The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see

Darwin Projects and the Social Dimensions of Protected Areas

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By Simon Mercer

This is a new experience for me, never having written a blog before, but the thought-provoking posts on the complex relationship between biodiversity conservation and poverty, have spurred me in to action! In her first post Jami introduced some important issues around the use of protected areas as a conservation tool and this got me to thinking about how these issues are dealt with through the current batch of Darwin projects.

The edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, surrounded by farming land of the local communities. Credit Mariel Harrison

The edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, surrounded by farming land of the local communities. Credit Mariel Harrison

The limitations of protected areas are widely acknowledged in terms of both their ecological and social outcomes. A growing body of evidence has questioned the ability of isolated protected areas to maintain viable populations of rare and far ranging species, or to maintain important ecosystem services. There has also been a lot of debate around the socio-economic benefits of such approaches, particularly relating to the poverty impacts of such interventions, resulting from the unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of protected areas over space and time. Such issues are often amplified by the forced eviction of local residents, which have historically gone hand-in-hand with such fences and fines approaches to conservation, and which continue to this day.

That is certainly not to say that protected areas are inherently bad, there are many examples where the outcomes of such interventions have been positive for both people and nature. In fact in a changing climate landscape level approaches to conservation are increasingly important, and better connected, larger and more numerous networks of Protected Areas are likely to make a key contribution to such conservation strategies. A recognition of this potential is implicit in the CBD’s target of increasing terrestrial protected area coverage to 17% by the year 2020. What is really important, then, is to ensure that where such approaches to conservation are adopted, local stakeholders are fully engaged in the process and provision is made to counteract any negative social or economic impacts that may arise.

A mutwa elder shows the group a medicinal herb from the forest credit P Wairagala/FFI

A mutwa elder shows the group a medicinal herb from the forest credit P Wairagala/FFI

A cluster of current Darwin projects based in Uganda are successfully engaging with these important issues, and are working hard to improve the poverty and conservation outcomes of such approaches. Fauna and Flora International are leading a Darwin project to improve management effectiveness and conservation outcomes in three national parks which, when 1st gazetted in 1991, resulted in the eviction of the indigenous forest inhabitants, the Batwa. This project aims to reengage the Batwa, involving them in park management and integrating their cultural values and institutions into local conservation efforts, whilst also providing alternative livelihoods opportunities. Other Darwin funded projects, such as the IIED-led study undertaking Social Assessments of Protected Areas are working to improve the evidence based on the social impacts of protected areas, by providing managers and policy-makers with access to guidance and tools for assessing the impact of biodiversity conservation actions on local stakeholders, enabling them to make informed decisions to minimise the negative social and economic effects and maximize positive impacts for local communities. Meanwhile, a current Royal Zoological Society of Scotland project, also funded by Darwin, is addressing issues of illegal hunting and the impacts of human wildlife conflict in forest edge hunting communities. As protected areas become increasingly isolated in landscapes modified by human activities such issues become more and more common, posing significant threats to both conservation and human development objectives.

Batwa cultural values assessment, Uganda. Credit FFI

Batwa cultural values assessment, Uganda. Credit FFI

What these Darwin-funded projects have in common is their acknowledgement that, in human dominated landscapes, conservation interventions are unlikely to succeed if they are considered in isolation from humans. At the same time, as Jami so rightly observed, for many rural communities conservation initiatives that are mindful of human needs can be an effective means to improved wellbeing.

We would love to hear your thoughts on these complex issues. How valuable do you think protected areas are as a conservation tool? Is it ever really possible to truly achieve the delicate balance between poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation? How will conservation strategies develop over the coming years? Engaging with these, and many other questions of conservation and development, will be keeping all of us on the Darwin Initiative busy for a long long time to come!


Author: darwininitiativeuk

The Darwin Initiative is a UK government grants scheme that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide.

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