Pretend that you have a small ranch of 7 milk cows – your sole income source. A conservation organization comes to you asking you to plant some trees on your ranch and fence off the area around the river — leaving space on your farm for only 5 cows.

Without the trees, your farm will be less productive through time (because no nutrients are being returned to your soils) and the main water source for you and for downstream users will be polluted and unusable. To compensate you for lost income, the conservationists give you seeds and help you grow an organic vegetable garden in your backyard. You no longer need to buy vegetables in the market.

But in 3 months, you find the garden isn’t producing enough for your family. Do you cut the trees and put more cows back on your farm? Yes — we all would. Faced with the choice of conservation or providing for a family, we would all choose our family.

So do conservation projects routinely take such socioeconomic impacts into account and plan for them?

Often not. And we need to do better, if for no other reason then to ensure our conservation strategies last into the future.

Many projects include vague goals about measuring socioeconomic impacts, but lack hard targets and methods. Here are the kinds of things we need to start measuring:

1)      How a project’s conservation strategies impact the current livelihoods of the people in the project area;

2)      How, through time, the strategy may benefit, enhance, or harm those livelihoods; and

3)      If our strategies do have an initial negative impact, are we adequately compensating people for that harm?

We don’t think that way as conservation scientists. But if we don’t start to, we won’t be successful. Not only is it unfair to threaten the livelihoods of people, but ultimately we all make decisions based on the costs to our personal health and well-being.  Thus, if our conservation actions hurt people, people will find a way to “fight back.”

The above scenario is a replica of strategies taken by The Nature Conservancy in their water fund projects. The Conservancy is now developing a measures program for water funds projects including measuring impacts on people. The question we’re asking: Are gardens adequate compensation to families for lost income associated with improved management on the ranch? Our hypothesis: Enough money is saved from purchasing vegetables to compensate for lost milk-selling income.

Testing this hypothesis can be done. A carefully designed survey carried out by a trusted community member can give information about family income streams and how they change with conservation strategies.

This example was about agriculture…but we face many similar examples in our conservation projects:

  • Creating a marine protected area might in 5 years provide sustained access to fish for many people, but how many people initially lost access because of its creation? How many people can the resources actually support in the future? Do we compensate sufficiently in the interim?
  • Conserving a forest through a REDD project might provide funds to compensate local people who relied on minimal timber harvest from that forest for income and who lived within the forest for shelter, but are these payments sufficient to compensate loss income and cost of displacement?

The future of our effectiveness as conservationists — not to mention our credibility — demands that we ask these questions…and get the right answers.

(Image: Children and dog at Rio Tulua, outside of Tulua, Colombia. Image credit: Rebecca Goldman/TNC.)

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  1. Thank you for posting this GREAT topic! In New Jersey, community members regularly express concern for a loss of municipal tax revenue on land purchased by tax-exempt conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy. Despite the Conservancy and other NGOs supporting increases in the State of New Jersey’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program (, some economically challenged communities feel that this compensation is hardly enough to make up for the loss of taxable land that could be developed. The value of working directly with communities to develop strategies that address socioeconomic impacts of conservation work cannot be underestimated… This may be the key to achieving success for both people and nature.

  2. Very important points that need to be considered in all countries where conservationists try to ‘do the right thing’. The consequences of our actions on the locals always need to be weighed, especially to see if they are realistic and sustainable.

  3. This is a great article! You make a lot of very important points. I think this is also something I think should be discussed more with our kids. For example, many of them learn about the rainforest and why it should be protected. I think this is a good opportunity to have discussions with them about the people who live there and how to make sure those people can still feed their families while we ALSO protect our resources. As you mentioned, until we deal with the problems of people having enough to eat every day, it is difficult to tackle other conservation issues. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Rebecca
    I’m planning on filming a documentary on the over development of the High Sierras Mountain Range in California and its effects on the Apex predators..
    The Biodiversity of the forest and its ecosystems The water sheds, I’d like to get your thoughts …
    Thank you
    Rom Quenneville

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