The Price of Conservation

Photo by qnr |

We’re taught that the wonder and magnificence of biodiversity and complex ecosystems are a gift from nature that serve countless purposes, whether it be for shelter, cleaning the environment, medicinal ingredients, or aesthetic value.  Furthermore, we’re taught that while conservation is critical, it remains impossible to put a price tag on something as subjective and intricate as biodiversity.

In spite of this, ecologists at the University of East Anglia (U.E.A.) in Norwich, England are doing just that, according to Scientific American.  They’ve begun paying poorer international communities to put conservation practices into effect.  This process now even has a name – Payments for Environmental Services, or PES.  The idea of PES is quite simple: communities that cut down the fewest trees and maintain the most diversity will be paid the most amount of money.  Sure, this is a simple idea, and aims to make a connection between conservation and human development, but attempting to implement PES is a whole other story.

The issue I find most concerning about PES is the huge ethical dilemma surrounding the concept.  Ecologists proposed this idea knowing that, for example, a poor community in Africa will be willing to help preserve a watershed in exchange for money.  This is yet another example of rich, industrialized nations exploiting those who are bound to accept money.  Communities in Africa and South America are being paid to maintain biodiversity; meanwhile, the developed world continues to neglect its obligation to do the same. 

 Then again, if the goal in mind is to increase conservation, this plan can be considered successful, especially if organizations like WWF are on board.  Yet there are still multiple problems with PES.  For instance, how will money be distributed to these communities?  In most cases, it will have to be delivered by hand, as bank accounts are a luxury not available to most of these individuals.  And what if the plan backfires?  In the past, paying communities to conserve leatherback turtles fell apart when communities not involved in the deal began killing the turtles out of spite. 

I still remain torn on how effective PES will be in the long run.  Much remains to be worked out in terms of fair treatment of poor communities and logistics of PES, but if paying for conservation can somehow become a win-win situation for communities and ecosystems, then this may be the start of something big.