At the recent UN biodiversity conference in Japan, participants were tasked with finding a new approach to preserve threatened ecosystems.
In the end, government and UN officials, NGO representatives and others reached an agreement that some are calling historic. The executive director of the UN’s Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, said: “This is a day to celebrate in terms of a new and innovative response to the alarming loss of biodiversity and ecosystems.” But how different is it?
The new “Aichi Target” (named after the prefecture in Japan where the meetings took place) creates a 10-year strategic plan to meet 20 goals for stemming species loss. It is set to take effect in 2020 but will need to be ratified by nearly 200 signatory nations, then implemented at the national and local levels by government officials, and then funded in order to work. This is yet another highly complex and inefficient process to address a very important problem. A more effective model would be to keep things simple.
Rather than trusting government officials to halt species loss, the goal should be to empower the citizens of these countries where such species are declining. There are programs that have been successful in protecting biodiversity while also aiding economic development. For instance, delegates should be pursuing the community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) model — a traditional approach to managing resources that exists across the globe. But, unfortunately, such approaches were not the focus of discussion at the conference.
CBNRM is a bottom-up approach that gives local communities, who are the ones to bear the costs of preserving and conserving resources, legal rights to manage those resources and benefit from their use. In economic terms, CBNRM gives local people incentives to preserve rather than poach or overuse the forests, wildlife or fisheries they control. Countries across Africa have implemented CBNRM programs but one in particular, has been a dramatic success.
Namibia started a robust CBNRM program in 1996 by devolving legal rights to manage wildlife and to benefit from the use of wildlife to rural communities where poverty was rampant.
Community members work together to draft a constitution, create a game management plan and protect and guard the animals in their area. They distribute any profits they generate and report on their finances. This voluntary cooperation helps to promote greater accountability and transparency.
Today more than 50 communities, representing more than 10 percent of Namibia’s population, have created conservancies to manage wildlife — including elephant, zebra, wildebeest, even desert-adapted lion. Aerial surveys and road counts show that populations of wildlife on conservancy land have rebounded and poaching is virtually non-existent.
The conservancy program is also generating substantial economic benefits for rural Namibians. In 2008, conservancies earned more than $40 million Namibian dollars in cash and non-cash benefits. This is the equivalent of more than $5 million U.S. dollars. From a baseline of $0 conservancy income in 1996, this is a solid change.
Individuals are also empowered in other ways by having meaningful control of their environment. Conservancies don’t just manage wildlife, they also manage themselves and their affairs. This practice of self-governance provides conservancy members with the experience of local democracy building.
CBNRM shows that local people are more than capable of protecting their own resources when they are given a meaningful stake in the economic outcomes of those efforts.
Yet many developing world countries hesitate to adopt this approach. Local control means money goes to locals, not into national treasuries, where it can be diverted or embezzled. Local control means local governance and this may pose a threat to unresponsive political leaders.
So even though CBNRM is extremely effective in terms of conservation and local empowerment, the leaders of the developing world weren’t singing its praises at the biodiversity conference.
Instead, there was the usual raucous chorus calling for more aid and more centralized oversight of environmental resources. This top-down strategy is good for preserving political benefits, but fails miserably when it comes to preserving species, which is what the conference was supposed to be all about.