Strategies to protect natural resources, biodiversity and promote ecosystem services have often been implemented with little regard for the people living in areas set aside for nature conservation - India’s February 2019 supreme court ruling, which threatens 2 Million indigenous households with eviction, is a contemporary case-in-point.
A couple pose for a photo while ploughing their field in Dhading District, Nepal (Photo Credit: Johan Oldekop)
So, can socially just management of nature be consistent with support for local livelihoods? International donors and non-government organisations (NGOs) have promoted community-based conservation and advocated for local and indigenous rights to resources for decades. A large body of scholarly work has supported this push - most notably in the work of the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom. Her work, and that of many of her colleagues, showed that: with secure rights, local communities can conserve resources and prevent environmental degradation. Social justice issues have permeated international sustainability agendas, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the arguments about the natural world have extended beyond the traditional conservation agenda.
Yet, despite decades of international research efforts, evidence of whether community-based initiatives can reduce environmental degradation AND promote local livelihoods remains rare. This is partly due to the limited availability of the necessary data to assess these initiatives. Combining environmental assessments with household- and community-level information about wellbeing is costly, time-consuming and requires the input of experts from many different fields.
Our paper, authored by an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, economists and political scientists, overcomes previous data limitations by using rigorous techniques to analyse data on forests, people, and institutions. We focus on Nepal: this small country, famous for its peaks and mountains, has one of the world’s largest and longest standing community-based forest management programmes. We combine satellite image-based estimates of deforestation with data from Nepal’s national census (1.36 Million households), and information on more than 18,000 community forests. Our results demonstrate that community-based efforts have reduced both deforestation and poverty and that greater wellbeing and forest cover can go together with community based management.
The type of data we used for this study has been collected in many other settings, opening exciting new avenues for research around the world. This may require some shoe leather (we made several trips in person to government offices) but also provides a low cost opportunity to learn from the policy innovations worldwide.
Understanding what works for people and nature, where and why - is critical for policy makers, for advocates of nature conservation and development, and equally importantly for a sustainable future. Yet natural resource management and traditional conservation policies continue to be implemented with little evidence about their effectiveness. Making better use of existing data sources, and combining them imaginatively, creatively, and rigorously is a critical step towards reducing the evidence gap and implementing better policies.