Five common reasons why natural resource management often fails people

It seems like a no brainer, by putting an economic value on nature in terms of the benefits it provides to people, such as clean water or climate regulation, we can encourage global and national leaders to conserve our natural resources and in turn improve lives and even tackle poverty.
But environmental and social win-wins are not that simple. The valuing nature approach has been criticised for being over simplistic and failing to take into account the complex relationships between people and the environment. The fact that people should not be disadvantaged by conservation and natural resource management initiatives is well recognised and reflected in many policies, yet this does not prevent injustices from happening. 
Nowhere are the consequences of failing to consider this complexity more clearly demonstrated than Rwanda. Over 90% of the population rely on small-scale agriculture and despite the country’s rich natural resources, rural poverty remains widespread. Its mountainous forests have been in decline since the 1970s and to protect what is left National Parks have been created. Yet the forests and the surrounding land remain vital to livelihoods and wellbeing, Nyungwe National Park alone supports over ½ million people who live in villages clustered around its border.
Life on the forest edge - Image: Neil Dawson
To better understand the link between people’s wellbeing and the environment researchers, supported by ESPA, used a multidimensional wellbeing framework to gain a more holistic understanding of the situation. Their analysis, through focus groups and interviews with eight villages in Rwanda, revealed five common problems, in the approach to natural resource management, that lead to social injustice.
  1. Same natural resources, different uses and values – Long term residents often grow multiple crops in the land surrounding the forests yet returnees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have not adopted this type of polyculture and prefer to use the land to grow trees or tea. In contrast the indigenous Twa people who have been removed and excluded from forests and are no longer able to hunt and gather forest goods and have become reliant on labouring opportunities in the land surrounding the forest.
  2. Oversimplification of the population – Different socio-ethnic groups were found to have very different levels of wellbeing. Twa people are mostly low income, landless labourers who suffer from food scarcity and rely on illegal firewood collection. In contrast DRC returnees are often better off, partly because they were given disproportionately large areas of land – often taken from long-term residents without compensation.
  3. Failure to understand power and politics – Firewood and charcoal are vital fuel sources for local households and are mostly sourced from government owned and private forests. Yet as they have become increasingly marketable commodities wealthier groups with rights to the land have restricted access. Poorer groups often take great financial or physical risks when they are forced to resort to illegal firewood collection. The creation of National Parks has also displaced the indigenous Twa people whose ability to make an alternative livelihood is severely limited by prejudice or exploitation. Labouring wages are often misappropriated and donations redirected.
  4. Oversimplification of the landscape – Biodiversity hotspots such as forests often become the focus of natural resource management. While Rwanda’s forests are a rich source of food, medicine and timber the analysis revealed that habitats outside the forest are also able to provide many services and goods that meet basic local needs. These substitute services provided by neighbouring habitats also need careful management to support people’s wellbeing and ensure a fair distribution of goods and benefits.
  5. Failure to appreciate the drivers of change and their impact– Rwanda’s crop intensification programme provided subsidies for seeds and fertilisers as well as imposing strict rules for crop production. Yet many could not afford to take part in the scheme and with traditional methods of crop growing restricted the majority of those interviewed felt the policy had a negative impact on their livelihood and wellbeing.
The new insights generated by this limited study in Rwanda reveal a level of complexity in the relationship between people and the environment that is not often taken into account. When people's values and practices are ignored and they have limited influence in decision making, claims of injustice soon follow. Compensation through money or material goods do not always make up for the freedom to manage land using cultural knowledge and traditions. More to the point these types of compensation often end up in the hands of the wealthy. 
This more holistic wellbeing analysis not only reveals the issues but also offers an opportunity for better decision making. Only by taking into account these complex realities can we design solutions that offer the best chance of tackling injustice, improving wellbeing and conserving vital natural resources.
This study was made possible through funding from the Social Sciences Faculty of the University of East Anglia and with support from the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme (Grant reference NE/L001411/1, Ecosystem Services, Wellbeing and Justice: Developing Tools for Research and Development Practice