Local Conservation Efforts Are Crucial

By Heather D'Angelo
Heather D'Angelo
Heather D'Angelo
November 14, 2014 Updated: November 14, 2014

 When Noga Shanee and her colleagues first arrived in Northeastern Peru on a research trip to study the yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Oreonax flavicauda), she was shocked by what she observed. 

“We found a dire situation of almost total abandonment. Deforestation, hunting, and wildlife trafficking went almost undisturbed, local people did not know that there were endangered species in their forest as there were almost no environmental education by NGOs in rural areas and no law enforcement by any environmental authority,” Shanee told mongabay.com in a recent interview. 

Driven by the failure of local governments and NGOs to effectively intervene, Shanee started her own NGO with the hope of saving the yellow-tailed woolly monkey from what she predicted would be inevitable extinction.  

However, what started as an effort to protect a Critically Endangered species soon became part of a larger effort to change conservation in Peru. Working closely with a marginalized group known as campesinos–an impoverished, migrant population of farmers–Shanee observed that intense, outside pressures placed on this group were directly leading to the illegal land clearing and uncontrolled burning she witnessed firsthand. Such activities served to only further worsen the threat to yellow-tailed woolly monkeys as habitat diminished. The fate of the yellow tailed woolly monkey lay in the hands of these farmers, who had little incentive to protect them.  

But in order to keep the yellow-tailed woolly monkey from extinction, the first thing that needed to change was the general attitude towards the people threatening it—the campesinos. 

The campesinos had unwittingly developed a terrible reputation throughout Peru, with broad implications for the efficacy of conservation programs. Shanee’s work revealed how conventional conservation initiatives in Peru were failing due in part to prejudices against campesinos. 

Attacks on the marginalized group had originated with industry representatives who sought to scapegoat campesinos for local rainforest degradation in order to divert negative attention from their own activities, but quickly spread through media. The government, public, and even conservation groups then echoed these views. 

“In order to capture funding, [big conservation groups] need to create a spectacle presenting themselves as conservation heroes fighting against ‘bad’, illicit destroyers… when projects fail because of institutional inefficiencies, campesino nature is often blamed,” explained Shanee. “These ‘experiences’ feed new narratives of campesinos as unreliable, backwards and antagonistic to nature and development.” 

She noted that conservation groups must be more flexible, allowing local communities and those that work with them take the lead. They also must change how they view locals. 

“If there is one important message that I would like to transmit, it is that for poor, local populations, despite conventional wisdom, conservation is not a ‘dirty word,'” Shanee said. “Rural people in Northeastern Peru find nature and biodiversity conservation attractive for their intrinsic, social, aesthetic, and moral values, as well as a measure to ensure their own future, in most cases the prospects of economic benefits are perceived as an obviously welcome, but secondary outcome.” 

In an October 2014 interview, Noga Shanee discusses the interconnectedness between both wildlife and campesino populations in Northeastern Peru, the challenges facing local conservation in Peru, and how big conservation groups could be far more effective if they gave more local control. 


Mongabay: How did you become involved with researching conservation issues in Peru? 

Noga Shanee: We arrived in Northeastern Peru in 2007 to carry out research about the yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Oreonax/Lagothrix flavicauda), a Critically Endangered species that, in those days, was barely studied. When we arrived in the area we found a dire situation of almost total abandonment. Deforestation, hunting, and wildlife trafficking went almost undisturbed, local people did not know that there were endangered species in their forest as there were almost no environmental education by NGOs in rural areas and no law enforcement by any environmental authority. After a month in Peru, we decided to go back to Europe, start an NGO, look for funding and come back to Peru to try to save this species from what looked like its inevitable extinction. 

During this work I noticed the incredible inefficiencies of conventional conservation initiatives in Peru. Some of the state’s projects are characterized by perfunctory execution such as the cases of ‘paper parks’ and impoverished environmental enforcement agencies. Many NGO conservation initiatives did not have a direct effect on forest and species conservation and some created antagonism and even retaliation by the local population. 

