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How to involve communities in ecosystem conservation

By Isaiah Esipisu

Despite the fact that most poor people in the developing world spend their time searching for the next meal, evidence based studies by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) have shown that such individuals can still be engaged in protecting the ecosystem and conserving the environment – but only if correct execution measures are put in place.

“It is true that due to high levels of poverty, people in rural areas do not prioritise environmental conservation. Their first priority is to get some food to feed their families on, at least for that particular day,” said Dr Sara Mamirembe, a research analyst for environmental services at ICRAF.

However, environmental scientists attending the ongoing conference on sustainable development (RIO +20) have observed that by providing incentives to such communities, they can easily change their attitude and provide services that will improve the world’s ecosystem.

“Providing incentives to rural communities does not mean taking advantage of their poor situation. It is a means of encouraging them to work, and helping them understand that improving and maintaining the agricultural ecosystem has a very positive impact on their livelihoods,” said Dr Namirembe.

In a study conducted by scientists from ICRAF with funding support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), experts discovered that despite the fact that the poor communities are in dire need for money, giving them cash as incentives to work on environmental sustenance projects was not sustainable, and it was bound to fail.

A ten year study between 2002 and 2012 covering eight sites in Asia revealed that application of strict conditionalities of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and monetisation of the environmental services was not working within rural communities.

“We discovered that paying local communities in cash was undermining their social norms. At the same time, people who were not chosen to participate felt jealous of those who were chosen, simply because cash money was involved. But most important, the method did not have multiplier effects of the payments,” said Dr Namirembe.

However, a different study in Kenya’s Sasumua region within the Central Province demonstrated that providing incentives for environmental services was a very effective method of conserving the ecosystem, but if only done in an indirect non-financial benefit at community scale.

“There is need to provide clear evidence to the beneficiaries that environmental services of which they are providing the services can contribute to poverty reduction through increased land productivity,” said Dr Namirembe.

But for this to succeed, Dr Namirembe noted that specific elements of procurement auction must be designed and administered for fairness of farmers with low formal education, most of whom are prone to social conflicts and are influenced by power structures within their communities.

“We must also make sure that we reduce discrepancies, and improve synergies of ecological knowledge of all actors in PES, and balance efficiency and fairness of any given PES scheme,” she added.

At the same time, the scientist noted that in order to be pro-poor, any given incentive system has to adapt to the local conditions, right from the project design, forms and expected level of rewards, and the results must be accepted locally.

“This means that the there is need for the initial investment in achieving a shared understanding of multiple ecological knowledge in providing and managing the environment services. This will increase the efficiency and fairness of PES scheme,” said Namirembe.

The research scientist was speaking at an interactive round table discussion in Rio de Jenairo, whose aim was to identify practical solutions on the ground at a community level that have had a proven impact on the key challenges, thus reflecting on the key factors that enabled such successes.

During the forum, experts noted that the only way of securing food security for the world, especially in the wake of the ever changing climatic conditions is by focusing on a problem-solution strategy that will positively affect the entire world, but using local means.

Simply put; thinking globally, but acting locally.

Read publications on Payment for Ecosystem Services  Creating New Values for Africa: Emerging Ecosystem Service Markets

 Related blogs  on ICRAF events at RIO+20

Closing the Gap Between Man and Nature – The Satoyama Initiative

City Farming is good for a Green Economy 

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist who was contracted by ICRAF to write this story.

Editing  and additional links compiled by Yvonne Otieno

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