Study Shows Protecting Vital Habitats Can Ease Poverty

Protecting the land of highest priority for biodiversity conservation also delivers significant, life-sustaining services and income to the world’s most impoverished people, according to a new study published this month in the journal, BioScience. Yet conservation efforts and poverty alleviation efforts are both at risk of failing, since this ‘natural capital’ is grossly undervalued in the global marketplace.

First global estimation of biodiversity benefits and
ecosystem service flows from habitats to humans,
finds flows valued at $1 trillion USD per year to poor
communities, potential for additional half trillion
January 19, 2012 (Washington, DC) - The ground-breaking study, Global Biodiversity Conservation and the Alleviation of Poverty, was led by a team from Conservation International, and co-authored by scientists at NatureServe, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The scientists analyzed the value of benefits the world's poorest people receive from priority areas for biodiversity conservation. They assessed a broad range of ‘ecosystem services', the benefits people receive from natural habitats—from local benefits including crop pollination, foods, medicines, and clean, fresh water, to global benefits such as climate regulation.

Dr. Will Turner, lead author and vice president for Conservation International, emphasized the strong correlations his team discovered, showing the high value of effectively managing the stocks of natural capital to ease poverty—the world's top conservation priorities (less than a quarter of Earth's land surface) provide over half (56-57 percent) of the world's ecosystem service value, directly supporting the world's poorest people, who generally struggle to survive on less than one dollar a day.

"What the research clearly tells us is that conserving the world's remaining biodiversity isn't just a moral imperative, it is a necessary investment for lasting economic development. But in many places where the poor depend on these natural services, we are dangerously close to exhausting them, resulting in lasting poverty,” said Turner.

The study also found that when all 17 ecosystem services they examined are totaled, the benefits of these areas are more than triple (326 percent) the costs of conserving them.

"We have always known that biodiversity is foundational to human well-being, but we now have a strong case that ecosystems specifically located in the world's biodiversity hotspots and high-biodiversity wilderness areas also provide a vital safety net for people living in poverty,” said Dr. Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and a co-author of the paper. "Protecting these places is essential not only to safeguard life on earth but also to support the impoverished, ensure continued broad access to nature's services, and meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.”

The scientists analyzed four different scenarios for the links between biodiversity conservation and human poverty—(1) potential ecosystem services, the range of services that nature provides whether or not people use them; (2) realized ecosystem services, which are directly available to local, downstream or global populations; (3) essential services, representing the immediate and critical benefits available to poor individuals (wood for shelter, water for drinking, etc.); and (4) essential services with transfers, or those which compensate local stewards of natural resources with market or incentive mechanisms.

In the last scenario—transfers of benefits from ecosystem services—the researchers reported that markets and other financial mechanisms that provide compensation to local populations who take on the responsibility of protecting and sustainably managing nature at its source (such as Payments for Ecosystem Services or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) have the potential to provide a 50 percent increase in benefits to poor communities, delivering up to an additional half trillion USD per year to the people who need it most.

To put this in context, the scientists calculated that if the value generated by ecosystem services to local people were distributed effectively and equitably, it would exceed $1 per-person per-day for nearly one-third of the world's poorest people (331 million of an estimated 1.1 billion living in poverty).

"Developed and developing economies cannot continue to ask the world's poor to shoulder the burden of protecting these globally important ecosystem services for the rest of the world's benefit, without compensation in return,” added Turner. "This is exactly what we mean when talk about valuing natural capital. Nature may not send us a bill, but its essential services and flows, both direct and indirect, have concrete economic value.”

Co-author Dr. Claude Gascon, executive vice president of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation said, "This paper clearly shows that the natural world provides huge benefits to humanity by contributing to the well being of local and global communities. Moreover, areas of high biodiversity importance are disproportionately critical in providing these benefits and should therefore be a high priority for protection.”

"The study also demonstrates that the collection of biodiversity data yields great benefit,” said Tom Brooks, chief scientist at NatureServe. "Not only in guiding conservation in its own right, but also—when analyzed alongside socio-economic datasets—in informing policy across the board.”

Addressing gaps that still remain in the science, Turner added, "Is natural capital alone sufficient to alleviate poverty? The answer is no. Our existing information of the value of ecosystem services is grossly insufficient, and we have much work ahead of us to quantify these services. But the magnitude of synergies between priority biodiversity conservation areas and poverty alleviation goals is so large, that we really must work on them together.”

Mittermeier concluded, "We have learned a lot in understanding how ecosystem services flow to people, but in many ways, the world's economic compass is broken—we are undervaluing and overspending our planet's natural capital. That is why it is so important for decision-makers to integrate conservation of nature as a critical component of economic and poverty-alleviation policies this decade. ”
 
For more information about the methodology or specific findings of this research, download the full text of the paper by clicking here.
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