A Tale of Sustainable Use: Local Control, Valuation and The Little Prince

While attempting to fly his monoplane from New York to Tierra del Fuego in February 1938, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crash-landed near Antigua, Guatemala. Having suffered serious injuries, the French aviator/author spent several months recovering in the area.

This was not even his first plane crash! In December 1935 he and his mechanic/navigator crashed in the Sahara Desert and wandered among the dunes for several days. Suffering hallucinations brought on by severe dehydration and heat exhaustion, the pair was fortunate to be found by a local Bedouin who was able to save them thanks to his superior knowledge of survival in the desert ecosystem.

The desert crash is generally thought to have been an inspiration for de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella, The Little Prince. This literary classic (available in 253 languages and dialects), you may recall, is narrated by a pilot who is marooned in the desert after a crash.


Collection of “Le Petit Prince” in many languages at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan. Photo: Yanajin33. Creative Commons BY-SA (cropped).

Air travel has come a long way since the 1930s, fortunately for myself and the other participants in two workshops organised by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity that took place on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Panajachel near Antigua earlier this year.

Though none of our planes crashed while travelling there, a piece of local lore was circulating among attendees about Lake Atitlan — a spot where de Saint-Exupéry is thought to have spent some of his time recuperating.

Rumour has it that the lake was the inspiration for Asteroid B-612, the home planet of the story’s young alien prince whom the pilot meets in the desert. After all, Lake Atitlan’s scenery is dominated by the three volcanoes rising from its shores, and Asteroid B-612 also had three volcanoes that the prince, as the tiny planet’s sole resident, took it upon himself to clean out daily to keep them burning “slowly and steadily, without any eruptions”.

More telling still is the presence, by the shore of the lake, of a small hill called the Cerro de Oro (or Hill of Gold, a parasitic lava dome of the Tolimán volcano, shown on the left in the photo at top) that really does bear a striking resemblance to a drawing by the story’s narrator of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant with which The Little Prince begins.

The story of context-specific stewardship

While it would probably be going too far to say that Panajachel was like another world, it made a lovely venue for the June workshops.

After a somewhat contentious negotiation process led to a CBD decision adopting the term “indigenous peoples and local communities” (IPLCs) at the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD in the Republic of Korea in November 2014, the Guatemala workshops were part of an effort to build the capacity of IPLC representatives to take part in CBD processes. Around 80 IPLC representatives and other participants from around the world gathered in Panajachel for either or both of the workshops: “International Training Workshop on Community–Based Monitoring, Indicators on Traditional Knowledge and Customary Sustainable Use and Community Protocols within the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020” and a “Dialogue Workshop on Assessment of Collective Action of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in Biodiversity Conservation and Resource Mobilization”. Some also stayed for a third workshop on repatriation of traditional knowledge.

The workshops were very diverse and covered a number of topics, which I saw as coalescing around two overarching themes that I will call “local control” and “valuation”.

Put simply, local control is the extent to which people have control over their local land and resources. Much of the way this idea was framed in terms of “community protocols”, one of the primary topics of the first of the two workshops. The landscapes in which indigenous peoples and local communities live typically fall within the administrative control of national and local governments and are not controlled by the IPLCs themselves. Thus community protocols are one proposed framework to give some control to local communities in making the rules that impact them, including decisions about resource use. These can take practically any form — not strictly a legal document — and hence the term “community protocols” rather than, for example, “new laws”.

Traditional knowledge and customary sustainable use are also key concepts for community protocols, since these are held particularly by the local community, are not immediately obvious to outsiders and cannot normally be transferred to different ecosystems and cultural contexts. This was highlighted when a representative of one indigenous community described the hunting of reproducing female animals as an example of the sort of unsustainable use that a community member would know to avoid, to which another participant replied that in the communities he worked with, hunting breeding females had long been an integral part of resource stewardship in the form of wildlife population control.

A key point to note regarding local control is that it contains both “local” and “control”, the point being that local rights are important, but the local community also has the responsibility for sustained stewardship of their resources as a key aspect of sustainable management.

My contribution to the first workshop came from my research with the International Satoyama Initiative (ISI) project at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability. ISI’s research focuses on the potential for human well-being and biodiversity conservation when humans’ sustainable use of natural resources creates a landscape with both a variety of natural and man-made habitats for a wide mix of species and healthy, vibrant human communities. By promoting so-called called “socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes” ISI’s framework is one way of tying together the sort of long-term resource stewardship practices that were described by IPLC members at the Guatemala workshops.

The Little Prince, as a piece of social commentary, would have been meant to reflect on the issues of its time, but de Saint-Exupéry could also have had some of these ideas in mind while he was in the area of Lake Atitlan, because book serves to illustrate sustainable land use nicely. The little prince was a good steward of his planet. He cleaned out his three volcanoes every day, and he also had to make sure to dig out any baobab tree shoots that he found growing because if they were allowed to grow bigger, they would become much more difficult to remove. After leaving Asteroid B-612, the prince even learns that if baobabs were to grow too big, their roots could eventually break up and destroy a whole planet, as insufficiently vigilant residents of other asteroids had learned the hard way.


During his interplanetary explorations on his way to Earth, the prince had seen that baobabs were valued and valuable trees in places where their roots do not endanger the existence of a planet. Photo: Frank Vassen. Creative Commons BY (cropped).

