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News & Events Communities, conservation & development in the age of COVID-19: Time for rethinking approaches
Communities, conservation & development in the age of COVID-19: Time for rethinking approaches
Communities, conservation & development in the age of COVID-19: Time for rethinking approaches

The global conservation community now faces the added challenge of Covid-19 on top of a longstanding set of complex conservation, sustainability, and development challenges. In the wake of this pandemic, return to business as usual is not a viable option. The existing systems and structures upon which conservation is based must evolve. Climate change, biodiversity conservation, and poverty elimination efforts have been further complicated by Covid-19, with the brunt of the pandemic borne most acutely by the poorest and most vulnerable. In attempting to rapidly address both the impacts as well as the origins of the pandemic, there have been overly reactionary responses as well as under-reactions.

It is vital to address these increasing impacts on nature. However, we must do so in ways that focus on careful situational analysis and addressing underlying causes, rather than proposing reactionary solutions that are oversimplified, overgeneralized, and infeasible. An approach overly focused on cracking down on crime risks assuming that impacts on nature are driven by malicious intent. This focus continues to paint the behavior and livelihoods of frontline communities (those who live in and around areas targeted for conservation) as a threat to nature conservation. As the majority of the world’s biodiversity occurs in the Global South, this implicit assumption risks both exacerbating existing social inequities and undermining conservation outcomes. The ongoing reckoning in the United States on systemic racism is especially pertinent for conservation given its uncomfortable history embedded in systems of colonialism and oppression. In parallel with the environmental justice and intersectional environmental movement, conservation must also recognize that achieving sustainability will require centering frontline communities as equal and meaningful leaders in developing and implementing conservation actions.

In fact, substantial evidence demonstrates that Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) around the world are nature’s most committed, capable, and effective stewards. Over a quarter of the global land area is owned and occupied by Indigenous Peoples (IP) and contains more than 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. IP managed land is estimated to cover over 37.9 million km2 of land and represent at least 40% of the global protected areas. Considering IP contributions alone to ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’ (OECMs) such as proposed under the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), it seems likely that current, under-appreciated IP contributions are no doubt already much higher. Growing evidence demonstrates that IP lands house richer and more resilient biodiversity.

Over the years, conservation approaches have evolved, with increasing recognition of the role and rights of IPLCs. However, many long-criticized fortress-conservation approaches linger on today. These legacy approaches to conservation can diminish the agency of the very people who rightfully depend on and foster nature the most. They emphasize protecting nature at the expense of the proximate, arguably rightful stewards of land and biodiversity – empowered IPLCs. Unfortunately, empowerment continues to be a major work in progress.

While ecosystem health is still in global decline, these indigenously managed landscapes and seascapes are a few bright spots that shine through. Healthy ecosystems can protect us from disease outbreaks. Strengthening the link between health, economic stability and nature has been shown to be fundamental for protecting ecosystems, global health and food security. Pursuing this objective will require a new commitment to improving the balance between people and nature while building resilience in social-ecological systems through holistic, integrated approaches to conservation and development. With so many diverse stakeholders in the process, there is no single correct answer for how to achieve this balance. Indeed, a diversity of strategies may be the most feasible approach. Addressing the Covid-19 pandemic in fact, presents a critical and unique opportunity to develop not only more effective community-centered approaches to conservation, but to contribute to a future for conservation that is equitable, resilient, and just.

Members of the Conservation Solutions Lab (CSL), a self-selected group of conservation and development scientists and practitioners, are committed to empowering frontline communities to achieve conservation success, something made even more urgent by the pandemic. While we are heartened by much of the global response to the pandemic, we also see concerning over-reactions and under-reactions in the conservation community’s responses to new challenges introduced by Covid-19. We urgently call for an actual shift in how we approach community engagement in conservation and development. We need to take a critical look at our methods and strategies, truly empower IPLCs, and consistently work towards equitable, full partnership building within and across conservation. Rhetoric around support for “consulting” with IPLCs, promoting their “participation” or “engagement” without defining it and building true agency, is no longer sufficient.


