African Biodiversity Conservation must be Coupled with Development

Projects that appear to produce both environmental and developmental goals could actually obscure the continuing marginalization of poor and vulnerable populations. A focus on “smart” conservation, coupled with localized extractive investments is creating a “green rentier state” phenomenon.
Published in Sustainability
African Biodiversity Conservation must be Coupled with Development
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Earlier this year, 185 countries agreed to protect 30% of land and coastal areas by 2030 (known as the “30 by 30 pledge”). This will be accomplished through a $100 billion “Global Biodiversity Framework Fund” first announced in December 2022 under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Domestic public- and private-sector sources will contribute some $200 billion per year to conservation initiatives by 2030. Developed countries agreed to contribute at least $20 billion of this every year by 2025.

But while this surge of conservation funding is heartening, there are serious concerns. Projects and programs that appear to produce both environmental and developmental goals could actually obscure the continuing marginalization of poor and vulnerable populations. “Climate-smart” conservation efforts by well-intentioned public-sector international donors and private nonprofit organizations could thus be “greenwashing” underdevelopment, as ostensible environmental benefits may still reinforce old colonial relationships and structures that produce poverty and vulnerability.  Such risks include, for example, population displacements from conservation and mining activities or the misallocation of mineral or biodiversity rents.

The linkage between biodiversity conservation and climate conservation is complex, but, under most circumstances, conserving forests can help to decarbonize the atmosphere and sustain greater species and habitat diversity. Yet, the capacity of forests to store carbon is not a true offset for the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. This false equivalency can serve to justify the use of oil and mineral revenues and occasionally incentivize forest conservation by reducing immediate demand for timber, as observed already in countries like Gabon, or by reducing overall forest loss (via subsurface mining) relative to prevailing drivers of land-use change.

Although most conservation initiatives claim to have some form of “win–win” poverty alleviation as part of their mission, they lack tangible targets for improving the quality of life and livelihood of rural and local communities. For example, CAFI, which spans six sub-Saharan African countries, now has over $835 million committed and claims that it will “enhance livelihoods” for 10 million people. Yet, importantly, there is no clear metric indicating what such an enhancement would entail. Further, there is no coupling of funds disbursement with broader macroeconomic reforms for poverty alleviation. Organizations and governments need a far tighter coupling of conservation and development indicators.

A way forward would be to frame conservation around the crucial importance of reduced emissions and better sequestration in wealthy countries, together with the promotion of cleaner development trajectories in lower-income countries. Although proponents of “degrowth” and consumption reduction have denounced the term “green growth” in the context of developed economies, there is little doubt that for developing countries, some level of economic growth will be necessary in order to alleviate poverty. Green-growth metrics should thus not only be used by donors as a precondition for funds disbursement, but also to hold donors accountable in their own countries.

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