A group of seven happy looking San people.

Why Southern African Communities Must Climb the Conservation Governance Ladder

Why Southern African Communities Must Climb the Conservation Governance Ladder

A ground-breaking global review of Indigenous peoples and local communities engaged in conservation reveals that more equitable community-led governance systems lead to better conservation and social outcomes. Increasing the level of engagement and decision-making power held by communities can therefore positively transform environmental conservation while meeting global biodiversity and sustainable development targets.

Understanding the governance ladder

Neil Dawson and colleagues used a sample of 648 studies from 99 countries to create six types or levels of community conservation governance. These levels can be pictured as the rungs of ladder, with total exclusion at the bottom and community autonomy at the top.

In developing their typology (i.e. rungs of the ladder), the authors considered three important aspects of governance: 1) quality of participation in natural resource management (ranging from no participation at all through to total control over resources); 2) recognition of values and knowledge systems (ranging from no recognition to Indigenous knowledge taking a central role); and 3) historically rooted power relations (ranging from no power within local institutions through to total autonomy over indigenous territories and their resources). 

A diagram listing the six levels of governance.

The levels on the governance ladder, with the bottom level of community exclusion from conservation governance on the far left and the top level of autonomous communities on the far right. Source: Dawson et al. (2024) Is it just conservation? A typology of Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ roles in conserving biodiversity. One Earth. 

An excluded community on level 1 of the ladder has no control over land or resources and no say in decisions about conservation or land use. Their traditional knowledge is typically ignored or denigrated in favour of other sources of knowledge. An autonomous community on level 6 of the ladder has total control over their land and resources, thus making all major decisions related to conservation. They draw liberally from their own traditional knowledge, although they may also choose to include external sources of information as they see fit. 

In between these two extremes, communities on level 2 are consulted and treated as passive beneficiaries by the project initiators. Those on level 3 are considered to be stakeholders that have some say in decisions alongside many other stakeholders. Level 4 communities are treated as real partners that can negotiate the terms of agreements and whose rights to land and resources are respected to a certain extent. A community on level 5 may not have full autonomy like those on level 6, but they retain primary control over their land and resources, with other stakeholders providing support as required. The level of recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge relative to other knowledge increases with each level. 

Dawson and colleagues assigned an appropriate level to each community in the studies that they reviewed and then noted the environmental and social outcomes reported in each case. Studies that looked at environmental outcomes (170 in total) considered metrics relating to habitat (e.g. deforestation), animal populations and human behaviour (e.g. level of poaching). The social outcomes studies (288) included the income generated in the community, social relations, and cultural and political outcomes. 

In general, the review found greater positive environmental and social outcomes in communities that were further up the governance ladder. This is a crucial finding that can be used to support community empowerment worldwide to meet global targets. It also has a number of interesting implications for southern Africa.

Applying the ladder to southern Africa

Within southern Africa, we have communities on all levels of this ladder, although the first level of total exclusion is fortunately rarer now than in the past. Yet many communities are still treated as consultees or passive beneficiaries who are simply informed of decisions made by governments, often in partnership with powerful non-government organisations (NGOs). Making it to the third step of the ladder – where communities are treated as stakeholders that have at least some say in plans and decisions – is a major step forward, but is it enough?

One of the most interesting results of Dawson et al.’s global review is the big difference in conservation outcomes between cases where communities were stakeholders and those that had stepped up to the fourth level – partnership. Of the 40 stakeholder community projects in their review, only 18% reported positive results for conservation (48% were mixed positive and negative, 35% only negative). By contrast, of the 39 studies of communities as active partners with government or NGOs, 64% yielded positive results (31% were mixed, 5% negative).

A column graph with six columns.

The conservation outcomes (coloured bars) reported from studies of communities on one of the six levels of the conservation governance ladder. Source: Dawson et al. (2024) Is it just conservation? A typology of Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ roles in conserving biodiversity. One Earth.

The big jump from the stakeholder to partner level is of particular interest in southern Africa, as many community-based organisations (CBOs) find themselves at the stakeholder level. While their rights to resources have been partially acknowledged, thus allowing most of them to reap benefits from hunting or photographic tourism, their role in managing their resources using local knowledge is limited. These communities are vulnerable to changes in government policies or procedures that further limit their rights. In some cases, the government may devolve authority to a partner NGO, which perpetuates power imbalances and community vulnerability.

Namibian communal conservancies are arguably the only CBOs in the region that have gained access to level 4 of the ladder – partnership. Conservancies play an active role in managing their own wildlife and negotiating deals with the private sector, and are recognised as active partners in conservation by NGOs and government. While the government still retains some authority and control (thus not yet attaining level 5), the Namibian system is more successful than its neighbours that remain at level 3.

Some Zimbabwean communities are looking to make that step up by gaining Appropriate Authority status under national law that will provide them with similar rights to Namibian conservancies. Many communities in other countries remain on the second level of the ladder, as they may benefit from neighbouring conservation projects but have no real say in management decisions.

The social outcomes achieved by communities in the global review increased steadily from one level of governance to the next. The biggest jump between levels occurred from level 4 to level 5, showing clear social benefits of evolving from partners to the primary controllers of natural resources. With more control over land and resources, communities can negotiate better deals with the private sector and/or develop locally owned nature-based industries that deliver more benefits to individual households.

A column graph.

The social outcomes (coloured bars) reported from studies of communities on one of the six levels of the conservation governance ladder. Source: Dawson et al. (2024) Is it just conservation? A typology of Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ roles in conserving biodiversity. One Earth.

Helping communities in southern Africa climb the ladder

Governments and NGOs around the world are reluctant to give up power over land and resources, yet it is becoming increasingly clear that global biodiversity targets cannot be met by leaving communities on the lower levels of the ladder. Every national conservation authority and NGO working in this sector should take heed of the results of Dawson et al.’s global review, while CBOs should study it carefully.

While Namibia has shown the way to step up the ladder, their conservancies would function even better if they reached level 5 by obtaining secure land tenure over their conserved areas. This would open up more economic opportunities and improve the social outcomes for people in conservancies, which is critical for the long-term success of this programme.

The CBOs in any country would likely achieve better conservation and social outcomes if they climbed further up the ladder. Identifying where they currently lie on the ladder and what next steps could be taken to climb it could provide the basis for effective lobbying and action strategies.

Dawson and colleagues acknowledge that the governance capacity within communities varies greatly depending on historical events and current power relations. In some places, traditional authorities are no longer functional and traditional knowledge has been all but lost due to historical or current displacement and oppression. Local institutions therefore need to be created and strengthened before they are ready for the next level of governance. This process may take time, but the results of this approach are more sustainable than continued top-down authoritarian approaches or over-reliance on NGOs and their donors.

By working alongside networks of CBOs in southern Africa that are united under the Community Leaders Network umbrella, Resource Africa takes the long-term governance strengthening approach to conservation. Rather than managing large protected areas for the supposed benefit of neighbouring communities (restricted to Level 2 on the ladder), we find ways for legitimate local institutions to reach their next level of governance. This includes bringing national conservation authorities on board and partnering with like-minded NGOs to remove barriers to progress and build local capacity.

Ultimately, if Indigenous peoples and local communities succeed in climbing the governance ladder, we all win. Improved conservation outcomes will contribute to achieving the goals set out in the Global Biodiversity Framework, while improved social outcomes will meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. While these goals may be set at the global level and agreed upon by national governments, implementing them requires local action with local people and their institutions at the forefront.