Community Development & Protecting Half Of Nature Are Interdependent

Protecting nature on a large scale is as necessary for local communities as it is for the planet. Mali is one country leading the way.

© Riccardo Mayer |

Nature Helps Sustain Communities

Last September in Marseilles, 97% of IUCN NGO members and 86% of IUCN member countries voted to officially recognize the scientific necessity of protecting Half of Earth’s lands and seas. Large-scale conservation is necessary to preserve Earth’s many ecological services upon which our communities and civilization depend. Wild lands and wildlife are essential to our survival, as is a stable climate.

For many, the question is can people in less developed countries afford to set aside and protect nature when they themselves often struggle to survive?

If we look to Mali…


…one among many places in Africa that has conserved a large area of land for nature, we learn that not only can people afford to set aside land, but that doing so can actually improve their own livelihoods. Community-led conservation can help low-capacity states protect their access to game, pollinators, seeds, healthy watersheds, wild food and medicines, and more.

The Mali Elephant Project creates a model for how to support subsistence-based peoples who are relatively disconnected from the globalized economic system of environmental extraction. Since they disproportionately feel the impacts of that system, projects that deliver an international payment mechanism for use of their land and resources — with the payments managed by local communities — offer a chance toward a more equitable and resilient future.

The Mali Elephant Project ultimately models how, if anything, we can’t afford NOT to protect wild areas. With cooperative governance between coexisting peoples, communities can work together to protect the wild places that offer so much to human wellbeing.


The People Of The Gourma Biosphere Reserve

Achieving Half is possible, especially in Africa where communities are mobilizing to defend the biodiversity upon which they depend. In this video, learn more about how community-led conservation is helping people in West Africa protect huge swaths of nature and meet the needs of local populations…


Mali is home to one of the world’s largest protected areas. The Gourma Biosphere Reserve, an area the size of Switzerland, was created in 2021 by the government to protect North Africa’s last herd of desert elephants. But it’s not just elephants that live in the reserve. Approximately 400,000 people live here as well living in traditional communities that depend on wise natural resource management to survive in the hot and rugged desert. For them, the elephants are an integral part of their ecosystem, which is the foundation of their lifestyle and identity.

Local engagement showed that Gourma locals did not want elephants to disappear for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most strikingly because “if elephants disappear, it means the environment is no longer good for humans.”

Direct Benefits To The Local Community

Improving livelihoods

Habitat protection results in healthier more abundant natural resources that support local livelihoods. For the community of Kazey-Kazey for example, setting aside pasture and protecting it with firebreaks provides forage nearby — increasing families’ abilities to feed themselves and their livestock. Pasture protection also results in an additional £320/year from selling grazing rights, £530 from selling hay, while their livestock are worth 50% more in the local markets, produce more milk, more young and are healthier.

“With the money generated by the sale of my animals fed from the pastures protected by the firebreaks built by our youth, I can buy food and pay to clothe my two children and send them to school in Timbuktu.”
“With this project, buying tea, sugar and tobacco is not a problem anymore and my two little children have clothes and shoes.”

Increasing income

Protecting natural resources supports local income-generating activities. A pilot model generated an average 458% cash increase for individual women participants.

Empowering women

Working with women improves gender equity. Eight out of 28 established village committees have elected women members, providing them with economic power and opportunities to make their voices heard.

“If this project continues, we women, we can sit together with men to talk about serious things that concern women and men.”
“Men think they are the only ones to be able to manage. This project lets us do what we know how to do and to show men that women are as capable of good management of their business, and moreover even better than men.”
“When you eat around a fire after a day of working together building firebreaks, you realize we all have the same problems.”

Improving social cohesion

Bringing together different clans and ethnicities to protect their natural resources fosters social cohesion between and within communities. During the latest firebreak season, 1,217 community volunteers across nine communes of the elephant range representing the five main ethnic groups of the area came together to build firebreaks and protect their pastures.

Preventing urban migration and radicalisation

Engaging youths in habitat protection provides them with occupations that are respected in their communities. This helps prevent urban migration and recruitment by armed groups. 1,468 youths are currently registered with the project as “community eco-guards”, including 83 women.

