Does Community Involvement in Conservation Provide an Alternative to Fortress Conservation?

By John Murphy
Last updated 10 Mar 2010


Increasingly conservationists are accepting the reality that ongoing threats to biodiversity on the African continent means they must refocus their attention on wildlife outside formally protected areas. This is particularly evident in relation to charismatic species such as the African lion (Panthera leo). The lion almost singularly embodies the image of African wilderness in the minds of people throughout the world, but much of the area in which lions are found lies outside of national parks. Therefore the species is increasingly facing competition from human activity as the population of rural communities’ across much of sub-Saharan Africa continues to grow. In order to reach beyond the boundaries of protected areas conservationists must engage with these local communities, who often have quite a different perspective on wildlife and natural resources to that held by conservationists. 

In the past the answer to the problem would have been simple. Declare more land as national park and move the people out. Today however this is less likely to be acceptable and thus alternative solutions must be found. Over the last two decades one type of initiative in particular that has captured the imagination of conservationists has been based on the concept of incorporating the communities themselves into formal structures for regulating and managing wildlife and habitat.  

However, the creation, implementation, and maintenance of these community oriented programmes has been a complicated and difficult undertaking which some commentators say are in the long term simply unworkable. Indeed, some critical voices dismiss the concept of community based conservation arguing that such projects neither conserve wildlife nor engage communities as they claim to do so.  

In this article we shall explore the experience of community oriented conservation programmes and discuss the complex issues and debates that have arisen around these projects. 

Why Focus on Communities?

Before engaging in detailed discussion of the intricacies of community oriented conservation programmes it is perhaps a good idea to first give some thought as to from where such concepts have sprung. Most concepts and ideas in environmental conservation do not emerge onto the world stage by themselves. Rather they are the offspring of ideological debates and theories that evolve within the world of academia and environmental and social activism. The promotion of an indigenous community role in conservation has not appeared overnight but reflects a process of gradual change in conservation practice that can be traced back to broader environmental and development initiatives from the late 20th century.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of attempts by the major environmental and international development agencies to reconcile their individual goals into a more cohesive agenda that recognised the linkage between improving the lives of poor people across the world and the need to address environmental degradation.  

International agencies such as the IUCN engaged protocols that redefined the place of indigenous communities in the preservation of the world’s natural habitat. Long viewed as a nuisance and troublesome entity that would all too easily degrade the environment if left unsupervised the place of the local in environmental and development discourse began to undergo something of a transformation. New protocols were brought forth such as the Kinshasa Resolution on the Protection of Traditional Ways of Life at the 1975 IUCN General Assembly calling for recognition of the rights and needs of indigenous peoples in protected area planning. 

At this conference and on numerous occasions since promises were made that the needs of the world’s poor would be addressed hand in hand with concerns for the environment. 

This process of including the needs of the world’s poor in conservation planning was also influenced by the growing influence of free market economics in development policies overall. As development agencies such as the World Bank have struggled to encourage sustained economic growth, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, developing countries have been advised to decentralise and privatise as many functions of the state as possible in order to foster private investment. This has included management of wildlife, which in many African countries, such as Zimbabwe, was regarded as belonging to the state. The rationale being that by using wildlife as a revenue source for local communities it will be possible to have a “win-win” situation with communities being encouraged to sustain wildlife populations thus helping the environment, while also gaining economically, thus helping themselves!

The combined influences of these transitions in international developmental and environmental discourse was such that by the time of The World Parks Conference held in Durban in 2003 the social and economic rights of indigenous people, at least on paper, had become part of the mainstream global environmental agenda. 

Conservation and the Community

As we have discussed, conservation policies must now be seen to incorporate the views and requirements of rural communities as well as provide some form of benefits for locals, contributing to the overall socio-economic development of rural areas. So what have the practical implications of this policy change been?

