Friday, July 06, 2007

The Poverty/Conservation Equation

I’m writing this on a flight back from South Africa, where I participated in a symposium (#18) on integrating poverty alleviation into conservation goals at the Society for Conservation Biology annual meeting. You read that right. Yours truly, who works at one of the world’s wealthiest universities, and lives in one of the wealthiest communities in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, flew many thousands of miles to Africa to lecture about poverty.

I tossed and turned about going. I was convinced by two things. First, that the meeting was held in Africa for the first time was a major triumph and presented a great opportunity for a lot of African scientists and conversation practitioners who would not otherwise attend an SCB meeting. Second, the line-up of participants from around the conservation world that were attending the symposium (hey, hypocrisy’s hip, everyone’s doing it!) was a sign that conservation was finally willing to address the, er, elephant in the room.

Conservation is based on a funny mix of actual ecology and unabashed romanticism of nature. The initial goals - save endangered species, etc. - while well-intended, often put the endangered wild horse before the cart. There’s no sense ‘saving’ the remaining orangutans if the forests in which they normally live are entirely replaced with oil palm plantation. The field matured. Species conservation gave way to habitat conservation. Hard science is now being used to set conservation goals, locally and globally, and to optimize the design of protected areas.

Now it’s time to take the next step. It is no secret that most of the world’s biodiversity hotspots targeted for conservation by international organizations lie in developing countries in the tropics. Not only is it unconscionable to protect the environment in developing nations without addressing the lives of the people, essentially modern-day colonialism, experience has shown it doesn’t work very well. In much of the tropics, conservation and poverty alleviation must go hand-in-hand

The symposium included presentations on things like uniting poverty measures and biodiversity measures to set global conservation goals, the development of a “water” poverty index, an analysis of the effectiveness of several African projects to meet environment and development goals, and various combined environment and development programs in countries like China (surprised me, too). My talk was a spin on the short paper “The inequity of the global threat to coral reefs”, I co-authored with David Potere here in the Office of Population Research. It was intended to provide some perspective from the marine realm.

For reefs, one of the problems is perception. To people outside the tropics, coral reefs are colourful, exciting, charismatic, part of our Disney-fied image of tropical paradise. In reality, there are hundreds of millions of people in some of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries that depend on coral reefs every day. My feeling is that this raises two issues, one of equity, one of efficacy.

First, though many of the threats to coral reefs originate in the developed world, it is poor people in the developing world that will pay the price. In the paper, we use climate change as an example. Like greenhouse gas emissions, both overfishing (for food or the aquarium trade) and tourism-oriented coastal development are paced by the developed world. When indigenous reef-dependent communities shift from subsistence living to the cash economy (i.e. start selling fish or relying on tourist dollars), whatever traditional systems of ecosystem management existed tend to get overwhelmed.

Second, nowhere is conservation more dependent on addressing poverty than in those same reef-dependent communities. Even if, as a conservationist, you didn’t care at all about the local population, protecting the coral reef from human pressure will require things like educating people, creating alternative livelihoods and reforming waste management, the very same things necessary to improve the health and wellbeing of the people.

Here’s hoping this is the start of a real change in the way we think about and practice conservation.

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