Nature & Prosperity: The Evidence We Still Need & The Right Questions to Ask

October 18, 2013

Roasted and ground cocao beans (beanlike seeds from which cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate are made) being sorted by a woman of an indigenous Bri Bri community in La Amistad International Park, Costa Rica -- part of an organic-chocolate cooperative. Image credit: Ami Vitale.

How does nature enhance the prosperity of poor people? It’s a hot question among conservationists right now — but in reality, it’s irrelevant both to helping the poor and to conserving nature. That’s because poor people undoubtedly depend on nature and its services.

So here’s a better question: How will any specific conservation action aimed at changing how humans use nature affect the prosperity of poor people?

Conservationists, it turns out, have very little evidence with which to answer this question. In large part, we lack that evidence because we have failed to adopt modern methods the rest of science has developed to measure causal relationships.

This is tragic, because conservation has no shortage of good ideas for increasing the quality of ecosystems and the services they provide people — ideas ranging from protected areas to performance incentives, decentralization to zoning restrictions to information dissemination about sustainable practices.

Yet each of these interventions likely translates into different effects on the poor, even if each of these interventions’ effects on nature are the same (which they likely are not).

Protected areas, for example, not only change land-use patterns near the poor, but they also can create tourism opportunities and lead to changes in infrastructure like roads and electrification.

In contrast, voluntary performance payments for environmental services are more spatially diffuse and rarely affect tourism opportunities or infrastructure development. They do, however, transfer large amounts of cash to rural residents — who may or may not be the poorest households.

Unfortunately, we have an acute shortage of evidence about the heterogeneous effects of different conservation interventions.

And by evidence, I mean credible inferences about causal relationships between actions and effects from many sites across the globe. What are the differences between the welfare of the poor with nature conservation interventions and what their counterfactual welfare would have been in the absence of the interventions?

Let me be clear: We need more than simulations of these causal relationships. We need conclusions drawn from observable data from real conservation programs. Only with such evidence can we begin to design policies and programs that deliver both environmental benefits and enhanced prosperity for the world’s poor.

But such evidence is nearly absent in the conservation community. In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported (p. 122) as one of its main findings in its Policy Responses volume that “[f]ew well-designed empirical analyses assess even the most common… conservation measures.”

Eight years later, Miteva and colleagues (2012) report that their review of the conservation evidence base “confirms previous claims that causal evidence of the effectiveness of conservation interventions…is rare.”

Gathering that evidence is not just possible, however — it is within reach, if we learn the lessons of other fields.

In the last 20 or 30 years, a revolution has taken place in the ways in which scientists draw causal inferences from observational (non-experimental) data. Fields from medicine to education, criminal justice to job training have identified creative ways to ascertain whether their interventions are having an impact.

By focusing on the process by which some people or areas are exposed to an intervention and others are not, these study designs can isolate the effects of the intervention separate from other factors that also affect the measured outcomes. A hallmark of this revolution is transparency in terms of what effect is being estimated and how it is being estimated.

Conservation science and practice has largely remained unaffected by this revolution, although that situation is gradually changing. But if conservation practitioners and donors do not encourage this change, the field will be forced to continue to rely on intuition and anecdote — a reliance that will damage the credibility of conservation’s claims to be relevant to people.

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Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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