Poverty or biodiversity loss: an inevitable choice?

By Tibor Hartel

Here’s a ‘conservation dilemma’ – a problem offering at least two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable (Source: Wikipedia). Working a relatively poor part of Europe (Central Romania), we are confronted with this dilemma on a daily basis.

One possibility to protect biodiversity, widely used in Europe and around the world, is the delineation of protected areas to preserve rare or endemic species, or a certain type of  cultural-natural heritage. To achieve conservation goals the area delineated should be managed in a specific way, that is, according to a management plan. If people live there, then a number of (usually financial) incentives can be used to ‘motivate’ agriculture and development which under the best available knowledge is ‘environmentally friendly’. Put simply: there are certain delineated areas where certain species or ecological functions are worth protecting, and there are areas where all these are already lost. It’s only in the latter that development can occur in a relatively unrestricted way.

Financial incentives to people living within protected areas (e.g. in the EU, Natura 2000 sites) have the aim to compensate people so they can afford the same things as people living outside the protected areas. People should not experience economic hardship because they live in a protected area, and therefore payments are used to compensate them for restrictions to development and production.

Does this work? This type of conservation strategy fragments ecological space into small isolates – like islands in the sea. These isolates (i) are unlikely to generate the full spectrum of life supporting ecosystem services, (ii) are less likely to be adaptive-resilient to global change and (iii) might hide a huge latent conflictual situation: what will happen if the financial incentives to maintain biodiverse landscapes stop?

So splitting the world into protected and unprotected areas, and compensating people accordingly works only when the world is stable. It is not sustainable in a rapidly changing world.

The second possibility is to find locations where traditional land use practices are still being practiced today. The assumption here is that if certain farming practices applied over centuries maintained fertile soils, clear waters and biodiverse landscapes, then these practices could be a good solution for sustainability. Moreover, they will generate good quality food, water and other resources for people. Perhaps these areas should then be protected areas, such as Natura 2000 sites? In Romania this happens, but one of the difficulties is that highly biodiverse farmlands are so widespread that delineating protected ‘islands’ appears quite nonsensical or even dangerous. In Romania, many valuable landscapes and biodiversity elements have now remained outside of the protected areas, receiving no conservation status and no attention from conservationists (since they focus on protected areas…). This type of conservation approach thus will result in a ‘forced binarization’ of the ecological space, which is not desired.

How can we solve the problem of biological conservation in areas characterised by traditional farming and high biodiversity? Maintaining those farming practices and traditional knowledge would be a possibility, sounds quite simple – but is it? If we somehow could maintain those traditional systems, we will likely have: (i) life supporting (and many other) ecosystem services, and (ii) adaptive, resilient ecological systems with well pronounced ‘internal-’ and ‘external memory’ (resilient e.g. to climate change, disease outbreaks etc.). But we can’t rid ourselves of that huge potential for conflict: people will want to develop (not nice to be trapped in the Middle Ages when others have satellite TV!), and acquire a similar level of material wealth as other people elsewhere (e.g. in western Europe).

Financial incentives are the solution most commonly envisaged. These incentives also symbolise an invitation for traditional communities to join the big, EU-wide (and indeed, global!) system of money and markets. Not only to be a part of it, but to depend on it. With all the consequences. Although financial incentives may be a solution in short term, they don’t seem viable in long term.

How do we tackle this dilemma?

3 thoughts on “Poverty or biodiversity loss: an inevitable choice?

  1. Correction: ‘a problem offering at least two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable (Source: Wikipedia)’ – this is for dilemma.

  2. Pingback: Poverty versus biodiversity loss, again | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Pingback: The most popular posts in this blog | Ideas for Sustainability

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