Research Article: The Conservation Business

Date Published: September 14, 2004

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Henry Nicholls

Abstract: Direct payments to local communities to conserve wildlife could prove effective but is biodiversity a commodity that can be bought and sold?

Partial Text: The language of conservation is changing: protecting biodiversity is no longer just about ethics and aesthetics; the latest buzzwords are commodities and consumers. Traditionally, conservation initiatives have talked up the benefits they will bring to the global community—saving species, habitats, ecosystems, and ultimately the planet. But conservation also has its costs, and these are usually borne by local people prevented from exploiting the resources around them in other ways. It is unfair to expect a localised minority to pick up costs that ultimately benefit a dispersed majority, argue conservation biologists. There has to be more money made available by concerned individuals, non-governmental organisations, national governments, and international bodies, and there need to be better ways to spend this money if conservation is to be effective, they say. Biodiversity is a commodity that can be bought and sold. We are consumers and must pay.

Kenya boasts one of the world’s most spectacular networks of national parks and reserves covering around 60,000 km2 of the country (Figure 1). But devoting such a vast area to conservation has its drawbacks. It has been estimated that were this land developed it would be worth around $270 million to the Kenyan people every year. Similarly, two national parks in Madagascar are estimated to have reduced the annual income of local villagers by around 10%. Of course, protected areas do bring some benefits to neighbouring communities, most notably through tourism. But in many cases the rewards are not great, they are rarely distributed evenly among individuals, and do not necessarily outweigh the costs.

In recent years, many funding bodies have taken an indirect approach to conservation, investing in projects that encourage people to take up alternative practices that are compatible with conservation rather than investing in conservation itself. Perhaps the best example of this ‘conservation by distraction’ is ploughing money into community-based ecotourism projects. Such initiatives aim to bring the benefits of tourism to local people, thereby encouraging them to preserve the biodiversity they have.

For people living in developing countries, where most of the world’s biodiversity exists, the short-term rewards of exploiting these natural resources are significant. Replacing indirect conservation measures, such as community-based ecotourism, with payments directly into the pockets of local people could turn out to be a much more effective way to stem this exploitation, argues Paul Ferraro, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta (Ferraro and Kiss 2002). It could also bring far greater development benefits than indirect financial support, he says (Box 2). An additional spin-off is that direct payments force conservation biologists to quantify and hence clarify their objectives, says John Hough, principal technical advisor on biodiversity for the United Nations Development Programme. ‘We know what we don’t want,’ he says, ‘but we’re not very good at saying what we do want.’

There are those that have reservations about direct payments. The distinction between indirect and direct interventions is artificial, says Thomas Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Center, a nonprofit institution dedicated to improving the scientific and economic foundation for environmental policy. ‘In some cases, direct payment is the only way conservation can happen,’ he says. ‘In others, the indirect is important to reinforce a situation where there already is conservation. In yet others both are needed.’

The idea of direct payments needs empirical testing before it can be embraced with confidence, admits Ferraro. Funding bodies should demand experimental and control data to allow the success of an intervention to be gauged. Conservation biologists must therefore be trained in the skills needed to collect and evaluate these data. ‘Without adequate data and controls you’re only going to be left with guesses and vague anecdotes about the effects of a program intervention,’ he says. Decision makers should begin to design controlled experiments from which they can make inferences about the effectiveness of these different interventions, he suggests.



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