The baobab problem illustrates the need for not only responsible stewardship, but also local and context-specific traditional knowledge — during his interplanetary explorations on his way to Earth, the prince had seen that baobabs were valued and valuable trees in places where their roots do not endanger the existence of a planet.

The prince also saw other examples of how local management can be effective. On one planet he visits, the only resident has been directed by an outside authority to light a street lamp at night and put it out at dawn. But since that order was given, the asteroid’s rotation has sped up to the point that a full day only lasts one minute, and the man is forced to spend all of his time lighting and putting out the lamp, thus being unable to sleep or do anything else. In addition to illustrating that rules imposed by outside authorities can fail to adequately account for the local context, this example also demonstrates the importance of “adaptive management” — resource-use practices that evolve along with changing local circumstances and that are often better governed by the local community.

Another planet is ruled by a king — although “ruled” is overstating the case because, once again, the king is the only resident of the planet. Not only does the king rule his own planet, he claims to rule all of the other planets and stars in the sky, and feels free to impose laws on them despite the fact that their inhabitants are certainly unaware that the laws even exist. When the prince arrives and the king finds that he does not even have the power to enforce laws on visitors to his own planet, he pragmatically shifts to only ordering things that the little prince would have done anyway, and commands the prince to leave whenever he is ready. A similar dynamic of enforceability applies when central authorities impose rules on IPLCs in remote areas. Local control can help to ensure that rules are not only appropriate, but also enforceable through locally-recognised formal or informal means.

Among other things in The Little Prince, those who refuse to understand what is really important are invariably called the “grown-ups”, as opposed to the children who do understand. There is a long history of infantilizing IPLCs for not buying into a value system that emphasises money over community, and it is important to note that, like many allegories, this interpretation of The Little Prince should not be taken too literally and with a grain of salt.

Priceless bonds

The third planet I would like to touch on again only has one occupant, this time a businessman, who spends all of his time going over his lists of numbers, claiming to own all of the stars in the sky and justifying that “they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it”. The fact that the king already claims to rule over all the stars in the sky poses no problem for the businessman, who rationalises that “ruling over” and “owning” are two different things.

Many workshop participants in Guatemala were all too familiar with lands maintained by IPLCs being considered empty by outside ownership interests. Competing claims can lead to conflicts between different types and different levels of stakeholders. Again, a holistic, landscape-level approach — where appropriate — may better resolve such conflicts than one based on narrower interests or interest groups, as seen in an example (of Thailand’s Hmong and Karen communities) from one of the organisations present at the workshop.

Valuation, meaning accurately measuring the value of land and the ecosystem services provided by proper land-use management, was an issue of paramount importance to many IPLC representatives at the workshops, who felt that a major reason their interests are often ignored in policymaking processes is that these values are underestimated or not understood. Part of the problem is the wide array of ecosystem services that can be seen to provide some sort of value. It is hard enough to evaluate the supporting, provisioning and regulating ecosystem services resulting from sustainably-managed landscapes. Cultural services are even more difficult to quantify.

Cultural ecosystem services can include anything from artwork inspired by nature to community cohesion resulting from nature-based rituals to the spiritual well-being people get from communing with nature. Because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of quantifying these sorts of services, they are often ignored in valuation schemes. This results in a kind of quantitative bias where quantifiable services are the only ones measured or even considered, despite the fact that for many people, especially IPLCs, non-quantifiable or intangible services are among the most important.

Corn Ritual

The corn ritual. Photo: William Dunbar.

Rituals played an important role in our discussions in Guatemala. Each day of the workshops began with a ritual performed by an elder of the local Mayan people. Four colours of corn were placed on a bed of pine leaves at the points of the compass in the centre of the room, with candles lit and prayers offered for a successful workshop. The fact that the candles burned cleanly, without leaving dirty smudges on the insides of their glass holders, meant that the workshops had been carried out in a spirit of harmony and goodwill.

Cultural rituals like this one can be among the most powerful tools for bonding people to the land and thus encouraging sustainable management. Even the little prince learns about this from his friend the fox, who explains that rituals are actions that create bonds, or “what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours”, thus making things valuable.

This brings me back to where I started. The little prince’s insistence on the importance of cleaning out the volcanoes and digging up the baobab shoots every single day made sustainable land management a kind of ritual, not only keeping the planet from falling into disorder or potentially breaking up completely, but giving it a unique value for the prince, who was deeply tied to the land through his repeated labour. This kind of intangible value is what is in danger of being lost when only quantifiable factors are considered in valuation of ecosystem services.

At the end of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry describes the desert landscape where the little prince appeared on Earth and then disappeared as the loveliest and saddest in the world. To put this allegory to rest at last, in our real world, the saddest landscape may be one where the people who once appeared and took care of it for many years, whether they were IPLCs or anyone else, became unable to control their own destiny, or convince their planet’s other inhabitants of the value of sustainably managing resources, and eventually disappeared. Efforts like the workshops in Panajachel continue to attempt to write a happier end to this story.

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A Tale of Sustainable Use: Local Control, Valuation and The Little Prince by William Dunbar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


William Dunbar is a Communications Coordinator with the International Satoyama Initiative project at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) in Tokyo, Japan.