Creating regional community protection for a Biosphere Reserve

Full Solution
Villager crowds at a Manas Biosphere Celebration
Community Conservation

Creating community protection addressed the problem of major deforestation in Assam, India forests due to a complex political problem of militants threatening government forestry staff. Community meetings, seminars for communities, NGOs and government and Biosphere celebrations helped communities form groups and become strong conservationist partners to support the Assam government. When an accord was signed community groups worked with the new tribal government.

Last update: 02 Oct 2020
Challenges addressed
Land and Forest degradation
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Poor governance and participation
Social conflict and civil unrest
deforestation and political instability There was major deforestation due to an open access situation resulting from political instability. It was necessary to work with many communities adjacent to the Biosphere and interact with many other stakeholders including regional NGOs, government and militant groups until the political situation resolved itself.
Scale of implementation
Temperate evergreen forest
Habitat fragmentation and degradation
Species management
Indigenous people
Local actors
Assam, India
South Asia
Summary of the process
Community meetings of the Golden Langur Conservation Project began the process to involve communities in the conservation of their region. Seminars and workshops that included the communities, NGOs and government staff began to form a team of stakeholders based on equality and trust. Unifying government, NGOs and communities in a common conservation purpose is the most powerful team. These meeting/workshops led to a crescendo of regional interest which culminated in four celebrations coordinated by local communities across the Manas Biosphere Reserve, giving rise to conservation contagion. Within that time and atmosphere communities formed groups and joined the project. With the militants signing an accord and ceasefire, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was elected and with Green Forest Conservation formed the first Bodoland Forest Protection force in the Biosphere. Soon other CBOs followed and eventually 18 CBOs formed the United Forest Conservation Network to work with the BTC and the Assam Forest Department to protect the entire Manas Biosphere and other forests inhabited by golden langurs.
Building Blocks
Community meetings for species awareness and ask for help
Community meetings make the community aware of their special flora and fauna like the golden langur as a flagship species, the problem it is facing and that the government and NGOs cannot solve the problem without the help of the communities. We may also stress that these forest are their forests. We ask for the help of the communities which is the first step of empowerment because the communities generally perceive us NGO members as more powerful than themselves. This also establishes the beginning of a trusting relationship toward forming a conservation partnership of equals. Future meetings then involve the communities in direct conservation actions such as starting tree nurseries and tree planting or patrolling. We may also have additional workshops for livelihoods. Community groups may form on their own or we can encourage them through workshops. As such meetings and workshops continue, trust between the NGOs and communities build and with the formation of community-based organizations (CBOs) ownership or feelings of ownership of the project and the lands develops.
Enabling factors
If possible, there is a need for someone in the community to mobilize community members to come to the meetings. Transparency and trust in the actions between the community and catalyzing NGO is very important. They must feel they are equal partners and are needed in the project. Grant money should be minimal and not stressed. It should only be used to provide needed assistance to the community goals. Too much money creates an atmosphere of a “hands out” mentality. A lack of financial incentives allows altruistic and conservation motivations to emerge and blossom.
Lesson learned
There are a large proportion of positive people and potential conservationists in every village. Although villagers may be poor and uneducated, those are not their most important characteristics. If they are treated as conservationists they will act as conservationists. In 30 years of asking villagers for their help, they have never refused to enthusiastically help me. In contrast, the behavior of NGOs and governments has been mixed. Empowered community groups are the strongest, most consistent conservationists.
Seminars for community and NGO members and government staff
Building on the success of the community response to community meetings we began to hold multi-stakeholder meetings and seminars to make the general community aware of the problems of deforestation and the plight of the golden langur, to bring government, NGO and community stakeholders together. This served to integrate the communities as equal partners in conservation and to highlight the deforestation and golden langurs within the regional community. These meetings were often written about in local newspapers highlighting the golden langur as an Assam animal. They also gave more credence to the project and focused on the strongest conservation solution, when governments, NGOs and communities work together. In retrospect it also gave a focus for the new Bodoland Territorial Council members who, at these meetings quickly made the transition from militants to tribal government representatives.
Enabling factors
There must be interest on the part of government and NGOs to participate and they must be willing and capable of meeting and interacting with community members on an equal basis.
Lesson learned
These efforts built on the community meetings to bring the stakeholders together on common ground. They also played a large part in generating conservation contagion.
Protected Area celebrations
Conservation contagion is a type of social contagion that can cause ideas to proceed exponentially instead of linearly. Recognition of and focus on this concept are unique to Community Conservation projects and have not been observed by other conservationists or scientists. Although we cannot predict success in achieving it, contagion seems to respond to large amount of media advertising and bringing people together from different areas allowing messages to expand into other social networks. The Manas celebrations were to help to increase the probability of conservation contagion, to celebrate and raise the awareness, giving a higher focus on the Manas Biosphere Reserve rather that the Manas National Park which was ordinarily focused on, and to give a regional focus on the golden langur and the Manas Biosphere deforestation. These celebrations were to increase the human energy to activism within the region.
Enabling factors
You need the help of motivated community members who know how to arrange such events in their own communities. Assam communities already had such leaders with such skills.
Lesson learned
While achieving conservation contagion may not be completely predictable, it is possible to maximize the possibility of achieving it through mixing people from different regions and thus generating excitement from jumping social networks. Seeing how conservation contagion had been accidentally attained in Belize, mainly through countrywide advertising and bringing communities together from different parts of the country, allowed me to attempt to create a similar situation in western Assam. Instead of focusing on a small area, the project initially focused on the complete Indian range of the golden langur bringing together five existing NGOs and CBOs to work together to protect the endemic golden langur within its entire Indian range. The huge crowds that occurred, I believe stemmed from our original transparent, trusting relationships with communities who felt pride and ownership in the project.
Encouraging communities to form conservation groups
Forming their own community conservation group builds empowerment, pride, ownership and sustainability. It allows communities to chart their own directions. Participants become empowered by forming groups that set their own agenda. Sustainability results because the groups were formed by the communities themselves for their own reasons. In some countries, like India, creating community groups was known perhaps influenced by the Panchayat village system. In some countries, the catalyzing agent may have to help communities to form their own groups.
Enabling factors
Communities must feel that there is something for them in the process. The incentives are usually social or cultural, with perhaps some financial possibilities. If communities have the knowledge in how to form groups, they will form the groups on their own as the Assam communities did. In some countries such as Rwanda following the genocide there seemed to be a strong governmental control that made it difficult for communities to think for themselves.
Lesson learned
Helping communities to form their own groups for specific conservation reasons is central for success in affecting conservation action. It is empowering and becomes sustainable because it is in the self-interest of those community members. With federations it provides the highest of community participation. Essentially, these groups replace the community institutions that occurred prior to colonialism.
Helping community conservation groups to form a federation
Although projects talk about involving communities, there are many levels of community involvement. The highest level encourages communities to take power over their own efforts. In India, communities know how to form their own groups from the Panchayat self-governing system. After many community meetings with the focus on the Manas Biosphere, community groups formed on their own to join the project. When members of the village of Koila Moila decided to join the Golden Langur Conservation Project, there was competition of whether they should join Nature’s Foster an NGO from Bongaigaon or Green Forest Conservation, a CBO from the western area of the Biosphere. Instead, they decided to form their own CBO and became the first CBO to join the project. Once Green Forest Conservation began its partnership with the Bodoland Territorial Council to patrol and protect its western Reserve Forests, other groups began to form within their own regions to participate in protection and to consider the possibility of tourism and other livelihoods. We then organized these CBOs into a federation, the United Forest Conservation Network that met monthly.
Enabling factors
You must have strong empowered community groups that are functioning well. These groups should be brought together to discuss common interests.
Lesson learned
Federations or networks of community-based organizations are the strongest community conservation institutions and probably the highest level of community participation. They seem to contribute to conservation contagion and perhaps maintain the energy level for it.

