Can biodiversity conservation reduce poverty?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Oct. 18 2010 7:09 AM

Seeing Double-Green

Can biodiversity conservation reduce poverty?

A silverback male mountain gorilla. Click image to expand.
A silverback male mountain gorilla

Today, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) kicks off its 10th conference in Nagoya, Japan. Unveiled in 1992, the treaty claims nearly every nation as a party. (The United States, one of three holdouts, attends the conferences as an "observer.") In 2002, the parties set a target, subsequently added to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals: "To achieve by 2010 significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth." (Emphasis added.) They failed, and biodiversity continues to vanish apace. At Nagoya, they will hash out a new plan. But the pledge's implicit equation—what's good for the planet is good for the poor—sounds suspiciously convenient; next we'll hear that biodiversity can help bring peace to the Middle East. Is biodiversity conservation really a friend to poor people?

The CBD's logic goes like this: The world's poor live disproportionately in "hotspots" of biodiversity—70 percent still inhabit rural areas, according to the U.N.—and they depend relatively directly on local wildlife for their livelihoods (fish and game, mushrooms, fuel wood). Even for communities with other sources of income, biodiversity can provide a crucial safety net in the event of natural disasters or global economic meltdowns.

That logic is sound, as far as it goes. But the poor live in these species-rich places not by coincidence, but because, in most cases, their countries have not industrialized and therefore have advanced little economically. Likewise, they forage for calories and fuel because they lack access to Pathmark and Con Ed. From this perspective, a real route out of poverty would transcend, rather than cement, their reliance on biodiversity.

What's more, conservation campaigns of the past have garnered a bad reputation for alienating local communities in poor countries. The establishment of protected areas has created millions of "conservation refugees": The Batwa pygmies, to take one example, were evicted from their ancestral homes in 1991, in the name of protecting the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. (A prevalent strain of conservationism saw any human settlements as tainting the wilderness.) Residents near other protected areas, while not forced to relocate, were cut off from food and fuel sources on which they'd banked.

The past few decades, however, have seen a gradual sea change in conservationists' thinking and rhetoric. It is now widely accepted—for ethical and practical reasons—that conservation efforts must turn locals into allies, not enemies. Governments, NGOs, international institutions and communities have made valiant efforts to align environmental custodianship with poverty reduction. Such "win-wins" are a tall order, and countless projects have flunked on both counts. But some have achieved modest success.

A report released in August, by the Nature Conservancy and other groups, reviewed more than 400 studies and documents about the poverty-biodiversity nexus. The authors identified 10 strategies that appeared to have succeeded, in some places, at combining both objectives. The most effective included ecotourism, agroforestry (integrating trees and agriculture), and "fish spillover" (in which an area is designated off-limits for fishing, while an adjacent water body is fair game).

One model initiative is Ghana's Wechiau Community Hippopotamus Sanctuary, founded in 1998 by local chiefs. In 2008, it won an Equator Prize, which the U.N. has awarded to 103 "outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation of biodiversity" since 2002. The sanctuary has generated jobs (such as accountant, ranger, boatman, and cook) and attracted investment in solar lighting systems and other infrastructure. (A 2010 study found that infrastructure development was "2-8 times higher than in surrounding communities.") At the same time, the hippo population has held steady, and bird species inside the sanctuary outnumbered those outside. The place is not a utopia—14 households were displaced—but a survey yielded mostly positive feedback from the community.   

Yet there are formidable obstacles to widespread success. A common problem is "elite capture," in which the more privileged members of a community reap the greatest reward, while the poorest gain little. In a forest-management project supported by the Indian government in Andhra Pradesh, for example, the upper-caste members dominated the management committee, decreeing quotas and prohibitions on wood collection. Meanwhile, lower-caste members suffered because they had depended most heavily on the products that were now verboten. (Members of the lower castes eventually rebelled, earning two of them powerful posts on the committee.) Land tenure matters, too: Without secure property rights, people have little incentive to sacrifice current gains for the future. More fundamentally, the conflicts between economic and environmental priorities will never disappear: With prosperity comes consumption.

The latest big thing in conservation circles has a conceptual twist. Instead of asking people to conserve because it intrinsically pays off, this approach offers another incentive: money. Known as "payment for ecosystem services," the idea is that resources like watersheds and forests have great economic value that has not been quantified. These resources provide "services" such as fresh air and clean water, erosion control, and carbon sequestration, and so, the reasoning goes, people should be remunerated to guarantee their continued provision. The strategy acknowledges biodiversity's global benefits, and allows rich countries to assume financial responsibility—not in the form of donations but as business transactions for services rendered. Less-developed countries could become "biodiversity exporters," selling the stewardship of species and habitats just as China sells Nike knock-offs.

Payment for ecosystem services and kindred proposals will be hot topics at Nagoya. But it's too soon to assess their potential. Typically—though not always—payment goes to landholders, leaving out the very poorest. To boot, many environmentalists distrust market-oriented solutions and balk at the notion of valuing nature strictly for its use to humans. Negotiations are sure to be contentious. Whatever agreement is reached, let's hope it finds more success than the 2010 target did.  

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