The costs and benefits of conservation

Viewed in economic terms, protected areas create both benefits and costs.30 The methods used by environmental economists to estimate the value of species and ecosystems are still somewhat experimental, and the data used for calculations are often poor. However, there is no doubt that wildlife can generate significant economic benefits, in various ways. There are direct consumptive uses of wildlife (for example through hunting animals for meat, or cutting vegetation for timber, fuelwood or medicines). Most national parks forbid such direct use of wild species, although in a number of countries (Uganda for example), there are experimental programmes of direct use of high-value low-volume products such as medicines. Economic benefits can also come from direct use of wildlife obtained without physical consumption, for example through tourist enterprises based on wildlife viewing. In economic terms, however many people view a lion or a rainforest bird, it is (in theory) still there to be viewed again by someone else later. Economists also identify indirect use values (environmental services such as water yield from afforested catchments, or pollution control through wetlands), and existence values (the values people attach to the cultural or aesthetic attributes of species, ecosystems or natural landscapes).

In countries with a significant tourist industry, the importance of wildlife as an attraction can be very great. The classic African big game viewing 'safari' is extremely important in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. In Kenya, for example non-consumptive use benefits from wildlife (that is wildlife tourism) were estimated to be US$27 million in 1989, and the return of wildlife to the Kenyan economy 27 per cent.31 The importance of such revenues has been recognized since at least the 1920s. The Secretary of the SPFE noted in 1928 that over half the 350,000 visitors to Canadian National Parks every year came from abroad, and estimated that they probably brought in over £1 million to the economy, of which £36,000 was direct revenue to the Canadian Parks Service. To the swelling civic pride at the national parks was added a growing national appreciation of national parks as essentially commercial assets.32 As discussed in Chapter 4, the potential for a wildlife and landscape-based tourist industry was a central argument for the establishment of national parks internationally.

Wildlife tourism, particularly so-called 'ecotourism' (that is tourism that is designed to have negligible minimal negative environmental and social impacts) became extremely fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s.33 In part, this was a clever piece of niche-marketing by the vast global tourist industry, recognizing the market for high-value holiday products for thoughtful and caring (and prosperous)

first world travellers. Arguably it was also a reflection of the destructiveness of conventional mass tourism. From the 1960s, and the advent of cheap air fares, tourist resorts enjoyed a short boom and bust cycle where development destroyed the very values tourists came to see as relentlessly as any other industry. Sustainable tourism might have been presented as a contribution to the sustainability of environments and societies in remote areas of the world, but it was as much about trying to establish a means for the tourist industry to sustain itself.

Ecotourism is widely seen as a saviour of wildlife conservation, capable of generating a flow of revenue to pay the costs of conservation and to meet the needs of local communities. It allows conservationists to promote revenue-generation and community-oriented strategies, while maintaining traditional protectionist goals. In remote areas with charismatic species (such as the island of Komodo in the Laccadive Islands of Indonesia) small-scale high-value environmentally-sensitive tourism seems an obvious way to blend development and conservation goals together, giving local people a reason to love and not fear their vast goat-eating neighbourhood dragons.34 On the other hand, accounts of the potential of tourism are often based on relatively informal assessments of local success, often over short timeframes. Reviews of the successes of wildlife tourism operations have often been carried out by the very people who have run the project, who do not necessarily bring the most hard-headed and critical eye to the case.

Appraisals by economists of the economics of community benefits and costs from wildlife, suggest more caution about assumptions that wildlife tourism will always bring substantial benefits.35 In many rainforests, for example, wildlife viewing has limited potential to generate significant revenues. Forest environments, dark, wet and itchy, are only attractive to a few hardy types, and wildlife is hard to see. In central African forests, for example, the income from wildlife viewing is small, and while safari hunting (essentially an extreme form of adventure tourism) has a greater potential, even this can only manage to offset some of the costs of protected areas.36 Many areas with urgent conservation problems in fact have very limited tourist potential: in West and Central Africa, for example, tourist infrastructure is poor, tourism is limited, and political instability is a significant problem. Even in well-known national parks, such as Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, tourism may not offer a long-term solution to the costs of conservation.37

There are two further problems with arguments for protected areas based on the magnitude of a potential tourist industry, or for that matter any other economic activity based on wildlife. The first is that the economic benefits of wildlife-based tourism are rarely equitably shared. They tend to be cornered by the businesses that run tourist operations, such as national or international hotel or tour operators, and the importers and traders in elite products for tourists. Indeed, the establishment of infrastructure to make a tourist economy possible (endless clean water, power, roads and airports) all demand investment by the state that potentially takes money away from other priorities (for example primary education, mass population water supply or primary health care). Certainly it is quite rare for the bulk of the benefits of tourism in a protected area to be shared with local people.