Within the context of sub-Saharan Africa, community oriented conservation projects have largely fallen into two categories. The first category has come to be known as integrated conservation development projects (ICDP) which are based on the idea of combining conservation and development; vague in exact definition ICDPs are basically attempts to provide alternative sources of income near protected areas in order to reduce pressure on natural resources. This, for example, could mean communities receiving a percentage of revenues earned from tourism in order to forgo the utilization of some element of local natural habitat. 

It is the second type of community conservation programme; however, that has gained the most attention, Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). In fact CBNRM projects have come to dominate a significant proportion of discussion on the successes and failures of contemporary conservation policies overall. 

What is CBNRM?

Based on the principle of giving rural communities a chance to gain an economic benefit from natural resources CBNRMs currently form a cornerstone of contemporary conservation policy across many developing countries. In order to facilitate this concept CBNRMs have needed to include legislative and institutional changes to developing countries wildlife policies. Principally this has involved responsibility for managing revenues earned from the extractive use of wildlife being devolved to local authorities. As part of this arrangement these local authorities then assume responsibility for passing on the benefits of wildlife revenues to communities usually through infrastructural development such as building new schools etc. Through this process, it is argued; CBNRMs provide an excellent incentive for communities to conserve wildlife as they benefit economically from its presence, thus creating the previously mentioned “win-win” situation were both humans and wildlife benefit. 

CBNRM programmes that include some of these elements currently operate in virtually all southern African countries but as CBNRMs have become more widespread an increasing number of questions have been asked as to whether these programmes deliver on what they promise. Questions have arisen as to what tangible benefits have communities gained? What effect, if any, have these programmes had on wildlife and habitat preservation? Are we really justified in placing our faith in communities’ capacity to manage natural resources in what are often poor, under educated and resource strapped societies? 
In order to appreciate the basis of these questions we shall need to explore some examples of community programmes in practice. Arguably the most obvious place from which to do so is southern Africa as the programmes established there; particularly those most closely aligned to the CBNRM model; have been viewed as among the vanguards of developing community oriented conservation initiatives. Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE), in particular, has drawn attention from across the world and so is an obvious example from which to illustrate the phenomenon of community oriented conservation.   

Communities and Conservation in Southern Africa:
Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE Programme

Although CBNRM type programmes can be found across southern Africa few have come under such close scrutiny as that of Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE. There are a number of obvious reasons for this including the fact that CAMPFIRE was very much a pioneering programme, furthermore, the subsequent challenges that it has met in the face of great political, social, and economic uncertainty makes it an ideal candidate for testing the veracity of community oriented conservation. 

CAMPFIRE became functionally operational in the districts of Nyaminyami and Guruve in 1989 following many years of work by ecologists, economists, and other development workers who wished to bring about a means of using Zimbabwe’s rich natural resources to improve the livelihoods of rural communities whilst also providing a rationale for the sustainable use of these resources. CAMPFIREs implementation was a rather complex undertaking requiring the collaboration of many agencies and authorities including the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management (DNPWLM)*, the Zimbabwe Trust, the University of Zimbabwe’s Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the Ministry of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development (MLGRUD). The inputs of these various actors were coordinated by the CAMPFIRE Collaborative Group (CCG) with DNPWLM acting as leading authority.

*Now the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PWMA)

Importantly, CAMPFIRE was preceded by legislative reform with regards to the management of Zimbabwe’s natural resources. The 1975 Parks and Wildlife Act, for instance, was fundamental to beginning a process of decentralisation that saw effective responsibility for management of natural resources revenues pass to Regional District Councils in the case of communal land, and private land owners in the case of titled land*.  This legislative reform was an early example of placing conservation within an economic framework by creating a template for local authorities and land owners to benefit from natural resources monetarily thus encouraging conservation. 

* the term “Appropriate Authority” being used to designate the owners or occupiers of land given responsibility for natural resources

CAMPFIRE also received financial support which totalled approximately USD$ 35 million up to 2003 in the shape of sponsorship from the United States and Norway as well as from private charitable foundations. 

