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Year : 2023  |  Volume : 21  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 48-60

Centering Communities in Conservation through Asset-Based Quality of Life Planning

1 Field Museum, Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, Illinois, USA
2 Planet, Harrison St., San Francisco, California, USA
3 Legado Initiative, Thorn Hill Rd., Jackson, New Hampshire, USA
4 Northwestern University, Clark St., Evanston, Illinois, USA

Correspondence Address:
Jacob Campbell
Field Museum, Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, Illinois
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_146_21

Rights and Permissions
Date of Submission25-Nov-2021
Date of Acceptance24-Oct-2022
Date of Web Publication02-Feb-2023


Healthy environments are fundamental to the quality of life of communities worldwide. Yet, many efforts to integrate environmental conservation with human well-being have struggled to center local people or failed to be flexible enough to accommodate a diversity of priorities. We present a methodology for community engagement known as Quality of Life (QoL) Planning—a form of rapid assessment, reflection, and consensus-building rooted in community assets. QoL Planning empowers communities to drive the conservation agenda and improve their well-being through conservation. In this paper, we provide an overview of the QoL Planning process and describe some of the positive outcomes it has generated. We compare four case studies from different regions—two in rural communities in Amazonian Peru and two in urban or peri-urban communities in the Chicago region in the United States—and assess some of the major lessons and insights. Lastly, we describe enabling conditions that contribute to the success of QoL Planning and identify important considerations for practitioners interested in implementing the methodology.

Keywords: QoL, quality of life, well-being, conservation, asset-based, community-centered conservation, integrated landscape management

How to cite this article:
Campbell J, Jarrett C, Wali A, Rosenthal A, Alvira D, Lemos A, Longoni M, Winter A, Lopez L. Centering Communities in Conservation through Asset-Based Quality of Life Planning. Conservat Soc 2023;21:48-60

How to cite this URL:
Campbell J, Jarrett C, Wali A, Rosenthal A, Alvira D, Lemos A, Longoni M, Winter A, Lopez L. Centering Communities in Conservation through Asset-Based Quality of Life Planning. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2023 [cited 2023 Jun 11];21:48-60. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2023/21/1/48/369049

   Introduction Top

Conservationists increasingly recognise that taking human well-being into account is integral to the long-term success of their efforts (Leisher et al. 2013). The failures and injustices of fortress conservation and other exclusionary approaches (Brockington 2002; Büscher 2015) are broadly acknowledged, and there is widespread recognition that partnering with local people is essential to just and sustainable environmental conservation (e.g., Andrade and Rhodes 2012). This awareness has catalysed the growth of community-based conservation (Western and Wright 1994; Mulrennan et al. 2012) and community-centered conservation (Armitage et al. 2020), among other approaches. Yet, despite their interest, practitioners have struggled to find effective tools for engaging communities that both center local people and are flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of conservation challenges (Brooks et al. 2013).

One early effort at linking conservation to human well-being—integrated conservation and development (ICD)—clearly illustrated the need for more adaptable and holistic approaches. ICD mostly failed to link conservation with local peoples' aspirations for their quality of life because it was based on promoting conventional, standardised development adjacent to protected areas to secure local peoples' support for environmental protection rather than supporting locally determined visions of well-being (Barrett and Arcese 1995; West 2006; Horwich and Lyon 2007; Gollin and Kho 2009). The central assumption of ICD was that local communities needed to be incentivised to protect nature, and its main focus was, as in fortress conservation, creating boundaries between people and protected areas. These early efforts did not consider the unequal power relations in which conservation programmes were implemented, nor did they include a moral dimension that stressed the right of local people to sustainable livelihoods and self-determination.

To address the challenge of effectively integrating human well-being considerations into conservation, a group of social scientists in the Field Museum's Keller Science Action Center (KSAC)1 developed a methodology for community reflection and planning that we call Quality of Life (QoL) Planning. QoL Planning is a form of rapid assessment, reflection, and consensus-building rooted in community assets (Sangaramoorthy and Kroeger 2020). It uses a holistic, anthropologically grounded framework to draw out interdependencies between human well-being and environmental conservation. QoL Planning functions as a “rights-based approach” that centers the voices and priorities of local community members with life-ways connected to landscapes under consideration for new forms of protection (Tauli-Corpuz et al. 2020).

While QoL Planning is first and foremost designed to benefit a community undertaking it, we first developed the methodology in response to challenges related to conservation agencies' relationships with local communities in two focal areas—Chicagoland and the Andean Amazon. KSAC social scientists began experimenting with QoL Planning in the early 2000s as we deepened our commitment to creating long-term processes for sustainable management of protected areas, and we developed the methodology in close collaboration with partners in both regions.

In this research article, we provide an overview of the QoL Planning methodology and consider the degree to which it has led to three main kinds of positive conservation-related outcomes. First, we assess how QoL Planning can increase communities' commitment to conservation by generating reflections that draw attention to the interdependence of ecological health and human well-being. It is designed to empower communities to make decisions for improving their quality of life according to their own values. Second, the methodology can improve understanding and strengthen relationships between local communities and conservation agencies by providing a space for dialogue and making local peoples' aspirations for their well-being legible. Third, QoL Planning contributes to a broader shift in the conservation community from treating protected areas as islands to positioning them as one of many strategies within integrated, landscape-level tenure and management.