Northeastern Peru is in the heart of the Tropical Andes Hotspot, the richest and most biologically diverse Hotspot in the world. The region was referred to by Dr. Myers as the “global biodiversity epicentre.” The yellow-tailed woolly monkey was listed three times by the International Primatological Society amongst the world’s 25 most threatened primate species since the year 2000. Therefore, this species and the area are both considered high conservation priorities but conservation efforts were failing to stop the deteriorating trends. 

I decided to research this situation as deeply as possible, since the study of this species and its habitat can illustrate “symbolic” versus “on the ground” power of global priority species and ecosystems. 

My PhD thesis, ‘The Dynamics of Threats and Conservation Efforts for the Tropical Andes Hotspot in Amazonas and San Martin, Peru” covers these issues using a Political Ecology framework. It gives many innovative insights into these issues and suggests community conservation as a valid and promising conservation alternative. 

THE campesinoS 

Mongabay: Who are the campesinos? And how did you first start working with this group? 

Noga Shanee: Campesinos are rural, impoverished farmers, who make up the majority of inhabitants in Northeastern Peru. These populations are usually migrant, suffering from poverty, land insecurity, and degrading environmental resources. They are mainly mestizos (of mixed Indian and European ancestry), and therefore don’t have the same connection to the forests as often related to indigenous populations. 

We started working with campesinos as they are the main group living within the distribution of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey and are in direct competition for resources and space with this species. Therefore, the fate of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey is largely dependent on these campesinos’ interest and capacity to protect them, by controlling their own resource use and by limiting the pressures of outside factors such as mining and logging operations.  

Mongabay: Why do you think the campesinos are often blamed by NGOs for deforestation and land degradation? 

Noga Shanee: Campesinos are the direct users of the resources in the area: very often, they are the ones that cut the forest and hunt the monkeys. A superficial look at the situation does not reveal all the complex network of economic, social, and environmental pressures campesinos face, which require them to use agriculture methods that are very destructive to the environment in order to survive. 

Extractive industries’ representatives use discourse against campesinos to divert attention from their own environmental problems and justify their social consequences. These discourses are spread through the media and adopted enthusiastically by urban dwellers. The discourses largely focus on presenting campesinos as criminal, uncultured destroyers of the forest.  

These discourses are also promoted by governmental and non-governmental conservation agents, which benefit from them in two main ways. First, conservation agencies, especially the big international NGOs rely on huge budgets. A 2010 paper in Antipode suggests that in order to capture funding, they need to create a spectacle presenting themselves as conservation heroes fighting against ‘bad’, illicit destroyers. 

Also, the results of my study suggest, when projects fail because of institutional inefficiencies, campesino nature is often blamed. These “experiences” feed new narratives of campesinos as unreliable, backwards and antagonistic to nature and development. 

Mongabay: What are some of the biggest economic challenges this group faces, and how does that tie in to conservation issues? 

Noga Shanee: Campesinos in Northeastern Peru are generally very poor and many of them live outside the monetary system. However, even inside this population there is a very large gap between the poor and the rich.  

Most of the habitants in Northeastern Peru are migrants from the country’s highlands, where the growing occupation of lands by mining concessions, result in growing population densities, land degradation, and an increase in social conflict. This, with governmental encouragement, pushes a constant flow of environmental refugees into yellow-tailed woolly monkey habitat where they invade forested lands, using farming methods unsuitable for the new ecological zone. The state, as part of their Neoliberal ideology, does not intervene in business ventures, allowing exploitative companies and intermediaries to discriminate against small-scale production and by doing so, forces the maximization of production by further unsustainable methods, as well as widening the gaps within rural populations, between the rich who can invest in such methods, and the poor who cannot. The state’s emphasized control of small-scale forest resource use takes away alternative development possibilities. 

My research work highlights the close connection between the pressures on wildlife and the pressures on campesino populations in Northeastern Peru: “The increasing effects of climate change and land degradation, both particularly strong in this area, increase the pressures on campesinos which in turn leads to more clearing, uncontrolled burning and illegal resource use, and thus the pressure spirals back on the environment. All of these operate in parallel, obliging further migration into more marginal lands which aggravate all of these problems and intensify the pressures on O. flavicauda habitat.”  

Mongabay: What surprised you most about the campesinos attitudes towards conservation? Do you have any favorite quotes from them from your study? 