Following many community meetings, community-based organizations (CBOs) began to develop on their own to work with the project. They began to work on conservation actions and livelihood actions as we presented them with possibilities. In some cases they began to patrol areas and/or stop encroachers and confiscate illegal materials on their own cognizance. During the first Manas Biosphere celebration, the on-site communities showed resistance to anyone other than the on-site community organizing the celebrations, setting a precedent for local control over the following celebrations. Villager participation increased with each celebration from 5,000 to 8,000 to 20,000 to 35,000 participants. When the project negotiated for establishing a forest protection force under Green Forest Conservation (CBO) at Kachugaon with the new Bodoland Territorial Council in 2005, other community groups began patrolling their regions as volunteers. Later they were incorporated into the system. Finally, a complete census of the golden langurs showed an increase from 1500 langurs in 1999 to 5600 in 2009. Elephant and tiger surveys also showed population stability.

The central Government of India, Assam State Government, Bodo Territorial Council and community groups
One evening I visited the Assam Forest office in Kuklung. It was dark due to electric failure and as I entered, a man met and held my gaze, then stooped to touch my shoes with both his hands, a gesture of honor. I was surprised by this stranger’s action but later I heard that he had worked against the deforestation and he knew who I was and my mission. The next morning we returned to talk to members of the Kuklung community, telling them about their special golden langurs and how we needed their help to protect their forest. Later, as I was getting ready to leave Assam to return to the US, I received a telephone call from Arnab Bose of Nature’s Foster. He was surprised and puzzled by what had happened after our visit but he related to me that the Kuklung villagers had stopped the illegal loggers in the Manas Reserve Forest and had confiscated 22 bullock carts and logs under their own cognizance. I was also unsure of the action but I thought for a moment and replied that I think that was a positive action on their part. They had taken our words as permission to stop those who were stealing their forest. Soon after that, those men formed the Raigajli Ecotourism & Social Welfare Society. The next year when I visited I saw the camp they had just built where their forest protectors were living. They had begun to patrol and protect the Manas Reserve Forest, north of Kuklung, that had never had any protection before. I was happy to hear that because like other Reserve Forests of the Manas Biosphere you could see hundreds of bicycles loaded with hundreds of pounds of fire wood streaming out of the forest before dusk. When I returned in the second year to visit the Raigajli camp they told me a frightening story of how over a hundred illegal loggers had attacked them and destroyed their camp but they had rebuilt it already. Later in that visit they had another tale of violence. While their men were patrolling the forest, an illegal logger warned his men and they felled a tree to block the forest protector’s patrol truck. As the protectors were moving the obstructing log, they were set upon by a gang of encroachers and beaten badly so they had to be taken to the hospital to recuperate from their head wounds. Such conflicts and deforestation eventually disappeared.
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Rob Horwich
Community Conservation