Francois-Michel Le Tourneau, UMI 3157 Iglobes CNRS/University of Arizona

Francois-Michel Le Tourneau
Local people matter
by Francois-Michel Le Tourneau
UMI 3157 Iglobes CNRS, France, and University of Arizona, United States

April 21, 2017

As it is well known, the conservation model underlying the origin of national parks was grounded on a vision of wilderness where nature needed to be protected from people. The creation of the first parks in the 1870s was accompanied by the removal of Indigenous tribes and, for nearly a century, the conservation movement has pursued this vision of restoring an “undisturbed nature.” Things have changed a lot since the 1970s. On the one hand, at a global level, much of the areas remaining for preservation at the end of the twentieth century were the homes of local societies (oftentimes Indigenous), which were fighting for their land rights. Instead of competing for the land as they had done in previous decades, both the Indigenous and ecologic movements joined hands against common adversaries, in general, land developers and extractive industries as well as government planners. On the other hand, also since the 1970s, there has been a general re-evaluation of both “wild nature” and Indigenous practices, where the presence of local populations was finally found to be part of the ecosystems and, thus, not only compatible with conservation but eventually necessary to it. And the fact is that such populations own a great part of the planet’s remaining natural heritage.

Indeed, if much attention has been focused on the expansion of urban areas at the expense of rural or natural land, and on the world’s population growth, sparsely populated or unpopulated areas are still today in majority over the Earth. They cover intensively cultivated areas, but also major extensions of lands, which are still ecologically functional. A portion of those are under conservation statutes. In the United States, for instance, the national parks and wilderness areas cover an extension of more than 133.5 million acres, or about 12 percent of the country’s territory, not counting state-protected areas. There are also countless examples of privately owned conservation easements (over 130,000 easements covering about 2.5 million acres (see Conservation Easements database But aside from those highly protected areas, a vast array of other lands, which are only minimally used or even unused, exist. In the United States, those are the national forests, most of the Indian Reservations (held in trust for tribes by the Federal government) as well as Federal lands under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other agencies. Many of those lands are permitted for cattle grazing, oil and gas, and timber extraction, but many of them are also expected to provide other services, such as recreation or wildlife habitat. On those last activities, private lands can be included when soundly managed from the ecological point of view.

However, the global and national conservation objectives can no more be achieved only by expanding national parks or conservation easements again and again. First of all, places where such units may be created at a large scale are becoming increasingly rare and their creation encounters stiffer and stiffer local political resistance because people feel deprived of their local heritage and rights of use, as seen in 2016 on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon or as seen recently with the calls for the cancellation of the creation of Bear Ears National Monument in Utah. Easements created by buying lands may, in part, compensate for those difficulties at a very local level, but they are difficult to put in place at greater scales, for it is very expensive to buy millions of acres. And, scale is a key-parameter in conservation.

Another key parameter is the vision of entrenched preservation areas has given way to a much more dynamic appreciation of their usefulness and functioning. Not only species (animal or plants) need preserved spaces to thrive, but they also require connectivity between those safe-havens in order to maintain genetic diversity and for the natural adaptive processes to unfold. The key to a functional environment, thus, is not only about having large conservation fortresses scattered around the country, but it is also about having all those units inter-connected with one another and fluxes of genes going from and coming to them. Several examples of how even big conservation units cannot solve the problem by themselves can be pointed out. One case is the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, where high elk populations occur because human development in the Jackson Hole area that now occupies their former winter grounds and concentrates them in the refuge, which has resorted to feeding programs. Another emblematic case are bison in Yellowstone National Park. On the verge of extinction a century ago, bison are now thriving within the park’s limits, and may become a threat to the ecosystem. This could be regulated by seasonal migration towards other regions during periods of deep snow in the park, but outside the park bison are perceived as a hazard for the cattle and dairy industries as a possible disseminator of brucellosis from bison to cattle and, therefore, the bison are either hunted outside the park or captured and returned to it.

As it appears globally, fortress-like protected areas are not a long-term solution. Connectivity calls for basin-wide or even nationwide networks of units allowing genes to flow. But even mobilizing all remaining public lands would probably not be enough to achieve this goal, and the political cost would also probably be much too high. So, peopled areas have to be part of the conservation game, also.

Therefore, instead of taking people who inhabit or use those remaining functional ecosystems out of these lands (by force like in the nineteenth century, or by money with the easements or other compensatory strategies today), the strategy of working in cooperation with stakeholders and land managers is probably much more interesting and rewarding. Many such conservation initiatives exist worldwide, especially around Indigenous reserves, but most of the times their focus is on preservation more than on cooperating around land use. This should be questioned for working with local peoples doesn’t mean highlighting their practices only when they are compatible with conservation (like when most Amazon Indigenous peoples are seen as the “guardians of the rainforest”). It also means understanding the impact of all their activities in a broader way and reflecting on how and up to what point they participate from the global ecosystem.

