Why a Prime Model for Saving Rain Forests is a Failure- From the issue dated January 14, 2000

The Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated January 14, 2000




Why a Prime Model for Saving Rain Forests Is a





In the last 20 years, the size of tropical rain forests -- and the

number of animals in them -- has declined drastically, although

money for conserving those forests has become more plentiful. We

have made protecting the forests an international priority, but we

are not doing a good job of it.


The problem is that many conservationists have embraced the goal

of sustainable development, which is badly defined and may well be

unworkable. Economic growth -- a component of most definitions

of development -- usually requires the consumption of at least some

nonrenewable resources; and even where stable systems of

agriculture can be constructed around renewable resources, those

systems inevitably displace natural ecosystems.


In any case, we cannot achieve both sustainable development and

conservation's original goal of protecting largely unspoiled habitats.

The pressures of human population growth and general economic

development have led people to clear forests to make farms,

plantations, roads, and towns. Nonetheless, conservationists

continue to support development, out of financial and political



During the 1960's and early 1970's, two major international

conservation groups -- IUCN-The World Conservation Union and

the World Wide Fund for Nature, known in the United States as

the World Wildlife Fund -- began or adopted many conservation

projects in tropical regions, and the number of parks and other

protected areas in rain forests began to increase markedly. As the

quantity of projects grew, IUCN racked up a substantial budget

deficit; it was bailed out in 1976 by the newly founded United

Nations Environment Programme.


From that point on, IUCN, the W.W.F., and UNEP became

regular collaborators. UNEP, founded to improve the condition of

the human environment, supplied much of the financial support for a

strategy of world conservation that was formulated by IUCN and

published, in 1980, as a joint report by the three organizations.

Rather than focusing on the creation of nature reserves around the

world -- the original goal of IUCN -- the strategy stressed the

concept of sustainable development.


Another new source of money for conservation in the 1970's was

development organizations such as the U.S. Agency for

International Development and the World Bank. Those

organizations faced increasing criticism because so many of the

projects they sponsored in the tropics -- such as new dams and

highways -- were disrupting the environment. In response, they

began to make money available for projects that linked

development with conservation -- in at least one case, in Nigeria,

involving agricultural development inside a forest reserve.


Politicians in developing countries supported the new integration of

conservation with development, because they had felt that

international agencies were giving wildlife protection precedence

over economic development for humans. Naturally, conservation

groups, which had previously relied chiefly on donations from

individuals, were happy to have the additional funds. Linking

conservation and development seemed to be a solution that would

benefit everyone involved, as well as protect natural ecosystems.


The marriage of conservation and development has been a disaster

for much of tropical nature. Most of the integrated

conservation-and-development projects that I know of have failed

to protect the environment, and they have rarely achieved

sustainable development either. Like the ma jority of pure

development projects, they are designed to fit the short-term

financial strategies of their sponsoring agencies. The projects

typically have three-to-five-year budgets, even though conservation

efforts should focus on the very long term. Large amounts of money

are released over short periods of time, promoting lavish and

unsustainable spending, and sometimes corruption. Most of the

projects are managed by highly paid consultants, often resented by

local professionals, whose salaries can be less than one-thousandth

that of a consultant.


The projects usually emphasize local economic and agricultural

development. But if the work is at all successful, it both increases

the impact on the ecosystem of the people already in the area and

attracts migrants. As Andrew Noss, a scientist at the Wildlife

Conservation Society, said in a review of one project in the Central

African Republic, many Africans will readily move, even to a

remote area, to exploit new economic opportunities.


Because most international agencies' policies stress helping people,

rather than preserving the environment, few integrated

conservation-and-development projects make the rigorous policing

of protected areas a high priority. Those in charge of the projects

typically believe that if people have viable economic alternatives,

they will voluntarily refrain from exploiting forest resources. By

contrast, land-management policies in developed countries do not

rely on that comforting idea, based on the myth that humans will

attempt to live in harmony with nature if given the chance. Instead,

industrialized countries recognize the human tendency to exploit any

available resource until it is exhausted; as a result, they have zoning



As John Terborgh, a tropical ecologist at Duke University, and

others have made clear, we are on the verge of a crisis: Many

animal species in the tropics face extinction, as their ecosystems are

reduced to smaller and smaller fragments, each of which is under

increasing pressure from human-population growth and economic

development. Strong action is necessary to prevent the crisis, and

academics can play a role in the solution.


Scientists such as Terborgh and the primatologist Thomas

Struhsaker, also at Duke, have become convinced, as I have, that a

much greater effort must be made to protect tropical parks and

reserves from human interference -- while some large, relatively

untouched natural ecosystems remain. Without better protection,

through policing of the sites and enforcement of laws against

exploiting the resources, many of those ecosystems and the species

they support will soon be gone forever. Many tropical countries

have already set aside about 5 percent of their land area as

reserves. Turning over that amount of land to development would

have only a marginal economic effect for humans, yet it would have

a devastating impact on millions of other species.


The money to create new parks, and to protect them and the

existing ones, would probably have to come, for the time being,

from the citizens of rich countries, given that the economies of many

developing countries -- particularly in Africa -- are not in good



Through their governments' financial support of organizations such

as the World Bank, the citizens of developed countries are now

subsidizing the conservation-and-development projects that are

harming rain forests. If that money were allocated instead to

independent trust funds, income from the funds could pay

indefinitely for the basic protection of many tropical parks. Some

organizations, such as Conservation International, have already

helped establish trust funds for tropical conservation.


Such investments should be accompanied by increased efforts to

instill a greater appreciation for nature -- beyond its material value

-- among people, especially children, in developing countries. That

is not a hopeless cause. Children everywhere tend to be fascinated

by animals and plants, and that interest can lead to public support

for protecting nature. India is an excellent example of a densely

populated country whose citizens, though mostly very poor, show

widespread respect for other living things and generally support

government-run conservation areas.


Teaching science and natural history in primary schools can be an

effective way to reach children. Natural-history books are now in

short supply in many tropical countries, as are movies and videos

about wildlife. Spending money on educational resources would be

an excellent investment; so would improving the often awful zoos in

cities of developing countries, and including exhibits on



Finally, biologists should be more vocal in their criticism of current

conservation policies. Only a few, such as Terborgh and

Struhsaker, have so far made public statements about the lack of

logic, and the danger, in promoting sustainable development.


Over the years, many academics have refrained from directly

criticizing international conservation organizations on the ground

that those groups are only trying to do their best under difficult

circumstances -- if we undermine them, who will be left to fight for

conservation? Many biologists working in the tropics have also

depended for their research funds on conservation organizations, a

practice that surely has inhibited criticism.


Before it is too late, more academics should apply the critical

thinking in which they are specially trained to the problems of

tropical conservation, and speak out about the logical flaws in

current policies. Biologists in particular have an obligation to do

what they can to preserve nature. They are the experts, the logical

defenders of the natural world.


John F. Oates is a professor of anthropology at Hunter

College and the Graduate Center of the City University of

New York. His most recent book is Myth and Reality in the Rain

Forest: How Conservation Strategies Are Failing in West Africa,

published last fall by the University of California Press.


Copyright 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education