Tales from a Pandemic Education
One Intern’s Dive into Community-Based Conservation
By Emily Bernal | March 2, 2023
In 2021, I had an undergraduate college experience that afforded me an opportunity to travel the globe. Whereas in “normal times” a student like me might trade her computer for a backpack and passport for new experiences in a far-flung part of the world, during the pandemic I settled into my desk chair for a virtual international experience via zoom and video as an intern with the Rights + Communities Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Before starting my position, I was aware that WCS was already well known for its zoological parks in New York and its lasting global efforts conserving wildlife and wild places. Whether in its zoos and aquarium or its global field sites, I assumed that principally consisted of studying wildlife populations and managing their protection, though I had no idea what that entailed.
What I learned is that conservation is, inherently, a social process. To be effective, equitable, and durable, conservation must respect and protect the rights of people who live alongside wildlife. By talking with regional and country directors and communications staff across the WCS global program, I came to grasp the remarkable breadth and depth of the organization’s engagement with local communities around the world.
I interviewed over twenty leaders from WCS regional and country programs from four different continents to learn more about their work and collaboration with Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs). I was also keen to know how WCS communicates about these relationships, to identify opportunities to amplify Indigenous voices for conservation, and to help secure funding to support WCS and the IPLC partners with whom they worked.
I learned of the Argentinian livestock dogs that work with local herders to reduce conflict with pumas and other native carnivores. I also learned that Belize was the first country to implement the SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) policing system that local fishermen and environmental officers use to prevent outsiders from stealing their fish. There were the many community-managed marine areas across Melanesia focused on the joint goal of preservation of cultural practices and sustainable fisheries.
These are just a few examples of the various partnerships that WCS has with local communities across the globe, all working towards a larger goal that supports people, places, and the wildlife that reside within them.
The individuals I spoke with across the globe inspired me in so many ways, especially with their respect for, and commitment to, the communities they work with. I interviewed staff from places as far apart and culturally different as Arctic Alaska and Afghanistan. What stood out was the similarities of their experiences (including both opportunities and challenges) working with communities on placed-based conservation.
One common theme is collaborative place-based conservation efforts that local communities and WCS co-design and implement. A few examples of country programs I spoke with that support and elevate these efforts include the restoration of tree cover in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands in collaboration with local district councils and community-based organizations, collaborations on Ecotourism in Lao PDR, and joint sustainable riverbank monitoring in Brazil involving partnerships with local fishermen and community youth.
While WCS staff justly take pride in their achievements with their community allies, all were quick to say that there is still much that needs to be done to help communities attain their vision — most notably by elevating and amplifying their voices so they are not only heard but understood and respected. It is very important that communities are empowered to speak on their own behalf to address conservation and community issues that are important to them.
A common theme in my conversations with WCS staff was their strongly held belief that working together with Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities is without doubt the best way to create more equitable conservation solutions for all. Strengthening capacity and working alongside communities in securing, exercising, and benefitting from rights is a core feature of WCS’ approach to conservation.
This collaborative, rights-based approach to conservation presents exciting opportunities for me and others just beginning our conservation journeys. Research your favorite conservation NGO or non-profit to learn more about the respectful partnerships and rights-based initiatives they are fostering and get to know something about the people behind their amazing environmental and sustainability achievements. If you would like to learn more about WCS’s work with communities, please feel free to begin your journey here.
Despite a summer glued to my desk, the extraordinary individuals across WCS Global staff welcomed me into their home offices and opened the window to alternative approaches to conservation that put people at the center of long-term conservation solutions, an unexpected journey that profoundly expanded my own horizons as a conservation professional.
Emily Bernal graduated from Cornell University in 2022 with a B.S. in Environment and Sustainability.