Satellite image of savanna and forest mosaic in the Congo Basin, including recently burned areas, in March 2017. Image from Zoom.Earth.

Satellite image of savanna and forest mosaic in the Congo Basin, including recently burned areas, in March 2017. Image from Zoom.Earth.



In the wake of the pandemic, there was a rapid global response to addressing the origins of zoonotic outbreaks. In particular, there has been a vigorous global movement towards bans of “wet markets” in an effort to control outbreaks of disease from wildlife trade. While this rapid response is laudable, it is also overly reactionary. These types of broad stroke ‘solutions’ lack sufficient context and cultural grounding to even begin to address the drivers for zoonotic disease. If anything, these bans could misdirect attention away from underlying causes. For example, the accelerating risk of zoonotic spillover leading to pandemics stems from poor ecosystem health brought on by unsustainable use of natural resources, with wildlife trade being just one facet.

In reality, when we talk about closures, we must carefully distinguish “wet markets” from wildlife markets. “Wet markets” are local markets that may include locally sourced fish, meat, and produce. In the U.S. and the Global North these are called “farmer’s markets”. Overseas, they may also include wildlife for consumption, pets or other uses. Around eighty percent of Chinese vegetable consumption comes from wet markets. A ban on these wet markets would likely have unintended consequences; driving wildlife transactions underground, where they cannot be monitored and regulated, serving to amplify the risk of future pandemics. Equally relevant, this would also deprive the public of affordable sources of nutritious vegetables and undermine food security. Prohibition has also been consistently shown to be a thoroughly ineffective approach to controlling illegal markets of all kinds, as evidenced by the increase in availability of illegal narcotics despite decades of enforced deterrence. The greatest impact of such bans, however, could likely be furthering global food insecurity, by depriving people of affordable sources of vegetables.

Just as the West African Ebola pandemic of 2014-6 was only contained when the global public health community began to work with local authorities to arrive at a culturally acceptable approach to burial of the victims instead of imposing rules, safe food systems cannot be successfully dictated. The costs of top down, blanket-imposed solutions, and the disenfranchisement and disproportionate cost that these approaches impose on the Global South are becoming topics of major discussion and pushback. Over-enforcement could lead to additional costs to the poor and most marginalized, not to mention continuing to frame local and cultural ways of life as threats. Continuing these types of responses risks setting the stage for regress versus progress in both conservation and preparedness for the next pandemic.


Labuan Bajo fish market in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Labuan Bajo fish market in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler



With stay-at home orders just now being lifted in Europe and some states in the U.S., and huge economic stimulus packages enacted in many countries, the world is slowly re-emerging into what it hopes will become a fully revitalized system of commerce. Still, returning to business as usual would represent an under-reaction to the pandemic, as we may be far from long-lasting and effective public health solutions to future coronavirus related pandemics.

The 2019 global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) starkly lays out the situation facing us: “Biodiversity – the essential variety of life forms on Earth – continues to decline in every region of the world, significantly reducing nature’s capacity to contribute to people’s well-being.” The drivers of this decline are numerous: corruption and environmental crimes at all scales linked to unregulated agricultural expansion and incursion of local rights to land and resources, among others. While conservation has tried to address these, too many existing policies and incentives are poorly articulated, operate at cross-purposes, and exacerbate power imbalances that marginalize rural communities embedded in biodiverse environments, as well as frontline urban communities in areas of environmental degradation.


Indigenous Tikuna man in the Amazon rainforest

Indigenous Tikuna man in the Amazon rainforest


So, what should recovery look like?  

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that people cannot exploit nature without consequences.   Activities such as deforestation, inappropriate infrastructure development, extractive activities without safeguards, and pollution all have consequences. These include, as we painfully continue to learn, an increased risk of zoonotic spillover events in an increasing globally connected world.

