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Combining Conservation and Development in Poor Countries


Environmentalists have too often advocated piecemeal approaches that cannot succeed in most ecological degradation settings.  The U.S. EPA and World Resources Institute, for example, conducted a Delphi survey in 1992 asking experts to identify environmental trends, long-term problems, and suitable remedial measures. The joint report concluded that the "most powerful lever is education" and "[i]mproved education, at all levels, hs the greatest promise for the future of environmental quality and biodiversity. This includes providing people with a direct sense of connection between their everyday lives and environmental quality."

This is simply wishful thinking.   Education can seldom change self-interested choices in circumstances where people can obtain higher incomes through ecologically destructive activities than by conserving natural features.  As one illustration, a recent article in The Undersea Journal   decried the widespread practice of dynamite fishing, which is illegal in virtually all coastal states, and then quoted an Indonesian official conceding: "The people who obey the law live in grass houses.  The people who don't, for now, live in concrete ones.  It's a difficult argument."  Fishermen can easily see the circle of devastation resulting from their use of explosives, but they can also catch more fish by using bombs than by adopting other low-technology fishing methods.  Many governments and environmental groups have mounted educational campaigns to describe the long-term harm resulting from this method, but the practice continues in many regions.

In the same vein, education can seldom overcome selfish or uncooperative behavior arising from perceived self-interest, past cultural traditions, or sheer stubbornness.  Education can seldom resolve "Tragedy of the Commons" problems in which communal ownership allows people to benefit from other's conservation efforts by taking a disproportionate share of the natural resources for themselves.  Education can seldom remedy "h out" problems in which the continuation of environmentally harmful actions by some people will undermine conservation preferences by the majority.  In all of these cases, environmental education may be a necessary element in devising any practicable solution, but education cannot be a sufficient solution by itself.  Combining environmental education with economic assistance or economic incentive mechanisms is likely to prove more effective than exclusive reliance on education programs.

In Jamaica, for example, hurricanes in the early 1980's badly damaged north-shore reefs and reduced fish abundance while the human fishing population increased; thus, there were more fishermen trying to catch fewer fish. The most common fishing gear is small-mesh traps that capture juveniles before they have a chance to mature into larger and more valuable fish.  One marine scientist working in Jamaica noted that the average daily catch is pitifully small and yet some fishermen do not realize they are overexploiting the resource. Another scientist wrote: "It is a common belief that fishing pressure cannot affect the abundance of fish ('Fish can't done!'); that it is sacrilegious to presume otherwise ('If fish in my trap, is God put it there'); and that other factors are responsible for the decline in catches."  Among fishermen who did understand the cause of the decline, cooperation was rarely forthcoming because of mutual distrust and because anyone's conservation efforts would simply provide a greater opportunity for other fishermen to profit.

In 1988, marine scientists from Trent University in Jamaica and the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory of the University of the West Indies began a Fisheries Improvement Project.  This project initially focused on education of Jamaican fishermen about the harmful ecological impacts of their activities.  However, the scientists concluded by 1991 that education was insufficient:

"While many fishermen recognized the ill effects of 'fine mesh' on the fishery, further progress towards the general use of larger mesh sizes was unlikely because (a) they were reluctant to suffer the initial burden of reduced catches, and (b) they thought it would be futile to make the changes individually, and impossible to organize simultaneous change collectively."

With financial assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Project then devised a novel program in which fishermen who turned in small-mesh traps in working order received enough large-mesh wire in return to make two traps for every one they had surrendered.  Under this trap replacement program, the average size of fish taken began to increase and the fishermen did not feel their welfare was adversely affected by conservation efforts.  In effect, combining education with a form of economic assistance proved relatively successful where educational efforts alone had failed. This program was far from an ideal solution because wire-mesh traps are indiscriminate mechanisms that kill many more fish than are useful for commercial or subsistence purposes.  Yet, some level of conservation is often better than none, and the first requirement was to reduce the local fishermen's resistance to cooperative conservation measures.  Unfortunately, as so often happens to conservation programs dependent on foreign aid grants, the money ran out after a couple of years--just as the program was beginning to show significant results in terms of increasing fish sizes--and the trap replacement project had to be abandoned.

If environmentalists must persuade many people in disparate areas that conservation of ecosystems and species is worth more to them in terms of their own self-interest than are non-sustainable exploitation practices, education will usually be insufficient in the absence of associated economic assistance or incentives measures.  Education is especially unlikely to achieve real conservation when natural resources are withdrawn from people's use to create private nature reserves, public parks, and other protected areas, or to preserve wildlife and other ecological features for their own sake.  This claim should not require much elaboration considering the countless cases in which destructive, non-sustainable, illegal resource exploitation continues in protected areas.

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