There is a growing school of thought among environmentalists that local and indigenous conservation schemes can often be as effective as those run by governments. Now, the University of Cambridge has produced a study that backs up this theory. With a focus on deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, the results show that local and indigenous-run forest conservation areas were not only as good at maintaining tree cover as those run by the state, in certain aspects they were better.
By cross referencing high-resolution satellite data with research in the field, lead author of the study, Judith Schleicher, was able to compare tree cover changes between 2006 and 2011 across 74 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon. ‘Both local and state-governed conservation areas experienced less deforestation than similar unprotected areas of forest,’ she explains. ‘However, privately-owned conservation concessions and indigenous territories were, on average, more effective than state-protected areas in this respect.’ Though the study did not explicitly analyse why local and indigenous conservation worked better, a key factor was found to be that managing conservation concessions sustains a sense of ownership and pride for the people involved.
The results build on similar research carried out in the Brazilian Amazon, which found indigenous territories there were also particularly effective at preventing tree loss. Consequently, there are now calls for more scrutiny of different kinds of conservation at work. For Schleicher, this is especially crucial as government-controlled protected areas have been the mainstream method across the world, with many nations pledging to create more to meet environmental targets. ‘Despite these state-led conservation efforts, tropical forest loss continues largely unabated,’ she says. ‘We need more rigorous evaluation of different kinds of approaches.’
Schleicher accepts that no single conservation regime can be considered a ‘silver bullet’, rather that a diverse set of protections could be the future of conservation. It is worth noting, that while indigenous territories were more effective on average, they were also more variable in their results – state-protected areas were still more consistent.
‘This highlights the importance of understanding the various factors and conditions under which the conservation initiatives performed better than others,’ Schleicher says.
Diversifying conservation methods could involve making it easier for indigenous and local governments to designate their own conservation areas. ‘In the last decade, the Peruvian government has processed and approved very few new Indigenous Territories although hundreds have applied for them,’ says Schleicher. ‘One of our key recommendations is to provide more financial, legal and political support towards their establishment and implementations of local conservation initiatives.
This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.