Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Using incentives to support communities and conservation

© Applied Environmental Research Foundation/photo by Jayant Sarnaik

For community members who live in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, using natural resources unsustainably often seems to be the only way to support themselves and their families. CEPF is working with its grantees to make conservation a better solution for hotspot communities by providing economic incentives.

Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot

In the Western Ghats Mountains of India, CEPF grantee Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF) is working with communities in the Sahyadri-Konkan Region to develop sustainable commercial enterprises with conservation at their core. “We are trying to use market-based mechanisms to introduce sustainability to long-term conservation agreements,” said AERF Deputy Director Jayant Sarnaik. “We call it ‘green entrepreneurship,’ which means developing value chains and setting up enterprises based on the sustainable use of biodiversity.” 

AERF and its collaborating communities have established a successful business based on the sustainable use of two medicinally important tree species, and the communities are getting a premium price. The fruit of Terminalia chebula and T. bellirica are ingredients of triphala, an important traditional Indian medicine, while the trees that produce them are keystone species in the ecology of Sacred Groves, relic forests traditionally protected in reverence of a deity. “This approach is supported through a long-term agreement with an international buyer based in the U.K. for purchasing certified products from us,” Sarnaik said.

The certification standard called FairWild, developed by the FairWild Foundation and certified by IMO (Institute of Marketecology), Switzerland, promotes sustainable harvesting of wild medicinal and aromatic plants and ensures a fair price for all participants along the supply chain. This project represents the first FairWild certification in India, a source of great pride to participating communities. “A peculiar aspect is that this is happening with the involvement of the indigenous community, the Mahadeo Koli people from Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary,” said Sarnaik. “Although they have been collecting these fruits for hundreds of years, this is the first year they could get access to the domestic market.” The FairWild certification required them to have clear ownership of the trees. “It was a struggle,” he said, “but we were able to get them registered on the land records as owners for as many as 2,000 trees.” The income generated is also helping to save 700 giant specimens of T. bellirica in addition to preserving nesting sites of iconic bird species, such as the great Indian hornbill (Buceros bicornis).

Another example of a value chain developed under the project is the Indian kino tree (Pterocarpus marsupium), known locally as bija, an International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List species. People were chopping it down for fuel, disregarding its high-value timber properties and medicinal potential for treating diabetes. Through the project, tumblers were made from the stem to maximize the economic returns from a single bija tree, with revenues going to forest conservation efforts. “People are listening to us,” said Sarnaik. “They are learning skills and have a decent income.”

Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot

In Cambodia, the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) is working to increase populations of sandbar-nesting bird and freshwater turtle species in five key communities in the 3S River Basin (Sesan, Srepok, and Sekong). Strategies involve incentives for protecting nests, raising community awareness and creating community fisheries that are recognized by the government.

“We establish interest in all of the communities to formally designate community fisheries,” said Sophat Seak, principal investigator on the project. “This gives the community the legal status to protect the habitat, especially the sandbar islands.” It also recognizes their rights to benefit from the sustainable management of natural resources. To raise interest in community participation in critical villages, RUPP students “have been doing mixed-media presentations— comedy, movie clips and music videos interspersed with conservation information,” according to Andrea Claassen, a graduate research fellow at the University of Minnesota and technical consultant on the project. “At the largest one, a couple hundred people attended. Even at the smallest villages, we’ve had at least 60 people.”

Two teams are formed in each community: one focuses on protecting birds at nesting sites, and the other is a roaming patrol that reports on illegal activities within village boundaries. Participants are paid $5 a day and receive in-depth training. Protection teams check nests daily, recording the species, how many eggs, what day they hatch, any sign of disturbances or predators, and whether a nest fails. There are several protected areas nearby, but the government doesn’t have the capability for enforcement, and it is not a high funding priority; however, the success of this model in more established projects on the Mekong River, where information collected is helping the government to improve river management, gives hope for the long-term success of the 3S project.

There is little tourism on the rivers at present, despite the spectacular views, but the project is looking at the potential for ecotourism as an activity to benefit nearby villages and increase interest—and funds—for conservation.