Charting a course for biodiversity and the poor

Negotiations by parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) continue in Nagoya, Japan. Biodiversity researchers, advocates and government officials have gathered here to strike a deal that will, hopefully, safeguard life on Earth over the next decade.

Dilys Roe's picture
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Dilys Roe
22 October 2010

There are many reasons why the deal is needed — from defending a vital source of existing and as yet undiscovered food, fuel and medicine to maintaining critical ‘environmental services’ provided by biodiversity, such as fertilisation, pollination and climate control.

One motive that is gaining force in Nagoya and beyond is that biodiversity has a critical role in contributing to poverty reduction. But is it true? And, if so, just how does it work?

There is plenty of evidence that biodiversity can help prevent poverty — we know that the rural poor in developing countries rely on biodiversity for their food, shelter, income, fuel, health, quality of life and community, and that they have few alternatives when these resources are lost or degraded.

For these poor communities, access to a wide range of wild foods and medicines provides an important safety net when crops fail through, for example, drought or disease.

But whether conserving biodiversity can also help reduce poverty is less certain. A meeting last April, organised by our Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, heard experts conclude that conservation projects can, in some instances, lift people out of poverty. A review of more than 400 documents revealed that community timber enterprises, forest tourism, agro-forestry, marine tourism and the exploitation of fish spill-over from protected zones into adjacent fisheries are the most effective conservation activities.

But the same projects can also become a ‘poverty trap’ if, for example, their benefits — financial or otherwise — are controlled solely by the richer members of a community. And in the short term, it seems the poor would rather preserve biomass than biodiversity — a poor fisherman’s route out of poverty, for example, is to catch more fish, not more kinds of fish.

A question of politics

At the end of the day, making biodiversity work to reduce poverty has more to do with politics than anything else — with the policy and legal frameworks that govern how biodiversity is used and by whom.

In some cases, the benefits derived from biodiversity go, not to the poor local communities that have traditionally ‘owned’ it, but to big, savvy, international corporations that know their way round intellectual property right regimes. For example, in 1995, the US Department of Agriculture and the multinational WR Grace and Company managed to patent an anti-fungal neem derivative commonly used in Indian traditional remedies. The Indian government succeeded in revoking it — but it took five years and millions of dollars.

In other cases, the benefits — from, for example, timber enterprises or tourism — go to national governments rather than local communities.

Enabling biodiversity to benefit poor people requires good governance. Most critically this means secure land and resource rights. But it also means ensuring that poor people participate in decision-making and that they have both access to information and an equal share of benefits.

This will be a key challenge in Nagoya over the coming fortnight. The deal that is struck must be a fair one if it is to work on the ground — one built with the necessary social and environmental safeguards to recognise and respect the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities on the frontlines of biodiversity.

This post is based on an article SciDev.Net published earlier this week.