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People, parks and social justice: How community maps can help make conservation better

28 November 2018

By Maud Salber, Policy Advisor, RFUK

The Tumba Lediima Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was established in 2006, mainly to protect the local population of bonobos. Remarkably, when Tumba Lediima’s borders were drawn, nobody had thought it worthwhile to properly documenting who was already living there, and how these people would be affected by conservation measures. Moreover, nobody had acknowledged that local ethnic groups had taboos on hunting bonobos and were therefore already playing a key role in protecting the species. 

Community mapping supported by the Rainforest Foundation UK’s (RFUK’s) award-winning MappingForRights initiative has shown that more than 100,000 people live in the area and are all largely dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods. Because these communities did not have a say in the establishment and management of the reserve, they have been hit hard by the restrictions on hunting and fishing that were imposed on them by the reserve’s managers, living under fear of arrest and abuse by armed park rangers. This situation has fuelled tensions which to this day have not been resolved.

Thanks to research by RFUK into 34 protected areas across the region, we know that such toxic situations are, unfortunately, commonplace across the Congo Basin rainforest. Although it is increasingly recognised that conservation works best when local people are involved, protected areas in the region continue to be established and managed with poor consideration for local customary rights and resource use patterns, as well as for the historical, cultural or socio-economic practices which have shaped these spaces over millennia.

This top-down model of conservation has huge consequences for people living in and around national parks and nature reserves. Their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), despite being a key doctrine in international law, is systematically overlooked. When protected areas are established, even when communities are not physically displaced, they still suffer from severe restrictions on their livelihoods activities, which are often incompatible with the (poorly documented) local economies.

The armed ‘eco-guards’ enforcing these protected areas also routinely exceed their mandate. Indeed, there are widespread reports of human rights abuses across the region. Alienating local people in this way is greatly detrimental to the long-term effectiveness of conservation efforts – not only because of the conflict that it creates, but also because of the missed opportunity to benefit from extensive local knowledge and participation in conservation projects. 

In a new policy brief, RFUK explores how all of these problems could be avoided if thorough participatory community mapping data was used at the outset of all planned conservation projects, and integrated into all decisions related to protected area management.

We explain how current conservation programmes, by failing to give due consideration for local customary claims, demographics and traditional conservation knowledge, are wasting huge potential for mutual benefit. We provide concrete recommendations on how to capitalise on initiatives like MappingForRights to address this issue and ensure that forest peoples are able to take a central role in protecting and managing the very forests they depend on.

Click here to read the full briefing. You can also watch a short film on the Tumba Lediima Reserve here.

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