We describe how QoL Planning builds on related approaches, outline the key principles that underlie it, explain how the process works, and assess its implementation through analysis of outcomes from four case studies. This article is not intended to be an exhaustive guide for implementing the methodology; it serves instead as an introduction to the process and its possible benefits for community-centered conservation. We argue that the methodology provides a flexible and powerful tool for conservation organisations searching for ways to engage and support communities more effectively. We aim here to encourage a more participatory and inclusive approach to conservation that leads to long-term sustainability and empowers people with the deepest ties to the landscapes in question. At the same time, we identify the challenges we faced in adapting the methodology to different contexts and highlight some of the issues that practitioners should keep in mind as they consider adopting QoL Planning.

   Literature Review Top

QoL Planning draws together multiple theoretical and methodological threads to create a distinct approach. The most important of these threads include 1) a shift toward empowerment and an assets-based approach to collaboration with marginalised communities (e.g., Mathie and Cunningham 2003); 2) centering the self-defined well-being of local communities in planning processes (e.g., Pascua et al. 2017); and 3) an insistence on a holistic, biocultural approach to conservation (e.g., Sterling et al. 2017).

Asset-based community development, anthropology, and rapid assessments

QoL Planning is fundamentally a process to draw out the collective strengths of communities, inspired by Assets-Based Community Development (ABCD). Intended as a departure from 'culture of poverty' approaches to US social programmes in the mid- to late-twentieth century (Stack 1974), ABCD emerged as a methodological framework centered on identifying and mobilising existing strengths and capacities for locally determined social change (Kretzmann and McKnight 1996; Mathie and Cunningham 2003). ABCD quickly became a guiding principle for scholars and practitioners invested in honouring the dignity of individuals and communities often characterised as needy or deficient (Hyland 2005; Haines 2009). In the field of participatory conservation, ABCD has prompted practitioners to emphasise leveraging social assets and community visions for the future as core components of protected land management planning (del Campo and Wali 2007).

QoL Planning is also informed by anthropological analyses of conservation, which document how conservation intersects with, and impacts local peoples' livelihoods, histories, and cultural ties to a landscape (Brosius 2006; Brosius and Campbell 2010). The anthropological features of QoL Planning shape how it attends both to how communities organise themselves internally and how they interface with external actors such as land-management agencies and NGOs (del Campo and Wali 2007; Igoe and Brockington 2007; Wali et al. 2017).

QoL Planning also incorporates elements of 'participatory rural appraisal,' a form of participatory action research (Kemmis et al. 2014) that built on the 'rapid rural appraisal' (Chambers 1994), a method used for quickly collecting actionable information based on local input. Participatory rural appraisals (PRA) have been applied to conservation primarily through community workshops (Newing 2011) and participatory sketch mapping (Alcorn 2000; Chapin and Threlkeld 2001), both of which are components of our QoL Planning methodology. As outlined by Tallis et al. (2021), spatial action mapping can build upon QoL Planning by enabling regional decision-makers to prioritise steps based on inputs from local people. Despite the similarities between PRA and our approach, QoL Planning prioritises community action and ownership, not just community input. Moreover, while it includes a period of rapid assessment, it typically also involves a longer-term accompaniment.

Urban, conservation, and Indigenous-led planning

QoL Planning also builds on urban planning paradigms, such as 'advocacy planning' (Davidoff 1965) and 'substantive participation' (Arnstein 1969). Advocacy planning, rooted in the liberatory struggles of the US civil rights movement, is based on recognising that planning is an inherently value-laden process. It explicitly centers the needs and experiences of marginalised populations in planning processes. Planning based on 'substantive participation' focuses on moving beyond superficial or performative exercises in participation, such as 'informing' or 'consulting,' toward a more fundamental prioritisation of 'citizen power,' drawing inspiration from Sherry Arnstein's (1969) 'ladder of participation' framework. Our anthropological, place-based approach entails supporting local people as they articulate their goals for a landscape and engage in decision-making processes.

QoL Planning also complements conventional conservation planning through its holistic, nuanced framework (Cabrera and Gomberg-Munoz 2010). Conservation planning has traditionally focused on developing strategies to maximise the protection of biodiversity (Margules and Pressey 2000; Pressey et al. 2007), primarily through identifying priority locations for establishing protected areas. In contrast, QoL Planning helps conservation planners understand communities' goals and identify ways to support them in achieving them through conservation-based and conservation-compatible initiatives (Ruiz-Mallén et al. 2015).

Many efforts by conservation planners to incorporate social considerations focus primarily on economic dimensions, most often the costs and benefits of establishing protected areas. Such calculations, sometimes filtered through optimisation software such as MARXAN, typically focus on identifying actions that minimise costs related to the acquisition, management, transaction, damage, and opportunity costs (Naidoo et al. 2006). When calculations are made to consider the possible economic benefits of conservation action, they tend to focus on provisioning and regulating ecosystem services (Chan et al. 2006; Villarreal-Rosas et al. 2020) rather than cultural or supporting services. Though they may point to non-monetary considerations, these analyses begin with external frameworks and monetary values rather than local forms of knowledge and understanding. They can make commensurable for many communities what is otherwise incommensurable; in many societies, it is not possible to translate healthy forests and waterways into monetary value. Although increasing discussion of “cultural ecosystem services” is gradually drawing attention to this limitation, there are still questions regarding how effective this framework can be at accommodating the diversity of local peoples' knowledge and values (Hernández-Murcillo et al. 2013; Bark et al. 2015; Diaz et al. 2015; Pert et al. 2015; Pascua et al. 2017; Mucioki et al. 2021).

