When I talk to people about volunteering with the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada (JGI Canada), most are genuinely surprised to learn that the mission of the organization goes beyond chimpanzee conservation. That’s the ultimate goal, of course, but it’s the way in which they work toward this goal that is so interesting: they use an approach called community-centred conservation.
When I first became a JGI Canada blogger, a friend of mine looked at me (head tilted, face scrunched) and said, “But…what do you know about chimps?” It was a fair question. As I’ve said before, I’m not a scientist. My friend could just as easily do the scrunch-face today and ask what I know about community-centred conservation, but working with JGI Canada has really opened my eyes to the importance of this type of work (so I’d be able to give my friend a pretty enthusiastic answer if he did ask me that now!).
Sara Hsiao, the JGI Canada Program Coordinator for Conservation and Education, has explained the concept of community-centred conservation as “essentially taking a holistic approach to conserving biodiversity and protecting ecosystems, while also supporting human needs and improving standards of living…to focus on building capacities and empowering the local people so that any solutions we come up with together are viable and sustainable.”
So, what does that mean for chimps?
Conservation, in general, is complex business. No creature exists in a vacuum, so it’s naive to think that protecting any species can be done without the cooperation of its closest human neighbours—and, in fact, as Emma Cancelliere pointed out, the relationship between the animal (species) in question and those human neighbours will influence the support that the local people will give to conservation efforts. If that particular animal is viewed as a pest, then conservation can become even trickier. (This phenomenon isn’t unique to chimps and their habitat in Africa, by the way. Efforts in Canada to protect wolves, for example, have struggled with local perceptions about the animals in the same way.)
Plus, it’s not as simple as telling these human neighbours that they should just “get along” with an endangered species. When she was studying for her PhD in Uganda, Ria Ghai learned that many locals assumed that the rare primates that they lived next to were abundant everywhere, which contributed to frustration about the “consequences of conservation” that they had to bear. Think of it this way: A friend of mine has joked that she “donates” about half of her backyard garden to the local wildlife. Her garden is not her livelihood, though, so losing some veggies and herbs as part of her hobby is not a big deal. For subsistence farmers, however, losing crops to chimps and other primates that have wandered away from the boundaries of the protected forest is a very big deal—particularly when poverty is a problem for the community as a whole.
This is where community-centred conservation comes in. Getting the local peoples involved in (and excited about) protecting and restoring chimpanzee habitat requires education, but reducing conflicts between humans and wildlife also requires an understanding of community needs—and then empowering communities to address those needs sustainably. Let’s face it: if community members are struggling to make ends meet, then chimp conservation will hardly seem like a reasonable priority for them.
Enter the Sustainable Livelihoods Project in Uganda (which was funded in partnership with the Canadian International Development Agency). Through the program, JGI Canada is working to improve the health, wellness, and livelihoods of more than 3500 people living in seven villages of the Hoima district (western Uganda). In the long term, one of the program goals is to restore a forest corridor between the Bugoma and Wambabya Forest Reserves (which will be critical habitat for the wild chimp populations living in the reserves, who have already been identified as highly threatened), but getting to that point will also mean addressing the high level of environmental degradation and high levels of poverty in the area. Through the program, farmers are trained in sustainable agriculture, animal husbandry, fruit growing, and apiary techniques. Primary school teachers are also trained in environmental education techniques, so current and future generations will learn about the environment (along with the importance of conservation) and their local wildlife. Furthermore—and I really love this part—women are trained in craft-making techniques (as an income-generating enterprise) and community members are also trained in group governance.
What does all of that education and training add up to? I’d say it adds up to a community that is building its own capacity to flourish. That’s why the program is sustainable in the long term—it’s about giving the communities the resources to identify and address their own needs. The training and techniques noted above can be passed on to the next generation by those currently involved in the program. Improving livelihoods improves health, and a healthy & happy community can act as a responsible steward for the local environment. Plus, the surrounding communities do depend on the forest, too, as part of their livelihoods and well-being. Managing forest resources in a sustainable way provides long-term benefits to the community because the sustainability piece ensures that future generations will be able to use those resources, as well.
I guess that brings me back to my first question: What does all of this actually mean for chimps? Well, you can imagine that a community trained in cooperative and sustainable forest management will be able to protect chimp (and human!) habitat. A community that has enough nutritious food to eat and clean water to drink will be able to tolerate a few crop “donations” to the local wildlife, and community members will be less likely to seek income from engaging in the illegal bushmeat trade or the illegal pet trade (and other trafficking). A community with access to education and other resources will raise a generation of children who grow up with an appreciation of the natural environment and the know-how to live in harmony with it. Basically, the end result is that chimp habitat will be protected, chimps themselves will be better understood, and (hopefully) wild chimp populations and their human neighbours will be given the opportunity to thrive.
You know, Roots & Shoots is still my favourite JGI program….but man, the Sustainable Livelihoods Project has definitely become a very close second!