Despite this somewhat convoluted institutional background the practical framework of CAMPFIRE can be summarised rather simply. The national government devolved authority for wildlife management to regional district councils (RDC). These RDCs offered safari hunting concessions within their administrative sub-units, or wards. The income generated from these concessions was then used to support community development initiatives. Though CAMPFIRE is operational in areas of communal land outside strictly protected areas responsibility for the management of hunting quotas was undertaken by the PWMA. 

Thus an environment was theoretically created whereby a partnership was established at the local level between communities, local authorities, wildlife agencies and private safari operators supporting a local economy based on the sustainable use of natural resources where the tangible benefits remain at the community/local level.   

The obvious question is whether this process has worked?

Evaluations of CAMPFIRE

CAMPFIRE has attracted more literary attention than any other community initiative of a similar nature. However, much of the comment on the programme has focused on sociological and political ramifications of decentralising responsibility for natural resources to local authorities and whether this has resulted in greater involvement of local communities. Actual statistics relating to the impact of the scheme on wildlife has taken something of a backseat in academic studies. Evaluation of the programme as a whole is further complicated by the relatively disparate nature of how CAMPFIRE was adopted by each regional district with exact implementation varying from district to district. 

Russell Taylor of the WWF, who played a central role in establishing CAMPFIRE, recently published a report in Biodiversity Conservation detailing the progression of the project from its start up in 1989 up to 2006. Overall, Taylor paints a fairly positive picture of CAMPFIRE in terms of its performance. For example, revenues earned under the scheme up to 2003 totalled USD$ 30 million with 52 per cent of this income being allocated to sub-district wards and villages for community development. 

CAMPFIRE also enjoyed reasonable success in attracting community participation with 19 districts fully participating by 2001 including 77 000 individual households. 

In order to assess CAMPFIREs success in terms of wildlife management Taylor reviewed surveys of Buffalo and Elephant populations in CAMPFIRE participating districts finding that elephant numbers had increased from 6 000 to 18 000. Buffalo numbers initially declined but later recovered stabilising at roughly 14 000. 

These numbers are approximately half of what one would expect to find in state protected areas but reflect well in terms of what can be sustainably maintained on communal land. 

The impact of trophy hunting, which is overwhelmingly the greatest revenue earner from wildlife under CAMPFIRE generating 90 per cent of income between 1989 and 2003, on wildlife numbers suggests that wildlife was being utilised in a sustainable manner. The numbers of elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard were recorded as increasing from 1989 to 2003 though Taylor notes the “quality” of “trophies” showed signs of deteriorating. 

In terms of one of its main conservation objectives, preventing the loss of habitat suitable for wildlife, CAMPFIRE again returned positive results as the rate of habitat loss in CAMPFIRE districts showed a significant reduction. An example of this is provided by a survey conducted on behalf of the WWF by Andrew Conybeare. The survey found that in CAMPFIRE participating wards in the Zambezi Valley the loss of habitat between 1989 and 1997 was less than 3 per cent over an area of 1 650 km2

The most contested aspect of CAMPFIRE, at least in terms of published literature,  has been its attempts to devolve management of natural resources to local communities. Assessing this feature of the programme is quite difficult not least because of the political and social issues that Zimbabwe has had to contend with over the last two decades. Furthermore, much critiques published, particularly in academic circles, are influenced from an authors particular view point on how the post-colonial African state should be governed. 

In terms of what the leading figures in the establishment of CAMPFIRE have said on the issue they acknowledge that many aspects of devolution, while generally successful, have returned mixed results and varied from district to district. 

Dr Brian Child, an associate professor at the University of Florida who spent 12 years working with DNPWLM, contends that up to the mid-1990s the process of devolving revenues to communities was encouraging greater institutional development and democratisation at the community level. 

