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Community participation in biodiversity conservation
A case study

Nalaka J. Gunawardene  

The importance of the local community's involvement in in-situ conservation of biodiversity, including the management of protected areas, is now widely recognised. Not only park managers and authorities, but also scientists engaged in the further study of biodiversity and environmentalists keen on conserving its acknowledge the vital role played by the community.

The case study looks at how a project to study and preserve the rich biodiversity of Ritigala, one of Sri Lanka’s isolated Dry Zone Forests, has involved the local community as key partners in the exercise. Ritigala represents an environmental success story where community intervention, organisation and mobilisation have been used effectively to resolve a conflict for resources and to conserve a habitat with high biological diversity.

Ritjgala, close to Anuradhapura on the Dry Zone plains of Sri Lanka, is the highest isolated hill in the country. Its complete isolation and the way It rises sharply from the surrounding flat country give it an imposing appearance. Because of its geology and micro-climate, Ritigala has evolved as a forest habitat harbouring a high degree of biodiversity - dozens of medicinal plants, other flora and fauna. Much of this biodiversity has been endangered in recent years due to illicit timber felling and unsustainable extraction of non-timber products. Although it was declared a protected area a Strict Nature Reserve - by the islands Wildlife Department back in 1941, the authorities could do little to stem the mounting population pressures on the habitat. In 1994, a local community organisation and a research Institute dedicated to the study and promotion of indigenous medicine partnered to evolve a community based approach to resolving the resource conflicts in Ritigala. The main objective was to enhance the role of the community in the management of the Reserve and the natural resources in the buffer zone. With support from government agencies and academics, these two organisation designed and implemented a community-based resource management (SBRM) project which involved 1 ,400 families living in 14 villages surrounding the strict Nature Reserve. The project included a comprehensive package including community education, strengthening of community organisations, sponsoring of studies/research on specific management issues, promoting collaboration between community organisations and government/local government institutions and supporting economic development and environmental initiatives.

These activities have, over the past three years, helped reduce pressure on the forest - and revitalised the community at the same time. The community started playing an active role and decided to undertake planning an implementation of the CBRM project. The scientists have been bale to communicate basic concepts of biodiversity an impress upon the people some of the less tangible concepts such as watershed management function of trees. The paper will discuss some of the basic scientific concepts communicated, and how they were received by the community, which, though rural in character, has an adult literacy rate of 83 per cent.

The paper will be based on the following context related to biodiversity and environment: Sri Lankans have a 2,000 year tradition of managing protected areas - one of the world’s first sanctuaries was declared by a Lankan king in the 2nd century BC.

Sri Lanka is classified as one of Asians "hotspots" with a high concentration biodiversity for a unit area of land Sri Lanka has designated 14% of its land as protected areas, but government agencies in charge are severely constrained by a lack of funds and personnel, and by outmoded conservation strategies which leave out local people

Sri Lanka's forest cover, which was 44% of the land in 1956, was reduced to 20% by 1992. Pressure for land and demand for forest resources continue to fuel further deforestation, one of the island’s major environmental problems.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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