Action to protect nature and tackle poverty gathers momentum

An IIED workshop heard how new global agendas and advances in ways to measure the benefits of natural resources are reframing the debate on how to protect the environment while reducing poverty.

New tools can measure the benefits of ecosystems such as coastal mangrove forests, such as this one in Mexico. Mangroves provide protection from coastal flooding and erosion, as well as nutrition for marine life (Photo: Peyri Herrera, Creative Commons via Flickr)

From fresh water to natural medicines, air filtration to flood defences, healthy ecosystems provide vital 'services' that can secure livelihoods, build resilience to climate change, and drive economies.

Poor and vulnerable communities are often particularly dependent on natural resources. Ecosystems are their lifeblood.

What's new? 

In the past, the social, environmental and economic benefits of ecosystems have been difficult to measure. But new accounting methods give a clearer picture of how natural assets can contribute to a country's economic wellbeing, generating business and supporting national wealth.

Managed well, natural resources can help governments achieve ambitions set out in recent global agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Nonetheless, managing and protecting these resources needs political and public buy-in, and the financial support to match.

Last month, I joined an IIED-led workshop bringing together policymakers and researchers from 11 different countries to share ways of keeping our planet healthy while tackling poverty.

The value of ecosystems

The world's 4,000 million hectares of forest store 296 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon, offer rich habitats to the forest's many ecosystems, and provide vital forest products such as fuelwood.

Coastal mangroves, coral reefs and estuaries provide strong defences to flooding and erosion. Breeding grounds for fish generate income for thousands of artisanal and commercial fishermen.

Now, with tools to measure forests' social and economic benefits, the costs of losing this natural resource are clearer – and troublesome.

A study of 42 developing countries found 3.5 million people and US$400 million at risk without the protection of mangroves.

Taking coordinated action

Participants agreed there is no quick fix for protecting and restoring ecosystems – it requires working with actors across regions, over several years. According to Aloke Barwal from DFID India, merging livelihood, development and climate change programmes helps to get ecosystems restoration on the political agenda, while for Zenebbe Bashaw Uraguchi, of the Swiss development agency HELVETAS, creating a multi-donor trust brought reliable financing, enabling multi-year planning for the Ethiopian Productive Safety Net Programme.

For Virgilio Viana, bringing both the private and public sector on board provided the Bolsa Floresta programme with resources to reach hundreds of people scattered across Brazil's Amazon basin.

Making the most of tools and rules

Policymakers can deploy regulations and incentives to help manage natural resources. These could include rules that govern access to forests, eliminate harmful subsidies (such as those making chemical fertilisers cheap), or incentives to encourage behaviour that protect ecosystems such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) or public works schemes.

Participants at the workshop on conditional transfers, poverty and ecosystems in Cambridge in September 2016 (Photo: Ina Porras/IIED)

Conditional transfers (of cash, job or grain) have long been a part of welfare programmes – and more recently to help protect the environment.

Global deals drive local action

The same priorities dominate development efforts now as 20 years ago: water, energy and food security, health, safety, education.

But participants agreed global frameworks such as the SDGs, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris climate change agreement bring new political momentum and help secure financial commitment to support national development agendas.

During the workshop we heard examples of how new agendas have strengthened initiatives to protect the environment and boost social protection, such as:

  • In South Africa, where the Department for Environmental Affairs has upped the budget for environmental protection programmes
  • In India, where civil society is putting pressure on the government to maintain public works schemes, and 
  • In Bangladesh, where public support for a temporary ban on fishing the rapidly declining hilsa species is growing.

Room to learn, space to improve

Success creates space for improvement. Participants discussed practical strategies to strengthen programmes, reduce transaction costs and improve coordination across multiple actors, for example using public-private-NGO partnerships.

We discussed monitoring tools – the Achilles heel of these types of initiatives – and touched on the social sensitivities of targeting ecosystems and people, and the risks of excluding those who need incentives.

We also shared ideas on exit strategies – the drawing back of incentives when an ecosystem has been restored. There was much enthusiasm for practical tools that can leverage investments in nature to achieve sustainable finance.

Partnerships for learning

Demand-led country exchanges, peer-to-peer lesson learning and targeted knowledge events, all rooted in evidence-based research and robust science, will help unlock the potential for healthier ecosystems and less poverty within and beyond boundaries.

The workshop, supported by Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA), DFID and others, showed how bridging the gap between the academic community and policymakers can generate a strong feeling of unity, also found during the 18th Bioecon meeting.

Next month, the International Eco-compensation Conference in Kunming, China will convene heavyweights from India, South Africa and Brazil to discuss what it takes to meet global social and environmental targets. Watch this space.

Ina Porras (ina.porras@iied.org) is a senior researcher in the Shaping Sustainable Markets research group at IIED.