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Are Conservation and Economic Growth Conflicting Goals?

Chemonics’ experts discuss tools to measure the economic value of natural resources, how to share the costs of conservation between countries, and more.

One common critique of conservation efforts is that by protecting a country’s natural resources, it becomes more difficult for that country to grow economically. International development projects, which aim to end extreme poverty without losing sight of environmental sustainability, are often faced with the challenge of reconciling these two distinct goals. But do the goals of economic growth and conservation truly conflict? Three of Chemonics’ experts in natural resources management weigh in on the debate.

The Experts

In your work, have you ever seen the goals of conservation and economic growth conflict with each other? How can the development community respond to that challenge?

Michael Brown: The goals of conservation and economic growth (a.k.a. development) have been conceptually banging heads for more than 20 years now. In 1992, I wrote a manual for the World Wildlife Fund called Designing Integrated Conservation and Development Projects. Despite multiple reprints in several languages, it has debatably never been fully implemented. It is premised on an adaptive management methodology where hypotheses are tested and refined as one goes based on what works and what doesn’t. Doing it requires the ability to let go of top-down planning wisdom. That has proven tough for decision-makers to promote.

Nkobi Mpho Moleele: In developing countries, it’s true that the goals of conservation and economic development are at times not aligned. What development partners should do is conduct a thorough analysis of the costs and benefits of potential conservation and economic growth initiatives for a target area. Then, the project can work with the community to select the best path forward, taking into account that analysis as well as issues of equity and access. One tool that can be useful is the concept of natural resources accounting, which is a method for calculating the monetary value of natural resources and can help decision-makers understand the benefits and costs of conservation in economic terms, relative to other land uses.

Carlos Quintela: Conflicts between conservation and economic growth are not rare, but sometimes these conflicts are more a matter of perception or the result of how we are approaching a particular sustainable development challenge. This can happen at every scale. Take Costa Rica, for instance. They went from a situation of conflict between protected areas and ranching in the 1980s and 1990s to having ecotourism — built on the back of a world-class natural park system — as one of the most important drivers of economic growth. At the very local level, communities that have to choose between protecting mangroves and getting firewood may come to realize that this conflict is reduced or eliminated if they look at other economic alternatives (e.g., honey, fishing that benefits from standing mangroves) or if they incorporate into their equation the cost of repairing or rebuilding their homes, neighborhoods, and cities because the loss of mangrove stands have made their areas more prone to floods or storm surges.

Sustainability is often a long-term goal with delayed benefits, while activities that degrade the environment may offer immediate financial reward. What can development programs do to encourage communities and countries to buy into sustainability? Is it a question of behavior change, or is it more important to implement policies and structural incentives?

Michael Brown: For sustainability to be achieved, a lot of stars need aligning, including policies, incentives, local capacities, government capacities, implementing partner capacities, and more. Our strategies and tools for adaptively managing the process are lacking. Why should communities accept planning wisdoms if experience has been disappointing for them? Communities don’t wish to be preached to. They prefer to understand costs, benefits, and risks of what is proposed to them versus having awareness simply raised. Many projects preach a sustainability mantra without providing a pathway for communities to analyze whether what is proposed makes sense to them. This needs to change to achieve sustainability. We did a presentation recently on one toolkit that attempts to do this — the Community Options Analysis and Investment Toolkit.

Nkobi Mpho Moleele: I do not agree! It’s important to recognize that the concept of sustainability is relative, because different groups understand sustainability differently based on their goals. For example, a subsistence farmer may have a different idea of what sustainability looks like than a tourism developer does. If we don’t recognize that there are different interpretations of sustainability, we run the risk of prioritizing one group’s needs over another’s. For example, if we define long-term sustainability as keeping conservation areas pristine, that definition may benefit a nature-based tourism operation while ignoring the needs of neighboring communities wallowing in poverty. Instead, development partners should design programs that take into account the different goals of each key stakeholder, and then help each stakeholder find practical ways to value all three pillars of the triple bottom line (economics, social justice, and environmental management).

Carlos Quintela: Not necessarily. Sustainability should not be associated with long-term goals. There are plenty of examples of sustainable goals that can be reached in the short term. It all depends on where you draw the boundaries of the intervention and who else you bring to the table to discuss and resolve the conflict. Most of the negative impacts of short-sighted measures in pursuit of short-term returns tend to affect those who are typically absent from the decision-making process or are uninformed about how those decisions would affect their lives. The affluent and influential are the least affected by poor development decisions. I would argue that we need to start by firstly rephrasing the question; secondly, internalizing the costs of environmental degradation; thirdly, bringing the right stakeholders into the conversation; and lastly, adjusting the timescale of the intervention to match the reality and circumstances of all the relevant stakeholders.

Some believe there is a double standard, in which the developed world has already made the trade-off to grow economically at the expense of their natural resources, but is now encouraging the developing world to preserve their environments despite a possible side effect of stunting economic growth. How can developed countries share the economic costs of conservation when most of our remaining forests and biodiversity are in developing countries?

Michael Brown: This isn’t a "developing country only" issue. Developed countries can and should conserve their natural resources as well. Let’s look at New England. Despite having one of the densest populations in the country, it is also one of the most heavily forested regions in the United States. Forest cover has rebounded from less than 30 percent to more than 75 percent in many places since the 1700s. Changes in New England’s land-use practices are due to the global sourcing of food, energy, building materials, and natural resources, versus predominantly relying on local resources for food and fuel. No longer an agrarian economy, its conservation and development objectives have been subsequently shaped through global and local market forces. Can developed countries learn anything from New England?

Nkobi Mpho Moleele: This is an important question, because most developing countries have yet to sufficiently benefit from conservation, and alarming poverty rates still prevail in proximity to conservation areas. We don’t have a solution yet, but here are three questions that we would need to address to share the economic costs of conservation:

i. What integrated mechanisms can be employed to share the costs of conservation and the benefits of economic growth, such as natural resources accounting?

ii. What is required to strengthen the capacity of institutions with mandates related to conservation and economic growth?

iii. What programs can we design and implement that involve payment for ecosystem services?

Carlos Quintela: Without ignoring the historical context and responsibility of developing nations for global environmental impact, the linear argument implicit in the way the debate has been conducted — you pillaged your natural assesses and did well, now you don't want me to do the same — sets us up for a race to the bottom. Again, although there is a historical responsibility that should not be ignored, the modern trajectory of the sustainable economic development arc is anything but linear. There are plenty of other examples of countries leap-frogging development phases because at first they could, and then they had to in order to remain competitive.


Michael Brown is the director of Chemonics’ Environment and Natural Resources Practice and has more than 30 years of experience in international development and natural resources management in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, South Asia, and the South Pacific.

Nkobi Mpho Moleele is the chief scientist for the RESILIM Program and a natural resources management expert with more than 20 years of experience in design and implementation of development and research programs in southern Africa. He is a member of the Biodiversity Task Force for the Okavango River Permanent Commission and was also previously a senior lecturer at University of Botswana.

Carlos Quintela is the chief of party of the SERVIR and Climate Services Support Activity and an environmental policy specialist with more than 20 years of experience managing projects in Afghanistan, Latin America, Mozambique, and Uganda.


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