QoL Planning is premised on the understanding that planning for biodiversity conservation and planning for human well-being are inextricably intertwined (Chua et al. 2020). It provides a qualitative, anthropologically grounded toolkit that complements primarily economics-driven approaches to integrated conservation planning. By starting with local understandings of community assets and aspirations rather than protected area proposals, the methodology lays the foundation for a more holistic and productive dialogue between local people and outside conservationists. By basing the process on in-depth, on-the-ground discussions with local people, it also integrates greater context and nuance than approaches that focus on indices and computer modelling algorithms.

QoL Planning is also informed by similar planning processes that Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and elsewhere have developed since the late 1990s. In the Amazon, Life Plans, or planes de vida, have helped Indigenous peoples to articulate their own visions of well-being (e.g., Buen vivir) in contrast to conventional economic development (Escobar 2010; Villalba 2013). In Colombia, Indigenous communities began to create planes de vida when the national government was granting Indigenous peoples new levels of autonomy in governance and financial management. Life Plans provided an alternative planning instrument for administering territories and resources (Vieco 2010; Monje Carvajal 2015). In Peru, Indigenous peoples have similarly used Life Plans to interface with the government and articulating alternatives to conventional development (Espinosa 2014). Since we started working in the Amazon, Life Plans have become an increasingly emphasised tool for Indigenous peoples and their allies. For instance, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is reportedly planning to do 400 planes de vida in Peru in the coming years. Related planning processes exist outside Amazonia (e.g., Moorcroft et al. 2012; Woodward and McTaggart 2019; Forest Peoples Programme n.d.), including the Chicago region (LISC n.d.).

Biocultural conservation

QoL Planning is also rooted in a biocultural approach, which integrates ecological and human well-being into a holistic vision (Pretty et al. 2009; Caillon et al. 2017; Sterling et al. 2017). While environmental conservation has often been grounded in a separation of nature and culture, a biocultural approach understands them to be inextricably connected and emphasises the interdependence of healthy natural environments and human flourishing (Kiik 2018). Biocultural approaches also intersect with notions of well-being from the global South, such as buen vivir, that explicitly bring human and nonhuman flourishing into a shared frame (Escobar 2010; Gudynas 2011). Using this perspective, QoL Planning builds on the diversity of ways local peoples define their well-being and how it relates to the natural environment (Milner-Gulland et al. 2014). It is also based on understanding communities' goals and identifying ways to support them in achieving these goals through both conservation-based and conservation-compatible initiatives (Ruiz-Mallén et al. 2015).

   Methods Top

QoL Planning involves a facilitated series of collaborative and reflective exercises, interviews, and discussions that form the basis for group decision-making and consensus-building. The products often include written documents, maps, and, most importantly, a short list of actionable community priorities that can serve as key inputs for other planning processes, all of which are typically presented in the form of a QoL Plan or Report. The result is a synthetic strategy unified by a focus on integrating conservation with human well-being. It is important to understand QoL Planning as a toolkit of activities and methods that can be used selectively to address the needs of a particular context. For those interested, we developed a methodological guide with more detailed instructions for activities and additional resources, which are available as Supplementary Materials (Spanish).

Principles of QoL Planning

QoL Planning is rooted in a set of fundamental principles from its methodological inspirations and our experience applying the approach in different contexts. The principles are to be asset-based, community-centred, holistic, pluralistic, trusting, flexible, and strategically focused (see [Table 1]). These principles are essential ingredients for the QoL process and set the foundation for good relationships between local communities and conservation practitioners.
Table 1: Key principles of QoL Planning

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Phases of QoL Planning

As we experimented with the methodology and adapted it across a range of contexts, we developed a generalised sequence of phases that we found works best. In response to local needs and circumstances, the timing, length, order, and specific activities of the phases can vary. QoL Planning in more remote areas is typically condensed into a few intensive sessions over days or weeks, whereas the process in urban communities can be split up into numerous short visits over weeks or months.

Cost also varies across contexts. Expenses include personnel (staff salaries, payments for local facilitators) and logistics (travel, lodging, workshop materials). In some cases, we have paid community facilitators; in others, they were volunteers. We have learned that it is important for communities to cover some costs; when the process is completely subsidised by outsiders, it can undermine engagement and empowerment.

The phases are: 1) generating conditions; 2) mapping assets; 3) prioritising; 4) implementing; and 5) evaluating.

Generating conditions involves determining the communities that will participate in the process; identifying community leaders who can co-lead; and building trust, rapport, and partnerships. In many cases, one or multiple communities themselves request support in developing their own QoL Plan(s). In other cases, the request comes from protected area services or other external actors who wish to better understand and engage with local people. When external actors request the development of QoL Plans, these plans serve to elevate the vision, values, and priorities of the communities themselves, so that any conservation activities build solidarity with communities and increase their power, rather than sublimating them to an external conservation agenda.