This is not because people have not tried to make this happen, for there are numerous examples of revenue-sharing projects to give local people a stake in wildlife tourism around protected areas. One of the best known is in Uganda, around the patches of forest preserved for the mountain gorilla (discussed in Chapter 1). Between 50 and 400 visitors a month reach Mgahinga, which is in a remote corner of Uganda. The vast majority of these (95 per cent) are foreign nationals, who pay handsomely for the right to see gorillas. In 1996, 1100 tourists generated US$140,000 in revenue at Mgahinga. Twelve per cent of that revenue was in theory set aside for revenue sharing (8 per cent to local community projects, 2 per cent to local District Administrations, and 2 per cent for a national pool), although in fact less than US$5000 was in fact spent on the construction of classrooms for primary schools. These schools were regarded as extremely important by local people. In practice the revenue sharing system at Mgahinga is very far from perfect, but there is no doubt that such wildlife resources can yield significant sums, and that with the right institutions in place these could be effectively shared with local people.38

However, the economic benefit of protected areas are in many cases outweighed by the costs. The early colonial conservationists of the SPWFE recognized very well that wildlife tends to generate low economic returns compared to alternative land uses. This is still true, and is a major cause of economic pressure on protected areas. In southwest Kenya, for example, the Maasai Mara National Reserve (1368 square kilometres) is surrounded by extensive Maasai group ranches (4566 square kilometres), held privately either by individual families or groups of families.39 The group ranches are part of the larger ecosystem, and are vital seasonal grazing for migratory wildebeest in the dry season. The reserve itself generates US$20 million per year, the group ranches $US10 million. However, on some of these ranches, agriculture (mechanized wheat cultivation, and barley for the brewing trade) and livestock would be highly profitable. The current revenue on the group ranches as a whole is US$16 million, compared to US$118 million if the land were developed. In simple terms, conservation here makes no business sense. The incentives to convert land to intensive ranching are actually much greater than these overall figures suggest, for landowners control income from livestock, whereas they receive only fees from the companies running tourist facilities and services such as lodges, tours and safaris. In 1989, landowners received less than 2 per cent of the tourist revenues generated on their land. Agricultural profits, too, are enjoyed by commercial agribusiness concerns who lease land, although they pay about 5 per cent of their revenue to landowners. Across the group ranches as a whole, the profits enjoyed by landowners would be 15 times higher if appropriate land was converted either to arable and livestock. There is a huge economic incentive to change land use on these group ranches — or, to put it another way, group ranch owners pay a considerable opportunity cost for keeping the land in conservation management.

Not only are the opportunity costs of protected areas high, but they are extremely costly to establish, police and maintain.40 Globally, US$3.2 billion is spent on protected areas, a mean of US$893 per square kilometre. However, much of this is spent in rich industrialized countries.41 It is not entirely surprising to find that Canada spends US$1100 and the United States over US$2500 per square kilometre, almost a billion dollars in total between them. For comparison, Tanzania spends US$182 per square kilometre, Kenya US$94 and Ethiopia US$5 per square kilometre; in countries like Angola or Laos, expenditure is far less than the average (less than US$1 per square kilometre). Few countries can match the expenditures deemed necessary to maintain parks in rich countries such as the United States. Even with foreign aid, most poor countries do not spend anything like enough per hectare of protected area to ensure that biodiversity conservation is effective. So in poor countries with large protected areas designated, the burden of state expenditure is high, but still much less than is needed. For example, the total of government and donor investment in Central Africa meets only 30 per cent of the recurrent costs of the protected area network.42

In many countries conservation therefore represents a net cost to the national economy in terms of revenue forgone, and the direct costs of protected area management. The potential economic return on the 60,600 square kilometres of protected areas in Kenya is US$203 million, some 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product. This opportunity cost of conservation is far greater than the US$42 million returns from wildlife and forestry within the protected areas.43 Under these circumstances, conservation has costs that need to be paid, either by the state (which may have more urgent welfare priorities), local people (who may be very poor and unable and unwilling to pay), or by conservationists either nationally or internationally (for example the members of developed country conservation organizations). Without demonstrable economic benefits from wildlife at national level, governments economists may well see conservation as a luxury they cannot afford.

