From Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains to Colombia’s coast, communities are making commitments to conserve their natural resources in exchange for tangible benefits like livestock, access to education and farming tools.
In December 2009, 55 people gathered in the heart of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala to trade tips on implementing these conservation agreements, which provide conditional compensation to people in environmentally critical areas to offset the opportunity cost of implementing actions to protect vital ecosystems.
This fourth annual Learning Network meeting organized by Conservation International’s Conservation Stewards Program included representatives of communities, partner organizations and local government. They reviewed each step of the conservation agreement model and shared stories of successes and obstacles when working with communities to protect the environment.
“Conservation can’t be done for free,” Patricia Zurita, senior director of the Conservation Stewards Program, told participants during the first day of the conference.
Zurita knows what she’s talking about: She’s overseeing scores of conservation agreements – more than 70 exist in various stages – in 17 different countries.
“We are asking local people to make sacrifices in the short run to protect a global good, our natural resources; they need to be compensated if we want conservation to happen,” Zurita said.
It is these short-term development opportunities that conservation agreements recognize and offset through carefully designed and mutually agreed upon benefit packages with the communities which empower them to protect their natural resources, for their future and the planet’s.
“These agreements are not charity,” Zurita said. “They are a transaction that recognizes the services that these communities are providing to the rest of the planet. We provide benefits to offset the costs of conservation.”
Participants from 12 different countries weighed in on all stages of a conservation agreement – from the initial feasibility analysis to implementation and monitoring of an agreement and the search for sustainable funding.
Srinivas Vaidyanathan, from India’s Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning, said he was able to pick up practical tips from day one of the meeting.
Vaidyanathan is trying to protect wildlife corridors back home in southern India, in a stretch of land between two tiger habitats.
“We’re trying to protect many large mammals, but in order to do so we need the local community to change their land use: They harvest trees for rubber that can impact the biodiversity,” Vaidyanathan said. “This meeting helped me understand how to calculate the opportunity cost to the community – the price they will pay if they stop harvesting those trees.”
Implementers use opportunity cost estimates to guide the design of a voluntary agreement with the community to prioritize what the community needs in order to successfully protect their natural resources. The agreements also include plans to monitor both the community and the implementer’s adherence to the contract, and sanctions for noncompliance.
Several participants praised the patrolling techniques used by Learning Network participants from China as part of the conservation actions included in agreements. The China team is able to confirm that patrolling is occurring in the right places by collecting data from GPS devices and asking the community patrolling teams to change placards left on trees to indicate that they have visited an area.
“The Chinese system could be very useful for us back home,” said Toki Andrianjohaninarivo of Conservation International Madagascar. “We weren’t sure how to know whether people were really patrolling.”
Participants were encouraged to reach out to government leaders and the private sector when thinking about the sustainability and potential larger impact of the project. They also learned that working with graduate students to monitor changes in biodiversity and socioeconomic conditions can be a cost effective way to determine the project’s impact and improve future agreements.