Noga Shanee: Opposite to local and international discourses and to everything we learnt in University, or by reading many peer-reviewed articles about conservation theories and NGOs experiences, we were surprised to find that Campesinos in Northeastern Peru understand the severity of environmental problems and the relevance to their own lives. They are willing to put effort into conserving forests and wildlife because they find it the right, moral thing to do, rather than as a means to get monetary compensation.  

I am always very surprised and amazed to see how much effort some individuals put into conservation, and what personal risks they take. They sacrifice time, money, and often risk their social status. Some of them are also under constant threat of physical violence and even murder, but they keep fighting for what they believe in. This kind of dedication and courage is rarely seen in the work of NGOs or state authorities. 

I have seen many articles lately about the many local leaders that have been murdered for defending their lands like the four Asháninka leaders that were recently killed in Ucayali, Peru by logging mafias. These leaders asked the government for help and security but were ignored, after their murder the Peruvian government publically announced that it was taking drastic measure to eradicate illegal logging but quietly fired the environmental authorities that were actually planning to start executing these drastic actions. 

The “Justification” publication has many of my favorite quotes, including this: 

“We have to defend the patria, the forests, the animals, the rivers; everything that we can see is the creation and we have to defend it. Life started in the water, the spirit of god was above the water. If there is no water there is no life. We have to defend it. Life and water … We and our body are part of the environment … When you kill animals you have to know that they are part of the creation; we are not allowed to kill the animals that give us life, as it is not part of the continuation of the liberating work of Christ.” 

Mongabay: In your paper, you describe the application process for conservation concessions and private protected areas as “complicated, expensive and time consuming.” What are some of the most salient challenges that local communities face? 

Noga Shanee: It is a three to five year process with an endless amount of stages, each one has its own paperwork processes and they all require some kind of monetary investment. The two things I find most frustrating about this process are: that the governmental agencies themselves do no fully understand the process as laws and personnel constantly change, so the applicant never get clear explanations as to what they need to do, how long it will take or how much it will cost. There is a huge amount of time and money wasted on trial and error. The second is that there is almost always a feeling that the government is doing a favor to the local people by allowing them to conserve. Government bureaucrats are often rude and suspicious towards the many less-formally educated, sometimes illiterate people that are willing to conserve their own lands, so on top of the endless, very expensive process, which by itself is derogatory and discriminative towards the poor, there are also personal insults and arrogance.  


Mongabay: How is climate change affecting local communities in Peru? 

Noga Shanee: Climate changes are especially drastic in cloud forest areas such as the yellow-tailed woolly monkey habitat and Peru is one of the countries most affected. They reduce agricultural productivity, reduce people’s health, encourage forest fires, etc.  

Nevertheless, these growing environmental pressures on the local communities also create positive consequences by opening new conservation opportunities, as the people that depend directly on the environment for their own survival, understand the severity of these changes and the danger they hold for their future.  

Mongabay: How do the rural people feel about REDD schemes? 

Noga Shanee: REDD schemes are very problematic at the local level. There are many fraudulent activities all over the country using the name REDD that damage indigenous land and human rights. Even without the frauds, I find REDD ideologically very problematic, as it is based on the moral assumption that developed countries can keep doing whatever they want as long as they pay the poor, less developed countries to be “good.” 

It is the essence of Neoliberal Conservation theories as I described it in my thesis: “The world is presented as an infinite pie where all can share the profits of sustainably harvested natural resources, therefore everybody, including nature, wins. Problems become opportunities for further profit and economic growth. ” 

According to Jim Igoe and Dan Brockington, the Neoliberal ideological discourse offers a spectrum of positive promises including aiding cash poor countries to protect their biodiversity. Also they promise increased participation, inclusion, development, empowerment of rural populations, eradication of poverty, encouraging environmentally friendly industries, and educating people to love and steward nature. All of these would be achieved through reduction of restrictive state controls and increased market incentives and private property.”  

The idea of payments for environmental services by REDD schemes seem completely logical and are known and attractive to many institutions and local people, but it is almost impossible for rural populations to participate because of a very complex, expensive process which they can only apply for after they ensure their land rights, as recognized indigenous communities or through conservation schemes such as conservation concessions (which as I said is a long expensive process by itself). This makes them completely dependent on NGOs and other institutions that use this dependency to compel their own agendas and conservation methodologies. 

