Does greater biodiversity help or hinder the world's poorest people?
The conservation of biodiversity is often touted as a win-win solution both for the environment and for the world's poorest people, who rely on vanishing natural resources for food and income.
But several studies presented at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London last week challenged the largely anecdotal evidence linking conservation projects with a reduction in poverty. Instead, researchers argued, the financial or employment opportunities that arise from conservation efforts all too often go to more affluent people in local communities. "If poverty reduction is your objective for a conservation project, it's not a good focus," says social scientist Craig Leisher, a senior adviser to the Nature Conservancy, a conservation agency in Arlington, Virginia. "There are better ways to do it."
The studies also highlighted the lack of good-quality empirical data on biodiversity and poverty alleviation, and showed that ineffective conservation strategies are being implemented as a result. "There is too much policy based on anecdotal evidence," Leisher says.
If poverty reduction is your objective for a conservation project, it's not a good focus. ,
However, some researchers are attempting to address this shortfall. For example, Brian Belcher, director of the Centre for Non-Timber Resources at Canada's Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, presented the results of a project that has been assessing the contribution of non-timber forest products (such as food and traditional medicines) to household income in more than 360 villages across 26 countries, including Ghana, Peru and China.
The project, which started in 2004 and is due to be completed next year, has so far found that forest products contribute an average of a quarter of local people's income, although that contribution varies from 10-60% between the sites studied.
Belcher explains that most forest products are readily available to poor people because they have a low economic value. Higher value forest products tend to require more work or equipment to gather, and are therefore taken by people who are already more affluent and able to make an investment in the resources they need to exploit the forest.
In the short term, he adds, conservation projects can actually limit people's access to forest resources by rendering their normal methods of gathering food illegal, thus worsening their circumstances. Where access is permitted, local officials often charge people a fee to exploit the burgeoning resources.
Assessing the benefits
In a separate survey, Leisher and his colleagues reviewed more than 400 studies and documents on projects that sought to conserve biodiversity and alleviate poverty. He and his team found that about 150 of these showed at least some evidence that the projects had benefited the poor. These included projects on marine tourism, mangrove restoration and agro-forestry.
But more often, the team found, projects had little or no economic benefit for the poorest people. And like Belcher's study, there was ample evidence that wealthy households were more likely to participate in and benefit from conservation initiatives. Leisher adds that control sites are rarely used in project assessments, meaning that any reduction in poverty cannot be directly attributed to conservation efforts.
Meeting co-organizer Matt Walpole, head of ecosystem assessment at the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK, says that conservation agencies have been naïve about the contribution that biodiversity can make to poverty reduction, and that they need to be more rigorous in assessing costs and benefits.
But Katrina Brandon of Conservation International, a non-profit conservation agency headquartered in Washington DC, disagrees, saying that agencies have been "optimistic" in trying to address both conservation and development objectives.
"I think [conservation and development] practitioners on both sides would agree that many academics set higher-than-realistic expectations of what is possible, and also polarize debates," she says.
Conserving biodiversity often acts as a "critical safety net" that prevents poor people from falling further into poverty, she explains, particularly during periods when people are most vulnerable, such as when crop harvests are low.
Walpole argues that policy-makers still need "solid scientific evidence" of these benefits. For instance, at an upcoming summit in September, world leaders will discuss the contribution of biodiversity to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to address the world's main development challenges by 2015 — including reducing poverty and ensuring environmental sustainability.
Studies that track large numbers of people involved in many different conservation projects in various regions, and that compare these with control groups, could help pin down the link between conservation and poverty reduction and guide future efforts, Walpole says.
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Gilbert, N. Conservation's poverty reduction claims questioned. Nature (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2010.222