Putting the right price on conservation?

In developing countries, direct incentives are increasingly perceived as the best solution to biodiversity loss as they reward individuals engaging in conservation-oriented activities quickly, tangibly and proportionately

In developing countries, direct incentives are increasingly perceived as the best solution to biodiversity loss as they reward individuals engaging in conservation-oriented activities quickly, tangibly and proportionately

The question of how to maximise the effectiveness of conservation programmes has been fundamental to conservation policy for decades. From the ‘fences and fines’ approach typified by early national parks to the ‘inclusive’ approach of community-based resource management, the debate continues as to how each conservation dollar (or, equally importantly, yen or rupee) is best spent.

Contemporary approaches which aim to ensure a financial return for individuals and communities engaging in conservation practices give rise to the question of whether we can put the right price on conservation.

Exclusion and enforcement

It is generally acknowledged that the strict exclusion of resource users from national parks does not result in positive conservation outcomes. Even back in the Middle Ages, European kings had to resort to fairly draconian measures to combat wildlife poaching in royal reserves, including offenders being blinded or having various limbs removed – or both. Whilst this may have succeeded in instilling fear amongst the populace, the fact remains that strict exclusion removes access to essential food and water resources, resulting in the perennial problem of enforcing strict no-take reserves.

Alternative approaches have emphasised that enforcement is facilitated when local resource users can accrue benefits from wildlife conservation associated with the development of activities which depend upon maintaining these resources – most commonly ecotourism. The realisation of these ‘indirect incentives’ cannot be guaranteed, however, as they reflect drivers at various scales including, for example, individual capacity to diversify into tourism, the quality of tourist infrastructure nationally and international events which directly impact upon the tourism sector.

Direct incentives

Consequently, recent attention has been directed towards ‘direct incentives’, wherein individuals or communities receive financial payments in return for activities which are compatible with conservation policy. These range from payments to farmers in return for undertaking environmentally friendly agricultural activities within the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy to proposals under the Kyoto Protocol to pay communities directly for activities resulting in a reduction in deforestation rates – the REDD mechanism.

Putting the ‘right price’ on natural resources is in itself an inexact science yet is fundamental to all direct incentives approaches

In developing countries, direct incentives are increasingly perceived as the best solution to biodiversity loss as they reward individuals engaging in conservation-oriented activities quickly, tangibly and proportionately. All of these are commonly cited as drawbacks associated with the indirect incentives approach and, equally importantly, reflect the urgency associated with combating increasing rates of extinction and environmental degradation.

Economic values

Nevertheless, there are serious issues associated with direct incentives which merit consideration. Whilst there are various means available to put an economic value on natural resources, all involve a degree of subjectivity and are therefore open to debate.

We would all, for example, agree that charismatic or endangered species are particularly worthy of protection. However, how much would we as individuals be prepared to pay for that protection, knowing that we will likely never see a Sumatran tiger in the wild? How much would we be prepared to pay for knowing that future generations may be able to similarly benefit from its existence? These values, termed existence value and bequest value respectively, represent just two components of the total economic value of a natural resource. Consequently, putting the ‘right price’ on natural resources is in itself an inexact science yet is fundamental to all direct incentives approaches.

Secondly, the injection of cash to communities inevitably lends itself to abuse through the ability of local elites to appropriate an unequal share of the money available, which in turn leads to disillusion and resentment within other sections of the user community. This may eventually be manifest as open breaching of the regulations imposed as part of the direct incentives approach, with negative impacts upon the integrity of the resource being protected.

Thirdly, we must question the ability of direct incentives to enable effective conservation in the longer term which is the timescale through which any resource management programme must be effective. What, for instance, would happen if the payments to resource users are reduced? This is of major importance in that many direct incentives programmes are operated by NGOs and the private sector, with clear implications regarding the capacity to maintain payments at an agreed level.

Finally, there is an ethical dimension to this critique in that direct incentives approaches represent the ‘purchase’ of a resource by an entity, most frequently located overseas in a developed country, which previously had been owned or accessed collectively by locally resident resource users. There are clear overtones of colonial-era thinking implicit in such an arrangement which are of relevance if we are seeking to justify conservation policy.

This is not to say that direct incentives are unsuitable – indeed, there are circumstances and examples which demonstrate the opposite. However, we should be wary of assuming that paying off resource users is a viable long term conservation strategy. It remains just one alternative in the range of options designed to combine the needs of resource users and the wider imperatives associated with conserving what remains of our shared environment.

Written by

  • , Assistant Professor, School of Earth and Environment, University of Western Australia
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