It is a challenging task that leads to very complex issues. In several parts of the United States, for instance, deer populations have increased drastically because their natural predators (wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bears…) have been extirpated on the landscape. But the deer proliferation has turned into a threat for the forests as deer eat principally the young saplings in great numbers, they compromise the natural regeneration. Forests grow older and young trees will not replace them when the old ones die. Reintroducing carnivores such as wolves, bears, and other predators that are currently missing on the landscape could restore ecological balance, but such efforts are often met with stiff opposition as human tolerance of them is often very low. The challenge is not only to create spaces where natural ecological processes and interactions among species are permitted to occur, but to achieve coexistence between natural and human dynamics in the same regions by setting up closely knit mosaics of different spaces and achieving an understanding with local societies that will be directly (and eventually adversely) impacted.

The vision of a mosaic is interesting, since it pieces together two distinct elements. On the one hand, as we said, the re-integration of ecological elements, and conservation, in general, must be sought. But on the other hand, local land use must be understood and respected as an element of the broader ecosystem and not only as a perturbation. What helps is that today, the vision of “wild” or “pristine” environments is being more and more challenged by ecological studies, which show that most environment on the earth have evolved with and because of human presence.

The Amazon rainforest, for instance, long viewed as “virgin” from human influence has most probably been in part constructed by the practices of Indigenous peoples. By simply slashing undesirable plants along their paths, clearing vines on useful trees, and by having for centuries slash and burn agricultural spots inside the rainforest, they have, more often than not, consciously manipulated the forest diversity. The same can be said of the Arctic where the Inuit people have long been part of the ecosystem, adapting to the seals and caribou migration but also regulating their populations and transforming the environment according to their needs. The focus needs to be shifted from the question of having or not an impact on the environment (every human settlement has one, even the most isolated Yanomami villages) to the question of the scale, intensity, and pace of this impact, as well as to the question of how ensuring that the Indigenous participation with ecosystem preservation do not hinder the legitimate aspirations to better living conditions.

Viewed from this side, including ranchers or farmers in conservation networks (like the Landscape conservation cooperatives sponsored by the Department of the Interior), which may extend from Indigenous peoples to urban non-governmental organizations, seems much more rational. Depending on the way they manage their lands, their impact on natural processes may be limited, and their properties may be important pieces for species migration or reproduction for the containment of land development and even for predator reintroduction programs. Several initiatives in the Western United States have been working on the conservation of “working landscapes.” They are grounded on the fact that traditional ranches, when using sound and sustainable resource management practices of soil conservation and livestock management in order to steward the pastures, have been an important piece of the ecological dynamics of the western rangelands for five centuries, showing that their model is not necessarily unsustainable. Also, ranchers frequently own important local ecological knowledge, which makes them unescapable partners when it comes to evaluate the impacts of climate change or modifications in the local fauna or flora. For there is an often unseen continuum between traditional ecological knowledge, which is learned through traditional channels inherent to tribal or custom societies and brings many elements from a long history, and local ecological knowledge, which is gathered by more recent non-traditional populations, often less historically rooted but nonetheless pertinent.

In Brazil, some farmers of the Xingu region have joined a campaign for the restoration of riparian forests on their properties. Its objectives were twofold. On the one hand, farmers benefit because the riparian forests are fundamental to regulate groundwater and avoid widespread soil erosion. On the other hand, as the rivers originating on the farmer’s land flow into the immense Xingu Indigenous reserve, the local Indigenous population benefits from curbing the degradation of water quality, as well as with the use of traditional Indigenous knowledge about local plants, which are used for restoration. In the United States, many examples also exist, either 1) focused on conservation and restoration of rangelands or 2) aimed at a better diffusion of good agricultural practices or a better market value for ecologically well-oriented production. Despite widespread difficulties and barriers, this innovative dialogue shows how the introduction of good practices on restricted portions of farms and ranches may make a big difference in the outcome, and how traditional ecological knowledge may be combined with productive operations.

Of particular interest in this respect, since it challenges most common ideas and since it shows a bridge between local ecological knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge, are experiments about fire restoration in the Western United States. As is known, until the end of the 1990s, most government agencies were engaged in a century of fire suppression policy, considering fire as a disturbance of natural processes. But the unintended consequences were many, from an impoverishment of the rangelands ecosystems with the encroachment of shrubs and woody species to the aggravation of larger more intense forest fires because wood fuel has accumulated for many years, making natural fires more intense and, therefore, more detrimental for the flora and the fauna. Restoring practices long used by Indigenous peoples and probably responsible in part for the biodiversity of the Western United States, some federal land managers and private ranchers have started using controlled fires again, with success not only on the ecological but also on the economic point of view.

This particular example, as well as many others, shows that we should expand the concepts of local ecological knowledge or traditional ecological knowledge to broader and wider definitions. Knowledges are not frozen and only gained from the past or only retained by Indigenous peoples. They are also constantly renewed by experiments and attentive observation of the environment. What matters most, to our view, are the people behind all those forms of knowledge.

What matters are the inhabitants of the sparsely populated areas where ecosystems are still functional, and the local populations with whom partnerships must be sought in order to monitor the ongoing processes and document the experiments performed with the results. This does not mean, obviously, that all the ranchers and farmers are inherently prone to participate to such partnerships. There are many bad practices or ill-managed areas, and there were ill-conceived federal policies or incentives, such as those that led to a general overgrazing in many part of the Western United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Such facts should obviously not be disregarded. However, breaking the barrier and establishing a dialogue is a first necessary step in order to achieve a better stewardship of the Earth’s living resources.

Last updated: July 10, 2023