All too often we see the juxtaposition of conservation and rural livelihood securities as if they are two opposing forces, with humans on the one side and (insert charismatic mega-fauna here) on the other.
Like most things, this is a cheap simplification with ultimately leads to misinformation and losses for all parties involved. The relationship is in fact a fine balance. In the long run, for conservation efforts to be effective poverty must be reduced, and for poverty to be reduced the natural resources which rural populations depend on must be managed in a sustainable way.
Wetlands are a particularly good example of this fragile relationship. Wetlands are highly productive and have huge ecosystem service values (estimated to be worth trillions of US dollars annually by RAMSAR) including water filtration, groundwater recharge, flood surge protection to downstream communities and are a carbon sink which plays a role in climate change mitigation. In addition, wetlands are a unique reservoir of biodiversity and have intrinsic value and cultural significance in many areas.
So if wetlands are so important, why are they being rapidly destroyed on a global scale? Two of the greatest contributors to this problem are water and agricultural demands of growing populations, who cannot be denied. In both instances, fragile wetland systems are lost by altering the natural water level patterns by draining, diking, ditching or upstream diversion. Of course there are negative ramifications in doing so, but the basic needs of growing populations for food and water must be provided somehow, which becomes increasingly difficult in water scare areas.
To protect wetlands, their values must be understood and protected. There are many communities and organizations which are working towards these goals, with rural livelihood promotion as a dual goal. Approaches such as improving value recognition through education and economic incentives has been adopted by an NGO located in Uganda, which is working with communities and the private sector to implement a novel economic mechanism to promote wetland protection known as “Payment for Ecosystem Services” or PES. This emerging paradigm in ecosystem protection is most notability known for its potential to mobilize sustainable resources for conservation, but faces skepticism about its practicality and wide spread feasibility.
For a deeper look at the “Payment for Ecosystem Services” paradigm:
For a video and interviews about Nature Harness in Uganda:
Elizabeth Kreitinger is a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Missing Link: Sustainabillity appears on appears on Mondays.