A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling to London to help give a presentation at the Zoological Society of London for the symposium: Linking Biodiversity Conservation and Poverty Reduction: What, Why, and How?

Since December, I have been working with Craig Leisher at The Nature Conservancy on drafting a knowledge review that was commissioned specifically for the symposium. We presented our report, “Biodiveristy as a Mechanism for Poverty Reduction: A State of Knowledge Review,” identifying 9 conservation mechanisms (such as agroforestry, forest tourism, and spillover from marine protected areas) where there is evidence that the conservation activity led to an improvement in livelihoods.
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A couple of press articles were written specifically about our presentation and published in SciDev Net: “Poor want biomass, not biodiversity, finds study” and “Study pinpoints whether conservation can fight poverty”.

As well as one article in Science News: “Conservation’s poverty reduction claims questioned”.

Overall the symposium was very informative, and covered a lot of ground (links to the presentations). This specific field – the nexus between biodiversity conservation and the improvements in livelihoods of people who live in or near these wild places is still very nebulous to me. Wild places and the important flora and fauna that reside there should be conserved, but is focusing on reducing poverty a central component of this? I think the general answer is “yes.” It is defining the details where things get tricky.

One of the more compelling presentations in my opinion was by Bill Adams of Cambridge University. He talked about the larger sustainability concerns in the context of conservation: consumption, growth, fertilizer use, water use, climate change, etc. – in other words the mega-challenges that face our planet. He said something to the effect of “Are we, and should we be, bringing people onto the ocean liner that is heading for the iceberg?” – which I took to mean that is it wise to bring the poor into the global economic system (the ocean liner), when that system is not sustainable (heading for the iceberg)?

neil presentationMy concern is that modest conservation successes are going to be dwarfed by the problem of running out of carrying capacity for the 9 billion humans that will be on our planet by 2050.What happens when the Amazon rainforest becomes much more dry due to climate change, and millions of plants and animals go extinct?

That isn’t to say that conservation doesn’t have a very important role to play in helping to conserve the natural systems of the planet, places that can help bolster the resilience of ecosystems and the services that they provide humanity. I just think that in many cases, addressing the fundamental problem of why a place is threatened can do more to save that place rather than trying to save it directly. This is all open to debate of course, and I welcome comments on my thoughts.

Our paper is currently in the final stages of review, and it will be published in the near future. Hopefully it will be part of a book (published by Wiley-Blackwell), possibly as a journal article, and/or as a joint Nature Conservancy/IIED publication. I will let you know when it happens!