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Dryland conservation and development: striking a balance

One-billion people live in dry regions of the world, which cover nearly 40 per cent of the Earth's surface. Many live in rural areas and earn their living as farmers, pastoralists, herders, and woodcutters. What they all have in common is a reliance on natural resources – including biodiversity, which is declining at a rate unprecedented in recorded history.

This is now an issue of major international concern, and was highlighted most recently at the launch of the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (see Healthy ecosystems 'critical in fight against poverty').

Governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world agree that something needs to be done urgently to slow down and eventually halt the loss of biodiversity without affecting the livelihoods of those who depend on natural resources to survive.

This is also an issue that divides academic researchers, with no clear consensus yet on the best way forward. Unfortunately, this doesn't help policymakers much because, as is often the case with research and policy, they need information and practical guidance now, and cannot wait until a consensus has been reached.

The findings from a three-year UN-backed research project should help to clarify matters for those urgently seeking practical case studies of attempts to marry conservation of biodiversity with development in developing countries.

Indeed, Sharing Innovative Experiences: Examples of the successful conservation and sustainable use of dryland biodiversity, could be just what they are looking for.

In spite of the inclusion of the word 'successful' in the title of the book, this is not a book just about stories with a happy ending. Achieving conservation without impeding development is difficult and does not always work. One of the book's great strengths, therefore, is the decision of the editors to include examples of failures along with successes. This undoubtedly comes from recognition that policies can be improved by learning and taking stock after a setback or failure.

A case study from Lebanon, for example, describes the experience of the country's government in outsourcing the management of a new national park to a consortium of local and international NGOs. The case study team concluded that staff from the NGOs lacked an accurate understanding of the complex tribal relationships and hierarchies inside the area that would become the park.

Moreover, the case study researchers found that NGO staff did not sufficiently consult local people in the design, implementation and management of the project. The result was that while the national park did help to conserve biodiversity, there was less success in maintaining and improving the livelihoods of those who lived and worked within its boundaries.

The lesson from the case study is not that conservation and development are incompatible, nor indeed that NGOs should be barred from managing national parks. Instead, the message for policymakers is the need for the management of national parks to have a solid understanding of and strong contacts within the communities that live inside national parks; and that these communities need to be involved in decision-making at all levels.

The book, which is published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), summarises 19 case studies from 13 countries in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Research for the case studies was done mostly by scientists from developing countries linked to member institutions of the Third World Network of Scientific Organisations.

Each case study follows a standard format: beginning with an explanation of the background to an issue (or controversy) in biodiversity and development; this is followed by a description of how the problem was tackled; and ending with an evaluation of the lessons learned. The style of presentation and content is accessible to non-specialists, and, best of all, the book is available free to download from http://tcdc.undp.org/WIDENEW/sharingsearch.asp.

The book is the ninth volume in a series of books on the theme of 'sharing innovative experiences' that are published by the UNDP. Other titles in the series include Examples of Successful Initiatives in Science and Technology in the South, and Examples of Successful Initiatives in Agriculture and Rural Development in the South. All are free to download from http://tcdc.undp.org.