Economic strategies that make the difference

by Christie Klimas

When I began graduate studies in conservation, it seemed like there was an ideal path where everyone would realize the intrinsic value of nature and make the “right” choice, to conserve. And yet, as I waded through the realities of life in the Amazon, I began to understand that things are more complex than they first appear. For forest residents struggling to feed their families, investing in cattle was like putting money into an inflation-independent savings account. Cash from cattle sales could pay for medical emergencies, bills, school tuition and groceries. Yet the land to graze these cattle comes from clearing bio-diverse tropical forests. In Africa, when elephants and people come into conflict, elephants are often killed for destroying the crops that communities depend upon. So, how can we create win-win situations for both people and conservation? How can we work to alleviate poverty and protect biodiversity? My initial support of the “preserve and protect” approach became a question – what can change these situations? Much like the Vincentian question of “What must be done?” the response depends on a correct assessment of “what is driving the problem?” The economic drivers underlying deforestation, habitat loss and other pressing environmental challenges led me to address questions of sustainable land use via a combination of ecology and economics. While not a panacea, this interdisciplinary approach led me to become a fan of profit-based conservation and ecological and environmental economics.

I was also motivated by successful examples of profit-based conservation like the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe. The acronym CAMPFIRE stands for Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources. Participating communities receive the meat and a percentage of revenue from commercial hunting on their land. Meat handouts are accompanied by traditional hunting ceremonies, preserving culture. In addition to commercial hunting, communities benefit from wildlife safaris, which provide potential jobs for community members as guides and hotel staff.

My graduate research focused on sustainable ecological strategies for forest management. By necessity, sustainable management strategies must incorporate ecological knowledge (both scientific and local community knowledge), yet this is only part of a holistic vision of sustainability. For long-term success, sustainable management strategies should be beneficial to those living in forests, with the hope that they will be economically competitive or superior to more destructive land-uses (e.g. cattle ranching and agriculture). My research is part of a larger Amazon-wide initiative to make standing forests more profitable than deforested lands via “multiple-use forest management.” Proponents of diversified forest management highlight the fact that using multiple products from the forest (e.g. seeds, timber, game, carbon storage, and ecological services) provides a social and financial edge over mono-dominant management models. Indeed, the approach is not new; this type of management is common in indigenous communities. My research focused on one species, Carapa guianensis, which provides an opportunity for forest conservation via management; this tropical tree is valued for the high quality oil extracted from its seeds and its mahogany-like timber. I used simulation models and population viability analyses to estimate ecologically sustainable seed and timber harvest levels of C. guianensis. Simulation results revealed ecologically sustainable scenarios that included both seed and timber harvests. In addition to their ecological sustainability, harvest scenarios are economically profitable (though alone they fail to compete with more destructive forest uses). Combined with other economically valuable forest products and payments for ecological services (like carbon storage), however, they may comprise part of a viable multi-use forest management strategy.

Many of my favorite examples of conservation have a strong foundation in creating a viable economy for those who live around the conservation area. In a TED video, Willie Smits describes how he reforested an area of Borneo to provide habitat for orangutans ( By the end of the video, it is easy to forget that he began this project to protect primates; his solution is focused on participatory management of this new forest area and involves sustainable livelihoods for people living in the area.

In Gaviotas, by Alan Weisman, native tropical forest regrows under a Caribbean pine plantation which provided revenue from sale of tree resin (used for paints, cosmetics, perfumes, medicines and glues).

Do economic strategies make the difference between strategies that hardly work and those that work hard for conservation gains? Perhaps not entirely, but I feel that they are an important component in creating win-win situations for conservation. Other contributors to this blog have mentioned strategies that incorporate economic, social and conservation benefits (e.g. Barb Willard’s post on urban agriculture). In my next post, I will focus on using environmental valuation techniques for urban conservation.


1 Comment

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One response to “Economic strategies that make the difference

  1. newacademy

    Christie—Your very interesting post reminded me of the work Fikret Berkes is doing to characterize land-use practices of traditional peoples. I’m betting that you know that work, and I’d be interested to read your comments about how his work and thinking intersect (or don’t) with yours. It seems to me for example, that his suggestion that traditional people characteristically are not “preservatioists” at all, but, at their ecological best, resource optimizers.
    Bill Jordan III

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