A major part of the difficult learning process involves Covid-19’s impacts on the global economy. A cost scenario under business as usual practices which do not prioritize sustainability or green growth models, pegs worst case five-year losses at $82 trillion in lost productive value, with a best case “speedy recovery estimate” still posing $3.3 trillion less growth than previously expected. More broadly, Covid-19 has sparked a new understanding of not only systemic risk across all sectors and societies, but the disproportionate impact that is born by rural, poor, Indigenous, and people of color communities. The impact on finance and economies, health and social safety nets, the basic covenants of behavior between neighbors and communities, as well as to climate change and sustainability, have already been pronounced. In some ways, Covid-19 is forcing the world to move beyond a return to normalcy, to rebuilding a new future that is resilient and equitable. Looking forward, we too, the conservation community, must evolve.

Protections and regulations will still be important, but we need to turn our focus towards enabling locally managed systems and regenerative, nature-based solutions. IPLCs have been bearing many of the costs of nature conservation, even though they are not the main drivers of biodiversity loss. They are the most dependent on biodiverse rich habitats for their livelihoods and directly experience its loss, yet they are rarely heard on the global stage or included in formal decision-making. Beyond this, we need to recognize that the health of nature is a critical component of people’s health and food security, contributing to meet community needs, contributing to sustainable ecosystems and the services they provide, and serving as a benchmark for assessing potential vulnerabilities and entry points for pandemic sourcing and spread.


Rangers in neighboring Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo for by Rhett A. Butler.

Rangers in neighboring Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo for by Rhett A. Butler.



There is no single solution to reduce pandemic risk while supporting biodiversity conservation objectives and on top of that, sustainable development too. However, any path forward must emphasize and elevate long-needed equitable and just approaches that contribute to sustainable conservation outcomes. These approaches should have three main objectives: (1) putting empowered IPLCs at the center of conservation project planning efforts; (2) moving multi-stakeholder collaboration from aspiration to reality as we strive for more integrated, learning-based approaches that achieve realized empowerment; and (3) addressing the intersections of ecosystems, human health and economic resilience.

Here are some key first steps:

  1. Recognize that local communities are central to all solutions involving nature

    With so many stakeholders and divergent interests to embrace, there will not be one single solution available to communities and countries where wildlife and habitat are central to economies and livelihoods. Diverse and divergent interests require negotiation, respect, trust, and co-production of knowledge – so that we can learn, decolonize, and advance towards a view of conservation where wildlife and healthy environments are not only sustained, but are central to economies and livelihoods. This will constitute how “effective empowerment” can be realized. Still, we now have an opportunity to reflect upon what got us here, and how recovery efforts can improve the balance between people and nature while restoring resilience to social and ecological systems. These reflections must consider communities and their values and actively involve them in decision-making about future options.
  2. Accept that diverse incentives will be needed

    In places where wildlife and tourism are richest, which include protected areas, their buffer zones, and community conservation conservancies, the international community has the opportunity to offset the immediate economic impact of reduced revenue from wildlife tourism. Well-managed wildlife tourism can be an effective tool that delivers benefits for conservation and communities. The current hiatus provides an opportunity to rethink the structure of future tourism enterprises so that when they resume they are genuinely based on equitable partnerships with the communities on whose land much of the wildlife resides. The recent collapse of tourism has demonstrated the fragility of an over-reliance on one mechanism for financing conservation. Communities will need the time and space to come up with truly empowering and workable solutions for people and wildlife that involve other incentives, not only financial. Communities must be supported in addressing the gamut of challenges now facing them posed by either foreign extractive and/or agribusiness interests in biodiversity rich IPLC lands where transparency in governance is weak.  This will help transitioning to more resilient and sustainable relationships between people, wildlife and habitats. In doing so, assumptions about the most effective approaches to integrate development with conservation must be rethought and based on methods proven to work socially, culturally, and economically this time around. These efforts will require strong leadership/advocacy, collaboration, and cooperation at a scale unseen before this pandemic, as well as targeted financial interventions and initiatives to build diversified economies as one element of a social safety net.
  3. Develop an integrated strategy for multifaceted collaboration at different scales

    Any proposed solution that does not embrace local community values about safety, health, food security, education, culture, and livelihoods – are likely to fail, sometimes spectacularly. We have already seen too many of these results. We will encounter setbacks along the way, but we can learn from these, too, something the conservation community has been hesitant to forthrightly do. In the context of learning, the international community together with local communities has the opportunity to contribute to shaping appropriate solutions for different scales.


