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  This module is a resource for lecturers  




Problematizing the community concept

The module defines ‘community’ as a group of people who are located in a specific geography at a specific point in time and maintain social relations (Kepe 1999). It is acknowledged that communities are not homogenous units, as they are made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds, loyalties and aspirations. The ‘community’ concept has a checkered history; early colonialists in the Global South or elite formations in the Global North were granted individual agency while people of colour, different social strata, castes or religions were and continue to be depicted as a collective, as members of local communities or Indigenous Peoples. The label ‘community’ has often grouped complex societies into homogenized communal containers.

In contemporary society, government authorities, civil society, and NGOs have embraced the community concept and the notion of community participation. A convincing argument has been made that it was a sense of community and strategic mobilization that brought about the end of the colonial systems (Williams 2006: 197). Many local communities continue to mobilize against issues of common concern such as climate change, corruption or gang activities. As a counterpoint to anomic notions of individual self-reliance and self-interest in pursuit of wealth, the de-growth and post-capitalist movements have also embraced the notion of ‘community’. The thinking is that future sustainability of the planet can only be achieved through sharing, a sense of ‘community’ and togetherness, although it a common cause and shared interests. The celebration of community is partially based on mythical conceptions of “small, integrated groups using locally evolved norms to manage resources sustainably and equitably” (Agrawal and Gibson 1999: 640). There are, however, many diverse and contradictory influences, alliances and interests at community level. Individuals and leaders associated with specific communities may not always act in the best interest of the community.

For the purposes of this module, it is acknowledged that the concept of ‘community’ can be a social construct with questionable roots often anchored in colonial race ideologies of yesteryear. It is employed here due to its wide application in current thinking on societal matters, responses to crime, conservation policies and approaches.

Finally, it is important to differentiate between local communities and Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples also known in different countries as First Nations, First peoples, natives or Aboriginals who are the original or earliest inhabitants of an area as opposed to people who settled, occupied or colonized the area more recently (even if that occurred thousands of years ago). Indigenous peoples may have settled in a specific region or may live a nomadic lifestyle across an expansive territory, often driven by seasonal availability of natural resources and favourable climatic conditions. Although the concept of indigeneity has naysayers who point to the complexities and differences of lived experiences as opposed to a collective experience (Cunningham and Stanley 2003), the concept started being used as a mobilization and campaigning device in the 1970s as a way of amplifying experiences, issues and struggles of colonized peoples across the world. It is important to reiterate that to believe that all Indigenous Peoples live in harmony among themselves is also a myth.

Particularly in Africa, the concept of indigeneity is politically laden as there are many rural communities who do not identify as indigenous (or are not recognised by their governments as indigenous) but nevertheless are traditional communities who may have lived in specific locations and followed traditional practices for thousands of years. It is thus important to note that it is not a case of Indigenous Peoples versus others who are deemed ‘modern’. It is for this reason that important international actors, including the Convention on Biological Diversity and IPBES, have started to use the terminology of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs): “Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) are, typically, ethnic groups who are descended from and identify with the original inhabitants of a given region, in contrast to groups that have settled, occupied or colonized the area more recently” (IPBES n.d.).


Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)

Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) has been gaining international recognition for several decades and plays a leading role in contemporary conservation strategies worldwide. The aim of CBNRM models is to strengthen locally accountable institutions for natural resource use and management, enabling IPLCs to make better decisions about the use of land and resources. The implementation of CBNRM involves the transfer of authority over natural resources to local communities, including for potentially valuable resources such as wildlife and timber. Thus, CBNRM usually involves institutional reforms and fundamental changes in power and influence (Roe, Nelson, and Sandbrook 2009).

CBNRM implies different things to different actors across the world. In some places (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa), CBNRM is often interpreted by government authorities, donor agencies, and NGOs as a means of benefit sharing or outreach between national parks and adjacent communities. In such instances, communities are not empowered as natural resource managers but function as passive recipients of benefits controlled elsewhere. In most of Southern Africa, CBNRM models clearly define the terms of devolution of rights to make management decisions and capture benefits in relation to resources located on communal land (Roe, Nelson, and Sandbrook 2009).

Arriving out of a desire to rectify the human costs associated with coercive conservation practices, CBNRM sought to return the stewardship of biodiversity and natural resources to local communities through participation, empowerment and decentralization (Dressler et al. 2010). The essence of community-based conservation is to assist marginalized communities, set priorities and make decisions for developing natural assets and social equality to reduce livelihood vulnerability and improve conservation. Joint management of these landscapes can be mutually benefitting as dislocation, eviction and disassociation of IPLCs needs to be replaced by a healthy restoration of stewardship. This reinforces the need for reconnection and recognition of existing relationships for their full value to locals (Courtois 2020). CBNRM is often framed in the broader dimension of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) which aim and enhance both conservation and development.

