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Keep it on the ground

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Dear HCN,

I read with interest your issue featuring community-based approaches to conservation (HCN, 5/13/96). Mike McCloskey's essay illustrates the concerns of many since, in his view, locally based conservation would disempower the heavily urban constituencies of the Sierra Club, and by extension, other national environmental organizations.

That concern is perhaps the most compelling reason why environmental groups such as the Sierra Club should participate in local conservation initiatives. Up to now, environmentalists have been much more successful in defining the limits of development than in addressing what may be the key issue for environmentalists today: how development can be sustained economically, socially and environmentally.

The Ford Foundation, for some time now, has supported organizations and individuals who seek locally based solutions to the complex set of issues and challenges regarding conservation and management of natural resources. In much of the world where the foundation works, locally based approaches to conservation have served local people well; indigenous peoples in local communities have become the protectors and stewards of wild land from which traditionally they had been excluded.

Here in this country, federal lands are frequently a battleground where industries that seek to extract resources struggle for advantage over environmentalists who seek to preserve the land and its ecosystems. Often emotional, nearly always polarized, these debates play out with local communities caught in the middle, powerless as outside interests and experts make decisions regarding lands and resources on which community livelihoods depend. The emergence of locally based conservation in this country is a hopeful sign that new, positive relationships between human communities and their landscapes can be achieved to work toward mutually reinforcing environmental and development goals.

Jeffrey T. Olson

New York, New York

The writer is a program officer at the Ford Foundation.

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