The power of indigenous community led conservation

“It was transformative to learn about anthropology and to learn the tools and methods of the discipline. It changed how I see the world and how I work for change.”
The power of indigenous community led conservation

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Pictured above: Amazigh women from the Moroccan High Atlas making medicine from medicinal plants harvested in the mountains they call home. Global Diversity Foundation has worked with Amazigh communities in the High Atlas for over a decade, supporting their efforts to maintain their biodiversity, knowledge and cultures, and build sustainable livelihoods. Credit: Inanc Tekguc

The Conservation Catalyst program was excited to dive deep into the life of @Emily Caruso , the Strategic Advisor and Program Lead of Global Diversity Foundation, and her work with conservation and indigenous communities.

Emily Caruso

Emily always knew she had a passion for conservation; but her life changed in her undergraduate years when she developed an appreciation and interest in indigenous communities. She then started to shift her career to focus on an intersection of conservation some forget about: the relationship between indigenous communities and conservation.

In Emily’s words, there is a lot we can learn from local or indigenous communities and their intimate relationship with the land they call home: 

Communities really are the source of knowledge and information and should be the decision-makers about their future. 

Anne: Hello Emily. Can you tell us about your background and how it has led you to your role of Co-Director with Global Diversity Foundation?

Emily: I studied biology in my undergraduate and my goal was always conservation. In my undergrad I got interested in the relationship between communities and conservation. In my degree, communities or people were not really part of the conservation programme. I did some personal research and it transformed my understanding of conservation and the way conservation has impacted indigenous and local communities. My original career plan was to be a conservationist, but after this transformative moment, I wanted to move towards a career path that would integrate local and indigenous communities with conservation. I began working for an indigenous people’s rights NGO immediately after graduating. After 3 years at the NGO, I did a master’s degree and PhD in Anthropology, working with Ashaninka communities in the Peruvian Amazon. As soon as it was over, I went to the Global Diversity Foundation. I was Regional Programmes director for 6 years. I focused on work with indigenous communities in Borneo, Morocco, and the Oaxaca region of Mexico. I was then promoted to Director in 2018, and was director, then co-director, for 6 years. In January 2024, I decided to move sideways to get stuck into the programmatic side of GDF’s work again, as Strategic Advisor and Program Lead. 

Anne: What are some of the common barriers that communities internationally face when trying to conserve biodiversity and traditional practices?

Emily: One of the main ones is funding. It is very hard to get funding for work if you are a community based organization. It is hard for donors to get funds to small organizations. Sometimes donors’ procedures are hard for community-based organisations to follow, there may be connectivity and communication issues, and donors may not understand the cultures and processes of communities they are seeking to support. There are also barriers coming from a semi-colonial approach by donors. There is also discrimination. Racial, ethnic, gender socio-economic discrimination can lie beneath some of the issues communities face to obtain funding for their conservation processes . There is also a lack of belief that communities are the best to lead conservation practices and that they have the best knowledge of their ecosystems. There is an ongoing process of colonization, especially with extractive industries and land grabbing, which further marginalises the perspectives of indigenous and local communities. Climate change is strongly impacting communities and their ability to maintain their biodiversity and associated knowledge.

Anne: Global Diversity Foundation has many important projects in community conservation and environmental justice. What would you say is your favorite part of the organization?

Emily: Right now, it’s the project I’m leading; the Conservation Communities Fellowship. I received funding for it in 2023. This is my favorite thing to do; supporting grassroot environmental leaders and their day to day work. I have the privilege of having 1:1 relationships with the fellows in the program. I directly support them through the capacity-building and leadership programme, as well as through  mentorship and offering opportunities for them to get their story out. 

Anne: What do you wish you knew about working in community conservation that would assist others in the field?

Emily: I wish I knew that it is absolutely the vision of the community that must lead any project. It takes a lot of time for a community to come together to agree on what it is. We should not rush that process. As external agents, we are there to support and catalyze, but we are never there to lead and impose our vision. We are there to support communities in this process. It is hard because some communities do not organise themselves in ways that are legible to NGOs, and it can take a long time. That patience and the ability to sit in the problem, and not rush, is really important. Listening is also crucial.

Anne: Is there any piece of information you feel is missing in the environmental justice field?

Emily: As I said before, the biggest piece is direct access to funds. Many communities do not know where to start on finding funds. There are small, time bound sources of funds, but there is a lack of mid-level grants to help maintain small community-based organisations become sustainable over time. There needs to be more information on what funds are available and more attention to directly transferring funds to communities and community-based organisations.

Anne: For those interested in working in environmental justice, how would you advise them to begin their career? Do you recommend any specific degree or work exposure?

Emily: I really recommend a social science degree and learning the social sciences. I don’t believe that many people are taught how to listen attentively, and to listen also to what is not being said. It was transformative to learn about anthropology and to learn the tools and methods of the discipline. It changed how I see the world and how I work for change. The kind of work exposure you really need is going to a community and offering your services. You might be a videographer or someone who writes well, or someone who knows how to build or heal - any of these skills may be what they need. You should provide any support you can if it offers you the opportunity of sitting, living, and listening with them. If you don’t know how to start working with communities that aren’t your own, start with your own home community - there’s no better place to start! Social and environmental justice issues are present in every community in the world, even yours. That will give you the type of learning you need to start transforming those skills into another geography, if that’s where your passion lies.

Thank you, Emily, for opening our eyes to the connection between indigenous communities and conservation. 

To learn more about Global Diversity Foundation’s work, please visit their website here:

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Go to the profile of Thirza Loffeld
5 months ago

Wonderful piece! Thank you for sharing your insights with the community @Emily Caruso; would it perhaps be useful to feature the fellows' their story on WildHub to increase their reach? If so, please let me know, I would be happy to help. 

Thank you for catalysing the sharing of Emily's lessons learned @Anne Mauro, valuable perspectives were shared. 

Go to the profile of Emily Caruso
5 months ago

Thanks @Thirza Loffeld , it would be great to discuss the opportunities for getting people's stories out!

Go to the profile of Thirza Loffeld
5 months ago

Wonderful to hear, Emily! I will be in touch with you shortly. 

Go to the profile of Grace Alawa
5 months ago

@Emily Caruso thank you, quite insightful. Learning the social science is a good one.

Go to the profile of Christine Tansey
5 months ago

Thanks @Emily Caruso for sharing your insights with @Anne Mauro - looks like a fascinating discussion.

I was particularly drawn to your emphasis on external input being about support and catalysing action - especially given some of the barriers to funding you mention. 

Go to the profile of Léa Kaplani
5 months ago

This is so interesting. Thanks for sharing :)

Go to the profile of Rezoana Arefine
4 months ago

Thank you Emily for this writing. Reading your content,   hit upon a plan  in my mind. Carry on❤️

Go to the profile of Iyanuoluwa Shittu
about 1 month ago

Listening is important when working with local communities. Although language could pose a threat to that must leaders must and should always listen. We are in community to catalyse actions not to lead them our way. Community first! Thanks @Emily for this wonderful chat.

Go to the profile of Christina Greenwood Barlow
about 1 month ago

I love this interview! You are doing such amazing work @Emily Caruso. This is something I and the team I'm working in strongly believe - the need for a systemic shift in leadership to indigenous and local communities. If we can do half as much as you are achieving - we will be very happy!