Conservation: short term pain for long term gain?

Protected areas can be good for local  people in developing countries; this is the slightly surprising conclusion of a paper lead-authored from the International Food Policy Research Institute (hardly a bastion of man-the barricades hard line conservation thinking). Since the standard position of most local people in developing countries and the social scientists who document their views is the opposite, this is significant good news for conservationists.

Some important caveats need to be made. Firstly the paper’s case studies were located in Costa Rica and Thailand. This choice was made for reasons of data availability, but one cannot escape noticing that (until recently at least) these were two fairly well governed countries that had invested significantly in ecotourism. Secondly, the authors can only speculate as to what have been the drivers of the additional economic growth associated with protected areas. Maybe donors have invested a lot in supporting these protected areas, some of which has manifested itself as community development projects in an attempt to buy local support. Thus while those donors might have reason to feel pleased for themselves that their strategy has borne fruit of a sort, if we took that support away maybe the protected area would not have achieved the document positive effects. Thirdly, the paper looks only at economic impacts; it doesn’t consider whether or not local people like the protected area, which is also often a key issue. (And donors who pumped money in to support it may still not have achieved what they actually set out to achieve.)

This third caveat brings me to a wider point. No catch zones around spawning areas in fisheries have been shown to increase catches outside the protected zone, but conservationists often still face an uphill struggle convincing fishermen that such measures are in their best interests. In other words we don’t often know what’s best for ourselves, and in an uncertain world prefer clear short term gains to uncertain long term benefits. The bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Thus we have protected areas enacting the tragedy of the commons in reverse. The study focused on the long term impacts of the protected areas and the authors imply that they believe the shorter term effect may have been negative. Numerous studies have shown how biodiversity itself has diffuse positive impacts on environmental; I would imagine that these are mostly subtle and take time to have an effect. Thus even in something as easily quantifiable as fishery yields it may take a few years for the populations to recover sufficiently to notice a positive return on catches. When we are concerned about economic gains across communities living in and around a protected area this indirect linkage will likely be even subtler and diffused across a range of different livelihood strategies.

It is not just political correctness to say that local communities absolutely should have a say in the creation and management of protected areas in their homelands. Furthermore new protected areas should not be created without more than adequate compensation being paid to those people affected. But just as fitness campaigners are right to point out that it we stop drinking alcohol and smoking, and exercise more then we will live healthier lives, so it is fair enough for conservationists to campaign for sensible environmental stewardship. Obese Westerners do not always want to exercise, local communities may resent loss of their hunting or grazing rights; society as a whole can take a wider and longer view.

Hat Tip: Not Exactly Rocket Science


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