Vasco Ferreira da Costa, Intern at the HCV Network Secretariat, looks at the importance of considering social and cultural values in efforts to protect nature. This article is based on his experience with the HCV Approach in São Tomé Island.

Other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) will play a critical role in achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity’s target of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030. OECMs, such as areas identified for protection through the High Conservation Value (HCV) Approach in production landscapes, can help scale up effective in-situ conservation of biodiversity outside of protected areas. However, meeting the 30×30 target will require balancing social, economic, and environmental agendas, while ensuring participation of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), who have long been custodians of nature.

Indigenous Peoples manage at least 25% of the Earth’s surface, where almost 80% of biodiversity is concentrated. However, for many years, protected areas and OECMs have been established largely based on biological information. Social dynamics and the role of IPLCs in protecting nature have been dealt with in isolation, mainly because local social interactions and the interdependence of people and nature are very dynamic and complex. However, failure to consider these interactions can worsen the socio-economic situation of IPLCs, affect their cultural identity, trigger conflict, and ultimately jeopardize conservation objectives.

São Tomé Island is the largest island of São Tomé and Príncipe, a country with one third of rainforest coverage. São Tomé Island hosts about 96% of the country’s population, which mostly relies on agriculture (production of cocoa, coffee, copra, and palm products) as a source of income. Deforestation of lowland areas for palm and coconut tree plantations is becoming a threat to forests, biodiversity, and other important natural values.

The island’s higher slopes are forested and form part of the Obô Natural Park. In São Tomé Island, an HCV assessment (a baseline study that looks at presence, potential presence, or absence of High Conservation Values – HCVs) was conducted by an international conservation organization. The objective was to identify areas harboring HCVs that could be protected and added to the buffer zone of Obô Natural Park.

According to the HCV Network, HCV assessments must always address the presence, potential presence, or absence of six categories of High Conservation Values (HCVs). However, in practice, it is sometimes challenging to address certain HCVs if the right experts or data are not available in certain countries or regions. The HCV assessment led by the conservation organization focused on identifying presence, potential presence, or absence of HCV 1 (species diversity), HCV 2 (landscape-level ecosystems and mosaics) and HCV 3 (ecosystems and habitats). Very limited data and expertise were available to identify HCV 4 (critical ecosystem services), HCV 5 (community needs) and HCV 6 (cultural values). These HCVs were therefore considered secondary by the organization.

Scarcity of social data, the tendency to focus on biodiversity information, and the overrepresentation of natural scientists in field teams is not unique to São Tomé, it is very common in conservation projects and initiatives around the world. The complex interactions between IPLCs and nature, and nature’s contributions to them must always be considered when establishing protected areas, in natural resource management strategies, and in the establishment of OECMs. The HCV Approach is a tool that gives equal weight to environmental and sociocultural values and considers the complexity of its interactions.

For my master’s thesis, I explored how HCVs 5 & 6 could be integrated into the HCV assessment that had already started in São Tomé Island by identifying and mapping social and cultural values according to my knowledge of the HCV methodology.

This allowed me to explore strategies that could address concerns about land use recognition and challenge power relations between local forest users and decision-makers. Indeed, if all components are not considered, it may compromise the representativeness, the bias of the knowledge of some stakeholders.

I focused my research on two communities living on opposite sides of the island. The communities relied on different economic activities and were ethnically different. This was to demonstrate that not only did nature have an important place in these communities, but that the island, despite being small, had different cultures that deserved to be heard and considered.

My research showed that in São Tomé Island, natural resources such as wood (for construction and cooking), medicinal plants, fruits, and meat, play a key role in meeting the basic needs of local communities. I also identified sites that were important for cultural identity such as magical cliffs, sites where healing plants (some considered magical) were harvested and where healing rites took place. The size and use of these areas greatly varied between communities depending on land tenure, and economic and ethnical characteristics. Most resources were obtained close to communities, especially near existing tracks or roads, where access was easier. However, this was not necessarily the case for all resources. Culturally important places were often located ‘off the beaten track’.

I found that social and cultural HCVs of IPLCs were at great risk of being negatively impacted in efforts to expand the buffer zone of the Obô Natural Park. My recommendation to the organization leading the assessment was to include HCVs 5 & 6 identification in the HCV assessment process in line with the HCV Approach.


Based on my findings, I have put together several recommendations related to social and cultural values that could be useful to all users of the HCV Approach:

  • Conservation organizations must balance environmental and social expertise on the ground and must have a social approach to conservation. The needs of IPLCs cannot be an ad-on to interdisciplinary conservation research and conservation initiatives, it must be part of it from the beginning.
  • Robust identification of HCVs 5 & 6 could support legal recognition of the lands and territories of IPLCs at a local and national level.
  • Ignoring HCVs 5 & 6 in HCV assessments (at any scale) could lead to riskier tenure and prevent access to values and areas that are beneficial to local communities. This could result in legal voids and potential territory loss for IPLCs.
  • Conservation organizations tend to make great efforts to not overlap areas important for biodiversity with those used by local communities. However, in practice, areas that are important to communities are often also areas that are important to biodiversity. The tendency to make a clean cut between social and cultural sites from areas important for biodiversity needs to evolve. IPLCs can play an active role in protecting nature and conservation organizations play an active role in ensuring both nature and IPLCs that rely on it are positively impacted from conservation efforts.
  • Identifying and mapping environmental, social, and cultural values (most of which overlap) can help understand land-use dynamics
  • Presence, potential presence, or absence of all categories of High Conservation Values should be considered in HCV assessments (and other scales of application of the HCV Approach such as landscape-level HCV screenings).
  • HCV assessments must be followed by robust Management and Monitoring plans that are led or implemented in close collaboration with IPLCs.
  • Inclusion of IPLCs in conservation efforts is crucial to ensure successful conservation outcomes.
  • Reach out to the HCV Network Secretariat for support. The Secretariat has access to social and environmental experts around the world that are experienced in all steps of implementation of the HCV Approach.
  • Proactively engage with HCV Network Secretariat to propose ways to improve identification, management, and monitoring of HCVs 5 & 6.
  • The development of national interpretations facilitates the application of the HCV Approach in practice by all national users, regardless of the context, and can help ensure comprehensive identification and protection of all six HCV categories.

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