What do we know about how biodiversity and poverty are linked? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Dilys Roe
March 19, 2014

There is an explicit assumption in international policy statements that conserving biodiversity can help in efforts to tackle global poverty. For example Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity agreed in 2001 “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss …. as a contribution to poverty alleviation …”[i] , and this is mirrored by the inclusion of biodiversity indicators as one element of measuring progress against the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Indeed, a high level meeting at the September 2010 UN General Assembly further stressed the link, claiming:  “…preserving biodiversity is inseparable from the fight against poverty”[ii] .

This relationship is not, however, a self-evident truth. As international policy makers discuss a new development framework for the next decade and a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) it is important to explore what evidence underlies these claims, and where there are gaps in the evidence that need filling in order to maximise synergies between conservation and development. IIED and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) recently undertook just such a study.with funding from an ESPA Evidence and Impact Research Grant

Wikipedia defines evidence as “everything that is used to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion”[iii]. This gives a lot of flexibility: information ranging from professional science reported in peer-reviewed journal articles to indigenous knowledge passed on orally can qualify as evidence.  However, time and funding – the usual constraints any research project – limited our review to evidence that was already documented. And of course we had to be able to find the evidence in order to review it. This is where academic journal articles come into their own, since they are catalogued and easily retrievable from a variety of online databases. Experience from field practitioners, funders and poor people themselves is often un-documented (and even when it is documented, it can be hard to locate and retrieve in any systematic fashion). Nevertheless, even within these constraints our review revealed some interesting insights into what has been studied and documented to date and where the key knowledge gaps remain.

1)      Biodiversity is (a) good: Most of the studies that we found framed biodiversity in terms of its value as a resource — in the form of specific goods that can be used to generate tangible benefits such as cash, food, fuel. Very few studies explored biodiversity’s role in underpinning the ecosystem services poor people particularly rely on. Even fewer investigated the benefits of diversity as a form of insurance or adaptive capacity.

2)      Biodiversity can be bad. Our review highlighted some examples of conflict between biodiversity (wildlife) and people, such as elephants raiding crops; lions killing livestock; apes injuring people. But it only scratched the surface in terms of the inconvenient truth that biodiversity also encompasses pests, parasites and pathogens. So biodiversity can be your safety net yet it can also kill you.

3)      Some bits of biodiversity are more ugly  than others. While there is a large body of literature related to forest biodiversity, and especially to NTFPs, other ecological settings are poorly studied and have become the neglected ‘ugly duckling’ of biodiversity research. Drylands, in particular, are home to a high proportion of the world’s poor, and these people’s livelihoods depend on land and livestock[iv]. The importance of biodiversity — for fodder, fibre and medicines — seems obvious and warrants increased attention in development strategies for these areas[v]   And just as certain ecosystems are more popular research topics than others, so are the more tangible components of biodiversity. We found few studies that dealt with genetic diversity, microbes or even invertebrates.

So, is conserving biodiversity inseparable from the fight against poverty? Our review revealed a surprisingly patchy evidence base to support this claim. This is not to say that the lack of evidence disproves the claim, but rather that only a very small subset of biodiversity has actually been studied. And, where research has been done, very little has been structured to demonstrate causal links between using biodiversity and alleviating poverty.

What’s more, there is potentially a vast body of knowledge – held by poor people themselves – that is not documented and is therefore unavailable for evidence reviews such as ours, or for influencing policy.

Policy-makers need to be aware of this evidence bias when formulating conservation and development policy – such as that which will be enshrined in the SDGs. The scientific community can help to address the bias by paying greater attention to those components of biodiversity which are under-studied. But both policy-makers and scientists need to give attention to how to better-integrate the documented and undocumented, and the ‘scientific’ and ‘traditional’, in order to generate a much richer evidence base.

[i] Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2002): Decision VI/26: Strategic Plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

[iv] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and human well-being: desertification synthesis. World Resources Institute, Washington DC

[v] Davies, J. et al. (2012) Conserving dryland biodiversity. IUCN, UNEP-WCMC, UNCCD www.unccd.int/Lists/SiteDocumentLibrary/Publications/drylands_bk_2.pdf