CBNRM became not only a mode of management under the sustainable use paradigm but it was also applied to state and private management regimes (Murphree 2013: XVI). The white minority governments in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, for example, devolved wildlife user rights to private (white) landowners before the countries gained independence. The move transformed wildlife into an economic asset, leading to the recovery of wildlife on private land. Subsequently targeted at rural communities, CBNRM became fashionable amongst international donors due to its putative benefits of combining ecological sensitivity with rural poverty alleviation, which is ostensibly achieved through economic expansion and institutional growth. Conservation organizations and NGOs developed programmes that promoted local participation in and benefit from conservation.

A broad range of CBNRM programmes exists across the world. Community participation in conservation initiatives has taken a wide variety of forms, from comprehensive community-centred approaches where management responsibilities and property rights are devolved to communities to interventions that are merely symbolic in nature (Hübschle and Shearing 2021). Despite notable achievements (for example, see case studies on Namibia’s community conservancies and Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE programme), fundamental challenges remain. For example, in the Indian context, CBNRM was realized through the passage of the Forest Rights Act (see case study in section 1).

Overall, however, there remain relatively few examples of communities obtaining formal authority over land and natural resources on that land. To date, a lot of provisions that provide rights to communities remain only on paper; the acknowledgement in principle of participation and inclusion does not necessarily translate to a recognition of rights. Centralized control over natural resources persists despite the change in the rhetoric over land and resource management (Roe, Nelson, and Sandbrook 2009). Conflicts between local groups and other more powerful actors, including both state agencies and private sector investors, can arise.


Community involvement or engagement

As with the term ‘community,’ the definition of active ‘involvement’ can take many forms. At the simplest level, community involvement refers to active participation in decision-making processes that ensure benefits and improvement for the common good of the community (Stukas and Dunlap 2002). The concept of participation has varied interpretations as well, broadly relating to two main categories: participation as a means to achieve a goal for short-term projects, or participation as an end in itself, where the participation is seen as a long-term way of involving people in the development process (Oakley 1989).

Involvement is also related to community engagement. The working definition of community engagement provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US describes it as ‘the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people’ (CDC quoted in Walker 2020: 1). Community engagement is based on principles such as fairness, justice, empowerment, participation, and self-determination (McCloskey et al. 2011: 4).


Sustainable livelihoods

The concept of sustainable livelihoods dates back to the work of Robert Chambers in the mid-1980s (FAO 2020). A person’s livelihood refers to their way of living in order to secure the basic necessities (food, water, shelter and clothing) and other outcomes that they aspire to. This comprises an individual’s or household’s assets, capabilities and activities. Assets are the resources people have access to, and include both material and social resources (e.g. land, vehicle, rental income); capabilities are what people can do or be with their assets and entitlements (e.g. a farmer, nurse, technician); activities are everything that people do with their capabilities/assets to make a living (e.g. farm their land, go to the communal forest to collect fuelwood, care for their children). A livelihood is considered sustainable when an individual is able to cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance their capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base. “Assets” include human, social, natural, physical and financial assets (Cambridge Conservation Initiative n.d.).

Figure 2 - Sustainable livelihoods framework, INTRINSIC (Cambridge Conservation Initiative, n.d.)


Difference between conservation and preservation paradigms

It is important to note that the concepts of ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ are often used interchangeably in policy and scholarly literature. For the purposes of this module, conservation is defined as the planned management of plants, animals, natural areas and resources to prevent exploitation, destruction or neglect (Merriam-Webster n.d.). Preservation, on the other hand, involves the process of keeping natural resources and environments as they were at the time when private or public conservation entities started protecting them in order to prevent them from decaying or to protect them from being damaged or destroyed (Cambridge Dictionary n.d.). The preservationist paradigm advocates a hands-off approach to natural sites and resources.

Conservation and preservation are often portrayed as mutually exclusive biodiversity protection regimes. However, elements of both paradigms are somewhat intertwined and continue to influence our ways of ‘seeing’ conservation policies, wildlife and protected areas. Conservation issues became matters of public and policy discourses in the 1900s across most of the Western world. The nature of debates differed between the European imperial powers and the United States of America in that hunting game was a major interest across Europe and the British Empire, whereas the interests of the US lay in protecting plant life and scenery by reducing human interference. Hence, two major streams cornered the early environmental debate in protectionist policy making: conservation hunting regulations versus preservationist game reserves (Carruthers 1988). The debates were particularly polarised and politicised in North America where preservationists were vying for pole position with the conservationist movement. Major points of contention related to different perceptions as to whether humans should be part of the natural environment and whether natural resources should be used for the common good. As the American polarisation on protectionist practices had a lasting effect on global conservation paradigms, an overview of the American environmentalists behind preservationism and conservationism is provided.

