Local communities' role in conservation work is widely overlooked, argues Ashish Kothari, co-chair of IUCN's Theme on Local Communities and Protected Areas. In this week's Green Room, he calls for governments to deliver on promises made to support local people who are protecting the world's natural treasures.
I would wager that community-conserved sites may be as large in coverage of the Earth as government-designated protected areas
Shantabai Duga rose early, as did four of her fellow villagers in the tribal heartland of central India.
It was their turn to patrol the forests near their settlement, barefoot and with only a stick for self-defence, watching out for any sign of tree-felling, hunting, or other ecologically damaging activity.
They were prepared to roam most of the day, spreading themselves out and regrouping at midday to exchange notes.
The midday meeting never happened. Well before that, they came across a truck with men loading freshly cut bamboo into it. The area around the truck bore witness to haphazard cutting, obviously carried out at night.
One of the villagers ran back to the village to gather reinforcements, and soon several dozen villagers surrounded the truck. The bamboo cutters were reprimanded and fined on the spot. Meanwhile, someone had already been dispatched to alert the Forest Department.
Later in the day, Shantabai was incensed to learn that the cutting had been authorised by the Department. How, she asked, could they permit such an act in a forest that the community had been traditionally protecting? Did they not realise that the forest harboured so much wildlife, and was crucial for the community's water, energy and fodder needs?
She and others confronted the Department with these questions the next day, and the Department officials were quick to apologise and promise to help the villagers in protecting the forest.
Community conserved areas match formal sanctuaries, says Mr Kothari
Back to the future
Shantabai and her fellow Gond tribals of central India are by no means alone in practising conservation. Indeed, community based conservation is an age-old phenomenon, involving thousands of indigenous peoples and local communities around the world.
Strangely enough, the formal conservation movement has ignored this widespread reality, preferring to focus instead on government-managed protected areas.
At least 360 million hectares of forests in the world are being managed by communities, the group Forest Trends estimates. This does not even include vast areas of marine, wetland, desert, or grassland ecosystems under community management.
Not all of this is actively conserved, but I would wager that community-conserved sites may be as large in coverage of the Earth as government-designated protected areas.
They include sacred sites strictly protected from any human interference through centuries; new "resource reserves" where tree-felling and hunting are prohibited, or "extractivist" reserves where only strictly controlled resource-use is allowed; vast trans-boundary areas managed by mobile pastoral communities; zealously guarded sea turtle and water bird nesting sites; and fish reserves.
In India alone, more than 300 such sites have been documented by the NGO Kalpavriksh.
In all cases, the conservation effort is linked to the cultural, economic or political life of the community. It provides significant benefits such as steady water supply, biomass for the home or fields, revenues from tourism, and cultural sustenance. It is a vital part of the community's attempt to deal with resource scarcity, poverty, and deprivation.
To date, only a handful of governments like Australia, Canada and Brazil have recognised community-led conservation
To date, only a handful of governments like Australia, Canada and Brazil have recognised community-led conservation.
Such areas face threats from destructive "development" activities such as mining, big dams, commercial logging, loss of traditions and knowledge amongst communities, and internal inequities in power and wealth.
Community initiatives need urgent support to stave off these threats, which can come through recognition that they provide a necessary complement or even sometimes a more appropriate alternative to official protected areas.
Local knowledge plays a key role in community-based conservation
In 2003, at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, delegates passed a resolution seeking recognition of "community conserved areas" (CCAs).
This recommendation influenced the official Programme of Work on Protected Areas of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has committed all signatory countries to recognise and support CCAs (including indigenous protected areas) as part of official protected area regimes.
But not many governments have as yet followed up on these agreements. This is where people like us, who are fortunate enough not to have to struggle for daily necessities, need to act.
We must press our governments to fulfil their commitments, and support CCAs through documentation, advocacy, and other means.
IUCN's Theme group on Indigenous and Local Communities, Equity, and Protected Areas (TILCEPA), has offered help to governments wanting to fulfil their commitments, and to communities that continue to struggle against hostile policies.
TILCEPA hopes that through such moves, the millennia-old traditions enshrined in Shantabai Duga and thousands of other "ordinary" folk like her will be finally recognised for their heroic if quiet contribution to a sustainable future.
Ashish Kothari is a member of the Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh, and co-chair of IUCN's Theme on Indigenous and Local Communities, Equity, and Protected Areas (TILCEPA)
The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website