I showed in my articles that, generally, campesinos do not conserve nature to gain monetary benefits and that REDD schemes might even alienate many campesinos groups from conservation. By that I do not suggest that campesinos do not request or do not require help for economic advancement. The economic situation of the majority of the population is grave and rapidly deteriorating. 

I believe campesinos merit sincere support both in economic development and in conservation of their environment; however one should not constitute a condition for the other. Moreover, campesinos’ “good” environmental practices cannot be used as a pretext for developed countries to keep being so destructive. 

Mongabay: The UN and many international organizations appear to be recognizing recently that local communities are vital for forest conservation. Do you think this message has made its way to Peru’s leaders? 

  Release of a sloth, rescued by wildlife authorities, in Hocicon, a Ronda run conservation area, where it will be protected from hunting by local communities. Photo: Ana Peralta/NPC.
Release of a sloth, rescued by wildlife authorities, in Hocicon, a Ronda run conservation area, where it will be protected from hunting by local communities. Photo: Ana Peralta/NPC.

Noga Shanee: The idea that local people are a vital partner in conservation is not new, there are different ideologies to the integration of local communities in conservation. They are usually clamped together but we can generally divide them to “Integrated Conservation and Development Programmes (ICDP)” and Community Based Conservation (CBC) methodologies. Our work is based on the second. 

ICDPs assert that efforts for nature conservation should be balanced with those for the development needs of local populations. They became popular during the 1980s and were adopted by many large international conservation NGOs who began promoting people-orientated projects, integrating conservation and development, in alliance with local organizations. Many of the BINGOs (Big NGOs such as Conservation International, WWF, The Nature Conservancy etc.) and REDD projects use these methodologies. 

However, ICDP projects were strongly criticized for perceiving local people as a problem that needed addressing rather than real partners in conservation, using Top-Down approaches. Being economically wasteful and therefore unsustainable, dependent on economic incentives, and so undermining social and ethical values of nature and conservation. And actually, they are criticized for failing to implement conservation or development. 

Many political ecologist have noticed that the addition of development aspects to conservation projects pumps these projects with a lot of additional funds which is needed for these BINGOs to feed their growing conservation bureaucracies (fancy offices, cars, extremely high salaries for directors etc.). These projects produce their own literature, which avoids the reality of the wide gap between high-level planning and expenditure and law implementation. This is exactly the kind of literature that describes nature on the edge of extinction and, as I explain above, describes local people as illegal and only interested in monetary incentives. So, basically, what they are saying is: “we are failing, give us more money.”  

CBC projects are low budget projects that motivate and stimulate local people to assume ownership and responsibility over their natural resources. They usually start on the smallest geographical scale but can drastically expand through, what Horwich and Lyon (2007) describe as the contagion effect, meaning the same kind of initiatives reproduced in neighboring communities, a phenomenon we see daily in Northeastern Peru. CBC’s focus on conservation and connect to communities through social values rather than through economic incentives, thus leading to stewardship for nature. Incentives such as economic alternatives can be integrated into the projects at later stages as additional components. These projects are very common in rural areas and predominantly successful, but big conservation agencies seldom acknowledge or support them because of their small scale and geographic isolation (Horwich and Lyon 2007) and probably, also because these little stories of success disturb the reality BINGOs want to produce, of themselves being heroes fighting bad illegal locals. 

Seymour (1994) suggests that success of CBCs depends on the intrinsic capacity and traditions of the specific community to organize their resource use rather than on the external project, and so successful projects are “discovered” rather than designed as such. I completely agree with Seymour on that. Local people had been conserving their forests for thousands of years without the recognition or help from external institutions such as the UN. The main thing the UN could do to help locally-run conservation is to convince NGOs that although ICDPs are much more glamorous and easier for big NGOs to run, the CBCs are much more sincere and they succeed in bringing real change for conservation. Local people don’t need someone to tell them to conserve, they need the governments to stop disturbing them, and the NGOs to stop disregarding their efforts and to be there for them, support and help them to achieve their goals. 

Mongabay: Peru recently signed a deal with Norway and Germany to tackle rampant deforestation across the country. How do you think this will impact the campesions? 