Regardless of where the request originates, we always work in partnership with local entities, whether governmental, non-governmental, Indigenous or campesino organisations, that know the communities from prior work. With them, we obtain informed consent and buy-in from the wider local community to host and participate in the QoL Planning process.2

Sometimes, an Indigenous organisation, protected area, or other local partner wants to develop QoL Plans in a particular region but has not yet decided on a specific community. In this case, there are a variety of criteria that we recommend considering, including size, location, accessibility, level of community member participation in ongoing processes, and existing projects in the community. Working with a larger community may mean convening more meetings or recruiting more community facilitators. Working with a more remote or difficult-to-access community may pose logistical and budgetary challenges. If a community does not have a strong record of resident participation in collective gatherings or meetings, it may be more difficult to successfully apply the methodology. Most important is that practitioners select communities based on clear, well-communicated criteria. In all cases, QoL Planning should only begin following a shared agreement to proceed.

Once a community has been engaged and agrees to participate, it is crucial to select trusted leaders and community members to co-lead the process and ensure its legitimacy. In the Amazon, local community co-leaders are referred to as promotores (promoters), and they typically work in collaboration with técnicos (technicians), or support staff from partner organisations (e.g., Indigenous organisations, government agencies or NGOs). One set of criteria that we developed for selecting promotores requires that they: 1) be a member of the community and have lived there for at least three years; 2) not have ongoing conflicts with people or families in the community; 3) speak the native language in addition to Spanish; and 4) be able to read and write. We also always include at least one woman and one man as promotores.

This first stage of generating conditions can take anywhere from a few days to several months. Building trust and rapport requires sustained dialogue, listening, and responsiveness to community needs and desires. In situations with strong mistrust and conflict within communities or between communities and outsiders, it can require more time and resources to lay the foundation for substantive and meaningful work. Participating in other projects with the community prior to beginning the process can help to build the strong partnerships necessary to successfully carry out the methodology; this was a crucial feature of work in the Chicago region. Working with organisations that have existing relationships with communities is critical to success.

Mapping assets highlights individual and collective strengths within communities that can be useful for successfully implementing a QoL Planning vision (del Campo and Wali 2007) and generates a diagnostic of current conditions, including trends in community well-being. Asset mapping includes both spatially locating community assets and inventorying activities that draw out community capacities.

During spatial asset mapping, participants identify the specific locations where community members access and use natural and social resources (e.g., hunting and fishing areas, gardening areas, community gathering spaces, and homes of especially knowledgeable individuals) (see [Figure 1]). They are asked how different sub-groups within the community engage differently with specific local spaces, how rights over property or territory are assigned and negotiated, which areas are the most meaningful and memory-laden for individuals and the community overall. Other questions relate to how community members experience their connection to the place and each other. Participatory mapping can help outsiders recognise a community's capacities and potential—such as local ecological knowledge, communal resource-sharing practices, and beliefs about the environment—and generate internal reflections about overlooked assets that could be deployed in new and innovative ways. It also makes visible the positionalities of individuals within communities, helping to identify key power brokers and sources of inequality that need to be considered when developing activities.
Figure 1: Pembroke Asset Map

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Non-spatial asset mapping activities include developing community timelines, crests, seasonal calendars, and well-being index assessments. Community timelines document key collective achievements and challenges; they generate reflections about how the community have successfully worked together to achieve shared goals and negotiated conflicts or obstacles when they arose. Community 'crests' are illustrated emblems that QoL Planning participants develop together to document their core values and strengths (see Figure 2). They visually represent significant symbols, resources, identities, or other salient features of collective life. Some examples include abundant fish species, traditional dress, and landscape features like mountains or rivers. The discussions and negotiations during community crest development help participants to better understand what values they share and what aspects of their shared identity they want to highlight to outsiders. Developing seasonal calendars is a particularly useful tool in communities that rely heavily on subsistence activities and/or seasonal labour. It involves identifying key species, livelihood activities, sources of income, and other elements that occur during specific months of the year. The calendar makes local ecological knowledge visible and highlights moments of scarcity and abundance. It also identifies important dates for celebrations, commemoration, and other collective events, helping communities and their allies to plan effectively.

The 'well-being index assessment' can be a particularly illuminating activity. It involves community reflection and discussion on how they rate themselves on a rough scale of 1-5 (where 1 is poor and 5 is excellent) on six dimensions of collective well-being (natural, social, political, economic, and cultural). It identifies strengths and challenges for a given community and provides a quantitative way to do general comparisons between communities in a particular region or between regions. The activity also provides an opportunity to highlight connections between different dimensions and reflect on how stronger areas can be used to catalyse and advance those that need attention. In one of the Chicago cases described below, a low political rating led participants to identify the need for a new independent non-profit organisation that could advance their interests; today the organisation is legally established and operating.

Prioritising refers to community reflection and decision-making to develop a consensus vision and select feasible actions that can be integrated to sustain or improve well-being. In this phase, community leaders first present and reflect on the results of asset mapping with support from facilitators. Participants then discuss and debate how to best maintain, improve, or revitalise their strengths. By allowing ample time for reflection on the results of the asset mapping, the priority setting has a better chance of relying on community values rather than the standard 'development plans' that communities are presented with. Participants then develop a statement outlining their vision for living well ten years in the future and agree upon principles and long-term priorities to guide community actions. Priorities can vary significantly among communities, and it is essential that they be focused and integrated; the best priorities address multiple dimensions of community well-being in a unified fashion. Once the community identifies its priorities, members select one to three achievable efforts for immediate action. This step requires reflecting on which assets and partnerships are currently available and which require more development. It also requires negotiation and reconciliation between competing or conflicting priorities. The agreed-upon priorities should be grounded in existing assets and build on a community's specific interests and capacities.

