Linking Poverty and Conservation: Landscapes, People and Power

Fisher, R
Maginnis, S
Jackson, W
Barrow, E
Jeanrenaud, S
London: Earthscan, 2008, ISBN: 978-10-84407-636-9, 146 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Charlotte Sterrett

Oxfam GB,


At 146 pages in length, this is not a long and arduous read. In fact it is written in a readable way that makes it accessible to all practitioners and anyone wanting to learn more about how to balance the needs of poverty reduction and conservation. It is a new edition of Poverty and Conservation: Landscapes, People and Poverty, first published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2005. The updated version includes new information and makes an important contribution to the understanding of current debates on the links between poverty and conservation, in particular the need to balance poverty reduction and conservation in a way that is mutually beneficial to both. While this does inevitably lead to compromises, it is the only way forward to ensure that the needs of the planet are not overwhelmed by those of the people who live on it.

In six chapters, using theoretical and practical understanding, and experience (including case studies), the book demonstrates that there is not a 'one-size-fits-all' response to balancing poverty reduction and conservation. Rather there is a need to understand the contexts and causal relationships of each situation and link these with more global issues. The book's strengths are its use of case studies and real-life experiences throughout each chapter, and its accessible structure, which outlines clear arguments and recommendations to take forward into practical situations. This adds strength to the more theoretical concepts and proposals within the book. Although there are ten contributors (as well as 10 case-study authors), the book flows well and is presented to the reader in a way that advances the arguments throughout the chapters.

Chapter 1, an introduction to the whole book, puts forward strongly the argument that conservation must take account of poverty, as an ethical imperative - not because poverty reduction is more important than conservation, but that each are mutually beneficial. There is no 'silver bullet', as trade-offs and compromises will need to be made, and several strategies are outlined for dealing jointly with poverty and conservation. The most interesting point put forward is that interventions need to go beyond 'site-specific' solutions and look towards 'landscape-based' initiatives that seek to meet objectives in different parts of the wider landscape/community, rather than trying to address all the issues in a single site.

Chapter 2 reviews past experiences of dealing with people and conservation, tracking the historical development of approaches from the 1960s to the present day: ranging from the concept of 'nature as wilderness/people as threat' to more recent 'integrated conservation and development projects' and 'community-based conservation'. This chapter explores how the views of those involved have changed over the years, from the view among conservationists that people were a threat to nature, and from development practitioners who saw conservation as a mere 'add-on'. Present-day development practitioners now increasingly acknowledge that the environment has rights, and that this should be used as a basis for addressing poverty. The book also discusses key concepts such as the 'multiple dimensions of poverty', the DFID Livelihoods Framework, and Political Ecology to assist the reader in understanding the links between poverty reduction and conservation. It does this convincingly.

Chapter 3 - the longest, at 40 pages - details five real-world examples of attempts at poverty reduction and conservation in Thailand, Tanzania, Laos, Mauritania, and Guatemala, in order to illustrate the successes and failures of linking poverty reduction and conservation. The case studies demonstrate three key points:

1.that community action is motivated primarily by self-concern and livelihoods needs rather than by conservation;
2.that local action, while not leading to perfect conservation outcomes, is a better alternative than no action at all;
3.that institutional changes at different levels are key to improving conservation and poverty-reduction outcomes.
Chapter 4 explores important elements that form the conceptual basis for an approach towards linking conservation and poverty reduction. It discusses the benefits of using the landscape concept as a way of linking conservation and poverty reduction, due to the need to work at multiple geographical and institutional scales in order to address the causes of the problem. It does this by explaining clearly that the causes of both environmental degradation and poverty are often far from the places where the effects are experienced, and that the remote causes must be addressed.

Chapter 5 discusses structures, institutions, and rights, in particular community institutions, institutions at the landscape level, economic institutions and instruments, national poverty-reduction planning processes, and the need to work in an integrated way for conservation and poverty reduction. This chapter concludes usefully by suggesting scope for action in countries or regions with high levels of poverty. Some of these suggestions are controversial; in particular those suggested for already protected areas. The chapter does, however, provide some key lessons for the implementation of poverty reduction within conservation. These include understanding the complexity of different stakeholders; ensuring that institutional arrangements are appropriate for the resource or landscape being managed; and the need to work at multiple levels and scales.

Chapter 6, the final chapter, summarises the main features, as well as the key challenges in linking poverty reduction and conservation. Of these challenges, the most interesting are the need to take equity into account, including gender equity, in terms of sharing costs and impacts on the poor; as well as understanding that it is not always possible to have a 'win-win' or perfect outcome. It demonstrates clearly that conservation can make only a partial contribution to poverty reduction, because the issues of conservation and poverty reduction are tremendous and rely not only on independent actors, but on government, which has the ultimate responsibility. It provides a very useful table to demonstrate possible entry points for implementation, from local/site interventions to policy/political and national/international interventions.

Overall the approach presented in the book is one of learning-by-doing: this is not a prescriptive 'how-to' book. It does not provide a grand scheme for linking conservation and poverty reduction. The challenge issued by the authors is the need for all policy makers and practitioners of conservation, development, and poverty reduction to make explicit commitments to both conservation and poverty reduction. After all, a healthy environment is necessary for the survival of humans on the planet.