How Conservation Can Be an Economic Benefit

Saving tropical forests and other endangered habitats has not been easy despite widespread support. One approach tried by environmental organizations is to establish national parks in nations where these habitats exist. But that is difficult. It can require new laws and international support. In the past, some parks have excluded people as long-term residents, causing conflicts with local indigenous groups and making new parks controversial. It becomes a people versus nature issue.

Parks also mean no development, which is politically unpopular, even where the revenues from development are low. To Richard Rice, former chief economist at Conservation International (CI), this lack of tangible economic value is one of the most serious threats facing the world’s dwindling stock of biodiversity. Though a seemingly daunting dilemma, the solution, according to Rice, is surprisingly straightforward: Make conservation itself a source of economic benefit.

In recent years, Rice and his colleagues have taken this prescription to the ground in a dozen different countries in a series of efforts that they call, simply, conservation agreements. As the name suggests, conservation agreements are essentially business deals in which governments or local communities agree to protect natural ecosystems in exchange for a steady stream of compensation from conservationists or other investors. Rice and his colleagues have found that this approach holds much promise in a wide variety of different contexts, including areas such as private or indigenous lands where traditional protected areas might be difficult or impossible to establish.