The Baishuijiang National Nature Reserve (BNNR) in southwest China was established in 1978 principally to protect giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). In 2000 it was added to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves under UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme
. BNNR is the largest giant panda reserve in China, and its 213,750 hectares contain rich montane forest habitat and sustain freshwater ecosystem services as well as housing a great variety of plants and animals.
In addition, almost 6,500 hectares of the BNNR—about one-third of which is giant panda habitat—are home to the Lizhiba community. This community of about 700 people historically experienced tension between resource-use rights and the BNNR management mandate formed from laws governing nature reserves in China. The resulting conflicts between the reserve and the community, between Lizhiba and neighboring communities, and within Lizhiba were accompanied by illegal logging and wildlife poaching.
In 2008 Conservation International-China helped implement a conservation agreement
between the BNNR and the Lizhiba community that established direct incentives for local populations to align their income-generating activities and land-use practices with conservation goals. Based on the model developed by Conservation International’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP), the conservation agreement aimed to better integrate the community into giant panda conservation, motivate watershed protection and also provide targeted protection for another endangered species, the Wenxian newt (Tylototriton wenxianensis). The conservation agreement also provided a framework for community co-management of the BNNR.
A key component of the deal was the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which is designed to ensure indigenous people’s right to give or withhold their consent to actions that affect their lands, territories and natural resources, as formally recognized within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
. The concept was alien to the community and the government partners in the context of nature reserve creation and management.
The establishment of the conservation agreement included workshops in Lizhiba to create community awareness and understanding of the conservation agreement model, community visioning exercises for future resource management, extensive discussions on potential conservation commitments and benefit packages, conferences with community representatives and Lizhiba leadership, and confidential voting on the terms of the conservation agreement. An overall workplan for the project was also developed jointly by the community members and CI-China, which around the same time transformed itself into the local NGO Shanshui.
These processes strengthened Lizhiba community governance in conservation planning and management, and community participation and interaction with government authorities. The conservation agreement framework has catalyzed an entirely new dynamic between the community and BNNR management authority, in which top-down decisions and instructions have been replaced by dialogue and negotiation.
In particular, local government authorities have recognized the value of securing broad-based community buy-in through a process based on incentives, information sharing and participation in decision making. This process has been used by CSP since 2005 to achieve biodiversity protection and human well-being improvements around the world. The current CSP portfolio includes projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific, benefitting nearly 35,000 people and protecting nearly 1.5 million hectares of natural habitat.
As demonstrated with the conservation agreement between the BNNR and the Lizhiba community, CSP works with communities to design the conservation commitments and benefit packages to respond to community needs and priorities, and only once the agreement is signed (following extensive dialogue and negotiation) can implementation begin. Thus, the model used by CSP clearly reflects the FPIC principle. Integrating FPIC during the conservation agreement process also helps empower communities to know and act on their rights with other organizations seeking to work in their territory.