknowledgment as a priority, remains a tremendous need.
To achieve sustainability for nature and people, justice, equity, and strengthened local capacities need to become priorities in development and conservation programming. This describes Nature For Justice’s mission.