Once this phase is completed, many communities compile the results of the process in a written QoL Plan or Report, which describes how QoL Planning was carried out, documents reflections and findings from the different activities, and outlines the community's vision and priorities. This document can be shared with outsiders to inform them about the community's history and vision and clearly outline their agreed-upon priorities, so they can directly fund or support the implementation of these priorities.

Implementing involves developing and carrying out an action plan that specifies responsibilities, concrete next steps, and a sequence of activities. Key to success is community leadership and ownership of the QoL Plan or other products from the QoL Planning process. Practitioners support priority implementation by linking communities with relevant institutions and individuals who can provide resources and/or technical support and by advocating for such outside actors to prioritise what the community wants. QoL Plans avoid easy slippage of conservation action into those traditionally valued by better-resourced conservation organisations because they explicitly outline and prioritise a community-driven vision that all participants, including outside organisations, are signing onto as their priorities and roadmap.

Another key to successful implementation is informing and involving external allies in the QoL Planning process at key junctures. As local participants are comfortable with it, external allies may join in or observe different stages of asset mapping and prioritising so that they recognise the legitimacy of the process, build rapport with the community, and, once the process is complete, can quickly collaborate to finance and/or implement the priorities.

Evaluating requires examining the implementation process. Re-evaluating the shared vision, principles, and priorities ensures that the momentum generated during QoL Planning is maintained and that the products of the process remain visible, legitimate, and useful. It also provides an opportunity to redirect or revive relationships with allies and establish collaborations with new allies. When conditions or goals change substantially, this phase can help generate conditions for another round of assessment, reflection, and revision of priorities.

   Results Top

We led the first QoL Planning process in 2009 in communities surrounding Cordillera Azul National Park (CANP) in Peru. The process was an outgrowth of a rapid inventory3 led by the Field Museum in 2000 that led to the creation of CANP in 2001. Our goals were to inform the park's first management plan and to build closer relationships between those communities and CANP staff. Over the following two decades, we applied the QoL Planning process in 52 communities in Peru and two in the United States. QoL Planning has generated various kinds of products, such as plans and reports, and led to communities taking specific action to improve their quality of life.

QoL Planning has increased communities' commitments to conservation and improved relationships between communities and conservation agencies (Wali et al. 2017). It has also led to the institutionalisation of integrated approaches to conservation that consider environmental conservation to be intimately intertwined with human well-being. The case studies below (see [Table 2]) describe in greater detail how QoL planning has produced these positive outcomes. They were selected to elucidate the range of conservation contexts where it can be applied, describe how the approach has evolved over time, and outline lessons learned.
Table 2: QoL Planning Case Studies

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Amazon case studies: Yamino (2009) and Poyentimari (2018)

In both Amazon cases, the need for QoL Planning was driven by protected area management teams' desire to more effectively engage communities in buffer zones and the need to understand and make decisions based on accurate and up-to-date information about social, cultural and economic conditions of the region. Previous approaches, which tended to be based on identifying problems and pursuing conventional development solutions, were viewed as failures (Wali 2016). Yamino was selected for its location in the buffer zone of CANP, established in 2001 and co-administered by the Peruvian protected areas service (SERNANP) and a non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Center for Conservation, Research, and Management of Natural Areas (CIMA). The Field Museum has collaborated closely with CIMA since the founding of the Park and co-designed the Park's community engagement strategy. Poyentimari was selected due to its proximity to the Machiguenga Communal Reserve (MCR), a protected area co-administered by SERNANP and an Indigenous management committee (Ejecutor de Contrato de Administración, ECA) made up of representatives from local communities. The MCR joint government-community committee (SERNANP-ECA) also works closely with the local Indigenous federation—the Urubamba River Machiguenga Council (COMARU). We began working with the MCR committee during a QoL Planning training workshop that the Field Museum co-sponsored with SERNANP, and MCR committee leadership requested assistance conducting QoL Planning with Poyentimari.

As one of the first communities to participate in the process, Yamino was a site of experimentation with the methodology. CIMA and the Field Museum co-created techniques and materials in an improvisational manner, listening to advice from the Indigenous Cacataibo federation (FENACOCA), our primary partner. By the time we started working with Poyentimari, the QoL Planning methodology had undergone several iterations and was much more structured. Workshops included more interactive activities instead of the didactic approach used in Yamino. We also did training sessions with the MCR committee during each phase in the process, in contrast to Yamino's more ad hoc approach. Finally, we collaborated more closely with the ECA and COMARU throughout the process to ensure that activities were well-designed and relevant to the Poyentimari context.

By the time we initiated QoL Planning in Poyentimari, we had learned that we needed to engage local governments earlier in the process since the local municipalities control funds that communities can use to implement their priorities. In Yamino, we did not contact the local municipality or formally present the QoL Plan, and the municipal authorities did not participate in the planning process. As a result, the municipal authorities did not fund Yamino's proposal to install ecologically and culturally preferred composting toilets and a gravity-fed rainwater system. Municipal authorities were suspicious of the community-initiated effort. They wanted to fund more traditional infrastructure like a cement water tank, which was more expensive but squarely under municipal control.

