We’ll pay more: governments in developing countries spend far less on tropical forest conservation than their citizens would like
Rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.
As developing countries reach upper middle income (UMI) status, their
populations are willing to pay increasing amounts toward tropical
forest conservation, yet government spending on these programs lags
far behind, concludes Jeffrey Vincent of Duke University and colleagues in a study available today in the PNAS Online Early Edition.
UMI countries contain some four-fifths of remaining tropical primary
forest, and nearly half of the threatened endemic species found in
tropical countries. Primary forests–those unaffected by humans–are
disappearing three times faster than forests globally. However,
international conventions and treaties have largely failed to meet
their target goals in reducing deforestation, often due in part to a
shortage of domestic funding.
Maliau Falls in Sabah, Malaysia
The authors conducted a meta-analysis of UMI countries, examining how
several conservation indicators changed with an increase in gross
national income. Public prioritizing of environmental issues,
donations to domestic NGOs, government co-financing of environmental
protection projects, and percent land and forest areas protected for
conservation all increased with rising income. However, “the
indicators of public opinion and NGO donations were more responsive to
increases than the indicators of government action,” the authors
To better understand public perceptions of environmental protection,
and gauge their “willingness to pay” (WTP) for conservation in UMI
countries, the authors presented 1,261 households in Malaysia with a
choice survey concerning Belum-Temengor, a high conservation value
area in the north end of the country. Belum-Temengor is home to the
Asian elephant, Malayan tiger, and Sumatran rhinoceros, among others,
and is a priority of Malaysia’s leading environmental NGOs. The area
is controlled by the state government which is, the authors note,
“reluctant to protect more completely and more permanently against
logging due to a concern over lost revenue and jobs.”
The results of the survey found that Malaysia’s WTP far exceeded
current government spending on conservation. “Expressed per hectare,”
the authors write, “annual societal WTP to protect Belum-Temengor,
US$437, is much larger than the annual operating budgets of the two
largest existing protected areas in Peninsular Malaysia, US$12.80 at
Endau-Rompin and only US$0.98 at Taman Negara.” Further, WTP increases
steadily with income for houses earning above a certain monthly
Considering the international study, and the results of the Malaysia
survey, the authors suggest several factors that may be affecting
governments’ failure to respond in pace with public sentiment. One
issue may be, “imperfect information,” or the governments’ may be
unaware of what their public values. For example, the Malaysian survey
found that while the local government is reluctant to close
Belum-Temengor to illegal logging for fear of economic loss, the
public weighs the value of conservation for society as a whole above
the economic security of a minority of loggers.
According to data presented in Global Forest Watch, Malaysia’s rate of forest loss on a percentage basis was the highest of major forest countries between 2001-2012. The background image shows deforestation alerts from Global Forest Watch’s FORMA system, the chart shows annual gross forest loss in Malaysia. Data from Hansen et al 2013.
Another issue compounding the disconnect between societal values and
government spending may be that the political process limits the
translation of public sentiment into governmental action. The authors
point to previous studies which have concluded that, “countries that
are less democratic tend to protect less land.”
On the other hand, the disparity between the societal WTP and
government spending may not be entirely a domestic issue. As countries
develop, there tends to be a decrease in external aid, which can
result in a funding gap.
“Controlling for other factors,” the authors write, “developing
countries receive less biodiversity aid as per capita national income
rises.” In order to compensate for this gap, they suggest that
external aid to UMI countries should focus more on improved
Kinabatangan River in Malaysia
Rather than funding projects outright, the authors suggest, the
international community should fund programs that help governments
obtain better information on public preferences, support NGOs, and
encourage governments to invest in their own conservation future.
Further, foreign money paid directly to UMI countries for
conservation, such as REDD carbon payments, would be most effective if
they were tied to a commitment of expenditure by the country itself.
Vincent, Jeffrey R., et. al. Tropical Countries May Be Willing to Pay More to Protect Their Forests. PNAS, June 2014. doi:10.1073/pnas.1312246111.