Local communities pay the opportunity costs of conservation on land that they cannot use, or turn to higher value uses, as well as paying considerable costs as neighbours to parks (see Chapter 5). There is growing acceptance of the principle that these opportunity costs should be paid by those national and global interests who most passionately wish that biodiversity is preserved.44 The gap between the sums available and the active and passive costs of conservation can be vast. A series of innovative ideas are being developed to increase funds, including the idea of environmental trust funds, tightly organized markets for environment-friendly products (for example product certification), and new ways to generate donations, for example using methods to link donors and recipients directly. Some economists argue that direct payments for habitat management would be cost-effective, essentially a global version of the conservation contracts with farmers common in the European Community such as set-aside.45 Certainly, unless the full costs of conservation are paid, conservation efforts are likely to be ineffective. Logically, local people will oppose conservation, the financial incentives for illegal use will drive degradation of the wildlife resource, and governments will give preference to other forms of land use (for example mining or agriculture). Poorly-protected 'paper parks' will be just empty bureaucratic irrelevancies.

One thing was clear from research by the mid-1990s, that community-based conservation was much easier to achieve in theory than in practice.46 Projects such as integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs), which seek to achieve both development and conservation goals, are often disappointing.47 They may not be cost effective ways to tackle indicators of poverty, and if they do not tackle poverty effectively, they may well fail to break existing economic and cultural logics driving illegal and unsustainable harvests. They are unlikely therefore to achieve species or ecosystem conservation goals. The positive impacts of ICDPs on local economies are typically transient and dependent on the supply of foreign aid flows.

None of these failings is unique to community conservation projects, although conservation organizations were slow to learn from the experience of development planners with community-level schemes. Community-based projects are inherently highly complex, require high levels of skill from project staff, substantial funds and a realistic (that is long-term) timescale. Participatory planning often generates high local expectations. Success is vulnerable to local perceptions of the project, and hence to any public failure in particular components.48 They demand careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of project components at the level of the individual household, long-term commitments to funding and strong local participatory linkages.49 They are usually not cheap to implement, in terms of cost per participant or per unit area, or in terms of specific conservation outputs. They tend to have high administrative costs as they demand significant numbers of high quality staff with locally-specific knowledge, and can be frustratingly slow to bear fruit. Project designers can be compromised by pressure from donors for results and at the planning stage set objectives for 3 or 5 year projects that they know will take 10 or 20 years to achieve.

Effective community-based conservation work also requires a change in the organizational culture of conservation agencies (so that they genuinely see local residents as partners not subjects) and in the social institutions of rural residents (to respond to wardens and rangers as partners and not as corrupt policemen). Neither of these changes is necessarily easily achieved, especially in a short-term project. Participatory planning may trigger debates about resource or land rights, or the awakening of political consciousness. These may be valuable things in themselves, but they tend to alter or slow down the carefully-planned pattern of project development. One of the appeals of the community-based approach to conservationists was as a way of placating local opinion, but in some circumstances it may inflame it as participants argue with the conservation agency (or with each other) about their rights, needs and aspirations.

The large (and growing) literature on community conservation, is still dominated by more or less optimistic descriptions of local level 'success', often early in a project's life, written by people involved in project development and perhaps without sufficient critical distance to provide a complete review. A few case studies have been repeated and disseminated internationally to great effect. This phenomenon, which is also common to rural development, leads to what Robert Chambers calls 'project bias', whereby successive evaluations of a region or programme look repeatedly at the same projects, and one anothers' reports, without properly questioning the nature of change on the ground. This leads to the narrowing of possible lessons that policy-makers and researchers can learn, and constrains the creativity and innovation needed in the ways protected areas are imagined and organized.50

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