“It’s thanks to this project that my child no longer leaves to find work in the big towns.”
“Protecting elephants is noble work.”
“I’m happy to have had this training […] One doesn’t only learn in school. My friends in the village, who’ve been to school and have degrees, can’t do what I do at the moment with the project. I’m also happy about my work as an ecoguard. Now I can work with other projects that do similar things.”
“If we children of the Gourma, we do not mobilize to protect these elephants, no one else will do it in our place.”

Facilitating Community Empowerment

Training and habitat protection activities impact attitudes, instill a local sense of pride and ownership, and develop local capacity. The Mali Elephant Project now employs 6 community facilitators who are all former community ecoguards.

Improving local governance

Supported by national legislation that puts the responsibility for habitat protection in the hands of local communities, traditional and elected representatives come together to find and implement their own solutions to environmental degradation. This has so far resulted in the signature of 11 commune-level (district) conventions on natural resource management, which have in turn entered into the commune social and economic development plans.

How Can You Help?

Protecting nature on a large scale is critical for local communities and the planet. Mali is one country leading the way but they cannot do it alone.


Why is protecting half important?

It’s simple! Without sufficient amounts of wild nature, we cannot keep temperature rise below 2°C. Why? Because Earth’s primary forests, grasslands, and peat bogs store more than 100 parts per million (ppm) carbon in plants and soils — carbon that must remain in the ground if it is to not contribute to climate change.

Additionally, wildlife serves vitally important functions for all of life. Whales and sharks feed the phytoplankton that emit half of Earth’s oxygen. Rhinos and bats plant the trees and shrubs that stabilize regional climates and produce healthy air. To protect life’s allies we must set aside enough space for them to live. Wild nature is their home.

In order to avoid the catastrophic effects from climate change, Earth must remain well under 450 ppm carbon in the atmosphere. At the end of 2019, the world has just over 408 ppm. Destroying even a quarter of our remaining wild areas would remove a critically necessary carbon sink that — without any cost to society — helps us avert the worst effects of runaway climate change.

Does every country need to protect half?

No. Half is a global target, not a regional one. Not every country can protect Half, although it is essential for the populations within many countries to protect as much nature as possible. Also, some landscapes — like grasslands — remain functional when only 40% is intact, while others — like rainforests — require 80% intact to preserve the integrity of the landscape and its life-support systems. Where setting aside Half is not possible, restoration combined with wildlife and ecological corridors help improve the functionality of the land.

How does intact large-scale nature help local communities?

The short answer is: biodiversity.

The longer answer is that abundant biodiversity supports subsistence farmers/producers with game that can be hunted, pollinators to help crops succeed, stability for landscapes and watersheds, as well as wild foods and medicine.

In the Gourma, biodiversity improves livelihoods through all of these ecosystem services. Additionally, it translates to monetary benefits from selling grazing rights and hay — as well as healthier livestock that are worth more in local markets. Protecting natural resources means a direct source of income, including a massive cash increase for individual women participants. (On average, a 458% increase.) This, in turn, means an increase in access to education.

Ecology & economy of the Gourma region

The Mali Elephant Project proves that a region need not be wealthy or ideally situated to protect nature and everyone who depends on it.

The Gourma is an extensive Sahelian landscape situated between the bend of the Niger River and the Burkina-Faso border. The area is dominated by deserts, plains, sandy steppe, and shrubby woodland stands. The climate is generally dry and hot and rainfall gradients vary from 450 mm in the extreme southern range to 150 mm in the extreme north. Surface water is sparse and water points are few, unevenly distributed, and mostly impermanent.

This intra-annual climatic variation induces a variation in the local availability of resources (arable land, pastures, water points) which is partly responsible for the movements of populations in the Gourma. The people of the Gourma live from agriculture, extensive livestock farming, foraging, hunting, and to a lesser extent fishing.