In an unpublished report in 2003 Dr Child noted that under CAMPFIRE the decisions over how wildlife revenues should be used appeared to be decided democratically with finances being managed transparently. Russell Taylor also highlights the fact that up to the mid-2000s at least 100 democratically elected village committees existed across participating regional districts, demonstrating the capacity of CAMPFIRE to encourage the growth in devolved local governance. 

However, having said that both CAMPFIREs advocates and critics highlight the fact that, in too many cases than one would ideally wish for, the devolution process resulted in authority over natural resources revenues being broadly captured by district councils rather than passing down to the community or household level. Furthermore, in recent years the allocation of funds from RDCs to producer communities has reduced with revenues being retained by the RDCs for general rather than specifically CAMPFIRE related purposes. 

Continued accurate assessment of CAMPFIRE has become problematic due to broader social and political issues in Zimbabwe. However, in a study published last year in Society and Natural Resources the social scientists Peter J. Balint and Judith Mashinya noted that the quality of governance and community benefits, as of 2006, had declined. 

Balint and Mashinya found that as a result of an overall weakening in transparency and accountability revenues were being siphoned away before they could reach communities. For example, in Nyaminyami no new community development projects had been funded since 2003, while previous infrastructural investments such as grinding mills were falling into disrepair due to a lack of maintenance funds. 

However, at the same time it seemed that overall project revenues and conservation benefits were being sustained. In fact, contrary to their expectations Balint and Mashinya found that despite a reduction in community benefits, in Nyaminyami at least, there had not been a significant increase of wildlife poaching at the time of their study.

What can we learn from CAMPFIRE?

Although one should be cautious in trying to generalise from case to case the experience of CAMPFIRE does provide some good indicators of what issues can arise during the implementation of community oriented conservation programmes, it also provides some answers to the questions posed of CBNRM in general. 

The first question we identified at the beginning of this article was whether community oriented programmes could actually bring tangible benefits to communities? CAMPFIRE has shown that this undoubtedly can be the case.  Improvements to local infrastructure in CAMPFIRE participating districts included the construction of grinding mills for cornmeal processing, as well as improved educational and health facilities through funding for new schools and health clinics. 

In Mahenye, for example, the safari hunting sector provided increased employment through expanded tourist facilities. The development of these facilities also provided improved road infrastructure in addition to better electricity and telephone communication services. 

The increased job opportunities created through the safari industry also helped direct employment into a sector that supported the conservation of wildlife, thus somewhat answering the question of whether CBNRM can be compatible with maintaining natural habitat. 

As the studies identified earlier showed wildlife populations in CAMPFIRE areas were sustained, and although illegal poaching was not eradicated there was clear evidence that the programme was, at least, helping to stabilise the off-take of wildlife, not least because revenues from CAMPFIRE helped support the training and equipping of wildlife rangers. 

Importantly CAMPFIRE demonstrated that the devolving of natural resource management to local authorities was feasible both economically and logistically. Unfortunately the broader political, economic and social situation in Zimbabwe has impacted on the programmes viability but any form of natural resource scheme in operation under these extreme circumstances would struggle to remain fully functional. It should also be noted that although this situation is grave, to say the least, it still provides important lessons for future conservation planning. 

In summarising the study of CBNRM in Zimbabwe Balint and Mashinya identified four key points that conservation and development practitioners need to take into consideration before opting for this type of conservation scheme.

The first point they highlight is that institutions of governance need to be accountable and efficiently managed. They also need to represent and be answerable to the needs of all community members regardless of ethnic, linguistic or social background.

The second key point is that CBNRM programmes need to be designed and implemented to fit the context of the setting in which they are to be engaged. As is the case in Zimbabwe, most sub-Saharan countries can vary greatly in terms of both their physical and social geography. Fauna and flora will be divergent from case to case offering different revenue generating potentials.

Thirdly, CBNRMs need to be inclusively run and managed with all stakeholders contributing to their operation. Previous community schemes have operated on an overtly prescriptive basis with outside agencies dictating to local authorities and communities. While outside knowledge forms a fundamental part of natural resource management it needs to be used in a way that also allows for local knowledge to be included in a process of mutual learning. Basically, communities need to be included in programme design and implementation. 

