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Rural development won’t save biodiversity — or lift people from poverty

Trying to combine rural development with conservation in developing countries cannot make the world’s rural poor substantially better off, or protect biodiversity, argues UC Davis professor Truman Young in a recent article.

In a recent issue of the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy, Young argues that the countryside cannot sustain current populations except at poverty levels.

Efforts to decrease poverty and restore natural habitats should recognize that human populations have been moving from rural to urban areas on a massive scale, and focus on giving immigrants the skills to thrive in cities, he says.

Young focuses on Brazil’s Amazon Basin and Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve as examples of the limits of rural development. Both these areas are rich in natural biodiversity and generally poor in the nutrients or rainfall needed to sustain profitable agricultural communities. Using development/conservation policies to help increase agricultural production or resource extraction such as timber or rubber may substantially raise family incomes in the short term, but will never do so sufficiently to lift them fully out of poverty, Young said.

“We need to recognize that for many living in rural areas, there is a strong attraction, especially in the younger generation, to the cities,” he said. “This trend has been growing steadily, and the rural populations of many tropical countries are already declining. Given this phenomenon, the best long-term strategy may be to assist the migrant rural communities by giving them education to assist in this migration, rather than enticing them to stay on unprofitable lands.”

In addition, land left abandoned as people migrate to the cities can be made available for natural biodiversity. His paper points out cases of farmlands in the Amazon that were transformed into secondary rainforest after they had been abandoned.

He is quick to point out that the movement to the cities is not an economic panacea; many urban centers are poor, unhealthy and dangerous places. Nor is he advocating the forcible removal of populations from their rural homes as a way to restore biodiversity. Instead, he urges conservationists to recognize urban migration as an inevitable long-term human current, and to refocus their efforts on making the transition as smooth and environmentally friendly as possible.

One Response to Rural development won’t save biodiversity — or lift people from poverty

  1. Jeremy says:

    I have not read the article you refer to, so you may not think I ought to comment, but I would just like to query the nature of the agricultural development being considered. If you mean full-on high-tech intensive agriculture, than I agree; assisted migration to urban areas is probably preferable. But if you mean more effective use of agricultural biodiversity to boost and stabilise productivity and increase well-being, then I suspect that a better life is possible for people in many, many areas that areas that Professor Young writes off. And more diverse production in rural areas could also help people in nearby cities to obtain a more diverse and more nutritious diet.

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