Conservation. The word has different meanings and consequences in different parts of the world. In many developed countries it serves as a means to protect natural resources for future generations to see and enjoy. Global implications might enter into the picture, promoting conservation so as not to disrupt large-scale ecosystems. Or perhaps it's a cause du jour; it's just good manners.
But in underdeveloped or developing countries, conservation can be an intimate matter of life and death, having a profound impact on poverty. But a good or a bad impact? Does conservation help to eliminate poverty or exacerbate it? Or are the two not linked at all in any way?
To the conservationist, it would seem an obvious benefit and many worldwide organizations - like the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) - have adopted that position. But studies to date have not yet provided a clear path to that conclusion. According to Nature.com's NatureNews, past small scale studies were inconclusive, "Many studies have simply shown that poverty frequently overlaps with areas that are a high priority for biodiversity conservation."
With the U.N. coming up short in its two goals of stemming the loss of biological diversity by 2010 and lifting at least half of the world's poorest out of poverty by 2015, considerable attention is being drawn to upcoming CBD meetings later this month. Convention members will be turning to research studies for answers and there have been a few large scale studies that provide an indication that a connection does exist between conservation and the reduction of poverty.
Conservation International conducted a massive global study of a group of ecosystems including water from rivers and streams. Using data and maps from sources ranging from the World Wildlife Fund to NASA, Conservation International combined that with population and human distribution data derived from LandScan data from the U.S. Department of Energy to determine whether any relationships exist between areas of poverty and possible biological diversity conservation efforts.
NatureNews reported, "The study, as yet unpublished, showed that water conservation projects could aid poverty alleviation. The 16 other ecosystem services they assessed, including crop pollination by insects and waste treatment, showed similar results. 'This suggests we should continue to push for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development where these synergies exist,' says [Conservation International researcher Will] Turner."
All well and good, but another study from a London-based research group brought up an important issue when conservation measures are initiated in countries as an economic stimulus to eliminate poverty, IE: eco-tourism. The study by the International Institute for Environment and Development questioned whether the economic benefits were actually reaching those in greatest need. As an anecdote to this study, I was reading about efforts to improve the controlled hunting of lions in African reserves. At issue was that, while considerable fees were being charged to the trophy hunters, local villagers who staffed the park reserve were still drastically underpaid.
More large-scale studies are taking place, but a final, definitive conclusion will be a difficult goal to achieve as there are so many variables at work in any particular situation. Population sizes, what specific ecosystems or natural resources would be conserved, what species are at risk, what economic benefits can be derived - all play a role and all can be different from place to place, situation to situation.
In the next few weeks, the United Nations will be struggling with strategies that can hopefully both lift the poverty levels of needy nations through economic development while preserving natural resources and enhancing biodiversity. It is a difficult tightrope to walk. Wrestling with finding solutions that will prevent conservation from being at odds with the reduction of poverty, Bill Adams from the University of Cambridge observed, "Maybe we can't stop biodiversity loss and lift people out of poverty at the same time, but we have to try to make it work."
Read article in NatureNews.
Visit the Convention on Biological Diversity website.