Benefiting from Rights

Poaching and illegal resource extraction have depleted wildlife populations and other resources critical to the livelihoods of many of our partners, because the rights of local communities and indigenous and traditional peoples to exclude outsiders are either unclear or unrecognized. Strengthening community rights empowers local people to protect their resources from being stolen by others. By helping communities profit from their rights to resources, WCS is building strong and lasting constituencies for conservation.

Why It Works

When local communities have secure rights and the legitimate authority to manage their territory, they have the solid foundation they need to invest in natural resource-based enterprises that will generate sustained benefits for their families now and in the future. And when families see tangible benefits from their management efforts, they are more likely to continue to invest their time, or even invest further time, in protecting these resources.

Greater Security Leads to Durable Conservation Outcomes

WCS works in the last wild places on Earth, as that's where nature still exists almost intact and largely outside the influence of urban, industrial humankind. These same spaces have, for generations, been the major source of livelihoods and identity to indigenous and traditional peoples.

Ecosystem degradation as a result of encroachment and appropriation by outsiders, and ill-conceived resource extraction to cover the costs of modern social services like education and healthcare, and to purchase market goods to replace those nature once provided, is threatening to destroy not only these last wild places, but the local communities that depend on them for their economic and cultural wellbeing.

Durable conservation of these last wild places requires working with indigenous and traditional peoples and local communities to ensure that their resource use practices help protect nature, and contribute to their efforts to live meaningful, satisfying lives. Achieving this involves overcoming important challenges. The wild places where we work are remote, and the people who live there are usually dispersed over large areas. This raises the costs of organizing and implementing activities, and isolation from markets limits options for economically viable natural-resources-based enterprises.

In some cases, this means looking beyond just market-based benefits, focusing on increasing people’s ability to meet basic livelihood needs for food and shelter in ways that are consistent with cultural values. Greater wellbeing security allows our local partners to no longer fear that they will be unable to feed their families and that their lifestyles and cultural identities are under immediate threat. This opens space to articulate a shared vision of what a better quality of life means and plan proactively how they want to use their lands, waters, and other resources to achieve that vision.

These initial efforts often focus on developing sustainable hunting and fishing strategies, sometimes with a focus on securing access to a stable source of protein, and sometimes to ensure that the current generation will be able to share a culturally important activity, and associated knowledge and values, with their children and grandchildren. The challenge for local people, and for WCS as we try to be effective and trustworthy partners, is to find a path that allows people who have typically experienced food insecurity, and chronic food deficits, to define and implement limits on offtakes that have immediate implications for how they live, to create conditions that ensure more abundant and sustainable harvests in the future. For example, one of the first things that communities establishing locally managed marine areas must do is establish no-take areas and catch limits, actions which are only possible because they have secured the right to exclude outsiders and can be sure that the benefits of increases in overall fish biomass, average size of fish caught, and catch-per-unit-effort will accrue to them and not be stolen by others

As tenure security increases, we are able to work with partner indigenous organizations and local communities to begin to build new economic opportunities based on the sustainable use of goods and services provided by natural ecosystems. For example, in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve the community of Uaxactun gathers and sells the fronds of understory palms of the genus Chamaedorea called “xate” that are used in the floral industry. Originally, forest harvesters would cut as many fronds as possible, including good and poor quality fronds, and sell to middlemen who paid based on quantity, not quality. Today, diverse companies purchase only high-quality fronds, paying harvesters a price premium. Harvesters, mainly men, now only cut good fronds, decreasing the impact on the palms, and village women sort and grade the fronds to calculate the payments due to the harvesters and control export quality. Xate is now certified, and harvests are managed by the local community-based cooperative called Organization for Conservation and Management (OMYC). OMYC has eliminated depredatory middlemen, and ensured that harvests are rotated around their forest concession, guided by an official xate management plan. By only trading high quality fronds and ensuring quality control occurs in the village, rural women now have opportunities for employment, household income has substantially increased, and destructive and unsustainable harvesting of xate has been eliminated.

Photo Credit: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

Establishing Profitable Enterprises

Building successful businesses based on the sustainable use of natural resources is a challenge for many of our local community partners because they are often isolated from markets both by distance and by lack of transportation infrastructure. Trading highly perishable goods is rarely feasible without reliable refrigeration, and goods that are already produced closer to markets are almost always economically more competitive. WCS works with our local partners to identify marketable natural products and help make connections with buyers willing to pay a premium price for sustainably produced, wildlife-friendly goods.

We encourage communities to develop multiple enterprises as insurance against market fluctuations and to spread the benefits amongst women and men of different ages and interests within each community. Having multiple enterprises also increases the aggregate value of the goods that flow from stewardship of their lands and waters.


In 2008, WCS Cambodia launched an ambitious not-for-profit conservation enterprise in the vast northern plains. The IBIS rice initiative was designed to help poor rural farmers produce world-class quality, organic jasmine rice to sell in premium markets and, at the same time, conserve the forests and wetlands within national parks that are essential to the survival of the Cambodia's national bird, , the Giant Ibis.

We work with farmers who are willing to rethink their operations, balancing generations of know-how with today’s technology and ideas. IBIS rice farmers who commit to zero expansion of their rice fields, zero chemical fertilizers or pesticides, zero deforestation, and zero poaching of wildlife, receive training and most importantly access to the IBIS Rice brand, which sells for up to 50% above the market price for other types of rice.

