How local communities are taking action to conserve resources and protect their economies

Examining the link between communities, conservation and livelihoods

Photo: Tony Charles

For industries based on natural resources, environmental sustainability goes hand in hand with economic sustainability. Forestry operations in Northern Ontario, farms in Saskatchewan and fisheries on the coasts all face the same challenge: can’t survive without healthy ecosystems that support renewable stocks of their resources. While governments and regulations can play a role in maintaining these ecosystems, it’s often local communities that are the real experts in combining environmental and economic stewardship.

Anthony Charles has been interested in community-led economic and environmental sustainability for decades. The Saint Mary’s University professor and director of the Community Conservation Research Network (CCRN) says the spark for him was witnessing the collapse of the cod fishery while researching Atlantic Canadian coastal communities in the 1990s.

“After they lost the cod stocks, the local communities carried out research and made tremendous efforts to ensure the same thing didn’t happen to other resources, like lobster,” he said. “Seeing what these communities could accomplish when everybody came together was truly inspiring.”

Communities supporting communities

Charles realized similar challenges, issues and solutions could be found across Canada—and worldwide—in any community built around a natural resource. With a Partnership Grant from SSHRC, he put together the CCRN in 2012, to study and support communities’ efforts to engage in environmental conservation and sustain their livelihoods.

The CCRN is now active in many countries around the world, including Japan, South Africa, Brazil and France. It involves more than 60 researchers and hundreds of local participants who gather data and insights on community-led conservation and sustainability efforts.

“The emphasis is really on community participation at each site, with particular focus on First Nations and other Indigenous partners,” said Charles. “The idea is to identify lessons and best practices that can be shared with other communities.”

Community engagement leads to better outcomes

Charles points to Koh Pitak Island in Thailand as an example. After overfishing and pollution devastated the local fishing industry, the community rallied together to promote conservation and rehabilitation efforts. They also built a sustainable, community-based tourism industry to decrease pressure on the fish stocks and diversify the economy.

This is just one of the stories profiled on CCRN’s website,, where communities around the world can learn from each other’s successes and challenges and apply that learning to their own local contexts. The site includes stories, videos, webinars and other resources community groups can share at meetings and other events to support their efforts and become more engaged in promoting the sustainability of their local resources. It can also inform the work of governments and policy-makers.

“Ultimately, I hope to see a change in how we think about local governance,” said Charles. “This research has shown time and again how involving local communities in the decision-making process and empowering them to take action for themselves almost always leads to positive outcomes. If we can get all levels of government to support these communities in what they do well, we could really scale up some of these positive experiences.”

Want to learn more?

Follow Charles’ work at, where you can sign up for the quarterly CCL Digest newsletter and watch several documentaries, including Sustainable Futures: Communities in Action, which will be released by June 2020.