A wake-up call for conservation projects

Sometime in the 1990s, nature conservation organisations began to get serious about livelihoods. The basic idea was that if people living near protected areas (or other important places for wildlife) gain a good income from natural resources, they would place a higher value on the ecosystem, and therefore conserve it.

This logic has spawned a multitude of community ‘alternative livelihoods’ projects: everything from wild collected honey, souvenirs made from butterfly wings, to ecotourism and fuel-efficient stoves. Many people who entered the conservation profession because of their passion for wildlife have ended up designing and implementing community livelihoods projects similar to those that the international development NGOs like Oxfam, or Practical Action run.

Inevitably, some of the conservationists who are more concerned with creating and managing protected areas, helping to combat illegal logging or hunting, or influencing policies that affect wildlife, have always viewed this move with a degree of scepticism. However, with donors ploughing money into community livelihoods, conservation NGOs have generally embraced this approach.

But the mild disquiet with this livelihoods approach to conservation has suddenly become official. First, a motion was passed at the Vth IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2012 calling for a critical review of the biodiversity benefits of alternative livelihood projects. And a few months ago, a systematic review of the conservation outcomes of ‘alternative livelihoods’ projects was published by Dilys Roe and colleagues[1]. (At this point, I should admit that one of the co-authors, Gill Petrokofsky, is a friend of mine).

Roe and colleagues searched the scientific and ‘grey’ literature, turning up 839 studies on alternative livelihoods for conservation. From these, 97 studies that described 106 alternative livelihoods projects met criteria to be included in a ‘systematic map’ (a method to identify and show the quality of evidence available in the literature to answer a research question). Nearly half of the projects, 44%, were located in Asia, with another 32 % in Africa. The majority of projects were in forest areas.

Of these 106 projects, just 22 included an assessment of conservation effectiveness (21%, Figure 1). And that’s the fist big finding: a rigorous review of published studies on alternative livelihoods projects found only 22 where the conservation outcomes – the fundamental purpose for doing the projects – were even measured.

And here comes the second surprise. Of these 22 projects, nine resulted in positive conservation outcomes, another nine had no effect, and three had made the conservation problem worse (Figure 1). To repeat, from a systematic review of all published studies of alternative livelihoods projects, only nine had produced conservation benefits. Even worse, only one of the nine projects actually improved the status of a rare species, the remaining eight had contributed to things like changes in the behaviors of community members, or more positive attitudes towards conservation.


Figure 1. Conservation outcomes from alternative livelihoods projects (after Roe et al. 2015)

Improving the livelihoods of poor people is a good and important thing. However, the results of this very rigorous study are clear: giving communities alternative livelihoods rarely results in species or forests being better off. The paper stops short of giving reasons for this, but some of the key ones might be:

  • Power: communities often don’t have the power to stop practices that damage conservation, particularly in countries with poor governance. There is no Mexican standoff between an illegal logger with an AK47 and a community member.
  • The wrong target: since about the 1980s, smallholder communities are no longer responsible for the majority of tropical deforestation, particularly in the areas of greatest deforestation: large agricultural companies are[2].
  • Linking income to conservation: Many alternative livelihoods projects aren’t directly linked to conservation outcomes, so communities are in effect receiving additional income whether or not they conserve the forest/coral reef/endangered species. There are some good examples of projects that do link community income to conservation outcomes, such as the Ibis Rice project of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia, which should be applauded.
  • Real World Economics I: if people are helped to exploit a forest or marine resource better, then they are behaving economically rationally to capitalize on that resource as quickly as possible. This is a real issue in many countries where unscrupulous traders can arrive in a community at any time, giving a good price for ‘all you’ve got’. Bang! goes the Non Forest Timber Product (and possibly the forest too).
  • Real World Economics II: if you’re a farmer, and you get extra cash for doing something else, then you’re quite likely to invest your new cash it in farming – and that can mean more land clearance.

I think this paper is a real wake up call, one that should focus the mind of conservation professionals and donors on the balance of investment on different types of conservation. It should start a move towards employing more field biologists to measure conservation outcomes, as well as more transparent reporting on what is being achieved. I’d also hope that there’s a renewed effort to think through exactly how improved livelihoods translates into conservation gains, based on robust Theories of Change that incorporate the kind of issues I’ve highlighted above. It’s not that alternative community livelihoods projects can’t work, but this study makes clear that they usually don’t.

[1] Roe, D., Booker, F., Day, M., Zhou, W., Allebourne-Webb, S., Hill, N.A.O., Kumpel, N., Petrokofsky, G., Redford, K., Russell, D., Shepherd, G., Wright, J. & Sunderland, T.C.H (2015). Are alternative livelihood projects effective at reducing local threats to specified elements of biodiversity and/or improving or maintaining the conservation status of those elements? Environmental Evidence; 4:22.

[2] Rudel, T.K., R.S. Defries, G.P. Asner, and W.F. Laurance. 2009. Changing drivers of deforestation and new opportunities for conservation. Conservation Biology 23: 1396-1405.

This paper is a real wake up call, one that should focus the mind of conservation professionals and donors on the balance of investment on different types of conservation