Indigenous man holding Tinamou eggs

Indigenous man holding Tinamou eggs


Some First Operational Steps

The conservation community can support facilitated engagement with communities in order to establish models for integrated solutions at different scales. Given the shortcomings in community engagement that have previously been noted, there is much scope to contribute here. We propose to begin by facilitating multi-stakeholder strategizing events where community representatives actually play a central role in defining holistic, integrated approaches. Some key factors of success will include:

  • Assessment of the drivers of ecosystem degradation through a political economy lens where triggering pandemics is highest. Is the risk of degradation driven locally or externally? What incentives will encourage stewardship of resources by communities? How will laws and regulations need to change to allow communities to be active stakeholders in the future of their natural resources? How will over-arching systemic corruption involving governments and multinational corporations be addressed? What roles can communities realistically play? Are tighter regulations feasible?
  • The role of ecotourism and the value of wildlife to the community. Now that wildlife related tourism revenues have virtually stopped, an assessment at local, national, and international levels should consider more diversified and locally-owned economic activity, ensuring that when tourism returns, significantly higher benefit shares will accrue locally, and that communities and nations are not over-reliant upon revenues from tourism (such as efforts cited by the Luc Hoffman Institute). Working in a holistic way to build ecosystem services and natural resources management into restoration of the suite of services that have been impacted will be key.
  • The use of nature-based solutions. Nature-based solutions use the power of nature to provide sustainable, regenerative solutions to pressing human needs. Properly employed, they provide a balance of inclusive and just ecological, economic, and social benefits. Can we replicate and scale solutions to make a difference? What are the preconditions for green structural transformation, and could a green infrastructure-driven “Marshall Plan” for natural capital serve as a springboard for recovery from Covid-19?
  • The role of pastoralism as a complement to wildlife tourism. We know that in many cases, wildlife and livestock have co-evolved across some of the earth’s most spectacular landscapes, particularly in Africa. The logic of resilient, pastoral production systems has been much studied, confirmed – and then ignored by policy makers for sociopolitical reasons, and by environmentalists who see wildlife tourism as a win-win for the environment and people. Factoring in the pandemic into the conservation mix, how can livestock and wildlife not only co-exist, but thrive? How can carrying capacities be regulated? Can (or should) wildlife eventually become a substitute for livestock raising given the fragility of tourism? What is needed from governments, the private sector, communities, and other stakeholders for sustainability to be realized?

Clearly there will be a need to identify solutions for other geographies and sociopolitical circumstances as well.

For any proposed solution, supporting co-creation, validation, and iterative modification in partnership with empowered IPLCs must be a first principle, and is central to promoting the right to self-determination expressed under international law concerning free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).


A Papuan boy in the Blue River (Kali Biru) of the Knasaimos landscape in Teminabuan, South Sorong, West Papua. Credit line: © Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace

A Papuan boy in the Blue River (Kali Biru) of the Knasaimos landscape in Teminabuan, South Sorong, West Papua. Credit line: © Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace



The Covid-19 pandemic is a watershed moment. With new challenges facing us, we must go beyond conventional wisdoms and band-aid solutions. Those who live with nature need support more than ever. At the very minimum, IPLCs must become empowered, equal partners with government, scientists, NGOs, and the private sector to identify solutions through truly collaborative, informed learning – if sustainability is to be achieved in our lifetimes.

We call on all who are willing to learn, and who are able to provide financial support for this collaborative learning, to please mobilize, engage with us and others in honest conversation, and work collaboratively to chart a feasible course of action. A purposeful conversation between communities, philanthropists, scientists and technical experts, and governments that recognizes past and current realities in plotting future pathways is a necessary, achievable first step to equitable and sustainable conservation.

There is no more time to lose.


Wajag island in West Papua, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Zoom.Earth.

Wajag island in West Papua, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Zoom.Earth.


