A brief history of biodiversity at IIED

16 August 2013

IIED’s work on biodiversity dates back over 25 years – although it has not always been labelled as such.

Biodiversity illustration

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the main focus came from IIED’s ground-breaking programme on environmental economics, which was a new discipline at the time. It provided new insights into the wildlife trade and particularly the economics of ivory. The well-known Elephants, Economics and Ivory, written by Ed Barbier and colleagues, was published by Earthscan in 1991. Shortly after IIED’s sustainable agriculture programme published The Hidden Harvest, a well-known review of the role of wild foods in supporting local livelihoods.

In 1994 the UK Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development) was reviewing its African wildlife policy and commissioned IIED to undertake a review of community-based approaches to wildlife management. The resulting publication Whose Eden? challenged the traditional practice of separating the management and conservation of wildlife from considerations about the livelihoods of local communities. The publication is still a widely cited and influential document, and the research was a launch pad for a major collaborative research programme on community-based wildlife management.

The Evaluating Eden initiative (1996 - 2000) explored the social, environmental and economic impacts of community-based approaches to wildlife management, comparing and contrasting experiences from Africa, Asia and Latin America – a hallmark of IIED’s research approach.

Biodiversity: a new area of work

Biodiversity was formally established as a new thematic area of work for IIED in 1998 with funding from the MacArthur Foundation. This support enabled a diversity of publications and research to develop on a wide range of topical issues including bio-prospecting, the process of discovering and commercialising new products based on biological resources, and wildlife tourism. The bio-prospecting work has since evolved into a programme of work on the protection of traditional knowledge and agricultural biodiversity. The wildlife tourism work developed to focus on “pro-poor tourism”, an approach that aims to make the profits from tourism help to benefit the economically poor. Much of our early work on wildlife tourism was published in the IIED Wildlife and Development Series.

IIED’s biodiversity work has always focussed on the links between biodiversity conservation and local people’s livelihoods, and much of our earlier work was published in the Evaluating Eden and the Biodiversity and Livelihoods Issue Papers series. This focussed on:

  • the wildlife trade
  • policies that work for conserving biodiversity and securing livelihoods and
  • community-based natural resources management, especially in Africa.

Today IIED’s biodiversity work ranges from agricultural biodiversity to apes, from climate change to conservation, and from market mechanisms to mainstreaming. It includes issues critical to the Convention on Biological diversity, such as access and benefit sharing, social assessment of protected areas, and ecosystem-based adaptation.