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Untangling the obstacles in community-based conservation

I’m Nafeesa Esmail, a conservationist fascinated by collaborative partnerships between conservation and business that result in a win for conservation, a win for the community and a win for commerce. The interconnection between local communities and wildlife in developing countries is a passion, and the conflicts that arise as a result; this was the basis of my MSc thesis research in Zambia.

Net-Works is an innovative conservation and inclusive business project based on a partnership between conservation charity, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and carpet tile manufacturer, Interface Inc. (Interface) to tackle the issue of discarded nylon fishing nets, in a way that provides positive impacts for marine and freshwater ecosystems and some of the world’s poorest coastal communities. It is a solution built on solid business principles.

A few months ago I was further reminded of how these worlds can collide. When I was at ORGATEC, an office furniture trade show in Cologne, I came across Interface’s exhibit. They had a beautiful display of their Net-Effect product (made from recycled fishing nets) and a video showcasing the Net-Works project. It was really great to see conservation engaging the design world, a very different audience than usual.

Unfortunately, community-based conservation projects often fall short in one or more critical aspects. The following are the common key obstacles I’ve seen that often impede success, but perhaps Net-Works is indicative of a sea of change!

Obstacle 1: impact measurement

Often the impacts of a project are not successfully monitored and assessed. As a result the optimal capacity to affect change and efficiency are not reached. As a conservation science student, we are taught to be critical of projects with unclear methodologies and which are not repeatable. For a programme to grow, you need to have something that delivers measurable outcomes that is scalable and adaptable to different social, ecological and economic contexts.

The Net-Works partnership is aware of this obstacle and is ensuring rigorous impact assessments. Monitoring and evaluation processes have been established to assess the combined biological and social outcomes of Net-Works’ livelihood-focused initiatives, including community banking, social enterprises and the raising of community awareness around the environment.

Obstacle 2: appropriate community engagement

Often people are considered peripheral to conservation solutions. The reality is that conservation is just as much about people as it is about ecosystems and species. It is about how people interact and make use of natural resources. Without local consultation and engagement, projects cannot be sustained. Thus, enlisting local people to be a part of the process and enabling behaviour change is what will address the root of any environmental challenge.

Net-Works’ conservation interventions focus on building local peoples’ security, stability and connection to their environment. Net-Works engages with communities by providing access to financial resources. It integrates its community banking initiatives with the collection of nets for recycling. In addition these community banking sessions provide a platform for conservation education and engagement.

Beyond Net-Works, microfinance has become an important strategy in the world of development, as solutions are sought to alleviate poverty and improve livelihoods and community wellbeing. Increasingly, it is also attracting attention on the biodiversity conservation front. Frankfurt Zoological Society’s (FZS) Community Conservation Banks (COCOBAs) is one such example.

As of 2015, FZS has facilitated the formation of 33 (from 6 in 2009) COCOBA groups in the Serengeti District at the request of the communities themselves. Each of these groups has an average of 16M Tanzanian Shillings (aprox 8,000 EUR) in savings, which started at zero and is accessible for members to take loans from to support small businesses. FZS is also developing a “Serengeti” brand to provide local communities with access to local and international markets for commodities produced through the COCOBA network.

Obstacle 3: interdisciplinary approaches

Another challenge is a lack of collaboration with key stakeholders, unfilled gaps between science and policy and engagement with the private sector. Conservation projects are often driven by purely ecological aims, incorporating development schemes as an add-on rather than a key element and without the appropriate interdisciplinary skills necessary to succeed.

Net-Works’ reach extends beyond the local community level, through its partner Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile, illustrating that recycling opportunities are endless and even for those of us living in urban centres, we can still make environmentally responsible consumer choices. This partnership adds another dimension of benefit, making Net-Works a win-win-win; a win not just for people and the environment, but also for the businesses involved.

I truly hope Net-Works can act as an inspiration and serve as a model initiative for others as it has for me, a motivation for other companies to follow Interface’s lead to increase sustainability practices and for other conservationists and NGOs to look to ZSL for their ability to harness innovative partnerships. We are constantly bombarded by doom and gloom stories, but sometimes we just need to hear a few good success stories to help us inspire and materialize our passions into positive actions. As Mahatma Ghandi once said, “what we will do in life is insignificant, but it is important that we do it.”

Nafeesa Esmail is a Conservation Researcher and MSc in Conservation Science from Imperial College London (2014)

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