Economics greatly impacts conservation success. Short-term profits can incentivize individuals, companies, or governments to harvesting resources at an unsustainable rate and at the expense of ecosystem health. In impoverished regions, compromising habitat to grow high-value crops, such as coffee or oil palms, or poaching endangered species may seem like the only source of income.
Much of the Earth’s biodiversity is concentrated in the tropics. While people living in the tropics may be willing and eager to preserve the wildlife around them, they are often unable to accomplish the task due to funding constraints (James et al., 2001; McClanahan and Rankin, 2016). Because many of these areas experience high levels of poverty and rapid rates of population growth, the little aid these areas receive are generally diverted to short-term socio-economic programs that ensure elected officials remain in power, rather than long-lasting sustainable solutions. In fact, one of the biggest challenges facing conservation biologists across the world is inadequate funding—many areas lack basic operational funds for protected areas, with even less for staff training, retaining top talent, keeping promises to local communities, and fulfilling the obligations set out in international treaties.
Another significant development has been the rise of NGOs that directly fund and manage conservation activities. NGOs rely on several funding mechanisms to accomplish their goals, including membership dues, donations from wealthy individuals, sponsorships from corporations, and grants from foundations and multilateral consortiums. NGOs use these funds to advance scientific research and conservation training, to implement large-scale conservation projects, and to develop locally-adapted conservation strategies (Shackeroff and Campbell, 2007), often in collaboration with local communities (Rodríguez et al., 2007). For example, BirdLife International provides alternative environmentally friendly income streams by training local guides to help tourists find rare and elusive bird species (Biggs et al., 2011) (Figure 19.6.1); other NGOs train park rangers and wildlife biologists, set up ecotourism lodges, and create opportunities to sell hand-made crafts.
Multilateral consortiums and nongovernmental conservation organizations (NGOs) have emerged as important supporters of local conservation projects.
Another innovative funding approach, namely debt-for-nature swaps, leverages the huge international debt owed by developing countries to protect biodiversity. Major lenders (usually commercial banks or industrialized-country governments) have financed massive loans around the world, some of which they may never see repaid. One opportunity for the creditors to recoup some of this money is to restructure or sell the debt at a steep discount. Working with funders, investors, and development organizations, conservation groups may then buy a portion of these debts or help debtor country restructure this debt, in exchange for environmental commitments (in some cases, creditors may even directly engage with the debtor country). These conservation efforts can also provide a new source of income for residents near the protected areas. For example, the United States forgave $20 million in debt from Costa Rica. In exchange, Costa Rica invested in expanding its protected areas and developing the ecotourism industry, which provides jobs to many of its residents (figure 19.6.2). Ecotourism involves visiting and enjoying natural areas while minimizing ecological damage. Ecotourism can benefit local economies and alleviate poverty especially if the earnings from it are reinvested into the communities living near tourist destinations. It generates jobs such as park operators, sellers of local crafts, and tour guides.
Another new strategy to obtain conservation funding is payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes. Through these programs, governments, conservation NGOs, and businesses develop markets from which landowners can receive direct payments for protecting and restoring ecosystems and ecosystems services.
To combat climate change, a major international initiative financially rewards communities for preserving their carbon stocks. This initiative, established by the UN in 2007 and called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) receives its operational funds from individuals (such as people traveling on airplanes) and organizations seeking carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions. These funds are then used for results-based payments for conservation of carbon stocks such as forests and peatlands.
How effective is conservation funding?
Despite all these conservation resources, conservation activities continue to be underfunded due to a mismatch between funding needs and availability (Watson et al., 2014; McClanahan and Rankin, 2016; Gill et al., 2017; Lindsey et al., 2018). Exacerbating these shortfalls, conservation budgets continue to be dwarfed by spending from competing human activities and well-funded special-interest groups. For example, while the US $1.2–2.4 billion annually needed to secure Africa’s protected areas with lions (Lindsey et al., 2018) is an enormous amount of money, it is much less than the US $26 billion in perverse subsidies that was paid to Africa’s fossil fuel industry in 2015 (Whitley and van der Burg, 2015), which in turn is dwarfed by the whopping US $640 billion the USA budgets for military defence (DOD, 2017).
While conservation funding is increasing, it continues to be dwarfed by perverse subsidies and spending by well-funded special-interest groups.
Many conservation projects are also constrained by weak institutional capacity, inappropriate nepotism, and even corruption in governments and NGOs. There is sometimes a tendency for conservation organizations to compete, causing them to duplicate efforts in parallel rather than cooperating efficiently. Others spend a large percentage of their funds on maintaining extensive headquarters in expensive cities; these expenses are sometimes justifiable because of work on policy or advocacy, but they are sometimes wasteful and can come at a great cost to efforts in the field. Consequently, donors are increasingly worried about how funds earmarked for conservation will be spent—will funds be used to protect biodiversity and reducing poverty, or will they be diverted to other purposes? Thus, while new projects are often more effective, due in part to lessons learned from past experiences (Pooley et al., 2014), there is also a tendency to restrict funding to short-term cycles, and to add additional rules to prevent inappropriate spending. These additional constraints are making funding applications and accounting processes increasingly cumbersome and time-consuming, requiring even more time in the office than in the field. By focusing on short-term outcomes to meet reporting requirements, they also restrict grantees’ ability to invest in organizational resilience and staff development, to adapt to changing circumstances, and to incorporate new ideas mid-cycle (Nelson et al., 2017).
Despite these conservation gains from the regulated hunting industry, legitimate concerns linger, including overcrowding and poor treatment of some animals, the ethics of trading and killing threatened species, and whether selective hunting and breeding complement or run counter to overall conservation objectives (Milner et al., 2007). The actual contribution of regulated hunting to society at large is also still being debated (IUCN/PACO, 2009; Murray, 2017), especially since some hunting concessions are established through land grabs and eco-colonialism. Similarly, there is also concerns that legal markets for threatened species may stimulate black markets and overharvesting (Lenzen et al., 2012; Hsiang and Sekar, 2016). Finding the balance between developing responsible trade opportunities in threatened species that can fund conservation activities, and risking overharvesting, is a highly emotional issue (e.g. Biggs et al., 2013a,b; Collins et al., 2013; Litchfield, 2013; Prince and Okita-Ouma, 2013) that conservation biologists will continue to grapple with in the coming years.
In the end, given the importance of nature to human well-being, it is unfortunate that conservationists continue to struggle to obtain funding and other resources. Research has shown that under-funded conservation activities run a high risk of failure (McCreless et al., 2013) while the rush to monetize nature risks weakening protection of species without immediate or realized value (Muradian et al., 2013; Balding and Williams, 2016). This contrasts with investments in protecting the natural world, which could save trillions of dollars and benefit millions of people (Costanza et al., 2014; Shindell et al., 2016). We look forward to the day when governments and individuals shift some funding from perverse subsidies to industries such as fossil fuels and unsustainable fisheries to supporting more conservation organizations and activities.