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Buying Environmental Protection from the Global Poor


One strategy environmentalists sometime use in saving species is buying off the global poor, paying them to protect the environment rather than harvest it.

Now, a team of researchers has shown that there is a surprisingly cheap and easy way to slow the pace of deforestation in Uganda: Just pay landowners small sums not to cut down their trees. Their study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, demonstrated this by conducting something all too rare in environmental policy — a controlled experiment.

The idea of paying people in poorer countries to protect their forests has long attracted interest from those concerned about climate change. The United Nations set up a program, known as REDD Plus (for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), to channel $10 billion from wealthy donors like Norway and Japan to poorer nations to slow deforestation trends responsible for about 10 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions each year.

The idea sounds simple: When trees are cut down and decompose or are burned, they release the carbon dioxide they soaked up from the atmosphere. Keeping them intact can help slow the pace of global warming.

The experiment itself compared deforestation rates in control groups, one getting paid, one not. And it showed that the payments help, if they don’t solve all problems. This is fine if western countries want to invest in it. The best case scenario here is that the people of Uganda rise to enough economic prosperity that they don’t need or want to destroy their own forests. The realistic scenario is that these programs last precisely as long as someone is willing to pay because these people will not become rich and even if they don’t, global corporations will seek to harvest these forests if they find enough of value in them.

Sad to say that we are in the middle of the Sixth Extinction and anything to forestall is well worth trying, but programs around rich countries paying poor countries are extremely tenuous and limited, even if you had good actors in those rich countries instead of, say, the Republican Party or the Tories. Sure, environmental organizations can raise money for these payments too, but that makes it even more tenuous and if you believe rich people are going to solve the world’s problems, well….

Nonetheless, there is no down side for at least trying.

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  • Alesis

    The first best solution is increasing agricultural productivity in the developing world that has been met with some (uneven) success and is particularly difficult in areas with population density high enough to strain the environment but too low to make transportation of fertilizers and the like economical. The “sweet” spot much of rural Africa lies in.

    When people can grow enough food on the land hey have access to they don’t need to slash and burn to get more land.

    • Victor_Matheson

      Except that econometric studies also show that if you make agricultural land more productive, it becomes even more valuable as cropland giving more incentives to deforest. One of our new colleagues here is a development economist working on exactly these trade offs.

      • Alesis

        There is a question of balance but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the hardest forest to manage are also in the regions of the world with the lowest productivity. I’m at best a novice in the field but the consensus is still that productivity is better for the environment. On net.

      • Just an off the cuff thought, this problem is much worse when you have potential cash crops. The transition from closer to sustenance to cash crop can introduce really large positive feedback loops in part because local consumption isn’t a limiter.

        • Victor_Matheson

          Yeah, I can’t quite remember what my colleague’s research found, but I think anytime you have the ability to either sell a cash crop or sell surplus food for cash in easily accessible markets, there is the potential for development to go the wrong way for the deforestation.

          That being said, Alesis is correct that being desperately poor has generally been shown to be bad for the environment, but it is perhaps the case that not every economic improvement will have positive benefits to the environment.

          • I think the tricky bit is that raising poor farming based economies is tricky. If you raise the average price for produced goods that can lead to expansion of production and a crash. Or expansion of production by damaging practices. Or a take over of the land by corps and even worse practices.

            As selling cash crops generally requires scale, but also transport and marketing…these are not easily to acquire for poor communities so the ability t o profit from the whole process is very limited for them.

      • Robespierre

        True, I wonder though: much deforestation, especially in the worst affected countries, is due to use of wood and charcoal as fuel, rather than cultivation; it can probably help if people are able to afford non-biomass fuels.

  • Victor_Matheson

    Strange… It is almost like the study of the allocation of scarce resources and having a good understanding of incentives is a valid field of study.

    Are we sure someone different isn’t posting under Loomis’ name?

  • buckguy

    International conservation is interesting inasmuch as it engages the affected populations, whereas in the US, it’s become a matter of smug middle to upper middle brow people with the affected occasionally mentioned as an after thought. The failure of conservation/environmentalism to become a popular a mass movement in the US (as opposed to being one tarred, not inaccurately as elitist) is one of its most enduring failures.

    • LeeEsq

      They real big problem in mid-20th century environmentalism was their anti-urban bias. Having lots of people live together in small areas is good for the environment because it leaves more room for wilderness. As to why environmentalism did not grow into a popular mass movement, I think to an extent it did because you have lots of people at least trying to signal concern even if their personal practices might be the best. Its main social problem wasn’t necessarily smugness but an inclination towards mysticism during the Counter Culture.

      • The rural ideal still lives on, and among both the left and right. Urban centers are better, but mainly when you actually had mass transit done right.

    • Deborah Bender

      That isn’t completely true. A lot of improvement in the sustainability and habitat protection of ranching is being done voluntarily by ranchers improving their land management practices. A lot of habitat protection for migratory birds is paid for by hunters through licensing fees that the hunting organizations generally support. Getting rice farmers in California not to burn off the stubble after harvest happened through cooperation between hunters, farmers and conservation organizations, and it has hugely increased the habitat for migratory waterfowl.

      The plastic bag bans to protect marine animals haven’t been fights between smug upper middle brow people and the common people; they are fights between smug upper middle brow people and plastic bag manufacturers and their lobbyists.

      The pattern you describe is a real one, but since the late twentieth century, it has been countered by the environmental justice movement, which the people directly affected participate in and often lead. A large part of environmental justice is preventing corporations from externalizing the costs of damaging the environment. Keeping dumps and landfills from being sited in poor neighborhoods creates economic incentives for reducing manufacturing and construction waste. Forcing oil refineries to control emissions makes fossil fuel less competitive against renewables. Protecting farmworkers from pesticide exposure makes integrated pest management more attractive. And so forth.

  • LeeEsq

    A potential limitation to this program is that people who want the resources can out pay the people who want to preserve the forest or whatever else is being protected. Another potential problem is that many Western environmentalists could potentially find this program icky because it involves using self-interest rather than pure consciousness to save the planet. There is going to be some philosophical opposition to this because of the secular Calvinism that can afflict leftist groups at times.

    • What environmentalists are against using self-interest for the better good? Some may lament it, but human heuristics is what we have to work with, ultimately

  • BeyondTheRiversOfEthiopia

    Again the undiscussed cause of a lot of this in this part of the world (I live in Kigali) is that a lot of agricultural expansion in the Albertine Rift region (Burundi-6.1 children per woman, Rwanda 4.2 children per woman, Western Uganda- 5.8 children per woman, Eastern Congo-6.5 children per woman according to the population reference bureau) is being driven by incredibly high population growth rates. Unless these are brought down (and Uganda, Burundi, and DRC have done a terrible job addressing the issue), you will simply have more population pressure on these areas of relatively fertile land populated almost entirely by subsistence/small holder farmers. In Burundi in particular, the last natural, unfarmed lands will probably be gone by 2040 due in large part to this issue.

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