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stewardship and Conservation governance

Conservation Governance

As international development agendas respond to environmental crises and a growing market for access to ‘wild’ places, conservation enclosures in the form of biodiversity reserves, parks, heritage sites, etc., have become contentious in many countries. They often sharpen intra- and inter-communal conflicts and/or hasten the displacement of indigenous groups. Yet, alternatives exist in community-based conservation and protected area approaches, recognizing traditional inhabitants as integral to ecosystems and affording space for customary and alternative livelihoods. We investigate conditions across this spectrum of outcomes for indigenous peoples, and the circumstances enabling community-based approaches.

Our research addresses the broad theme of conservation governance – spanning the range from top-down highly centralized approaches of the State to locally designed community-based alternatives. Our investigations, particularly of participatory forms of conservation governance, inevitably overlap with the interests and concerns of other research themes.

Main concepts

This research theme is informed by several conceptual areas and bodies of theory as they relate to community-based conservation and environmental protection:

Environmental governance

The contribution of participatory approaches, particularly those involving local communities, has been acknowledged for some decades, including recognition of knowledge and insights of the resource-user as well as the limitations of distant state-centred approaches. This shift is also consistent with the principle of subsidiarity endorsed by neo-liberalism which advocates that political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.

Conservation/Ideas of nature/wilderness/control and ownership

Eurocentric ideas of nature (and conservation) have deep roots in the colonial histories of settler states, particularly where parks and protected areas were tied to imperial expansionist imperatives of the State. Many such histories were and are glossed as progressive efforts by the State to preserve the land through the creation of wildlife sanctuaries and conservation areas with little regard for the violence, injustice and erasure inflicted on the indigenous inhabitants of these areas.

Environmental stewardship/responsibility/respect

For many Indigenous societies, understandings of “conservation” are tied to the sustaining of respectful relationships between humans and the non-human world. These relationships are based on the nurturing of respectful reciprocal relations or “relational sustainability” (Langdon, 2007), rather than notions of control and ownership. Different understandings of the appropriate relationships between humans and the natural world can lead to conflicting approaches to conservation and environmental management (Rutherford, 2009).

Indigenous self-determination and legal recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights

Indigenous peoples for long have been denied their right to determine their own destinies. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognized their right to self-determination (article 3). As a consequence of this right, indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their land, territories and other resources (article 32), as well as to the conservation of their environment (articles 24 and 29). Indigenous conservation strategies are grounded in the concept and right to self-determination, and as such will be central for the analysis to be made in this theme. One of the biggest challenges for communities who manage their traditional lands and seas is to ensure that their occupation of their territories and their governance of the natural resources are recognized by local and national authorities. Hence, critical for our investigations is to assess national/international legal instruments that recognize indigenous peoples as special rights-holders in biodiversity conservation, and that address indigenous peoples’ cultural and spiritual landscapes to strengthen the role of indigenous peoples and community conserved areas.


Early assessments were narrowly focused on the institutional arrangements that supported the involvement of the State and indigenous communities in management decision-making. More recent literature addresses the evolutionary nature of co-management through learning-by-doing or adaptive management (Armitage et a; 2007). This includes analysis of knowledge co-production between co-management parties and the resultant social learning and adaptive co-management.

Community-based conservation

Management decisions and practices of communities often lead to the conservation of habitats, species, genetic diversity, ecological functions/ benefits and associated cultural values, even when the conscious objective of management is not conservation alone or per se; for instance, objectives may be livelihood, security, safeguarding cultural and spiritual places, well being. As an alternative approach to the traditional conservation approach whereby local people are relocated outside of park boundaries, community-based conservation encourages local stewardship and enhances participation and local capacity while at the same time integrating cultural, spiritual, social and environmental priorities.

Traditional/Indigenous Knowledge

Recognition of the importance of different knowledge systems, especially Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Indigenous Knowledge (IK), is tied to the complexities and interconnections of nature and recognition of the non-linearity and uncertainty of ecological systems. Past attention to definitions and differences between Traditional Knowledge and Western perspectives have given way to more attention to complementarities between the two, to a multiplicity of ways of knowing, and to knowledge development (rather than focus on knowledge itself) (Berkes 2007, 2008).

Research questions

There are many research questions that are relevant to this theme:

  • How are state-sanctioned and private conservation initiatives impacting indigenous communities?
  • To what extent have externally designed conservation agendas been imposed, resisted, contested and/or reformulated and appropriated into locally meaningful forms of environmental protection by indigenous peoples?
  • What areas should be targeted for what kind of protection?

Furthermore, the researchers in this theme ask other questions, such as:

  • How can more recent and emergent models and experiences of community-based conservation support and enhance indigenous life projects in a manner compatible with their ontologies and conceptions of “living well”?
  • How can these models strengthen their institutions and authority on their traditional lands and seas? To what extent can these community-based approaches offer protection against large scale development projects that threaten the ecological health and productivity of these areas?
  • What opportunities, costs and trade-offs are potentially involved in embracing these community-based alternatives? To what extent can they build upon, strengthen and find compatibility with indigenous institutions of environmental stewardship? What internal and external challenges might communities face when governing and managing areas?
  • And finally, how do cultural and spiritual values engage global notions of “conservation” and “biodiversity protection”? How can indigenous community-based conservation strategies contribute to global strategies of biodiversity conservation? How can they also contribute to identifying alternatives to dominant development patterns which pose a threat to the environment?




Theme Leaders: José Aylwin, Monica Mulrennan

Theme Contributors
Jon Altman
Elena Bennett
Mario Blaser
Peter Brown
Sébastien Caquard
Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh
Philip Dearden

Sabrina Doyon
Jackson Efitre
James Ford
Ingrid Hall
Andrew Hendry
Gordon Hickey
Murray Humphries

Martin Hébert
Timothy Allan Johns
Carole Lévesque
Charles Menzies
Catherine Potvin
François Roch
Thierry Rodon

Colin H. Scott
Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert
Brian Thom
Dale Turner
Ismael Vaccaro
David Western
Robert Wishart


Associated Projects

Dialogues on Sustainability

Documenting the Work of the Consejo para la Protección y Preservación de la Ceremonia Ritual de Voladores

Environmental Impact Assessment and Social Impact of Mining in Eeyou Istchee, Nunavik and Nunavut

Indigenous Confluence: the Role of Indigenous Knowledge in River Restoration and Sustainable Futures

Indigenous Development: Social Justice, Resource Rights, Institutional Hybridity

Protected Areas Development and Environmental Stewardship, Eeyou Istchee (Crees of northern Quebec)

Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives