An Ounce of Prevention Worth a Pound of Cure? Not for Poverty and Conservation

December 10, 2013

School children enjoy working in their school's vegetable garden in Ecuador's Tungurahua Province. Photo © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Grant me the indulgence of assuming that conservation should be concerned about poverty.

While not everyone will agree with poverty’s importance to conservation, most are aware that many of the people where nature is richest are poor, and if conservation activities fail to provide benefits to local people, the activities are unlikely to be sustained by the local people once a conservation project ends.

When a conservation project focuses on “poverty,” should it focus on poverty reduction, poverty prevention, or both?

I argue that we should focus on poverty reduction wherever the natural resources are heavily degraded…and poverty prevention wherever they are not.

Why? Because poverty reduction and poverty prevention are a continuum that looks something like this:

Income –>——————————————–I——————————————————–>

Poverty Reduction                                             Poverty Line                                  Poverty Prevention

Poverty is reduced until a person is above the poverty line; the emphasis then shifts to poverty prevention.

Reduction generates new economic activity and wealth and moves the country forward. Prevention guards against drops in economic activity, provides insurance against losing existing wealth, and keeps a country from falling back economically.

Giving poor people the opportunities to move themselves out of poverty has greater medium- and long-term benefits to a country’s economic well-being than does preventing people from falling back into poverty.

The poor also need the help more than the non-poor. Poverty tends to be intergenerational, making it much harder to move someone out of poverty for the first time than move them out of poverty after a relapse.

For conservation, it’s not about deciding whether to focus on reduction or prevention, but about how the conservation opportunities in a particular site might benefit those in poverty.

Whether a conservation project reduces or prevents poverty depends largely on the state of the natural resources at the project site. If a fishery or grassland is degraded, for example, restoring its productivity may help reduce local poverty. If a forest or watershed is largely intact, there is little scope for poverty reduction, but much scope for poverty prevention.

The more degraded the natural resource and the higher the dependence of local people on this resources, the greater the benefits are from restoration.

Conservation challenges are often poverty reduction opportunities! It’s the rare case where the proverbial ounce of prevention is not worth a pound of cure.

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