Around the world, alternative livelihoods are the go-to activity for communities when it comes to biodiversity conservation projects. However, the main benefit of livelihood activities is often improved community relations. There is little evidence that they are successful in terms of increasing people’s income or in decreasing pressure on protected areas. They can even cause more natural resource extraction.
And, unfortunately, the focus on increasing income has limited our appreciation of the ways that protected areas help communities. Increasingly, studies are showing that, contrary to the common belief that protected areas cause or exacerbate poverty, the benefits from protected areas actually translate into less poverty in Nepal and other places like Bolivia, Costa Rica and Thailand.
The underlying problem for communities in protected areas is not poverty, but that they do not have sufficient opportunities to participate in conservation and management. Focusing on providing ways for people to participate will improve livelihoods that complement conservation.
Now, as Nepal modifies its buffer zone regulations, it has an opportunity to prioritise activities that strengthen the links between communities and conservation. This will create sustainable livelihoods in the broader sense of improved health, water, climate, and nature resources. Following are some recommendations that will strengthen the park-people relationship:
- Buffer zone funds should not be used for regular government activities but rather support conservation activities that directly help communities protect habitat and wildlife.
This means prioritising community forests, community-based anti-poaching units, human-wildlife conflict mitigation, and support for forest and natural resource- dependent communities, who are often the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised. This may also help depoliticise buffer zone management committees, a common criticism of the current system.
- Support for forest and natural resource-dependent communities should prioritise the sustainability of traditional livelihood activities, especially for the most marginalised communities. Policies should support and enable the conditions to incorporate people’s traditional activities into the conservation of natural resources and serve as a bridge for these communities to alternative livelihoods.
For example, buffer zone funds could be used to create and support river stretch conservation user groups, just as they support community forest groups.
- Buffer zone policies should have mechanisms to incorporate local and traditional ecological knowledge into habitat and wildlife management. For example, water and grassland management are two increasingly critical issues in protected areas of Nepal, about which people with traditional and ecological knowledge, such as Tharu, Sonoha, Maje, Bote, and Musahar know a great deal. They can provide invaluable insights and perspectives into pressing conservation needs.
- Buffer zone policies should be consistent with national policy guidelines and community forestry guidelines regarding inclusion and pro-poor activities. For example, community forestry policies require registration of both male and female head of households, 50% women participation on committees, and require that 35% of Community Forest User Group (CFUG) funds be allocated to pro-poor activities.
Buffer zone policies should also have similar provisions. In addition, there should be equal representation of households in buffer zone management groups. For example, one household in each user group should have the same voting power as any other household in any other user group.