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To Alleviate Poverty, Biodiversity Conservation is Critical

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Last month, a paper entitled "Global Biodiversity Conservation and the Alleviation of Poverty" was published in the journal BioScience. The study marks the first global estimation of biodiversity benefits and ecosystem service flows from habitats to humans. CI Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach Will Turner -- the paper's lead author -- summarizes the study's biggest findings.

In 1961, as Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, ground control heard the awestruck cosmonaut utter, "The Earth is blue." Mere minutes aloft, Gagarin's perch afforded him this simple perspective -- one that four thousand years of earthbound scientific inquiry had yet to offer.

Sometimes we need a global view to see the big picture.

Working in international conservation, I know that nearly all conservation efforts are local. The success of any project or program largely hinges on how well it addresses the needs and constraints defined by a place's people, institutions and conditions, and how well it engages those people and institutions in creating solutions.

We know, for example, that biodiversity and conservation provide many benefits -- often known as "ecosystem services" -- to human communities, and that poor communities in particular are often critically dependent on these services. Forests and wetlands purify water, woodlands are the sources of pollinators that keep croplands productive, and so on.

But in linking development and environmental conservation, we're sometimes operating more on assumptions than tested principles. How much could ecosystem services really be benefiting poor communities? Are these communities in places where they could profit from payments for stewarding resources that others depend on? How valuable are the benefits of ecosystems on a global scale, and could they really be worth the cost of conserving the natural landscapes that provide them?

To answer these questions, we needed to take a step back and look not at individual case studies but the whole globe at once. Over the course of several years, I and my colleagues at CI, NatureServe, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a global map assessing the benefits that natural ecosystems provide to poor people [see above]. This required that we first take the unprecedented step of mapping, for all Earth's land area, the flows of ecosystem services from the ecosystems that provide them to the people that benefit from them.

We began with simple models for different services, from the short-distance flights of pollinators, to services such as water supply and nutrient cycling that follow complex patterns as river networks flow downstream over the Earth's surface, all the way to the global benefits of forests for atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

What we found surprised us. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Pollination, erosion control, water supply, and other ecosystem services provide benefits worth an estimated US$ 1 trillion per year to poor communities.
  • The world's top conservation priority areas (which make up less than a quarter of the Earth's land surface) provide more than half of the planet's terrestrial ecosystem services. The benefits these areas provide are more than triple the estimated costs of protecting them.
  • Ecosystems of high value for biodiversity conservation and supporting poor people occur in many regions, with some of the greatest overlaps in the tropical Andes and Amazon; many parts of sub-Saharan Africa such as coastal West Africa andMadagascar; and much of South and Southeast Asia, from the Himalayas through Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
  • Markets and financial mechanisms that compensate 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 (REDD+) -- have the potential to provide a 50 percent increase in benefits to poor communities -- delivering up to an additional US$ 500 billion per year to the people who need it most, many of whom earn less than one dollar a day.

This last finding is particularly important. To begin with, it captures the idea that developed and developing economies cannot continue to ask the world's poor to shoulder the burden of protecting these globally important ecosystem services for everyone else's benefit without compensation in return. But it also means that natural ecosystems can go beyond providing essential "in-kind" benefits to poor communities now; if access and markets are appropriately structured, these ecosystems could also be the basis for considerable additional income.

So what should we do with this information? The next step is to show a clear path forward for sustainable development, linking poverty alleviation and conservation in a blueprint for the institutions that govern societies and drive economies.

Nature may not send us a bill, but it's clear that its essential services and flows, both direct and indirect, have concrete value.

Will Turner is CI's vice president of conservation priorities and outreach. Download the full paper in BioScience here.