All three of these points need to be included in CBNRM planning and implementations if prospective programmes are to be resilient enough to survive the many challenges that arise in developing countries. From political and social instability, fluctuations in external support, either from loss of donor funding or decreases/increases in tourism, to environmental shocks caused by climate change CBNRMs will face many serious tests. If they are to pass these tests they will need to have been implemented and managed with great care that takes time, skill, and money. 

One final issue needs to taken into consideration in relation to CBNRM. That is the fact that this model of conservation requires natural resources, including charismatic species such as lion and elephant, to be utilised on an extractive basis. That means allowing them to be trophy hunted. This raises both ethical and practical problems. Apart from the obvious worries over animal welfare and control of the amount of wildlife hunted there are also concerns that relate to how conservation is more broadly supported. Many international organisations who support conservation in Africa depend on the generosity of public donors, and a considerable amount of these donors are strongly against the idea of their money supporting causes that advocates the killing of wildlife. To date many organisations have been less than forthright with their supporters about exactly what the conservation projects they are funding entails. In the long term this issue will have to be addressed if CBNRM is to be ethically and openly supported. 

The management of wildlife requires trade-offs. Sometimes this means that the need to conserve endangered species will take precedence over local communities’ access to resources. The flip side of this is that sometimes conservationists and their supporters will have to grant concessions to communities for the overall long term objectives of conservation. 

Community Based Conservation:
Not THE answer but part of the solution?

As Bill Adams of Cambridge University, a man with over 30 years experience of working on conservation in Africa, sagely points out community based natural resource management is not a panacea for solving the great problem of achieving wildlife conservation in conjunction with promoting rural economic development. But it can go someway to being part of broader national and international policies which aim to do so.

Although difficult to organise and hard to maintain CBNRM at least offers an opportunity to address one of the issues that has dogged conservation policy since colonial times, that is including rather than excluding rural communities. In the modern age is it morally acceptable to continue with policies that require local communities to pay all the costs, all of the time? Particularly as they already pay a high price for what is, after all, a global need to preserve the planets biodiversity. Furthermore, the evidence shows that community oriented conservation can be just as effective, when implemented correctly, as the old methods of fortress conservation in terms of achieving conservation objectives. 

This does not mean that CBNRM has not been without its own share of faults and deficiencies. However, in a time of increasing pressure on the world’s biodiversity it would seem that its application should be considered when appropriate. After all, alternative options are limited and often just as difficult to operate, not least because the likelihood of designating further areas of natural habitat to strictly protected area status is unlikely to be easily achieved.  


Adams WM (2009) Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World. 3rd Edn. Published by Routledge

Balint PJ, Mashinya J (2008) CAMPFIRE During Zimbabwe’s National Crisis: Local Impacts and Broader Implications for Community-Based Wildlife Management. Society and Natural Resources, 21:783–796

Child B, Jones B, Mazambani D, Mlalazi A, Moinuddin H (2003) Final evaluation report: Zimbabwe natural resources management programme-USAID/Zimbabwe strategic objective no. 1. CAMPFIRE communal areas management for indigenous resources. Unpublished report. USAID, Harare

Conybeare A (1998) Assessment of habitat maintenance, diversity and productivity under communal management. Unpublished report. WWF resource management support to CAMPFIRE project. WWF SARPO, Harare

Metcalfe S (1993) CAMPFIRE: Zimbabwe's Communal Areas.  Management Programme For Indigenous Resources. Perspectives in Community-based Conservation Ed. D. Western and Michael Wright; Shirley Strum, Associate Editor. Island Press. Washington D.C.

Taylor R (2009) Community based natural resource management in Zimbabwe: the experience of CAMPFIRE. Biodiversity Conservation. 18:2563–2583