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Can't Buy Conservation

What's the best way to maintain the health of rain forest parks? Perhaps that's better asked as, what's the best way to dissuade people from damaging the health of rain forest parks? A logical answer would be to invest in the economic well-being of the people who live near the parks. Logical -- but, as new research suggests, quite possibly wrong.

A recent survey of 16 African parks and wildlife preserves in 11 countries (published in the May 2005 issue of Biological Conservation -- summary here) found that one of the most important factors correlated with rain forest park success is a positive public attitude towards the parks. Direct financial support for development -- even sustainable development -- seems to be much less effective.

"You can't buy conservation," said Struhsaker. "Our evidence was contrary to beliefs expressed by such organizations as the World Bank -- that investment in economic development around parks aids in their success.

"For example, subsidizing agriculture around the parks generates income, but it also attracts more people, exacerbating the problems in the park," said Struhsaker. "The cost of such subsidy always goes up, because it's in the interest of those living near the park to bid up the price of their support, thereby threatening the integrity of the park." Nor is ecotourism the answer for park preservation, said Struhsaker, since unregulated ecotourism can stress park ecology as much as can economic development.

"Rather than throwing money into development, our data indicate that greater park success arises from treating local people as good neighbors and partners in park conservation and making it clear that it's the park managers' job to protect the park," he said.

While a little discouraging -- it would have been terrific to find that investment in sustainable development also had the effect of reducing harm to rain forests -- such findings are not terribly surprising. Appealing to the economic interest of citizens in order to promote environmental good is notoriously tricky, and can result in fragile, temporary successes. We see this in the developed world, too. Arguments that buying a hybrid car will help in times of high gas prices, for example, fall flat when gas prices fall (or are perceived to no longer be an issue). Telling people to do something because it's in their best interest runs a risk of people choosing to do something different when their best interests change. Decisions based on cultural values (from ethics to style) are not as easily dropped, once embraced.

One caveat to the study is that, for cost reasons, the researchers relied on park managers for information about how well the parks were doing rather than going in and taking a detailed look for themselves. Surprisingly, that sort of cross-park study of success of conservation efforts has not yet been done. A new set of standardized measures (PDF) has been proposed, however, and the group Conservation Measures Partnership has in the meantime developed a 'Rosetta Stone' to compare evaluation factors across various conservation groups.

Comments (4)

Jamais Cascio:

Interesting project, Myke; I hope it continues to work.

The concern remains, however, what happens when the short-term economic value of abandoning the elephants exceeds (or is believed to exceed) the long-term value of taking care of them? If (for example) an avian flu scare really cuts down on global travel, the tourism & safari income could take a real hit. Offers from poachers -- money for looking the other way -- could suddenly seem really appealing.

Garry Peterson:

Except that CAMPFIRE has been dead for a while.

It was killed by a combination of the implosion of Zimbabwe's economy and absence of effective rule of law. It is unclear how much of this failure is due to the brutal nature of Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and how much is due to the problem of local income being stolen by non-local officals. In either case the initial success of the program for local communities attracted predatory powerful people from outside the region who both took much of the income, removing local incentives for conservation.

A 2003 analysis by Smith et al showed that corruption had a strong relationship with environmental degradation.


Seems that greed and corruption often spoil the best-laid plans.
Perhaps the weakness of many capitalistic solutions is that sharp operators find ways to exploit them and undermine the original intent.
African countries appear to be a particularly hard test for any conservation plan.


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