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Conservation Science

Accounting for Conservation and Development

“The lesson is obvious — there is no excuse for pursuing a development project without also including attention to biodiversity concerns.”


Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy

Is conservation incompatible with economic development and poverty alleviation? Not according to a study co-authored by Nature Conservancy chief scientist Peter Kareiva.

The study — which appears in the journal Science — analyzed World Bank economic development projects. It found that projects that included biodiversity conservation goals were no less likely to meet their development objectives than those projects without conservation goals.

But those projects that lacked a conservation goal tended to have undesirable environmental outcomes in the form of habitat degradation or unsustainable practices, according to Kareiva and co-author Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University.

Read below for his thoughts on the study's findings — and why a lot more work needs to be done if we are to get better at making sure both our world’s most vulnerable people and most vulnerable ecosystems have a future.

By Peter Kareiva

Conservationists must develop their strategy with respect to economic development and poverty alleviation. But just saying that is the easy part.

Determining the precise nature of the relationship is harder. Will conservation be married to economic development? Will they casually date? Just be friends? Or go their separate ways?

There are lots of opinions about how conservation and economic development should relate to one another. Let me paraphrase some of the opinions:

  • Conservation will never succeed until people are cared for.
  • The world’s poor depend on nature, and thus one of the best ways of reducing poverty is to protect nature.
  • When conservation organizations address economic development and poverty, they are guilty of mission drift and will end up not adequately doing their primary job.
  • Conservation efforts take money and focus away from development and poverty alleviation and are distractions to the more important goal of promoting human welfare.
  • Integrated conservation and development projects are a bad idea because they inevitably end up being poorly designed.

Compelling and thoughtful books and articles have been written on both sides of the debate. But the debate has not subsided, and both sides have been deft at finding evidence and case studies to support their views. Missing has been a more statistical approach that relies on larges samples and specific comparisons between control groups (no conservation goals) and treatment groups (with conservation goals).

Biodiversity and Development: A Quantified Analysis

Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University and I, along with our intern Amy Chang, decided to analyze the question of whether conservation and development goals can be compatible using a sampling of World Bank development projects.

We randomly sampled projects and compared development-only projects against those with development plus conservation. The results were compelling:

  • When biodiversity goals were added to a project, the addition did not reduce that project’s likelihood of meeting its development objectives, including things such as gender equity, poverty alleviation and private sector development.
  • However, if a project lacked a conservation goal, its performance with respect to the environment was significantly reduced.

The lesson is obvious: There is no excuse for pursuing a development project without also including attention to biodiversity concerns. Nothing is lost by adding a biodiversity concern to a development project.

In contrast, we do suffer environmental consequences if biodiversity is not included as part of development projects.

In other words, because development is so commonly pursued without explicit biodiversity goals, development efforts have a guaranteed tendency towards undesirable environmental consequences.

It does not have to be that way. It is that way only because biodiversity protection has not been made an important parallel goal to development.

Methodology: Why the World Bank?

We chose to study development projects from the World Bank because it has loaned hundreds of billions of dollars to developing countries since 1947, and during that time has seriously tried to assess its own performance.

World Bank projects are always about development in some fashion, but some are also about environmental issues and a few are even aimed at biodiversity protection.

We started with a database of over 11,000 projects, but trimmed this down to make a focused study. We needed to match projects by country: development only versus development plus biodiversity protection. And we needed the projects to be completed with what the World Bank calls an “Implementation Completion Report” (ICR) filed and on record.

Courting Criticism

Certainly our paper will receive thoughtful and well-intended criticism. The World Bank ICRs upon which our findings are based are imperfect, and we do not know the long-term outcomes of the projects. However, we hope our study contributes to the body of work in this area and advance the policy discussions about poverty and conservation.

Our results do not mean that melding conservation and development is a magic cure to the world’s problems. In fact all World Bank projects have a difficult time achieving success — in either environmental or economic goals. Win-win outcomes (reduced poverty and protected biodiversity) are especially rare.

However, additional studies that build upon our statistical approach might uncover features of project design that could enhance the likelihood of the win-win outcomes. The key is to use projects like experiments, and collections of projects as samples for analyses, and thereby escape the temptation of being persuaded by well-developed stories. Certainly, there are engaging stories of success and failure, but figuring out how to meld conservation and poverty alleviation will require a blend of rigorous statistical analyses and experienced field savvy, and a lot more work.

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