Buying land for conservation: right or wrong?

Does creating nature reserves to protect some of the world’s most threatened wildlife results in disempowering local communities?

For decades the conservation effort focused on protecting charismatic species, like the endangered tiger or the panda that’s clinging onto survival. These animals capture the people’s passion for the natural world; they are a symbol of what is precious to us, what we are so close to losing forever.

Camera trap image of a jaguar
Most conservationists now believe that to save species, like the jaguar, you must protect an entire ecosystem. Image © Roberto Pedraza Ruiz
But over the years conservationists began realising that although highlighting the need to save these species was a successful PR tool that saw donations roll in, it was misrepresenting the situation.

Without saving the entire ecosystem and highlighting the interdependence of all species – great and small – then these iconic animals would be doomed, regardless of the money that was thrown their way. (Listen to the Society of Biology podcast that touches on this debate.)

Slowly the penny began to drop. Buying land to create nature reserves that help protect entire ecosystems started to become the new tool for conservationists. But to this date, it remains a controversial issue.

Conservationists depriving local people

Creating nature reserves disempowers the local people that live in the surrounding area, argues an article titled ‘Nature’s matrix: Linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty’ published in Links: international journal of socialist renewal. The author, Ian Angus, says:

“Most conservation groups […] try to protect biodiversity and limit species extinctions by creating wilderness reserves where human activity is limited or banned. Often they literally erect fences and pay armed guards to prevent intrusions, even by people whose ancestors lived on the land for millennia.”

Unfortunately, there are some examples of conservation organisations that take this approach, but Angus incorrectly links this unethical conservation method with the World Land Trust (WLT) and its patron, David Attenborough. Having worked for WLT for the last two years as Editor and Writer, I have an direct and in-depth knowledge of its successful work with local communities.

Angus argues that conservation organisations should work with local farmers, as small-scale agriculture can co-exist with biodiversity rich habitats, a view that is wholly commendable. This is, in fact, exactly what WLT does; the organisation’s local partners (importantly, WLT does not own any land itself) work alongside their communities, helping them develop sustainable farming initiatives, implement eco-tourism projects, run education programmes for schoolchildren, and they create more job opportunities by employing local people as wildlife rangers.

WLT also supports conservation programmes in Paraguay and Argentina that are enabling indigenous communities to reclaim ownership of their ancestral land.

Partnerships for the protection of nature

In a week’s time, I will be volunteering with WLT partner in Mexico: Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG).

Ranger Abel Reséndiz is employed by GESG, with the support of WLT, to help protect the wildlife in the reserve. Before this job, Abel was a migrant worker in the USA. Image © Roberto Pedraza Ruiz

The organisation is just one of example of how forming successful partnerships with local people is the best and often only way to ensure conservation success.

In 1987, a local woman from the village of Jalpan in Querétaro State, in Central Mexico, founded the grassroots conservation group GESG along with her husband and local people. Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, known as ‘Pati’, was on a mission to save the Sierra Gorda bioregion from destruction by unregulated development and in 2007 they formed a partnership with WLT.

Today, the reserve spans one million acres and has many communities living within it; with a large-scale programme of this kind, there are always going to be difficulties and debates but importantly nothing can happen without the communities’ full support.

Global recognition for conservation success

On June 14, Pati won the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation. In a press release, the National Geographic Society said:

“GESG is a living model of community-based conservation management. Thanks largely to GESG’s efforts and Ruiz Corzo’s leadership, the Sierra Gorda — comprising a third of Mexico’s Querétaro State and considered the area with the most ecosystem diversity in Mexico — is now a UNESCO and federal Biosphere Reserve and is the largest federal protected area with participatory management in the world. It spans one million acres, and its 35,000 residents own 97 per cent of the Reserve’s territory.”

Pati winning the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation. Image © National Geographic

GESG has created opportunities for rural, low-income communities in the areas of ecotourism, reforestation, soil restoration, ecological livestock management and other profitable microenterprises.

Pati and her team have developed online and on-site courses that allow others to replicate the GESG model, which is now being applied beyond the borders of Mexico. She has also pioneered the concept of valuing the ‘natural capital’ of the region; the Sierra Gorda has been validated by the Rainforest Alliance and is the first forest carbon project to achieve this milestone in Mexico. Payments for environmental services (biodiversity, water and carbon) now mean an annual income of around 1.1 million dollars for local forest owners, meaning conservation is now a better business than cattle ranching or agriculture, so a conservation economy is steadily growing in the area.

It is unfortunate that Angus, the author of ‘Nature’s matrix: Linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty’, chose to criticise the ethos and principles of the World Land Trust as it weakens his argument: some of the sentiments he expresses are valid, but his reference is wrong.

The core of WLT’s mission is working in partnership with a global network of organisations to empower local people, knowing that this is the most direct road to conservation success.

4 thoughts on “Buying land for conservation: right or wrong?

  • December 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Bethan and others,

    Can you please describe how your organization or others have fared in helping to protect the Monarch butterfly nature reserves in Mexico?



    • December 28, 2012 at 12:04 am

      Hi Peter, the World Land Trust and GESG work together to protect the Sierra Gorda region of Central Mexico in Querétaro State. The Monarch butterfly passes through the Sierra Gorda for two or three days on the way to their wintering habitat. They complete their trip in mountains to the south (about a 6 hour drive from Sierra Gorda). Although in theory this area is protected by the Mexican Government, logging is still very active there, so sadly the Monarch’s are in deep trouble.

  • December 20, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Unfortunately there are a lot of very ill-informed people writing about conservation, and often the attacks on conservationists relate to activities that have taken place many years ago. Conservation is a dynamic science/art. I could make just as many (if not more) attacks on the social anthropologists and others who claim to defend the ‘rights’of i’ndigenus’ groups. The majority of which are far worse off after half a century of suppirt. But I see little or no point in entering these discussion. The WLT does what it does, and does it to the best of its ability. Our partner organisations and the local communities are the best judge of what we do. Not social commentators based far away.


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