The preservation movement was started by the Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir, who has been widely credited with playing a leading role in lobbying for the establishment of Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park in California. He was also the founder of the Sierra Club, the first large-scale environmental organization in the US, which has become an important vehicle for lobbying American politicians on environmental issues. Muir was of the view that national parks and forests should be preserved in their entirety without human interference and remain off-limits to industrial and commercial interests (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2019). At the core of this view, preservationism is the contention that nature has a moral status and rights beyond its utility to humanity. Instead of looking at nature in terms of the resources it provides and its utility to humanity, preservationists argue that we should make room for reverence and wonderment. The US National Parks system was borne out of an idealized notion of pristine nature, untouched by humans and human interference. It is widely believed that the US model was the blueprint for national parks systems around the world (Rashkow 2014). “The construction of natural spectacle and packaging of wilderness as a national treasure occurred alongside the removal of the original settlers and owners, and hence, required a rewriting of history. This provided a model emulated elsewhere in the US and globally” (Goyes and South, 2019, p. 92).

While the preservationist paradigm was based on the assumption that local people and protected areas are best kept apart to preserve ‘pristine nature’, the counter-narrative was led by conservationist Gifford Pinchot: he believed that humans belonged in their environment as inhabitants and stewards. Pinchot was an American forester and politician who was appointed by US President Theodore Roosevelt as the first head of the United States Forest Service in 1905. He decentralised the service by devolving decisions relating to conservation and forestry to local civil servants. During his tenure, he codified an ethic of use which proposed that humans and nature could happily co-exist (Pinchot 1905). Pinchot encouraged a utilitarian, science-based approach to conservation, arguing that natural resources should be sustainably used for the public good. At the core of this thinking was a land use ethic which relied heavily on a scientific understanding of the connection between people and their natural surroundings. Pinchot was particularly concerned with waste and inefficiency in the use of natural resources and monopoly control by powerful entities and special interest groups. Although Pinchot expressed a personal connection to forests, his policy pronouncements were based on economic cost and benefit calculations which excluded consideration of non-economic values (Meyer 1997). Despite Pinchot’s recognition of humans as an integral part of their natural surroundings, the early conservationist agenda did not regard Native Americans living in newly-declared parks as conducive to conservation agendas.

These two streams of protectionism had an immense impact on global environmental policies, dictated by the global North, and continue to influence current conservation policies and practices. Both streams were united on the contention that humans other than officials and tourists did not belong in protected areas, especially national parks. Further, they were united in that they were designed to ensure that any natural resource is managed and utilized in a way to ensure its perpetuation. The aim of so-called ‘wise usage’ is to restrict exploitation to a sustainable level. In spite of their paradigmatic differences, a principle present in both approaches is to safeguard our natural environments and halt biodiversity extinction.

The empty land myth

To suit the preservationist ideal of an untouched, pristine wilderness, millennia of indigenous history were wiped clear or hidden from sight. For example, the empty or vacant land myth (terra nullius) in South Africa was propagated by European settlers to justify their claims to land. To this day, right-wing nationalists argue that European settlers and the Bantu tribes had migrated to South Africa roughly at the same time and had found ‘empty land’. The theory has been debunked and evidence shows that Iron Age farmers and Late Stone Age peoples had been living in the interior of South Africa for more than a thousand years before Portuguese sailors first reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 (Crais 1991, Marks 1980). This ‘empty lands’ myth also excludes the Khoisan populations of southern Africa – the KhoiKhoi and San – who had been nomads for millenia (South African History Online 2014).


A new conservation paradigm: Pragmatic conservation

Pragmatic conservation refers to a set of design principles that center IPLCs in wildlife conservation and protection schemes (Hübschle & Shearing, 2018; Hübschle & Shearing, 2021). The point of departure of pragmatic conservation is that IPLCs were historically and, in many instances, continue to be, excluded from the governance, benefits and ownership of protected areas and wildlife. While IPLCs might not be involved in or beneficiaries of illegal wildlife economies, they may also not be favourably inclined towards protected areas and associated legal (wildlife) economies. Harmonious relationships between local communities and parks are crucial to positive outcomes for IPLCs, protected areas and biodiversity conservation in general terms. The current wildlife crime control paradigm and associated conservation policies are aimed at controlling poachers and advancing security and other anti-poaching measures to disrupt wildlife trafficking networks. Securitization and militarization, however, may restrict pathways for community empowerment and economic upliftment. Violence not only begets violence, but it also precludes opportunities for inclusive protected area management, benefit sharing and parks that locals would want to be associated with. As long as conservation continues to benefit elite interests, protected areas and the wildlife contained within them will be subject to contestation and conflict (Hübschle & Shearing, 2018). Pragmatic conservation purports that the map of power does not lie with militarization, but rather in the goodwill of local people living with and near wildlife. The researchers behind this new paradigm also point to the significant role of women in mediating positive conservation outcomes. While the approach acknowledges that conservation enforcement is important, a greater focus is placed on in-depth financial and criminal investigations designed to disrupt illegal wildlife flows along the entire supply chain. Community policing and safety measures that protect both wildlife and people are suggested. The pragmatic conservation model is based on insights garnered from the Zwelethemba model of community peace making and keeping - a locally led and participatory set of arrangements for community security and policing- and a decade-long immersion study into the drivers of poaching and community responses to wildlife crime.

Next: Background: Communities and conservation: A history of disenfranchisement
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