Indigenous communities best for conservation: New study


Indigenous communities can do more for large-scale conservation than protected areas: New study

Ignoring indigenous practices is a missed opportunity, experts argue

Indigenous communities are highly effective at protecting natural resources and can ‘fill the gap’ over vast regions where formal conservation authorities are absent.

Yet local community practices and their significance go largely unrecognized, to the extent that many communities are forcibly removed from protected areas – and experts are calling for change.

A study from Papua, Indonesia, by scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is among the first to show how local communities are protecting extensive areas of land – in contrast to assumptions that such communities overuse or damage natural resources.

The findings feed into a growing body of evidence that natural resource management by local communities can be more effective and cost-efficient for large-scale conservation than government-sanctioned protected areas.

The paper, “Unseen sentinels: local monitoring and control in conservation’s blind spots”, published in Ecology and Society, is available for free download here:

A commentary piece by the authors calling for greater recognition of indigenous conservation practices is available here:

“We highlight how effective local protection is undermined, not because these local systems are invisible, but because no one recognizes what they see,” says Douglas Sheil, Senior Associate at CIFOR and scientist based at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, who co-authored the paper.

In the boundaries of the Mamberamo-Foja Wildlife Reserve in Papua, Indonesia, several indigenous communities reside, including Kay, Metaweja and Yoke.

Researchers studied how these communities respond to threats and identified the systems they use to adapt. They found that customary leaders or respected groups within the community were responsible for protecting resource-rich areas from overexploitation.

“For conservationists pushing for the expansion of protected areas, the study highlights the potential dangers of alienating people from their environment, and represents a neglected opportunity to support them doing what they already do,” Sheil said.

Today, an increasing number of indigenous communities around the world are forcibly removed from large areas of land designated for national parks and protected areas. The assumption is that these local communities have little interest or ability in achieving conservation outcomes, and are ineffective at protecting their environment against themselves or external threats.

“One serious implication is that effective indigenous conservation systems may be replaced by formally protected areas that are inadequately managed by overstretched government authorities,” Sheil said.

“This can also turn the local people from conservation allies into opponents, as they become illegal users of natural resources within the area.”

With many official protected area authorities overstretched and poorly funded, the authors contend that recognizing local monitoring and governance processes in and around these parks is vital to understanding how indigenous communities are ‘filling the gaps’.

This study was conducted by CIFOR in collaboration with Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (Cirad) and Conservation International.


The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) advances human wellbeing, environmental conservation and equity by conducting research to inform policies and practices that affect forests in developing counties. CIFOR helps ensure that decision-making that affects forests is based on solid science and principles of good governance, and reflects the perspectives of less-developed countries and forest-dependent people. CIFOR is one of 15 members of the CGIAR Consortium.