In Poyentimari, we invited the municipal and the national government authorities to phase 2-4 workshops. Representatives of the Echarati District attended these workshops, and the MCR team maintained those relationships long after the planning period through a multi-sector roundtable focused on aligning government, civil society, and private investments in the priorities identified in the QoL Plan. Involving these government authorities in QoL Planning resulted in a few important outcomes: 1) the Echarati District endorsed the Poyentimari QoL Plan in a district ordinance; 2) Echarati formally recognised QoL Plans as legal instruments for communities to petition for funding for their stated priorities; 3) the National Forest Conservation Program for Climate Change Mitigation (PNCB) requested training in QoL Planning for staff developing community incentive projects for avoided deforestation; and 4) a national roundtable on Life Plans for Indigenous communities was established for Peru.

Several conditions made QoL Planning easier to implement in Poyentimari than in Yamino. In Poyentimari, the community already had an established relationship with the MCR, whereas in Yamino, CANP was recently created and therefore had a less developed relationship with the surrounding communities. When we began QoL Planning in Poyentimari, we had developed a strong relationship with SERNANP's Division of Community Engagement, which made it easier to work directly with SERNANP personnel in the field and ensured sustained support from Lima-based staff. These relationships also translated into greater investment by local protected area staff since the SERNANP director of the reserve made participation an official part of the team's work duties. These staff not only accompanied QoL Planning in Poyentimari, but also applied the methodology in four other communities around the Machiguenga Communal Reserve.

In both cases, QoL Planning strengthened relationships between regional stakeholders. In Yamino, QoL Planning improved relationships among the community, the Indigenous federation (FENACOCA), CANP staff, and CIMA. Reflections during QoL Planning led the community to commit to a conservation-compatible priority action of handicraft production because it generated income for women, strengthened Katakaibo culture, and helped protect the resources needed to make the handicrafts. Several community members convinced the rest of the community to stop timber extraction and create a reserve area where they now collect seeds and mahogany bark. Yamino remains a close ally of CANP. In Poyentimari, QoL Planning strengthened relationships among the community, the Indigenous federation (COMARU), the SERNANP staff, and the management committee (ECA). It also led to local government recognition of Quality of Life Plans, which made funding available for community-identified priorities.

The Field Museum's work on QoL Planning in these two communities and other communities in Peru contributed to the institutionalisation of this approach to community engagement at the national level. A national roundtable (plataforma) was formed to promote the development and implementation of QoL Plans, and similar roundtables have been formed in various regions of Peru. In 2016, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture published an official guide to Planes de Vida and had since began developing a nationwide database of plans to make these community planning documents visible to outside actors. Since 2019, the Peruvian protected area service (SERNANP) requires its personnel to integrate protected area management plans with community QoL Plans. To make this possible, SERNANP produced a set of guidelines for aligning protected area management plans with QoL Plans, as well as Local Development Plans (PDLC) (SERNANP 2019).

Chicago region case studies: Pembroke (2015) and Gary (2018)

Field Museum staff and local collaborators also applied the QoL methodology in the Chicago region, which has helped lay the foundation for institutionalisation of community-centered conservation. These two cases—one in rural Pembroke Township and the other in urban Gary, Indiana—arose because of conflicts between stakeholders or an absence of community participation in local resource management decisions. In Gary, we experienced both support and resistance from elected officials with QoL Planning, while in Pembroke, elected officials were almost uniformly opposed to the process, which was itself an issue that residents wanted to address.

In 2015, the Field Museum's team was invited to facilitate dialogue and conflict resolution among conservation agencies, elected officials and local stakeholders in Pembroke Township, a rural, predominantly African-American farming community about 80 miles south of Chicago. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) owned nearly 2,000 acres of black oak savanna in the Township. At the time, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was also seeking to establish a new National Wildlife Refuge in the area to protect remnants of this critically endangered habitat. The QoL process was designed to support Pembroke residents in identifying core values, shared goals, and local assets that could inform planning among stakeholders (see [Figure 2]).
Figure 2: Poyentimari Community Crest

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In Pembroke, numerous residents perceived conservation interests as intent on removing people from their land to protect the habitat (Briscoe 2021). After acknowledging that their community engagement approaches had been insufficient, conservationists identified a pressing need for a structured process through which local decision-makers could inform land acquisition and management to reduce conflict and foster collaboration.

Unlike in many South American applications of the methodology, distinct QoL Planning activities were carried out multiple times in different locations in Pembroke to accommodate busy, conflicting schedules. For example, we facilitated Asset Mapping and Community Crest sessions twice, with different participants, integrating the content afterwards. Our local co-facilitators determined this was necessary to ensure the broadest possible engagement. However, it did result in logistical challenges and difficulty ensuring that people were informed about prior steps as they moved through the process phases. Additionally, household economic activities were not inventoried in Pembroke as done in the Amazon cases because subsistence ties to adjacent forests are a lesser feature of livelihoods in the Pembroke context. In line with the QoL Planning principle of 'plurality' local leaders co-facilitating QoL Planning in Pembroke advocated inviting a diverse group of people to participate in the sessions, with representation by conservation stakeholders, white conventional agricultural landowners as well as African American organic farmers and ranchers. Due to the lessons learned in the Amazon about government involvement, elected officials and government agency staff were included throughout the process. Together, these actors crafted a shared statement of principles that entailed identifying common ground across considerable differences.