Noga Shanee: I don’t think it will make any real impact on a local level; there are thousands of huge projects that stream millions and millions of dollars around the world for conservation. Unfortunately, corruption and intentional inefficiency within state and private conservation institutions mean that human and economic resources are dramatically reduced as initiatives get closer to implementation on the ground. In general, more and more money goes towards conservation worldwide and at the same time the environmental situation is only deteriorating. We need to ask ourselves: why? 

Normally what happens in Northeastern Peru when a big bunch of government money is dedicated to conservation, governmental agencies start a long process of planning projects. After about a year, they start a process of socializing these projects to local people which means many big, expensive meetings where they talk about huge sums of money that are going to be spent on conservation and on economic improvement in local people’s lives. Then there is a long quiet period and this is where the big money usually seems to disappear in the thin air and a few very small initiatives, such as a few tree nurseries (which very often produce the exotic eucalyptus and pine, rather than native species) appear in a few places, until they are abandoned forever. 

These big projects only disappoint campesinos and violate their trust in conservation agencies and projects. 


Mongabay: What are some examples of the most promising conservation schemes you’ve seen emerge from local communal organizations? 

Noga Shanee: The main successes are the contingence of conservation initiatives, from just a few projects in Northeastern Peru around the year of 2005, there are now hundreds of local initiatives, some trying to register formal reserves, some are ronda run conservation areas (ARCAs), and some are informal landscape level conservation efforts. 

We know that these efforts are working: in 2008 we undertook the first long-term census of the Critically Endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey population at our main field site in the community of La Esperanza. From this study we were able to calculate the density of the species in the forest (Published in International Journal of Primatology). This June we finished our second census of the species, in order to accurately determine how the population size has changed since we first began conservation efforts in the area. Preliminary results show an increase in average group size and individual densities of around 30 percent since our first study. Most of the increase is in infant and juvenile monkeys, which suggest that the increase is due to natural breeding and lack of hunting rather that in migration of monkeys from other areas. Capuchin monkeys are 50 percent more common than they were in 2008. The complete results will be published soon. To examine the reasons for these increases we also evaluated deforestation rates at La Esperanza and the surrounding areas over the past 5, 10, and 20 years to see what affect our work has had on the forest as a whole. Results are still not complete but preliminary data suggest a fall in the rate of clearance of new forest. We will eventually be doing this for all areas to evaluate the short and long term effects of conservation actions made by local communities. 

Mongabay: What are some of your recommendations for how NGOs and local groups could work together more effectively? 

Noga Shanee: NGOs should be much more attentive to local needs. I have heard rural environmental educators and grassroots movements often complain that that they do not get the support needed to transmit conservation agendas or internally controlled resource use. Usually, low cost, elementary requests were raised. These included updated ecological or legal information, simple equipment, printing of posters they designed, etc. Attentive, open door approaches, can allow NGOs to make genuine impact with minimal investment. 

Also, NGOs must take a much more active role in fighting corruption and intentional inefficiencies, as well as in law enforcement in the countries they work in. This is not something they are doing much as they are afraid of the consequences, but it is the main thing that they can do to really help local people achieving their conservation goals.  

If there is one important message that I would like to transmit, it is that for poor, local populations, despite conventional wisdom, conservation is not a “dirty word.” Rural people in Northeastern Peru find nature and biodiversity conservation attractive for their intrinsic, social, aesthetic, and moral values, as well as a measure to ensure their own future, in most cases the prospects of economic benefits are perceived as an obviously welcome, but secondary outcome.  

Mongabay: How best can attitudes about the campesinos be changed? 

Noga Shanee: A lot of diffusion of successful, local conservation projects would be very helpful to global conservation and to the campesinos who initiate conservation projects. It is important to show donors that the normal discourse of the big NGOs, painting a picture of a “doom and gloom” reality, is aimed to attract bigger donations to themselves, while small, successful, local projects suffer very low funding and often fail to sustain themselves. More diffusion will bring more funding to these projects and will allow them to achieve more. This is the only way to make conservation more profound, sincere and significant, and to change the global reality of the destruction of nature. 

This article was originally written and posted by Heather D’Angelo, a contributing writer for news.mongabay.com. For the original article and more information please click HERE.