What is a “Local?”

23 02 2010

Yes, it matters.  Go to the website of any conservation group, and you will see how important this word is.  A search for the word “local” on the website of the Worldwide Fund for Nature brings up 9,950 results, The Nature Conservancy’s site 3,530, Conservation International’s website brings up 841, and African Wildlife Foundation’s site brings up 333.  Obviously it is important for these organizations to show that they are thinking about “the locals.”

Wildlife conservation and sustainable tourism should benefit “local people” and “local communities,” and include their input on decisions that will affect them.  Funding for conservation projects is often contingent on “local” consultation, and to become certified under most sustainable tourism certification schemes, you must show how your company is benefiting “local” people.

There is good reason for this trend.  The history of conservation in Africa has a big dark side in its relationship to local populations.  European colonial governments often created national parks by kicking “local people” off of their land and creating sacrosanct boundaries that were defended against people seeking natural resources they had relied on for generations.  This is only slowly starting to change.  Local people also tend to benefit very little from the presence of national parks, as tourism infrastructure in Africa has a lot of “leakage” (much of the tourism revenue “leaks” out of the local area to urban or foreign lodge owners and tour operators).

It is now clear to most conservation groups and national governments that biodiversity conservation can’t work without the support of local people.  There isn’t enough money and staff to protect the entire boundaries of massive national parks, and wildlife generally doesn’t know to stay within those boundaries anyway.  Locals need to benefit from conservation in order for it to work.  But who, exactly, are these locals?

I recently re-read a piece I had created on how to ensure that your tourism dollars support the destination where you travel, and saw that I had written “Support local tour operators and hotel owners.”  I had never really stopped to think “Well, what do I mean by that?”  Is a hotel owned by a third-generation Ugandan of Indian descent any less a Ugandan hotel than one owned by someone of African descent?  I would certainly never say that a third-generation African American was not a real American, so why apply a different standard here?  If a European-based tour operator is truly committed to conservation in areas where they take travelers, is it better to book your tour through them, or through a Ugandan tour operator that doesn’t invest in conservation?

This issue gets even more tricky when talking about wildlife conservation around protected areas (national parks, wildlife reserves, etc).  Here in Uganda, 20% of the entrance fees to the national parks goes directly to the communities surrounding the park.  This money is used for development projects decided upon by members of those communities.  Conservation agencies and foreign aid organizations also invest in livelihood projects in areas around national parks in order to provide incentives to the communities to help with conservation.  One down-side to this is people moving from other parts of the country to the areas surrounding the parks because they know there is investment in these areas.  This increases the pressures on the parks as the surrounding population grows, and as those people clear new land to farm.  Do you limit the benefits to people who were “local” before the benefits started coming in so that you aren’t exacerbating the population issues around parks?  How long do you have to be in an area before you are “local?”

Critics of large conservation efforts frequently advocate for turning control and decision-making power over to local people.  There are excellent examples of biodiversity being richer in forests where the indigenous inhabitants are still living than in areas that have been set aside as preserves or parks.  Many indigenous groups have even set up their own conservation areas because they recognize that their lives depend on the health of the forests.  Therefore, locals can do a better job with biodiversity conservation than outside groups, right?  I think that is sometimes the case, particularly in forested areas where traditional cultures are still largely intact.  Mark Dowie makes this case very convincingly in Conservation Refugees.

However, what about areas where those traditional cultures are not intact?  I once asked the leader of a fishing cooperative in a village on Lake Albert what would happen if national fisheries laws were not in place and they had full local control over fishing.  His response was “We’d catch every last fish.”  When I asked if that didn’t sound a little self-defeating, he said that if they didn’t catch them all, the refugees from Congo would, so they would try to fish faster to get some of the benefits before the fish were all gone.

In many of the communities in Uganda that surround national parks, there might be 20 or 30 languages spoken, and those people might be a blend of refugees, agriculturalists, cattle-herders and previous-forest-dwellers (Batwa).   These groups often have very different value systems regarding how land should be used, whether intact forests are important, and what animals can and should be hunted and eaten.  Perhaps most importantly, the tradition of a core group of respected “elders” or traditional leaders that could make decisions for the community has given way to elected local councils.  These new leaders necessarily respond to all of the pressures that elected leaders respond to anywhere in the world, and may have even come from a completely different part of the country.  This means they probably do not make their decisions from a place of deep traditional ecological knowledge about the areas they are administering in the way that traditional leaders from that area would.  So which locals should take the lead on locally-driven biodiversity conservation?

It is also becoming increasingly clear how interconnected the planet’s systems are.  The cutting of the rainforests in the Amazon or Congo affects people in Asia and Europe.  The decline of fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean adds pressure to the fisheries in the Pacific.  The melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland swallows up beaches on islands in the South Pacific.  So if decisions made in one place can affect people all over the world, how close to a place do you need to live in order to be considered “local” and to feel like you should have input on decisions made in that place?

It was an important step for conservation to get to the point where local people are an important part of the equation.  Now I think it is time to really think about what the word “local” means, so that it doesn’t become just another piece of rhetoric.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala




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