Their existence is therefore largely linked to natural resources and the spaces that support them, and human distribution and activity is therefore also largely a function of the distribution of these resources. In addition, there is significant inter-annual climatic variation marked by great uncertainty as to the arrival of the rains, their duration and quantity. Thus, from one year to the next, the location of pastures, arable areas, and water points can vary enormously.

Population density is low with most being concentrated along the main road. While the north of the elephant range is predominantly a pastoral area, the south is an agricultural and agro-pastoral area. Multiple ethnicities coexist in the with their own particular socio-economic systems:

  • The pastoral system of the Tuareg

  • The agropastoral system of the Peulh, Sonrhai, Bellah and Dogon

  • The Dogons, Sonrhai and Peulhs rimaïbes for whom agriculture is their principal activity and cultivate large fields of grain

  • Gardening is practiced by sedentary populations (chiefly Bellah and Sonrhai) around some perennial water-holes. This has only become significant since the mid-1980s due to the work of a development NGO.

  • The long distance migratory herds of the Peulh who use this area as wet season pasture

What is community-led conservation?

Conservation where communities have responsibility for delivering conservation over defined areas and receive the benefits that accrue. These are distributed among the community in a way that is fair and transparent.

How does it work in Mali?

Without expensive technology or mind-boggling budgets, the Mali Elephant Project uses local community resource management systems and people power to improve livelihoods for local communities — and contribute to humanity’s larger goal of Half.

The two big problems in the Gourma were (1) that there was a high degree of over-exploitation of natural resources by distant, urban commercial interests (2) individual ethnicities and clans have systems of resource management to prevent over-exploitation and degradation, but they were reluctant to respect each others’ systems.

The Mali Elephant Projects brings together all those using a particular area to discuss their problems and the causes, then devise solutions. When additional information is required and/or precision is needed, a study is conducted to inform the discussion. This generally involves using traditional governance systems that are inclusive and representative, transparent, and fair.

A representative management committee establishes the zonation and rules of resource management (including protecting elephant habitat and the migration route); and teams of youth are elected to enforce the rules as well as conduct habitat protection and restoration activities. As more resources become available, the Mali Elephant Project helps establish natural resource based income-generating activities, such as the planting and harvesting of gum arabic, which provide an additional incentive for sustainable resource management.

What is the brief history of the Mali Elephant Project?

In 2003, a resident of Gourma noticed a paradox. There were historic numbers of cattle in the Gourma, but the people seemed poorer than ever. This resident, Nomba Ganame, went on to become the Mali Elephant Project’s field manager, and they knew Gourma needed coordination to fix the problem — up to 96% of the cattle were run on the land by outside commercial interests, and the different ethnic groups in the area were reluctant to respect one another’s’ resource management systems.

After three years of careful study, the Mali Elephant Project was formed in 2007. The project began working with the communities to develop environmental management systems that were based on traditional models — but which included all local groups. Local resource management conventions protected elephant habitat and their migration route, as well as managed the other areas in a way that restored and increased productivity, providing scope for alternative livelihood models whose success was enhanced by wise resource management. These conventions provided provision for charging outsiders for use of resources within the communities’ area of influence. These systems proved very popular, effective, and have since spread across the elephant range.

This has been replicated on the supra-communal scale with the creation of a biosphere reserve with core area covering the most important late dry-season elephant habitat and the rest managed by the local community agreements.

What is the difference between the 30 by 30 and Half campaigns?

30 by 30 — protecting 30% of Earth’s lands and seas by 2030 — is a critical milestone for achieving Half. Many within the 30 by 30 campaign recognize this fact and are equally supportive of protecting Half.

This situation has recent historical precedent in the environmental movement. In the lead up to the (Climate) COP 21 in Paris, two ambitious targets generated international attention: the scientifically supported 1.5 Celsius and the politically more feasible 2 Celsius. Due to the strength and support of the movement supporting 1.5 Celsius, the politically more feasible target was achieved without further compromise. Additionally, while the world committed to 2 Celsius, they also acknowledged that 1.5 Celsius was the scientific recommendation.

The goal is Half, with 30 by 30 as an important step along the way.

icfc logo
nature needs half logo blue