Miguel is a passionate conservationist based in Brazil who has been entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation in tropical forests. After graduating in Rio de Janeiro he moved to a small town deep in the Amazon to start working at Mamirauá Institute, a social organization that develops research and conservation projects together with the local communities. He's had experience working with camera-traps, but over the past years has done research on human-wildlife conflict involving jaguars and traditional communities in the Amazon.
A jaguar is on the prowl on the outskirts of a local community deep in the Amazon rainforest. Its roars can be heard in the dead of night; its tracks surround the edges of the village. To some Indigenous communities, this may be a sign that a shaman from a rival village has transformed himself into a jaguar to terrorize them. To others, it means that an elderly person from the village is approaching death and, therefore, is starting to transform into a jaguar. In other areas, however, the jaguar is simply seen as a dangerous animal that can potentially harm someone or eat domestic animals and livestock. To deal with the jaguar that is getting too close, some Indigenous communities will call upon their local shaman to perform rituals based on their beliefs—others will shoot the jaguar on sight.
These examples illustrate how different communities’ perspectives can be unfathomably complex and diverse. When conservation scientists and practitioners are working together with local communities, their culture, worldview, social norms and customs must not only be respected, but taken into consideration at all times. As a biologist, I learned very little about these concepts during my undergraduate education where there was almost no emphasis on the human dimensions of conservation. However, for the past three years I have worked closely with traditional Amazonian communities and started delving into social science and anthropology.
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the Anthropology and Conservation conference organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute, thanks to funding from the ACEER Foundation. I was astonished by the myriad of different approaches to conservation presented, from transdisciplinary and community-based projects to Indigenous-led initiatives. Although the ecological and biological aspects of conservation are undoubtedly essential, for decades they were the only approach considered for dealing with conservation issues. However, biodiversity conservation deals with people and politics as well as social, cultural and psychological aspects. A collaboration among different disciplines is crucial for positive outcomes. Conservation projects benefit immensely from cross-disciplinary teams that may include psychologists, social scientists, lawyers, filmmakers or journalists.
But disciplines are just one side of the story. For generations, researchers in academia have developed conservation projects virtually neglecting or even coming into conflict with Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) without recognizing their important role in protecting natural environments and species. As much as 80% of the world’s biodiversity can be found within Indigenous peoples’ lands, and these communities often do a better job at achieving conservation goals than Western science. However, Western science has historically dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands and rights in the name of conservation—effectively undermining their livelihoods. The time has come that we move past what has been called ‘fortress conservation’ and go further than simply recognizing IPLCs’ role in biodiversity conservation. It is imperative that IPLCs become actively involved in conservation projects (if that is what they want, of course) and that their knowledge systems become more than just a secondary source of information.
In my field of work, dealing with human-wildlife interactions, this way of thinking has paved the way for novel approaches to working with local communities. Projects around the world have stepped away from top-down solutions to human-wildlife conflict that are imposed upon local communities and are often incomprehensible to them, reducing social acceptability towards the project and, thus, its effectiveness. Instead, many conservation initiatives have started using a horizontal approach, involving local communities in every step of project planning and execution, and coming up with joint solutions.
Learning about these different perspectives has deeply shaped the way I work and how I approach and interact with local communities. From always taking the local communities’ worldviews into consideration to learning from their experiences and working together to arrive at solutions, this more inclusive outlook on conservation is definitely having an impact on my career and will influence all of my future projects.
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