The Human Element

Posted on 23 April 2018

People play a crucial role in conservation
People play a crucial role in conservation, and partnering with Indigenous Peoples and local communities can ensure the long-term sustainability of conservation efforts. We sat down with Pia Escobar Gutiérrez, of WWF-Colombia, to learn how she is connecting with partners to bring more people into the process.

What is your role at WWF?  
I work in the Cali office of WWF-Colombia, in the Governance and Sustainable Livelihoods program. Currently, I am leading a project on deforestation strategies, and coordinating the leadership of a capacity building process that supports Indigenous Peoples’ governance.

What are you currently working on?
An important part of my work with Indigenous Peoples is a partnership with OPIAC, the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon. Part of what we do is work together with the Ministry of Environment (MADS) to find ways for Indigenous Peoples’ focuses and OPIAC’s proposals to be included in MADS policies, like those on deforestation and forest management. We also run analyses on how OPIAC can access climate funding, and how Indigenous Peoples can be incorporated into national level commitments like NDCs and AICHI Targets.

With local level organizations, we support programs to enforce their territorial management processes. Some of this has a technical focus, like developing training programs so Indigenous Peoples can generate monitoring data about their territories and the ecosystem services that are important to them, and some has a more political focus, like different ways to improve territorial administration or decision making. These are tools they can use to improve their territories as well as show society their value and the importance of conserving nature.

How did you get involved in this kind of conservation work?
I’m an anthropologist by training, and by certain coincidences of life I’ve always been linked into conservation. Various people in my family also work in conservation, and it’s interested me since I was young. After university, I started work supporting more sustainable production systems, focusing on dairy, in the south of Colombia, and that was a natural transition into conservation. From the sustainable production and conservation perspectives, it’s always been my specialty to bring people, society, and culture into the process. It puts my academic training to practical use to transform societies and the world.

Working with people as a conservation strategy can often seem complicated. Why is it important to bring people into the equation?
It’s not necessarily more complicated but, rather is more complete. You have to include processes like dialogue and finding agreement, but my personal view is that working with people is a way to generate durable methods of conservation. As the world’s population grows and we shift the way we use natural resources or into different areas, we need to be able to make better decisions to make a better world. 

It’s also hard to have successful conservation strategy without involving communities, because we don’t conserve territories alone or in a vacuum. Communities have strategies of their own, and we need to be able to tap into them and support them to make our collective work better.

What does success look like, from your point of view?
For me, success is not dependent on big things – big results – but in the little gains that we make with communities. For example, supporting the development of a technical team in an Indigenous Peoples organization that has the capacity to do an evaluation of their ecosystem services and can understand how they can use the data they generate to serve their organization and territory for the maintenance of their cultures is an important success. 

When communities have access to information and trainings they are able to do new things or manage processes without outside experts, which can often complement our work. Building trust with local organizations or communities through open and honest dialogue and providing them tools that they can use to manage their territories for their own benefit is a success, and it happens step by step. I’m convinced that small investments are more effective than larger ones.

Is there one piece of advice you would give to people who want to work more closely with communities?
What’s most important is to learn to understand each other. Don’t believe that you are the wise one going in to teach the community how to do things. It’s a dialogue – not us teaching them how to be better but to understand how they live and their conservation processes and goals. For this you need their trust, which is my second recommendation. It’s important to find the ways to generate trust with communities so you can work together for common goals. We make common purpose by supporting their objectives and lending our skills to their goals.
Pia Escobar Gutierrez, accompanying members of OPIAC and COICA to La Chorrera.
© Johana Herrera