Community involvement in conservation and tourism

Local communities should be treated as valued stakeholders and sustainability partners in conservation and tourism, say Ian Gordon-Cumming and Prof Kevin Mearns of Unisa’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

Community involvement in conservation and tourism
- Advertisement -

Biodiversity conservation, protected areas and wildlife tourism are three fundamentals in an intricate, multifaceted and interlinked system. Of concern, however, is that current rates of biodiversity loss are unsustainable.

Wildlife conservation outcomes are strongly influenced by adjacent communities. Although win-win situations do occur, relatively few community-based conservation initiatives have been wholly successful.

READ Protecting the jewel in SA’s biodiversity crown

- Advertisement -

In 73 studies spanning 12 countries in Africa, social outcomes were assessed as positive in only 34% of cases. There is a strong correlation between benefits, positive attitudes and community support for protected areas.

By comparison, restricted access to natural resources and benefits is seen to have a negative impact on livelihood strategies and attitudes, leading to conflict between stakeholders.

Generally, tangible direct benefits such as employment and access to natural resources are valued in local communities. But very few community members perceive or are aware of any benefit from biodiversity conservation and/or wildlife tourism.

This is as true for large parks like the Kgalagadi as for small financially volatile ones.
A study of nine village communities revealed only 17% of respondents perceived any tangible or intangible benefit.

It is crucial that benefits are distributed equitably, as perceived by the communities involved. However, there is often an imbalance, with a small elite benefitting while those most in need are further marginalised.

A situation that inevitably leads to discontent, as well as a lack of community support for conservation and wildlife tourism, therefore arises. Tangible benefits at the household level are inevitably minimal and so risk compromising long-term, sustainable support.

READ The benefits of conservation agriculture

There is a need to manage and monitor the distribution of information in local communities regarding the benefits that may be available, as well as any associated limitations. This needs to be communicated by park and tourism management.

Building local capability along with access to improved education are key to community members being equipped to capitalise on available tourism benefits and enhancing employment opportunities.

However, the challenge remains that available tangible benefits are generally too small to have a long-lasting, sustainable positive impact.

Hence the significance of not only optimising and distributing benefits fairly, but also ensuring conservation and wildlife tourism managers help establish realistic expectations.

However, community members do value and associate participation with improved livelihoods and positive attitudes.

Stakeholder participation by local communities in conservation and wildlife tourism, including related decision-making processes, is one of the most pertinent and misunderstood requirements for sustainability.

Positive synergies between stakeholders are most likely to occur when local processes cater for meaningful local community input. Case-studies show community participation is the most successful strategy for generating support, while community participation is key to driving positive behaviour.

Conversely, where park and tourism management are in dispute with local people, they are at risk of failing to achieve their primary goals.

Each stakeholder will perceive the level of involvement differently. However, by genuinely trying to understand local community perceptions, conservation management can be improved.

Yet, in many diverse instances, local perceptions are that for the most part, their participation is both minimal and at a low level.

Even in private game reserves, the local community may perceive that they are not involved in management and decision-making, are largely involved in low-skill activities, and that little is in place to transform a less-than-desirable situation.

Notably, these perceptions prevail despite widespread community appreciation of infrastructural improvements introduced in association with the primary tourism operator in the game reserve.

Structural problems
The current state of affairs can be traced to three structural limitations, which are in need of practical local solutions.

Firstly it is widely recognised that a lack of knowledge and limited capacity in communities are key factors to local residents not being able to fully participate or capitalise on opportunities offered by wildlife tourism.

Moreover, this is often the justification for employment of outsiders, as well as leading to an imbalance in power dynamics to the disadvantage of local communities.
The net result is that negative attitudes prevail, often contributing to illegal exploitation of natural resources.

Any response to what is essentially inadequate education will require considerable investment in time and capital.

Nevertheless, a start can be made by park and tourism authorities using in-house skills, especially with regard to increasing local environmental awareness and appreciation.

Secondly, it is vital to recognise that the attitude of conservation and tourism authorities is central to shaping the nature of local participation.

These professionals do not necessarily appreciate the full value of building close relationships through regular, meaningful and interactive participation based on mutual respect.

The way forward lies in recognising that while protected areas are often managed by conservationists and ecologists, it is social and governance challenges that often pose the greatest threats.

Thirdly, the need for good governance is fundamental and underpins being able to successfully address the challenge of ineffective participations. In all this, the onus for driving change lies with the conservation and tourism authorities rather than community members.