Implementation of the Pembroke QoL Plan has taken multiple forms since it was published in 2016. First, residents prioritised the creation of an NGO that could engage conservationists and advance community-driven projects independent of local elected officials. In 2019, community members founded the Community Development Corporation of Pembroke-Hopkins Park (CDC) and secured non-profit status. Second, USFWS and TNC responded to the QoL Plan's call for increased investment in youth in 2017 by starting a local Youth Conservation Corps programme, which hires high school students for paid summer internships. The CDC has since assumed management of the programme, recruiting area youth with interest in green careers. Third, the QoL Plan spurred a series of facilitated sessions with local leaders and conservation stakeholders that resulted in co-developed land-use principles for Pembroke. Since these principles were incorporated into a regional Sustainability Plan in 2019, TNC has honoured them by not purchasing any additional land adjacent to water and sewer infrastructure—a key concern articulated by residents. USFWS also incorporated these land-use principles and other outcomes of the QoL Plan into their Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area Land Protection Plan, published in 2022.

Pembroke remains a highly contested conservation landscape. However, QoL Planning engendered exchange among Pembroke stakeholders, resulting in conservation practice responding formally to community interests and values. QoL Planning generated community reflection and priority-setting that galvanised local organising. The process provided a mechanism for local landowners and community leaders to communicate land-use priorities and produced clear recommendations for how conservation interests might act as good neighbours in Pembroke.

In 2018-2019, Field Museum staff undertook QoL Planning in the dynamic urban setting of the west side of Gary, Indiana, which sits within a globally unique and imperilled dune and swale wetland ecosystem. Gary was a steel, concrete, and goods manufacturing boomtown at the southern tip of Lake Michigan for its first seventy years. It has persevered for the last fifty years while grappling with loss of jobs and population. Residents value their natural environment, but many explained that other issues, such as unemployment, disinvestment, and crime, were more pressing than conservation and access to nature.

Generating the conditions took months (not weeks) in Gary, largely because of local people's distrust of organisations and initiatives that come out of Chicago, Illinois. Among other steps, such as meeting with local pastors, attending community events, and providing educational opportunities, the Field Museum, TNC, Shirley Heinze Land Trust (SHLT) and the City of Gary Departments of Parks, collaborated with residents on a project clearing debris and overgrowth from six empty residential lots that were perceived as unsafe, transforming them into an informal pocket park for neighbours. This extended and hands-on approach to generating the conditions for collaborative QoL Planning was possible—in contrast to approaches in the Amazon and to a degree in Pembroke—because of the close proximity of Gary to Chicago, being only a 45-minute drive from our offices at the Field Museum.

Setting the conditions also allowed Field Museum staff to recognise the convergence of residents' desire to access more resources and coordinate efforts with the city and land managers, with TNC and SHLT's reciprocal wish to build stronger ties to communities and coordinate better with the City. It was thus possible to include residents, community leaders, municipal representatives, and staff from TNC, SHLT, and USFWS in the QoL Planning workshops, having reached an understanding that stakeholders wanted to do this process with each other.

The QoL process in Gary strengthened relationships among stakeholders, brought to prominence nature as an asset for community well-being, and built residents' connections to municipal and regional resources. A West Side QoL group now meets monthly on Zoom to coordinate, align, and support each other's and fully collaborative efforts. QoL Planning generated consensus among the stakeholders around the repair and stewardship of Brunswick Park as a priority project. The Park's recreational amenities, rare dune, and swale landscape support programming that bridges different stakeholders' interests. QoL participants initiated brush clearing with TNC, introduced recently elected officials and municipal appointees to the planning process, and started an intergenerational story-collecting project. Drawing upon the asset mapping and community crest activities, a group of QoL participants also started a new organisation called Brown Faces, Green Spaces (BFGS). Before and now after the pandemic lockdowns, the QoL working group and BFGS take turns organising activities at Brunswick Park. QoL Planning partnerships have displayed a durability that has survived routine change (staff turnover) and the unexpected (global pandemic).

The QoL Planning in Pembroke built directly upon the methodology refined in South America, and the Gary process drew from the Pembroke experience. Activities were replicated mostly unchanged, though the sessions were realigned and some elements abbreviated. As in South America, the Field Museum team trained groups of leaders and heritage keepers, who facilitated sessions alongside museum staff. These Chicago region cases demonstrate that the QoL methodology can be effective in urban and peri-urban rural contexts beyond the South American Neotropics. The Gary and Pembroke examples highlight important methodological considerations for working with communities that do not have subsistence-based ties to their natural environments, encompass a high level of economic and social heterogeneity, and hold divergent interests.

