From Casamance to Canada to the Colorado Plateau, empowering local communities to protect their own backyards.
By Kyra Busch with Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend and Tony Skrelunas
(This article was originally published in the Colorado Plateau Advocate Magazine.)
Ten years ago, fishermen in the Casamance region of Senegal decided it was time to take action. Fish stocks were dropping at alarming rates. Youth were leaving the villages. Women were complaining that “the good life” had gone.
For generations, the mangrove estuaries of the Casamance River had provided them with abundant fish and shellfish that, along with traditional rice cultivation, were a staple source of food and income for the residents of the region.
Fishing rules had always been governed by traditional laws, cultural practices and taboos.
No one, for instance, would have been foolish enough to disturb the bolong Mitij, an area where a powerful spirit lived and no one was allowed to fish, or even walk, let alone cut poles from the mangroves.
But in 1960, as Senegal gained independence from France, management of natural resources which had remained de facto under local control during the colonial period, moved to a centralized national government. New fishing rules granted all citizens of Senegal equal access to fisheries—whether they were commercial fishermen from the North using motorized boats and armed with deadly, almost invisible monofilament nets, or local fishermen paddling in wooden canoes and fishing exclusively with locally-made cotton nets. National fishing regulations were not uniformly implemented, and traditional fishermen suffered. Elders who tried to enforce the old rules found themselves in jail.
With the loss of cultural guidelines came declining fish stocks and food scarcity. Young people began leaving for the capital, Dakar. For the local Casamance fishermen, it was clear: if they were to maintain their lifestyle and provide food for their families, something needed to change drastically.
Over the past seven years, the eight Djola villages of Mangagoulack have resumed management of their fisheries, reinstating Djola traditions.
Their stunning successes have raised eyebrows around the world.
The rules are simple: no motorboats and no monofilament nets. River channels and waterways are assigned a color: red, orange or yellow. Red zones, where the powerful Mitij and other spirits continue to live, are closed to fishing activity. Orange zones are for village use only. To improve food sovereignty, fish caught in these areas must be sold and eaten locally at a price that everyone can afford. Yellow zones remain open to any fisherman who obeys the boat and net rules. Volunteer community teams take turns monitoring and enforcing the rules, established through community meetings with municipal and regional authorities and publicized through their own radio programs.
In addition to fish, women have created rules for the natural resources they traditionally collect: shellfish and mangroves poles. The conserved area of the eight villages is now called Kawawana, an acronym of a Djola phrase meaning “our common heritage to be preserved by us all.”
By once again engaging families in governing and managing Kawawana, the Djola community has achieved the beautiful vision of its name. Fish stocks have recovered (catches increased by 100% between 2010 and 2012), the size and diversity of fish have improved, and other species (birds, dolphins,alligators) are returning to the rivers. Parents are teaching their children to fish and repair nets traditionally, raising money for school supplies and even attracting family members back from Dakar.
Amazingly, the community was even able to organize to protect its forest from a new charcoal-making development scheme.
Kawawana is one of many global examples of Indigenous Peoples’ and community conserved areas (ICCAs), territories established and governed by and for a local community. Since 2010, it has gained formal recognition from the Senegalese government, and the Kawawana leadership have joined an international association known as the ICCA Consortium.
Through stories like Kawawana’s, communities around the world are demonstrating that revitalizing local governance and cultural practices can bring about environmental conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Indigenous Peoples’ and community conserved areas are also showing that the inverse is true: a restored local environment can help recreate food sovereignty and community solidarity and revitalize economies, culture and pride.
Here on the Colorado Plateau, a newly launched Navajo initiative is seeking to create similar gains to those achieved in Kawawana. On the Navajo Nation, developers have proposed building a gondola that would ferry up to 10,000 tourists a day to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The gondola would introduce an intensive form of tourism that threatens cultural sites while offering little economic benefit to resident communities. In a region bombarded with economic development proposals that don’t often align with the values of local communities, the DinéHózhó L3C—a social entrepreneurship venture which brings together seven Navajo communities, Navajo Parks and Recreation, and several non-profits across the western region of the Navajo Nation—is proposing an alternative low-impact eco-tourism model rooted in traditional knowledge and culture.
Their proposal would develop ventures ranging from medicinal herb collection and basket making to sustainable farming and bed and breakfasts that could meet tourism interests while creating investment opportunities in tribal communities.
Ideally, new sustainable eco-tourism services would protect land and sacred sites, while tempting tribal youths back from cities like Phoenix (see Edward Dee’s article “Investing with Heart”). Indigenous Peoples’ and community conserved areas, whether or not the term is used, offer a solution that is increasingly recognized by scientists, policy makers and others in the conservation community as key to the future of biodiversity.
As we ponder the next 30 years of conservation, it can be helpful to see how much the field has changed in the past 30 years. In the 1980s, the terms “biological diversity” and then “biodiversity” were first adopted by scientists, spreading to policy makers and throughout the conservation world, to express the wealth and natural wonder of animal and plant life.
