Forest and marine reserves play an important role in preserving natural environments, wildlife and vegetation. However, they may sometimes be at odds with the interests of the communities that depend on those environments for their livelihoods. While many conservation projects include provisions for compensating local communities and creating new economic opportunities – notably in the eco-tourism sector – these are not always effectively implemented or fail to meet the demands and expectations of local people. The resulting tensions can become a source of conflict and in some cases even violence.
In Kenya, for example, plans to create a forest reserve were met with strong resistance by local communities. The Loita Forest, located in Kenya’s southern Naroc County, has immense economic and cultural value for local Maasai pastoralists. With its cooler and more humid climate, it serves as an important fall back area during the dry season and in times of drought. Transforming the forest into a conservation area – and thereby restricting access for livestock – would have compromised the livelihoods of local herders and increased their vulnerability to extreme weather events, which have become more frequent in the region.
Similarly, the creation of a marine conservation area in eastern Tanzania, has led to conflict with local fishermen. In 1995 the government of Tanzania established the Mafia Island Marine Park southeast of Zanzibar Island in an attempt to protect biodiversity off its shores. However, the park’s strict regulations on fishing and the use of other coastal resources have been a thorn in the side of local communities that depend heavily on corals, fish and mangroves to earn a living. Violent incidents between enforcement officers and fishermen who are not respecting the park’s regulations have occasionally occurred.
As a final example, the management of the Cainama National Park in south-eastern Venezuela has led to tense relations between the park’s management and the indigenous Permon people. Contentious issues include conflicts over the management of touristic activities, fears of cultural alienation among local people and the indigenous communities’ customary use of slash and burn agriculture, which is considered a major risk by environmental managers.
These examples highlight some of the risks associated with conservation projects and the need for a more inclusive and conflict-sensitive approach. Furthermore, they show that local tensions can be eased by more actively involving local communities in the management of protected areas and their natural resources. Efforts to improve local services, harness indigenous knowledge and promote alternative livelihoods, notably eco-tourism, can also make a difference, but only if they are conducted in a consistent, fair and transparent manner.