Wildlife conservation repeatedly ignores the needs of the poor

| 19th May 2010
Gorillas, elephants, tigers - icons of philanthropy and generosity in the west, but also symbols of the damage that modern conservation can inflict on the less industrialised world

It’s consensus: right now, biodiversity conservation is one of the most urgent issues we face. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate, and climate change threatens to make this problem even worse. Species loss matters because the number and mix of species, the functions they perform and the interactions between them are, collectively, the basis for healthy ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems matter because they support the natural processes (including climate regulation, water purification and waste recycling) on which human life depends.

Reducing poverty is also one of our century’s crucial issues. The international community has recognised that the persistence of extreme poverty in developing countries, where over a billion people have to live on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day, is not just immoral, but is also a threat to global stability and security.

Same coin; two sides
At first glance it might seem that poverty reduction has nothing to do with conservation; but the two challenges are inextricably linked. Although the world is rapidly urbanising, the majority of the world’s poorest people still live in rural areas, and inevitably, it’s in these areas that conservation efforts are also focused.

Forests, for example, as well as being the last refuge for some of the world’s most endangered species — great apes, tigers, Asian rhinos — provide a home or a source of livelihood to an estimated 1.2 billion poor people. These people are directly dependent on the goods and services provided by nature for food, fuel, fodder, shelter. For forest-dependent communities, conservation of these vital resources can mean survival.

All this implies a 'win-win' for conservation and for poor people. So what’s the problem?

In many cases, the elements of biodiversity that we (by which I mean those of us in the global 'north'  - whose annual fees for membership in conservation organisations alone would be a small fortune to those who make up the 1.2 billion 'poor' people) are interested to conserve are often not those that deliver any tangible benefit to the poor. In fact, often quite the opposite. Gorillas, elephants and tigers can all inflict terrible damage on the lives and livelihoods of those that live alongside them – eating or trampling crops, killing livestock and sometimes even people.

Lack of rights

The disenfranchisement of the poor adds another strand to this tangled challenge. Because poor people often have weak or insecure rights over the land and resources on which they depend, the incentive for conservation is replaced by a more immediate incentive to secure immediate needs. So for many it’s better to grab resources now while they are there in case access is denied tomorrow. Few wild habitats – and the species they contain – can survive this kind of use.

The response to this is for conservation organisations to implement their own conservation strategies. But, unless well designed and executed these can further exacerbate poverty: protected areas can often result in reduced access to land and resources; market mechanisms such as tourism often favour the better-off at the expense of the poorest; conservation payments can result in land being increasingly privatised, with serious implications for those with less ability to assert their rights.

Conservation can be enforced – through the establishment and guarding of strictly protected areas that exclude poor people – but this is not a viable solution in the long term. Sustainable conservation demands that the people who bear the cost of conservation (through lost or reduced access to land and resources, through human-wildlife conflict, through opportunities foregone) receive sufficient benefits from conservation to mitigate these costs.


A cooperative response
There are no simple solutions. Although there are examples of win-wins where conservation and poverty reduction go hand in hand, in the majority of cases there are often significant trade-offs to be made. Acknowledging and negotiating these trade-offs rather than pursuing either conservation or poverty reduction in isolation is an essential step forward – but a step that is often an uncomfortable one to take.

We also need to look at the issue of poverty and conservation in a bigger context. Loss of biodiversity and persistent poverty are both symptoms of a bigger problem: the excessive consumption and unsustainable living that are the norm in richer countries. It is our demands for timber, cheap food, palm oil and other commodities that drive land conversion and species loss far more than local communities fulfilling their daily needs for firewood or grazing. It is us that want to ensure the survival of endangered species, yet balk at paying the full cost of doing that. Conservation is as much a social and political process as an ecological one. Acknowledging that fact will be critical if the long-term survival of some of the species we hold most dear is to be assured.

book cover Dilys Roe is co-editor with Joanna Elliott of The Earthscan Reader in Poverty and Biodiversity Conservation (£24.99) published by Earthscan. For 20 per cent off the RRP (£19.99) enter code ECO2010 in the voucher box when you order online here

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