If Enterprising Project Can Link Conservation and Tourism in Six Globally Important Parks…We’ll Know Exactly How It Was Done

An ambitious and innovative experiment in conservation and tourism is under way at six World Heritage sites across the globe: two in Mexico, two in Indonesia, and one each in Guatemala and Honduras. RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, a US-based nonprofit group, has teamed up with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the World Heritage Centre of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Foundation, and a team of collaborators at each site to try to ensure that tourism will benefit both the people living outside each park and the biodiversity within. UNESCO is the organization that designates World Heritage Sites, on the basis of their “outstanding universal value.” There are 721 sites in 124 countries.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')
The objectives of the four-year project are far-reaching but straight-forward: increase revenue generated from tourism at each site; build park managers’ skills so they can use tourism to support conservation; increase local awareness; help local managers develop tourism marketing strategies; and provide local economic incentives for conservation.

These goals are challenging enough, but the project, called the World Heritage Partnership, has even more audacious ambitions. Project managers are involving as many stakeholders as possible, actually listening to their feedback and incorporating their comments into the project workplan, scrutinizing and documenting progress and setbacks, and will use the lessons learned to change the direction and management of the project, if needed. With a total of $2.5 million from the United Nations Foundation, the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships, and the Aveda Corporation, World Heritage Partnership staff is following a very deliberate, often challenging process called “adaptive management.”

Maureen Cunningham, who directs the Partnership project for RARE Center, explains that the first steps in adaptive management involve in-depth research of each site, followed by “set-up” visits. Staff visits and explains project goals to as many of the key players in each site as possible, including government officials in capital cities, plus parks managers, local conservation groups, and community leaders. These key players are then invited to participate in a “vision workshop,” where they together identify the main threats to the protected area and discuss what might be done to diminish each threat. From this meeting, RARE Center drafts a preliminary project model of the threats and the social and economic factors that contribute to them. This entire hypothesis is then tested in the field.

Claudia Virgen, RARE Center’s national director in Mexico, recently finished field-testing a project model for the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, 1.3 million acres of forests, lagoons, wetlands and mangroves in Quintana Roo state, just south of Cancún. She talked to many people involved in the management of the reserve and whose lives and livelihoods are affected by it to see if the threats and response strategies outlined during the vision workshop were really on target and practical. This feedback helped shape a workplan, which Virgen sent to everyone who attended the first workshop. Now she’s busy incorporating everyone’s comments into a final plan of action to effectively link tourism, conservation, and community benefits in Sian Ka’an.

Virgen thinks that the complicated and lengthy process will pay off. “What’s important about this project,” she explains, “is that we give everyone an opportunity to understand each other’s viewpoints and specific interests, which may seem very different at first. But after discussing them, you realize that they are actually quite similar. Now people don’t see the partnership as just another project that asks for people’s suggestions but never takes them into account, but rather that we really want to learn from them and understand what has worked and what hasn’t.”

Alfredo Arellano, director of Sian Ka’an for Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Areas, thinks all the meetings and discussions have helped to better coordinate the different organizations involved in the reserve’s management and protection. He also believes that the World Heritage Partnership staff helped negotiate agreement and conciliation among the diverse stakeholders who don’t always see eye-to-eye about what can and can’t be done inside Sian Ka’an. “Sometimes the community sees us as allies but sometimes as opponents because we establish restrictions with which they disagree,” he says. “All the discussions we’ve had allow them to see that the program isn’t something being imposed on them. They better understand the whole process and participate more.”

The partnership is using the adaptive management approach at five other World Heritage Sites: El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, Komodo and Ujung Kulon National Parks in Indonesia, the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, and Tikal National Park in Guatemala. RARE Center’s Cunningham notes that most conservation groups usually don’t spend so much time identifying stakeholders or trying to determine so many answers before the first day of actual project work. She concedes that she has sometimes questioned whether adaptive management is really worth the effort, but has concluded that the process “validates the project.” Sometimes it’s frustrating to continually adjust and tinker with a workplan, she adds, but it’s all part of the adaptive management process. In the end, you have a course of action that is practical and effective.

As part of the project design phase, the partnership staff has identified specific ways they will be able to monitor project impact and assess whether they are meeting their conservation objectives. The evaluations are tied to the pre-determined threats to biodiversity at each site. As an example, Cunningham points to two threats that stakeholders identified in Tikal National Park, in northern Guatemala: illegal poaching of plants and wildlife. One way to discourage this drain on the park’s natural resources is to give the poachers an alternative income source by training them to participate in ecotourism as nature guides or tourism entrepreneurs. “One of the indicators of our project,” Cunningham says, “will be to find out if, after training, they return to the park to hunt and gather plants.”

Few conservation projects invest in this kind of follow-up evaluation, but it’s vital to the adaptive management process advocated by Foundations of Success (FOS), a nonprofit group founded and managed by Richard Margoluis and Nick Salafsky. FOS, which is working closely with the World Heritage Partnership team, aims to improve conservation success by helping organizations develop and communicate tested knowledge about what works, what doesn’t, and why. Margoluis stresses that adaptive management is not trial-and-error. Instead, he says, “It is a systematic approach to identifying the best strategies for reaching your goals and learning about the conditions under which they work. This way, you can not only improve as a manager but also document important results and let other people learn from you.”

The World Heritage Partnership is using the FOS “learning portfolio” approach to share experiences among the staff at each of the six sites. Margoluis explains: “Using learning portfolios, RARE Center will be able to look across the landscape of the projects in each site to see how successful each of their tools — such as environmental education and ecotourism — has been in reaching their conservation objectives. This information will help project managers in the learning portfolio increase the likelihood of success. In other words, they will be able to say, on the basis of the experience of the other members of the learning portfolio, I know that I can increase the likelihood that I will be successful if I use this specific tool under these particular conditions.”

It may all sound somewhat abstract, but with assistance from Foundations of Success, the World Heritage Partnership may indeed demonstrate how a deliberate — though flexible — process can result in measurable conservation success and correct a failing that Margoluis has seen during his many years working in biodiversity conservation. He believes that conservationists have done a good job at figuring out why conservation is important, which habitats are imperiled, and which geographic areas need biodiversity protection most urgently. But Margoluis asserts, “We, as a field, have not been as good at defining and measuring conservation success, identifying concrete principles for project management, and determining the basic knowledge and skills required to make conservation happen. We believe that these are the three ‘foundations of success’ in conservation.”


Maureen Cunningham
RARE Center for Tropical Conservation
1840 Wilson Blvd
Suite 402
Arlington, VA 22201-3000 USA
Tel: 703/522-5070
Fax: 703/522-5027

Claudia Virgen
RARE National Director
Av. Físico Matemáticos #229
Fracc. Higo Quemado
Tuxtla Gutiérrez
Chiapas, Mexico, CP 29100
Tel-fax: 52-961/581-74

Alfredo Arellano
Comisión Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas
Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an
Blvd. Kukulcán
km 4.8.Z.H. Cancún
Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico
Tel: 52-998/849-7554

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:


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