How to prevent conservation policies from turning against them in a globally connected world
For many years, environmentalists have urged the public to âthink globally, act locallyâ – that is, consider the health of the planet, then act in your own community.
But this approach can have unintended consequences. In a recent study, I worked with colleagues in academia, government, and the nonprofit world to put together examples of fisheries, forestry, agriculture and biofuels policies that seemed effective locally, but were effective locally. , on closer inspection, have in fact created environmental problems elsewhere, or in some cases aggravated them.
For example, in my area of ecology and fisheries management, one strategy to deal with the problem of bycatch – when fishermen accidentally catch non-target species, such as sharks, sea turtles and dolphins – is to reduce local catch limits. But when the United States reduced catches of Pacific swordfish between April 2001 and March 2004 to protect sea turtles, US wholesalers imported more swordfish from fleets of other countries operating in the western and central Pacific.
These fleets subsequently caught more swordfish to meet continued demand from the US market. In the process, the number of sea turtles caught unintentionally by fishermen increased by almost 3,000 compared to before closing.
My colleagues and I see this pattern, which researchers often refer to as leak or slip, as large and growing. To help address this, we’ve identified ways to avoid taking actions that only move environmental damage from one place to another rather than reduce it.
Transfer environmental damage
Once environmental problems are solved locally, people often assume they have been solved. But if the demand for everything they are trying to conserve – land, wildlife, energy resources – remains high, people will get them from other sources. In doing so, they cause environmental damage in less regulated places or economic sectors.
These scenarios often shift the impacts from developed countries to emerging economies. For example, a study based on 2001 data indicated that 31 percent of reductions in timber harvesting in the United States were transferred to less developed countries, including tropical forest countries in South and Central America, Southeast Asia, West and Central Africa as well as boreal forest countries such as Russia. Companies were looking for lumber in these countries to meet demand in the United States and other parts of the world created by the reduction in American exports.
Such effects are common in forestry. One study estimates that 42 to 95 percent of operating reductions in specific countries or regions are moved elsewhere, offsetting environmental gains. Less wealthy countries that get the extra business often benefit economically, but in many cases they have not yet developed policies to ensure that they are using their natural resources in a sustainable manner.
Slippages can also occur within countries. Seeking to promote sustainable forest management, Peru adopted long-term logging concessions starting in 2002. In 2005, however, deforestation and forest disturbance increased three to four times. surrounding areas not conceded
Likewise, in 2003, Mexico adopted a federal conservation program that compensated landowners for forest protection. Deforestation has increased dramatically in neighboring forest plots not enrolled.
United States Conservation reserve program, which pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and plant it with species that will improve their health, can also cause such effects. A study found that between 1982 and 1992, farmers in the Midwest removed 17.6 million acres under the conservation reserve program, but simultaneously brought at least 3.7 million acres in production – perhaps because the withdrawals of cultivated land have pushed up the prices of crops. This offset 9 percent of the water and 14 percent of the reduction in wind erosion through the removal of the original cropland.
A way forward
In a world where markets are becoming increasingly global, there is an urgent need to limit the negative environmental impacts of resource use, rather than simply moving them from one region or country to another. There are a number of ways to do this.
To assess whether a policy will cause environmental damage elsewhere, it is important that natural resource managers and policy makers understand the relationship between demand for a product and its supply. For example, when the prices of hardwood species are high, more environmentally conscious consumers or those on a budget are likely to use bamboo or other materials for flooring instead.
However, some varieties have unique characteristics or evoke social status. Examples include Rosewood, which is highly prized for uses that include musical instruments, and shark fin soup, a dish considered by many Asians to be a symbol of wealth and prestige. Because these materials are often scarce, owning them becomes a sign of social status, which can lead wealthy consumers to buy more. Their conservation may require other actions, such as special legal protection for source species.
Governments and environmental groups can also use marketing campaigns to reduce demand for scarce resources, educate consumers about the consequences of their purchasing decisions, and encourage producers to be transparent about the environmental impacts of their products. Examples of such efforts include eco-labels, traceability programs and consumer guides, which have been widely implemented to forestry, fisheries and agricultural production.
Studies show that such tools can produce real environmental benefits, such as increasing fish stocks and supporting the creation of protected areas. Most of these improvements appear to be made by industries that need to make significant changes before they can join these programs. For example, fishermen may need to move away from traditional but destructive fishing practices before their catch can be certified as sustainably fished. These programs are often more successful in developed countries which can finance such initiatives only in emerging economies.
Avoiding illusions of conservation
Natural resource conservation policies are a fundamental tool for using the Earth’s resources responsibly and sustainably. In a world where consumers can buy products made on the other side of the planet, these policies must go beyond their own jurisdictions. Otherwise, well-intentioned conservation efforts can only create the illusion of protection.
Andrew Frederick Johnson does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond his academic position.