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Paying people a guaranteed income could protect biodiversity. For a very high price.


Paying people a guaranteed income could protect biodiversity. For a very high price.

New research suggests that a conservation basic income could be fair and effective. It could also cost as much as $6 trillion per year.
May 24, 2023

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In 2007, the Indonesian government launched a program aimed at reducing poverty by paying money to poor women with children as long as they sent their kids to school and got basic healthcare.

The payments had a surprising side effect: Deforestation declined by around 30% when the money began flowing to nearby rural villages, scientists found.

“Modest, but persistent, transfers of cash to extremely poor households can provide both social and environmental benefits,” lead author Paul Ferraro, a Johns Hopkins University professor, wrote on Twitter in 2020, when the paper came out.

Now, a group of scientists are asking how much it would cost to expand such income supplements in the name of conservation, to people living near wildlife hotspots around the world.

The short answer, they found, is that it would be hugely expensive. Even payments of a few dollars per day would dwarf current all spending on conservation by governments. A price tag of between $351 billion and $6.7 trillion per year (yes, that’s trillion with a “T”), is “an enormous figure,” acknowledged the researchers in a column accompanying the release last week of their paper in Nature Sustainability. But compared to the $44 trillion in economic productivity tied to natural systems, they wrote, “it would represent a shrewd investment in safeguarding our natural world.”


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When fighting poverty yields more trees


The idea of what has been dubbed a “conservation basic income” or CBI, has a logic to it, both in terms of fairness and practical advantages. As world leaders press to protect 30% of land and ocean habitats by 2030, there is concern that the burden of such efforts could fall disproportionately on people living near biodiversity hotspots, many in poorer countries. In just one example, indigenous San bushmen several years ago were evicted from traditional hunting grounds in Botswana to make way for a game reserve.

Direct payments to people living in such places “more equitably distributes the costs and benefits of conservation because basic income schemes improve wellbeing, reduce poverty, and redress inequalities,” said Emiel de Lange, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodia office, and lead author of the new study.

The money could also advance conservation goals by relieving pressure to exploit natural resources, particularly in places where poverty create incentives to resort to poaching, logging and other environmentally destructive activities. In the case of the Indonesian payments, Ferraro and his colleague suspected the deforestation declined because the modest payments—equal to between $13 and $40 every three months—were enough to prevent rice farmers from preemptively clearing more land as insurance against a bad crop. Or it led people to buy goods rather than harvest them from the forest.

While such payments might seem minuscule by U.S. standards, they add up. To gauge the potential costs of taking such payments global, and tying them conservation, de Lange and colleagues looked at different levels of habitat protection and payments. In the cheapest version ($351 billion per year), people in low and middle-income countries who lived in the most biodiverse places on earth—such as rainforests in sub-Saharan Africa—would get payments tied to the poverty line in their countries. That would equate to $1.90 per day in the poorest countries, $3.20 for low-income counties and $5.50 for slightly wealthier countries. By contrast, the richest counties (if they qualified) would get $21.70 per day.

The most ambitious and costly program would rack up a yearly bill of $6.7 trillion by sending payments of 25% of a country’s national per capita economic output  to all of the 1.6 billion people who live on the 44% of land deemed the most important for conservation.

Regardless of the figure, it’s far more than the $133 billion the world’s nations now spend on conservation.

Where would all that money come from? De Lange and his coauthors point to one possibility: Taxes on environmentally destructive activities. They note that harmful energy and agricultural production gets subsidies of $280 to $500 billion per year. That’s enough to pay $5.50 per day to each of the 238 million people living in protected areas in poorer countries.

While the research raises intriguing questions, it leaves a lot unanswered. Beyond where to get the money, would such payments really work? There has been little real-world testing. One conservation group proposed trying conservation-related basic income payments in Zimbabwe several years ago. But the project was shelved due to political unrest.

While the Indonesia example is promising, a similar program in Mexico suggests such payments might backfire. There, researchers found that when payments to alleviate poverty started flowing into rural communities, the likelihood of deforestation nearby roughly doubled. The scientists traced it to an increase in demand for land-intensive agricultural products such as beef and milk.

Just because a basic income is guaranteed doesn’t mean the way people react to it is also guaranteed.

De Lange, et. al. “A global conservation basic income to safeguard biodiversity.” Nature Sustainability. May 18, 2023.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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