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Protecting biodiversity can cut poverty, but policymakers need to give the poor more control of resources, says Dilys Roe.

This week, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meet in Nagoya, Japan, to negotiate a new deal on conserving biodiversity. At the heart of the discussions is a draft strategic plan to guide the convention's implementation for the next 10 years.

The ambitious plan includes more than 20 targets on issues such as public awareness, subsidy reform and pollution control. It has been drafted in the belief that biodiversity plays a critical role in human wellbeing and poverty reduction.

In this respect, the plan reaffirms the rationale behind the CBD's target, set in 2002, to "significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 as a contribution to poverty alleviationand the benefit of all life on Earth" — a target that the world has, by all accounts, failed to reach.

But can protecting biodiversity actually reduce poverty? There is potential, although it is hindered by poor policy and legal frameworks that govern how biodiversity is used and by whom.

Prevention ahead of reduction

The idea that biodiversity and poverty are linked is a sound one. There is plenty of evidence that the rural poor in developing countries rely on biodiversity for food, shelter, income, fuel, health, quality of life and community.

We also know that the poor are often hardest hit by biodiversity loss, as they have few alternatives when local resources are lost or degraded. So biodiversity is an important tool in poverty prevention, acting as a form of social protection in the absence of formal welfare provisions.

But whether conserving biodiversity contributes to poverty reductionis debatable. A recent Poverty and Conservation Learning Group symposium, organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre and African Wildlife Foundation in London last April, heard that only a few biodiversity conservation interventions have been found to lift people out of poverty. In most cases, biodiversity acts as a safety net against even deeper poverty — a natural form of "social protection ".

In the short term, it is not so much the diversity of biological resources that meets the immediate needs of poor people but rather their abundance. A poor fisherman's route out of poverty, for example, is to catch more fish, not more kinds of fish.

In the longer term, however,  the diversity of living things (species diversity), and the diversity that exists within a species (genetic diversity), do increase people's resilience and ability to survive, particularly in marginal environments. For example, access to a wide range of wild foods and medicines provides an important safety net when crops fail.

And genetic diversity within wild and cultivated crops helps ensure a harvest during periods of stress, such as drought.

Elites capture benefits

In some cases, the benefits of biodiversity go mainly to international corporations. This includes many traditional genetic resources that are exploited — and in some cases even patented — by 'bioprospectors' from the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries.

Examples include a 1995 US patent on an anti-fungal derivative from the neem tree commonly used in Indian traditional medicine (although this was successfully challenged by the Indian government), and a Japanese patent on the anti-diabetic properties of banana, traditionally used in herbal remedies in the Philippines.

In such cases, company shareholders reap the benefits of genetic resources while local communities that conserved and maintained them for generations see little, if any, of the wealth.

In other cases, the benefits are captured by governments — with little trickle-down to local communities — by exploiting valuable resources such as timber, or wildlife with tourism potential. Even if rights over these resources are devolved to local level, the community's richer members tend to take advantage of them — a phenomenon known as 'elite capture' — meaning that the poorest of the poor still lose out.

Political paths to progress

So enabling poor people to benefit more from biodiversity conservation requires good governance. Critically, this means secure land and resource rights, which in most cases will require devolving authority from national to local level. It also entails participation in decision-making, access to information, strong institutions, and equity in cost and benefit sharing.

At the international level
there are significant opportunities to ensure a greater transfer of benefits from biodiversity conservation to poor people. These include the widely debated initiatives for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), which aim to reward countries and communities that conserve their forests (and the carbon they contain).

Less prominent, but as important, is the international protocol on access and benefit-sharing (ABS), which is due to be discussed in Nagoya and which is intended to secure an equitable share of bioprospecting benefits for host countries.

In both REDD and ABS, ensuring the benefits genuinely reach the poor will depend on social and environmental safeguards that recognise and respect the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

In Nagoya, developing countries will be standing up for their rights; negotiations over the strategic plan will stall unless a fair deal is agreed on ABS and on finance. Harnessing the potential of biodiversity to reduce poverty has more to do with politics than with the nature of biodiversity or poverty.

Dilys Roe is a senior researcher in the natural resources group at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London.