The Link Between Conservation and Global Poverty

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Rwandan Children

Photo Credit: Some rights reserved, by Sarel Kromer via Wikimedia Commons.

On a global scale, deforestation, carbon emissions, and loss of biodiversity are fueled by the consumptive appetites and economic demands of developed nations. However, in certain localities in developing countries, it’s the poorer inhabitants – those who directly share space with critical ecosystems – who have a significant impact on habitat destruction and biodiversity loss.

Many of the world’s richest, and most threatened biodiversity hotspots are located in least developed nations – areas where local human populations live largely below the poverty line. In these scenarios we see a continuous conflict between the immediate material needs of the poor, and the long term need to preserve biodiversity and habitats for the health of the planet.

Let’s take great ape habitats in Africa as an example.  Bonobos are found in only one ecosystem, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Estimates of their populations used to run at about 50,000 individuals, but numbers were decimated after the civil wars that wracked the country from 1998 to the early 2000’s, and may now be as low as 10,000. Even now, after immense international efforts to restructure conservation projects that had been forced out during war, there’s a deep tension between locals and protected land initiatives. Poaching and hunting for bush meat are also a continuous threat to the population. All of these detrimental factors – war, poaching, poor land use, habitat destruction, and local hostility towards national parks – are underpinned by poverty.

In general, poverty contributes to and correlates with governmental instability; even if this doesn’t lead to outright civil war as in the DRC, it certainly means decreased ability to protect lands and biodiversity and regulate resource use.  A lack of resources among the people of the DRC leads to hunting primates for bush meat, while hostility towards national parks comes from the feeling that the local community doesn’t benefit from any wealth generated by these protected lands, and in fact, loses access to certain critical resources when the land is cordoned off. The only way to mitigate the plight of the bonobos is to address the poverty of the people who are their neighbors and the same holds true for biodiversity conservation efforts around the world.

It’s not very difficult to understand the urgent need behind conservation efforts. Loss of habitat leads to loss of biodiversity which destabilizes the ecosystem, and deals a blow to human populations, whether it’s through loss of jobs and food sources as fisheries collapse, contamination and shrinkage of groundwater supplies, or damage to local agriculture and infrastructure from soil erosion after deforestation.

How do you tell that to someone who has to choose between keeping his family fed and alive in the short term, and abiding by anti-slash and burn policies? What persuasive powers do the long terms interests of the planet and humanity as a whole have over a people or a government, struggling to fulfill immediate interests as dire as obtaining a continuous supply of food, fresh water, and income? The answer to the last question is probably none.

Threatened species and ecosystems around the world will only be guaranteed survival when their well-being is directly tied to the fortunes of the people who share land with them. NGO’s and other external forces can’t control the way natural resources are used in any given country, though they can influence the dialogue. The last word – especially as many of these countries in Africa and Asia escape their least developed statuses – will lie with the people and their endogenous governments. For this reason, conservation efforts should focus as much on “intangible” biodiversity like soil microbes and plant genetic resources, as they do on endangered animals and protected spaces.  The former are not only necessary for the overall health of ecosystems, but directly impact agriculture. The conservation efforts of governments and international NGO’s must be designed in such a way that local communities see returns from efforts to preserve habitats and biodiversity. Employees for national parks should be drawn from a local pool, and effort should be made to ensure that a significant portion of profits from ecotourism finds its way back into the community.

Too often, the wealth that comes from sustainable use initiatives in developing countries accumulates in the hands of the already wealthy, with very little trickle-down effect. This only serves to ensure that the majority of the people feel completely cut off from resources upon which they rely as they live on the edges of poverty, and it further marginalizes them economically. This is the reason there’s often so much hostility towards national park creation in many developing nations, and we all know how critical such projects are to maintaining disappearing habitats and preserving biodiversity.

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