Study pinpoints whether conservation can fight poverty

Bunaken National Park protects biodiversity whilst fighting poverty, say researchers. Copyright: FlickrClifB

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[LONDON] A search for hard evidence that biodiversity conservation can actually help the poor has yielded five key interventions that lift people out of poverty.

Community timber enterprises, forest tourism, agro-forestry, marine tourism and the exploitation of fish spill-over from protected zones into adjacent fisheries emerged as the most effective conservation activities from a review of more than 400 peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed documents.

Another four activities were found to reduce poverty to a lesser degree but not to the extent that they lift people out of it permanently, found researchers Craig Leisher and Neil Larsen from The Nature Conservancy, United States.

"Conservation is not a silver bullet but it is not a dead-end either," Leisher told the symposium ‘Linking biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction: what, why and how?’, organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the African Wildlife Foundation.

The IIED, based in London, commissioned the research as part of a broader programme to examine the links between biodiversity and poverty.

Only five interventions were found to increase incomes, enable people to accumulate capital and lift them out of poverty, whilst protecting biodiversity. Agroforestry is particularly important in Sub-Saharan Africa as a source of extra income, said Larsen.

He also cited a marine tourism project in Indonesia where the government has ensured that 80 per cent of tourism staff in Bunaken National Park comes from the local community. The project has generated 1,000 jobs in just five years and has helped hundreds of people to increase their skills and incomes, he said.

Several other conservation interventions provide "safety nets" for the poor — they provide safeguards against crises, and prevent a sink deeper into poverty, but are not in themselves enough to lift people above the poverty line, the researchers said.

These interventions include production of non-timber forest products;  payments for ecosystem services — schemes where the beneficiaries of environmental services pay those who manage them to ensure the services continue; the restoration of mangroves and grassland management to ensure sustainability.

"There is a lot of knowledge out there that we must heed and learn lessons from," Leisher said.

But the amount of available evidence varies greatly across these nine interventions. "There is tons of evidence on the value of non-timber forest products, for example, but very little on grassland management," he told SciDev.Net.

The impacts of some types of intervention have hardly been researched, he said, and called for the use of control sites to enable more empirical comparisons.

The report’s findings will be discussed alongside two other state of knowledge reviews and outcomes from the symposium, in a follow-up meeting with members of the IIED’s Poverty and Conservation Learning Group on Friday (30 April).

This discussion will inform a set of recommendations to address research needs, as well as policy and practice gaps, said Matt Walpole, head of ecosystem assessment at UNEP-WCMC.

According to Dilys Roe, senior researcher at IIED, all three reviews will be published within the next two months.