This is an article by Kristin Drexler, faculty member, Human Ecology and Forestry, School of Science, technology, Engineering, and Math at American Public University.

The active participation of local communities is a critical component to the conservation of protected areas like national parks and preserves. Ironically, while these areas are most often thought of in a national and international context, they depend on the commitment of nearby neighbors for their ongoing preservation.

The Trio community survey team (left to right): Kristin Drexler, Leanne Torres, Urani Garcia, Gonzalo Castillo, Pedro Cho, and Chris Pech

The Trio community survey team (left to right): Kristin Drexler, Leanne Torres, Urani Garcia, Gonzalo Castillo, Pedro Cho, and Chris Pech

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs:

  • Local stakeholder engagement leads to adapted and more effective solutions
  • Social inclusion is a core element of sustainable development/management
  • Sustainable development requires us to do more with less and to become better at the ‘how’

Involving Local Communities in Conservation

So, how do we do involve local communities in conservation? And, how do we utilize the capacities of the communities in order for both the protected area managers and the communities themselves to mutually benefit? It starts with understanding and identifying management priorities, a community’s strengths and what activities are feasible for them, and what will generate the best cost-benefit scenario for both parties.

I initiated a community feasibility study in May, 2015 regarding a proposed agroforestry and alternative livelihood project in the ‘buffer-zone’ community of Trio in Belize, Central America. The agroforestry project was backed by Ya’axche’ Conservation Trust (YCT), a Belizean non-government organization (NGO) in charge of managing the adjacent forest reserve.

The Village of Trio is a remote, mixed Maya and Mestizo community of mostly subsistence farmers and banana plantation workers. Most households are below the national poverty level with large family numbers. Living adjacent to a protected area, most families use the forest for hunting, planting crops for subsistence or selling at the market, and as a clean water source.

Members of the survey team during household surveys

Members of the survey team during household surveys

The main challenge for YCT was to curtail the community’s encroachment into the forest reserve while facilitating support to the community. YCT proposed funding a community agroforestry project focusing specifically on cacao planting, harvesting, production, and sales as an economic activity for Trio. So, YCT had to determine if their proposed agroforestry project would work toward the conservation of the reserve as well as for Trio villagers. Would the community be willing to stop encroaching in the reserve if there was an alternate economic incentive?

I hypothesized that once the community priorities and capacities were identified and ranked, the community would be more agreeable to working with YCT in support of conservation and management efforts in the protected area. The challenge was how to collect the community data and how to code and categorize their priorities so YCT could support the project and best use their organization’s limited resources.

Using the S.P.E.E.C.H. Tool

Along with my counterpart, Belizean biologist and educator Gonzallo Castillo and his crew of four community surveyors, we developed a survey instrument using a critical thinking tool that I created – the ‘Drexler S.P.E.E.C.H. Tool’ – which was used to frame the community survey.

In May, 2015, randomly selected households (HH)/members of HH were asked a series of questions related to the S.P.E.E.C.H. impacts -or S-ocial, P-olitical E-conomic, E-nvironmental, C-ultural, and H-istoric impacts- of the proposed agroforestry project in their community and adjacent reserve. This multi-disciplinary approach facilitated exploration, discussion, and ranking of their community priorities, including: their access to school/education, healthcare, village infrastructure/services, and farmland access.

Learning from Community Input

The study found that if YCT invested in the immediate priorities of education, village infrastructure, and farming land availability, the community would be supportive and proactive toward the protected area conservation and YCT’s management priorities. Further, the community members (during the survey and their multi-disciplinary S.P.E.E.C.H. examination of the issues) understood that their livelihoods depended on the health and conservation of the adjacent protected area.

Therefore, by addressing and supporting the most immediate needs of the local community, the local NGO (YCT) was able to focus their limited resources and work together with the community toward effecting conservation and management of the forest reserve. A win-win.

About the Author: Kristin Drexler, a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at New Mexico State University, earned her master’s in International Affairs-Natural Resources Management from Ohio University and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. Prior to APUS, Drexler was an Environmental Scientist at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. In the 1990‘s, Kristi Drexler was park ranger for the National Park Service and later a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize; she currently serves on the Board of Directors for Full Basket Belize, a 501c3 providing scholarships and community grants in Belize.

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