Perverse outcomes: Can conservation aid spur deforestation?

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Perverse outcomes: Can conservation aid spur deforestation?
  • Conservation aid may sometimes result in a short-term increase in deforestation, a new study finds – highlighting the incredibly complex network of factors that drive forest loss.
  • The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, examined deforestation rates in the wake of nearly $3.4 billion in conservation aid distributed to 42 Sub Sahara Africa (SSA) countries through 1,795 projects between 1980 and 2008.
  • The researchers found that in many cases, a 10% increase in conservation aid resulted in a "small but significant" short-term increase in country-wide deforestation.

Conservation aid may sometimes result in a short-term increase in deforestation, a new study finds – highlighting the incredibly complex network of factors that drive forest loss.

The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, examined deforestation rates in the wake of nearly $3.4 billion in conservation aid distributed to 42 Sub Sahara Africa (SSA) countries through 1,795 projects between 1980 and 2008. The researchers found that in many cases, a 10% increase in conservation aid resulted in a “small but significant” short-term increase in country-wide deforestation.

However, this effect was not observed in better-governed countries with high forest cover, and the effect disappeared when the authors modeled results over 3-5 years.

“Increases in the size and amount of protected areas (PAs) were associated with higher rates of forest loss,” the authors note. This finding was not scale or country dependent, leading them to conclude that establishing PA’s increases pressure on other forested areas as displaced populations seek new land for agriculture and livelihood.

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“Our hypothesis is that it’s displacement,” author Daniel Miller said in a press release, “The conservation aid may have gone toward a national park in, say, Benin, leading to less deforestation inside the park. That’s the good news, but the bad news is that the funding may have just displaced forest clearing activities outside park boundaries.”

Further, the authors suggest that, “conservation aid may also indirectly encourage some degree of forest clearing to the extent it increases incomes of populations relying [on] forests for their livelihoods.”

This effect has been noted elsewhere. Increased incomes and improved standards of living often cause an increased demand for raw materials. This is coupled with the new-found ability to harvest those materials with more expensive and more efficient tools like chainsaws. Typically deforestation continues to accelerate until the population reaches the point where conservation becomes a luxury they can afford.

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The study found that in heavily-forested countries where there is good governance (based on scoring by the World Governance Indicators for rule of law, effectiveness, and corruption) the addition of conservation aid did decrease deforestation.

“It may be that good governance in countries where forests are an important natural resource helps ensure conservation and sustainable management not only in protected areas but outside them as well,” Miller said. This suggests that good governance may also mitigate the displacement effect possibly occurring in other countries.

The authors accept that a major limitation of the study is the lack of fine detail concerning exactly how much money was earmarked specifically for conservation. Aid has trended toward more ‘mixed’ programs in recent years, including development and social aid in a multi-faceted approach toward conservation. From 2000 – 2008, 71% of conservation aid programs in SSA included these types of funding – up from 49% in the 1990s.

In a response to the report, also published in Environmental Letters, Elizabeth Law, from the University of Queensland, writes, “Interestingly, Bare et al (2015) did not uncover significant associations between deforestation and previously hypothesized drivers such as agricultural area or production of livestock or timber.”

Law surmises that this may be due to the large scale of the study which could not tease out the “complex drivers” of deforestation in SSA. She also reiterates a key point made in the paper that the associative relationship found between conservation aid and deforestation is not necessarily causal.

Ugandan rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The study authors address this, writing, “it is possible that the positive relationship between conservation aid and deforestation we observe is due in part to donor allocation of conservation aid to places with high deforestation rates.” Additionally, they note that many SSA countries are at the early stages of forest transition and economic development.

“It is worth noting that although many of the top aid recipients witnessed high rates of forest loss,” the authors write, “it is possible, even probable that deforestation would have been even greater in these countries if conservation aid was not present.”

Echoing this sentiment, Law cautions, “the results … demand attention, but this study alone should not be cause for despair, or a retraction of conservation aid.”

CITATION: Matthew Bare, Craig Kauffman and Daniel C Miller. Assessing the impact of international conservation aid on deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa. Published 18 December 2015 Environmental Research Letters, Volume 10, Number 12

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