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The Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center is an interdisciplinary team of biologists and social scientists dedicated to translating museum science into action for conservation and quality of life of local people. Our scientists recognize the inextricable link between healthy forests and the well-being of people who live in and around them and in the Andes-Amazon region, we create long-term strategies for integrating conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and local well-being.

Our conservation action efforts build on this fundamental connection between people and the resources they depend on. For more than a decade, social scientists at The Field Museum have been leading participatory conservation processes with indigenous and rural communities and empowering them to improve or sustain their quality of life in the Andes-Amazon region.

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Cultural strengths hold the key to empowerment and sustaining forest livelihoods

We use research and participatory methods to create ways for local people to discuss their resource management priorities collectively, reflect on trade-offs between different ways to use land and resources, and make their decisions based on their own cultural values and aspirations.

We have found that cultural strengths hold the key to empowerment and sustaining forest livelihoods. Despite threats and a history of marginalization, Amazonian peoples have maintained a strong sense of place and cultural identity. The validation of these local strengths–cultural values, ecological knowledge, and organizational structures–is the first step in empowering people to become the best stewards of their forests.

Using our approach, local people document community strengths and record how people use their natural resources. This information guides a process for setting priorities for community action, which we call a “quality of life plan” that reflects the cultural values and priorities of local people.

We engage villagers in evaluating their quality of life in five arenas: cultural, social, political economic and environmental. Our work to date reveals that communities with stable, well-managed natural resources and healthy forest habitats, have been more satisfied with their quality of life. Our approach is highly participatory. Each step involves time for dialogue, capacity building, and community decision making. Our approach is also practical. We don’t just offer vague concepts or unattainable goals. We encourage communities to focus their priorities on what they urgently need and outline concrete actions they will need to take, including identifying external allies, sources of funds, and collective actions they can take (such as setting up patrols against illegal logging, establishing norms for hunting and fishing or reinforcing and re-taking the already existing ones, managing non-timber forest products, etc.). Given the chance to reflect on their values, most communities we have been working with choose conservation-compatible ways to improve or sustain their quality of life.

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