Conserving nature - helping people

Poverty and Conservation: Landscapes, People and Power

Posted: 19 September 2005

Author: Robert Fisher and William Jackson
IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 2005

The central theme of this latest book from the World Conservaton Union is that environmental conservation can and must contribute more actively to the battle against poverty.

The authors argue that the livelihoods of the rural poor and the environment are so intimately linked that poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation need to be addressed together.

"Poverty reduction and conservation are important objectives, and it is often necessary to address both at the same time in order to achieve either," says principal author, Dr. Robert Fisher.

Three-quarters of the world's 3 billion poor, according to some estimates, live in rural areas and they depend heavily on natural resources for their survival. Loss of biodiversity can have serious, and sometimes catastrophic, impacts on the world's population and the poor in particular.

For example, one billion Asians rely on fish as their primary source of protein; the fishing enterprise globally employs some 200 million people. Yet, 14 out of the 17 fisheries worldwide are in decline today.

Environmental factors such as unsafe drinking water and smoke from biomass cooking fires cause about a quarter of all preventable illnesses.

"In the Shinyanga region of Tanzania the restoration of 500,000 hectares of native woodlands has created opportunities for poor rural communities to develop small businesses and for families to invest more in education and health," says Fisher.

"Although the links between conservation and poverty are complex and dynamic, our research has shown conservation projects can often deliver both poverty reduction and environmental sustainability," says Fisher.

The Nam Pheng village in Lao PDR is another example in the book where sustainable harvests of non-timber forest products have reduced poverty by at least half. Under a project, executed by the World Conservation Union and the National Agriculture and Forest Research Institute, simple marketing measures led to a two-to three-fold increase of income through selling bamboo; the sale prices of cardamom went up from USD 0.05 per kilo to USD 3.5.

As a result of the changes prompted by the project, mortality of children under five has been reduced and school enrolment has doubled. Villagers have also been able to save more and increase their livestock numbers, resulting in improved livelihood security while at the same time conserving biodiversity.

In summary the areas where conservation can help to reduce poverty are are by providing access to markets for the sustainable use of natural resources; building new assets by restoring ecosystems; improving access of the poor to resources; and reducing the vulnerability of the poor to natural disasters.

The book also stresses the importance of well-planned investments in environmental conservation. At the same time, failure to invest adequately will degrade the essential ecosystem services upon which the poor depend.

"Sixty per cent of the world's ecosystems are already degraded today, impacting most severely on the livelihoods of the poor. In order to reduce poverty, we need investment in conservation in a way that helps eradicate extreme poverty," says Dr William Jackson, co-author of the book.

The authors point out that recent trends in democratic governance such as decentralization create opportunities to empower poor people and to make development choices that are environmentally sustainable.

The World Conservation Union says it is taking the message of this book to heart with approximately one-quarter of its field work focused on how conservation can make a positive contribution to poverty reduction.