Today, over 1,000 farmers from 12 remote villages are Certified Wildlife Friendly, are selling their fragrant, 100% organic IBIS Rice in Cambodia, Europe, and the U.S. They are significantly increasing their families' economic wellbeing and resilience and protecting over 1.2 million acres of forests and wetlands—saving the giant ibis from extinction and conserving more than 50 other endangered species.

In its first year of operation, IBIS rice won the prestigious World Bank Development Marketplace Prize as an innovative model for community-based conservation.


In 2001, only half the farmers in the Luangwa valley of central Zambia were growing enough to feed their families, even fewer had a surplus to trade for other basic necessities. To cope, farmers started hunting, fishing, and cutting wood for fuel. With so many families in need, rivers were rapidly overfished, forests degraded for charcoal, and wildlife killed faster than it could reproduce.

What was needed was a way to bring new markets and farming practices to tens of thousands of farmers living near protected areas, helping them to grow and sell enough to feed their families and climb out of poverty. Community Markets for Conservation was that new way—African farmers, growing African products, for African consumers, to solve African problems. COMACO offered farmers a deal. If they complied with a “conservation pledge” not to poach wildlife or engage in other unsustainable practices, they would receive a “conservation dividend” above the market price, and training on conservation farming practices that would increase their yields at lower costs while keeping their soils healthy and productive.

Today, there are 177,653 registered COMACO farmers (52% are women). Eighty percent are food secure, and household income has increased 440% to over $300 per year. Yields of maize have more than doubled to two tons/hectare (2.5 acres). COMACO’s “ItsWild!” peanut butter and chama rice are Zambia’s most popular supermarket brands. And the Luangwa valley has gone from being a recipient of imported food assistance to a regular contributor of food supplements like “Yummy Soy” to the World Food Program and to school feeding programs across Zambia. In 2017, COMACO’s monthly sales exceeded $350,000 per month. As the wellbeing of families has improved, wildlife hunting has declined and key wildlife species are stable or increasing in COMACO areas.

Ubwiza bwa Nyungwe Beekeeper Union

The forests of Nyungwe National Park provide clean water and hydro-electricity for much of Rwanda and are a vital for the wellbeing of farmers and their families in the surrounding communities.

People who desperately need the income enter the park in search of honey. They use wood smoke to quiet the bees and avoid being repeatedly stung when climbing high into the trees to reach the hives. At times, their fires accidentally spread into the forest, killing or damaging large numbers of trees and shrubs and jeopardizing the enormously valuable ecosystem services the park generates.

Working with park authorities, WCS has been promoting beekeeping outside the park as a sustainable alternative that improves local livelihood opportunities, does not constitute a fire risk, and contributes directly to the protection of the forest.

The Conservation Enterprise Development Program of WCS helped establish 13 beekeeper cooperatives and the Ubwiza bwa Nyungwe Beekeeper Union that manages processing and sales of the members’ honey, and represents over 1,300 beekeepers, helping them to collect, process, package, and market their products.

Now, Ubwiza Honey is sold nationally through trade fairs, shops, supermarkets, hotels and high-end tourist lodges. In two years, with WCS support, annual revenues of the cooperatives increased 26 fold and are still growing.

Maasai and the Simanjiro Grasslands

The Simanjiro grasslands in northern Tanzania have been home to Maasai livestock owners for generations and have long been the foundation of their economic wellbeing and cultural identity. These short-grass plains also provide nutrient-rich grazing for wild ungulates and their young, like wildebeest and zebra, that migrate into the area from Tarangire National Park during the wet season.

Insecure “ownership” of these communal lands has motivated some families to attempt to privatize the plains by ploughing the grasslands into maize fields, that fail three out of five years because of unpredictable rainfall.

To strengthen Maasai community land tenure security, provide a much-needed source of income for poor families, and enable a pastoralist lifestyle that is wildlife-friendly, in 2005, WCS and its partners established a novel payments for ecosystem services (PES) initiative with two traditional communities. This initiative provided a financial incentive for participating Maasai communities to conserve their grasslands for dry-season livestock grazing and continue to allow migratory wildlife from Tarangire National Park to graze on their lands during the calving (wet) season.

Payments were and continue to be made by a consortium of private sector companies operating wildlife tours in Tarangire National Park, primarily during the dry season when wildlife aggregate around perennial lakes and rivers. For them, it makes clear economic sense. Without wet season grazing outside the park on Maasai lands, there would be no wildlife to view in the national park and no tourists.

Between 2005 and 2017, communities were paid over $100,000. Funds that they have partially used to build a new primary school, substantially improving their wellbeing. Thanks to this partnership of traditional rights-holders, WCS and its partners, and private sector companies, local Maasai communities are more economically secure and resilient and almost 60,000 acres of Simanjiro grasslands remain intact, a critical resource for Tanzania’s diverse and abundant wildlife.

Successful conservation of the last wild places means being an effective partner for the indigenous and traditional peoples and local communities who live there, by supporting their efforts to become more secure, and taking concrete steps to improve their quality of life. By working to enable our partners to realize benefits from conservation and sustainable resource use, we also support their efforts to be effective stewards of their lands, waters, and resources, generating benefits that go beyond those wild places to contribute to everyone's quality of life.

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