These are the co-authors of this piece: Michael Brown, President, Satya Development International, LLC; Beth Allgood, U.S. Country Director, International Fund for Animal Welfare; John Waugh, Principal Global Practice Specialist, Biodiversity, Development Alternatives Inc.; Robin Martino, Development Alternatives, Inc.; Samantha H. Cheng, Biodiversity Scientist, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History; Candice Carr Kelman, Assistant Clinical Professor, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University; George Akwah, Regional Programme Coordinator, Central and West Africa Programme at IUCN; Dilys Roe, Principal Researcher and Team Leader (biodiversity), Natural Resources; International Institute for Environment and Development; Abigail York, Associate Professor of Governance and Public Policy, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University; Jim Tolisano, Director, Innovations4Conservation; Mark Infield, InField Consulting; Eleanor J. Sterling, Biodiversity Scientist, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History; Nicole Crane, Biology Instructor, Cabrillo College; Diane Skinner, IUCN CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group; Emily Maistrellis, Senior Program Officer at Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, Columbia University; Rimjhim Aggarwal, Associate Professor, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University; Leah Gerber, Professor, School of Life Sciences, Founding Director, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Arizona State University; Terry Sunderland, Professor, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia; Michael Schoon, Associate Professor, Arizona State University School of Sustainability; Beth Polidoro, Associate Professor, Arizona State University, School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; Supin Wongbusarakum, Principal, Sustaining Nature; and Ana Luz Porzecanski , Director, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History.


  1.  For example, the recent killing of a silverback gorilla in Uganda, was apparently the result of desperate local communities turning to the forest for meat (and killed the silverback in self-defense not for consumption) – they had largely given up farming because of reliable income from gorilla tourism. See
  6. and
  7.  See
  8.  Ibid.
  9.  See
  12.  See for example,, and
  13.  See for example,,
  16.  For a more detailed discussion see Eskew, Evan and Colin Carlson (2020) “Overselling wildlife trade bans will not bolster conservation or pandemic preparedness” in Lancet Planetary Health, S2542-5196(20)30123-6, accessed June 16, 2020.
  17.  See
  18.  The CSL was initiated by Arizona State University and Chemonics International, and led to an expanded voluntary network of members.  A first CSL op-ed presented the overview of our work:
  19.  See
  20.  The number of farmers markets in the United States has grown rapidly in recent years, from just under 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 markets currently registered in the USDA Farmers Market Directory. According to the USDA, more than 150,000 farmers, ranchers, and agricultural entrepreneurs are selling quality products directly to consumers.   In most supermarkets 7-14 days can go by between the time produce is picked and when it becomes available to shoppers. In that time, fruits and vegetables travel, on average, more than 1,200 miles before reaching grocery store shelves.  Locally grown produce sold at the farmers market is made available at the peak of freshness and nutrient content. See
  22.  Council on Foreign Relations, 2013. The Global Regime for Transnational Crime.
  23.  Richards, Paul, 2016. Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic (African Arguments), London, Zed Books
  26.  See
  31.  Hickey GM, Pouliot M, Smith-Hall C, Wunder S, Nielsen MR. Quantifying the economic contribution of wild food harvests to rural livelihoods: A global-comparative analysis. Food Policy. 2016 Jul 1;62:122-32.
  32.  Rasolofoson RA, Hanauer MM, Pappinen A, Fisher B, Ricketts TH. Impacts of forests on children’s diet in rural areas across 27 developing countries. Science Advances. 2018 Aug 1;4(8):eaat2853.
  33.  Perhaps updating an original text could be considered. See
  34.  Jenny Hodgson (2020) Disrupting and democratising development: community philanthropy as theory and practice, Gender & Development, 28:1, 99-116, DOI: 10.108/13552074.2020.1717214
  35.  Ibid.
  37.  See
  41.  See
  42.  The International Livestock Center (ILCA) led global research in Africa on pastoralism and the logic for mobile pastoral systems. Large rangeland management and marketing projects followed. Going back to lessons learned would be a logical step in assessing pastoralism’s place moving forward.


This blog was originally posted on the Mongabay website and is posted here with the permission of the author.