By the early 2000s, the conservation community, led by Conservation International, expanded this concept, noting that biodiversity tended to cluster, with extreme density and ecological richness, in areas known as “hotspots.” Over the ensuing decade, much of the work of conservation began with the premise that preserving biodiversity meant preserving hotspots.
However, there is a second piece to that puzzle, which is to say that preserving biodiversity cannot focus on hotspots alone.
Imagine a bird migration corridor in which only the richest hotpots, say the Everglades or the Amazon, are protected. This is fabulous when the birds are there, and troubling when they migrate anywhere outside of those protected zones. And even hotspots face pressures both within and outside their borders.
Thinking through the Casamance example, fisheries may face pollution from upstream agricultural runoff, industries or local motorboats.
Forests may be threatened by the pressure to exploit timber, minerals or wildlife to make a quick profit. Recognizing these and other limitations, conservationists are moving toward landscape approaches which see parcels of land or water as situated within an ecological web of biological, cultural, political and economic processes. And with landscape approaches, the role of governance becomes increasingly important, leading to greater recognition of who is helping to maintain biodiversity and how they are doing it.
In 2008, around the time the Djola communities began organizing, the World Bank released a report estimating that the traditional homelands and territories of Indigenous Peoples contain 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. This is even more remarkable considering that Indigenous Peoples manage only 22 percent of the world’s land surface and represent less than five percent of the global population.
In 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty ratified by 196 countries, set out 20 targets for the next decade of strategic action on biodiversity. Two of these targets specifically recognize the role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in biodiversity conservation, including via their specific knowledge, wisdom and practices.
The 2014 World Parks Congress, a once-a-decade event hosted by the world’s oldest and largest environmental organization, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, declared that the preservation of nature requires both protected areas established by state governments as well as areas conserved by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Importantly, the congress also recognized that these conservation efforts should happen both within and outside national protected area systems and without any imposed framework.
Just off the coast of British Columbia, on Meares Island, another ICCA Consortium member, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, has illustrated how formal structures, like parks and cultural institutions, can work together by declaring their own territory as a collection of tribal parks. Following a declaration by tribal elders in 1984, Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks formalized an agreement with Parks Canada (the equivalent of the U.S. National Park Service) and the District of Tofino. The community eloquently explains why their form of governance differs from other parks:
“A park is usually a protected area which excludes most human activities apart from recreation. A tribal park integrates human activities while caring for the ecosystem at the same time—this was done successfully by our ancestors, resulting in superior ecologic integrity of the whole landscape in the territory.
To pursue tribal parks actively today means that we must look to uses which avoid harming and instead benefit the land and water. For example, clear cut logging and industrial mining would be prohibited, while low-impact ecotourism, habitat restoration, and carefully-controlled run-of-river energy generation would be allowed. To be successful, tribal parks will need to manage existing land uses and interests, and provide a comprehensive vision for present and future generations.”
Similar efforts are underway on the Colorado Plateau.
A project to create a world-class Navajo Nation tribal park system that would cater to cultural and eco-tourism industries and benefit local communities while preserving traditional ways of life and critical natural resources is beginning with a small cultural mapping pilot project in the Little Colorado River parks region.
Members of the Intertribal Gatherings, a group of elders and cultural leaders from twelve tribes across the plateau dedicated to preserving traditional knowledge and ways of life, will soon travel to coastal First Nations in British Columbia to learn from efforts like the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks. Separately, a coalition led by the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray, and Navajo, and supported by over 25 tribes across the Southwest, is urging the Obama administration to designate 1.9 million acres of public lands—including the ancestral homelands of many tribes—as a new Bears Ears National Monument. The monument would be co-managed by the tribes, allowing tribal members to maintain their traditional livelihoods and cultural practices, including hunting, gathering, and ceremonial uses.
It’s the first monument proposal to originate in Indian Country in the 109-year history of the Antiquities Act.
If we are all to be successful in conserving the earth and its splendor for future generations, we would do well to follow the Tla-o-qui-aht vision—recognizing whole landscapes, acknowledging the critical role of communities as stewards of these landscapes and seeking pathways for local economic growth that allow a continued relationship between peoples and their homelands.
Happily, from Casamance to Canada to the Colorado Plateau, exciting possibilities abound and we no longer have to wonder whether this can be achieved.
Kyra Busch is a program officer at The Christensen Fund working globally and in the U.S. Southwest to support food sovereignty and resilient landscapes. Kyra is a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a Switzer Environmental Fellow.
Dr. Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend has worked on conservation and community rights for nearly thirty years. Grazia is currently Global Coordinator of the ICCA Consortium, President of the Paul K. Feyerabend Foundation, and a member of the governing body of French National Parks.
Tony Skrelunas directs the Colorado Trust’s Native America program. He also manages the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Gatherings to reinvigorate the use of traditional knowledge as a guiding force to preserve land and mitigate the impacts of climate change on tribal communities.