At the UNFCCC COP26, restoration of nature is firmly on the agenda, offering capture and storage of greenhouse gas emissions through ‘nature-based solutions’. Whilst international guidance on how to develop and maintain nature-based solutions, such as landscape restoration, recognises the need for involvement of local communities, lessons must be learnt from past approaches.

One key lesson is that there must be genuine recognition of the knowledge, practices and rights of local communities in the Global South.

From illegal poaching and the unsustainable plunder of fisheries to crackdowns on the wildlife trade to prevent future pandemics, efforts are being made to end these practices - but who is making decisions on how to do that and based on what evidence? 

Across low and middle-income countries, millions of people generate their livelihoods and owe their cultural, spiritual and communal relationships to their ecological surroundings, yet they are often not part of discussions taking place on issues like conservation and resource governance. 

“People have a strong dependence on renewable natural resources in the Global South,” says Fiona Nunan, Professor of Environment and Development at the University of Birmingham. But, says Nunan, when strategies are developed to tackle issues like illegal fishing, they are often imposed in heavy-handed ways, and fail to harness the insights, customs and norms that may have existed to handle resource management tensions and risks. 

“When tackling something like illegality in fishing, there is often an aggressive and even military approach, which is very much against the spirit of collaborative resource management,” argues Nunan.  “We should ask, how do local people approach and understand illegality? Communities might have their own rules in place about when and where to go to fish or extract timber, and social norms about how people should behave. A better understanding of those norms and beliefs could inform national policy.”

Nunan worries that current attention given to ‘nature-based solutions’ is often led by the natural scientists and ecologists. “For a just transition, you need to involve people who live in, draw on and contribute to those landscapes,” says Nunan. 

COVID-19 and the wildlife trade: How bans backfire

Dr Brock Bersaglio, lecturer in environment and development at the University of Birmingham, has identified similar power inequalities in current efforts to constrain zoonotic disease pathogens in light of the COVID-19 crisis. These are, he argues, both a social justice issue and potentially a public health one, given the unintended consequences that result from heavy-handed crackdowns.

The hypothesis that the virus passed to humans in a wet market in China has prompted calls to restrict the entire wildlife trade industry to prevent future pandemics. Similar responses have attended the outbreaks of Ebola in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years.

“Following the outbreak of COVID-19, there was a lot of finger-pointing at live and wet markets in China with conservation and animal rights activists pushing to bring wild meat and wet markets to a close,” says Bersaglio. While efforts to avoid future pandemics are clearly warranted, he warns that such measures are a threat to livelihoods with unclear evidence in terms of effectiveness. “Many involved in wildlife trade are Indigenous Peoples and local communities who have rights protected by international law to harvest wildlife products in a sustainable way. Banning their access has social justice and economic implications.”

He says there is evidence such measures could actually make the problem worse.  “A lot of these calls are centred in a Eurocentric, Western idea that keeping nature and people separate is good for public health, but it is not clear this approach is even beneficial from a public health perspective”.

Attempts to ban the wild meat trade in response to Ebola outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, have pushed that trade further underground, where it is even harder to monitor. Wildlife bans risk eroding trust in public health and environment authorities and could thereby reduce people’s confidence in health warnings. They could even increase zoonotic disease risks by increasing livestock consumption as an alternative source of food, in turn causing more deforestation and habitat destruction, which is one of the biggest catalysts for zoonotic disease transmission.

Bersaglio is leading an initiative called Wildlife Trade Futures to examine how the global clampdown is affecting different groups and its implications for relationships between people and wildlife. The project is aiming to rigorously monitor how wildlife trade is changing and to provide policy makers with evidence-based insights on ways to mitigate public health risks of wildlife trade, while being attentive to interventional efficacy and social justice considerations. The project is run in partnership with the Centre for International Forestry Research, the University of Manchester, Northumbria University and the University of Sheffield.

Other interventions to minimise zoonotic disease transmission include agroecology and the formation of territories and areas conserved by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, restricting only certain high-risk species and improving sanitation and hygiene at wildlife trade markets.

For Dr Bersaglio, heavy-handed sustainability interventions can lead to ‘path dependency’ in terms of the tools and models that are used. He cites examples of anti-poaching programmes that use excessive violence, which could be ‘grandfathered in’ to the public health versus wildlife trade nexus.

Like Professor Nunan, Dr Bersalgio emphasises the importance of learning from those individuals whose lives and livelihoods are most deeply embedded in the ecological terrain that sustainability interventions are seeking to shape and direct. He believes social science tools could help redress the balance and inform policies that are more inclusive and, thereby, more effective in their end goal.

“There is an epistemic violence where the experiences, knowledge and priorities of people on the ground are getting lost in terms of informing policies. Powerful actors are shaping the policies and people’s relationship with wildlife and natural ecosystems”. 


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