   Discussion Top

QoL Planning seeks to elucidate the complexities of conservation projects where people live and to provide a pathway forward. The goal is to empower communities and sustain their well-being while advancing environmental conservation objectives. QoL Planning has the potential to address a common problem in conservation: when people and conservation are assumed to be at odds, both long-term biodiversity conservation and local quality of life suffer as a result. QoL Planning identifies where these interests overlap using a methodology that can be tailored to a range of circumstances. As described in the cases above, our team has deployed QoL Planning to establish formal channels for communication among civil society and government stakeholders, resulting in greater opportunity for vested communities to participate in decision-making about land important to them.

Enabling conditions for success

Several enabling conditions influence the viability of the methodology. We have found QoL Plans to be the most impactful when all stakeholders recognise their value and utility. Conservation organisations and government agencies often cite an inability to secure local input in formats that can be effectively utilised for official policymaking. QoL Planning addresses this directly and has the greatest impact when decision-makers support and understand the process. Nevertheless, QoL Plans can also prove valuable to communities that develop them, even if they are met with resistance from external stakeholders at the time they are created. As public officials change across election cycles and political conditions shift, communities can leverage their QoL Plans to influence land management transitions.

Another enabling condition is a commitment by community leaders to take up and shepherd the QoL process rather than considering themselves passive participants. The level of commitment to stewarding Plan outcomes is typically proportionate to the degree to which community members lead the Plan development process. In the Pembroke case, for example, community residents who co-led the QoL sessions later advocated for a Community Development Corporation to be formed to champion the outcomes of the process and organise implementation. The Yamino women who expanded their handicraft production through QoL Planning demonstrated similar ownership. In each of the cases described above, Field Museum staff worked alongside local facilitators and leaders. This evoked a depth of participation that we alone would never have secured, leading to more durable and sustained impact.

A final enabling condition is a spirit of mutuality and shared respect. QoL Planning prioritises and facilitates two-way learning that honours and validates multiple forms of expertise (Sanjek 2015). The effectiveness of implementation and durability of outcomes relies upon this mutual exchange. Stakeholders strengthened their relationships and improved their communication due to the space for exchange that the QoL methodology creates. Resulting pathways for dialogue and activity have led to deeper trust and more productive coordination in a shared landscape. For example, conservation biologists and park rangers increased their understanding of local peoples' knowledge and stewardship, while community participants benefited from expertise and resources shared by outsiders. The principles of QoL Planning outlined above enable respectful exchange and lay the foundation for successful collaboration.

Towards community-centered conservation

Community-centered conservation is the future of socially just biodiversity conservation. We argue that QoL Planning can generate sustained conservation outcomes because it positions conservation in the context of community well-being. Through the process, participants often increase their awareness of the significance of the natural resource base on which their livelihoods and health depend. Such awareness then leads participants to prioritise and formalise their commitment to stewarding natural areas as a critical part of maintaining and improving quality of life. QoL Planning also engages outside stakeholders with the community to identify potential mutual benefits grounded in often overlooked assets such as social and institutional networks. The result is more holistic conservation approaches, where adding to the number of conserved acres is not the singular or primary objective, and communities are empowered as essential partners.

Author Contribution Statement

AW/DA/JC/ML/AL/AW/LL conceived and designed the study/research/work; AW/DA/JC/ML/AL/AW/LL collected the data and carried out the methodology; AW/DA/JC/ML/AL/AW/LL/CJ analysed the data; JC/CJ/AR/AW led the drafting of the manuscript. All authors contributed critical, intellectual content to the drafts and gave final approval of the version to be published.


We thank the many communities where we have been involved in Quality of Life Planning, particularly those co-facilitators who helped shape the methodology. The partners that have contributed to this work are too many to list but include many Indigenous and community organisations, NGOs, and government agency collaborators in the Andean Amazon region of the US. Thanks to Nigel Pitman, Ellen Woodward, Mark Bouman, Stephanie Moraes and Ashwin Ravikumar for constructive feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript, and to colleagues in the Keller Science Action Center at the Field Museum who have made this work possible. We received support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Legacy Foundation, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Blue Moon Foundation, an anonymous funder, Nancy Hamill Winter Foundation, and The Field Museum. Finally, we thank anonymous reviewers for their constructive and helpful comments during the review process.

Declaration of competing/Conflicting Interests

The authors declare no competing interests in the conduct of this research.

Financial Disclosures

MacArthur Foundation G-108770-0 (AW/DA)

Blue Moon Foundation (AW/DA)

Moore Foundation (AW/DA)

Hamill Winter Foundation (AW/DA)

Donnelly Foundation (JC)

Field Museum (JC)

Legacy Foundation (ML)

Research Ethics Approval

See explanation of ethics and responsible conduct of authors in article's methodology section.

Data Availability

Beyond what is presented in article text, qualitative data is not accessible due to privacy restrictions.

Preprint Archiving


   Notes Top

  1. KSAC is an interdisciplinary division within the Field Museum, founded in 1995, that is dedicated to translating museum science into results for conservation and wellbeing. Our team of 30+ natural and social scientists and educators works in two focal geographies—the Andes-Amazon and the Chicago regions.
  2. We only seek Institutional Review Board approval in cases that specifically involve primary research.
  3. Since 1999, the Field Museum has conducted 31 rapid biological and social inventories. Rapid inventories are collaborative and rigorous surveys of the biological and cultural assets of a priority landscape for conservation. Teams of local, national, and international natural and social scientists work together with local people to collect information that lays the foundation for effective conservation decisions at multiple levels (Pitman et al. 2021).

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