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Conservation and poverty

At the start of the 21st century, poverty remains one of the biggest concerns for humanity at the global level. Approximately thirty years ago, the World Bank defined poverty as "a condition of life characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy, and disease at levels that are below any reasonable definition of human decency."

Poverty reduction is perhaps the most urgent international problem in need of resolution in the new millennium. It is a fact that a large segment of the human population continues to suffer from extreme poverty without having immediate solutions within reach. The World Bank estimates that a total of 1.2 billion inhabitants of our planet live on less than US$1 per day.

As affirmed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), poverty is a complex and multidimensional problem that is reflected onto many aspects of society. Although the solution is not simple, it is critical that all countries collaborate and strive for a common purpose: to eradicate poverty. In that regard, it is vital to anticipate the implementation of a complex process involving both economic and social variables (job creation, improvement of productivity, etc.), as well as cultural variable (respect for human rights), so that all human beings may have a decent standard of living.

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

In response to the need for action, the world is recognizing that one of the options to alleviate this extreme poverty is the conservation of biodiversity. For example, the World Summit on Sustainable Development held by the United Nations (UN) in Johannesburg in 2002, set the target, as one of the key components of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), of achieving a significant decrease in the current rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010. This target is linked to the first MDG, which includes the goal of "reducing by half the number of people living in extreme poverty" (i.e., with an income of less than one dollar a day). This fact, confirmed again during the UN World Summit in 2005, was seen as a contribution to poverty reduction, for the benefit of all life on Earth. In a similar fashion, the main global conventions on the environment have adopted a wide range of commitments, linking poverty reduction with the conservation of biodiversity.

On the issue of poverty, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in keeping with the international community, confirms its institutional commitment and promotes the importance of fighting poverty through conservation. The IUCN reaffirms the important role conservation organizations play in the fight against poverty, and the need for bilateral and multilateral agencies to prioritize in their agendas the relationship between development and conservation of biodiversity. The IUCN also invites member organizations and other agencies related to environmental issues, to work on joint efforts for poverty reduction, sustainable development, the improvement of the quality of life of populations, and biodiversity conservation, taking into account that social equality cannot exist without the promotion and protection of human rights. In addition, it stresses the importance that management of Protected Areas has in the reduction of rural and local poverty.

Conservation organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based in Switzerland, believes that finding socially viable economic mechanisms is key to ensuring harmony between the goals of conservation and development, in order to achieve a sustainable future.

Currently, the IUCN, among other international and national organizations, promotes the importance of the fight against poverty through conservation. Similarly, it argues that it is essential that the governmental and non-governmental organizations that are engaged in this task, prioritize in their agendas the relationship between development and the conservation of biodiversity. Likewise, as was clearly recognized by the IUCN during its world congress in Barcelona in the year 2008, when policies and conservation activities affect people at the local level, these activities and policies should strive to contribute to poverty reduction or, at the very least, to not increase it.

Relationship between poverty and conservation

World-renowned experts such as Dilys Roe and Joanna Elliott have analyzed in detail the relationship between poverty and conservation. These specialists view with positivity the contribution that conservation activities can make in reducing poverty, both at local and at national levels. They also evaluate the contribution that activities to reduce poverty can make to conservation. In regard to the first group of activities - conservation activities which help to alleviate poverty - they mention: 1) opportunities to generate income (work, trade, business); 2) safety social networks for the poorest, who are unable to participate in the generation of income; 3) improvement of access to natural resources (for food, health and housing); 4) maintenance of traditional rights and cultural values; 5) ecosystem services (clean air and water, fertile soils); and, at times, 6) the commercialization of the latter, attracting international investments on conservation. Examples of activities whose objective is to alleviate poverty and which in turn benefit conservation, are: the reduction of the direct dependence on natural resources for subsistence; urbanization, which reduces the pressure on rural resources; incentives that are provided for the conservation of useful species (medicinal plants, food crops), and the creation of an economic base for private sector investment in environmental goods, including conservation.

According to Roe and Elliot, the loss of biodiversity has broad implications for poverty alleviation and complicates the achievement of the MDGs. These specialists quote a recent analysis of the Poverty Environmental Partnership (PEP), which found that environmental capital constitutes 26% of the wealth in low-income countries. Based on one of the latest reports on global resources of 2005, Roe and Elliot emphasize at the same time the role ecosystems can play as a springboard to leave poverty behind.

As these same authors state, in order to understand the interconnections between biodiversity and poverty, we must analyze: 1) how the poor both affect and are affected by the availability or lack of biodiversity; 2) what is the impact that conservation activities may have on the poor at the local level and the role they can play in supporting conservation activities; and 3) what is the contribution that biodiversity can make to poverty reduction efforts.

As for the Dominican economy, according to the 2005 National Human Development Report for the Dominican Republic, conducted by UNDP, the country has inserted itself in the global economy by achieving rates of over 5% average annual economic growth in recent years. In fact, the Dominican Republic is among the 10 largest economies in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, this National Report also says that the main cause of poverty and low levels of human development at the start of the new millennium is the limited commitment to the collective progress by the national leaders and the business sector during recent decades and the absence of a true social pact, as well as and the lack of empowerment of the majority sectors in Dominican society.

Poverty levels in the Dominican Republic

According to the UNDP, this has resulted in 1.5 million Dominicans falling into poverty due to the financial crisis that broke out between the years 2003 and 2004. Of these, around 670,000 fell into extreme poverty. Additional data from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reported that towards the end of 2004, 43 out of every 100 Dominicans were poor and of these, 16 were living in extreme poverty. Since late 2004, a process of economic growth and stability began and it has resulted in a reduction in the number of people living in poverty. In fact, almost 500,000 Dominicans (7% of the population) broke out of moderate poverty and around 233,000 people (3% of the population) overcame extreme poverty during that period. A few years later, however, 25.1% of the population was still below the poverty level.

From 2007 onwards, UNDP's Unit for Poverty Reduction, in consensus with the Dominican Government and associated agencies and institutions, developed strategic documents that establish the scope of actions in the Dominican Republic. These are based on three major priorities: 1) growth and development with equality; 2) quality social services for all; and 3) democratic governance. The first priority focuses on contributing to the development of a new model of social and institutional economic development, that is inclusive, sustainable and decentralized, which provides for an increase in social investment and the creation of decent jobs, as well as for greater efficiency in the use of resources in favor of the achievement of the MDGs. The second objective is to support actions to improve the quality and management of social services, and to increase access to them and their usage, by fostering sustainability, protection and the promotion of human rights. The third priority aims at contributing to the strengthening the State, at the central and local levels, by focusing on administration with greater efficiency, fairness and transparency. Particularly, the first priority seeks to integrate Dominican economic development with poverty reduction and environmental conservation, focusing on a model that seeks to be sustainable, or in other words, that develops in harmony with the environment.

Relationship between poverty and development in the Dominican Republic

However, in order to eradicate these levels of poverty in the Dominican Republic, it is vital to first analyze and understand the relations between poverty, human development and biodiversity in the island, as previously suggested by Roe and Elliot. For this reason, Maria Karina Cabrera and other colleagues, recently evaluated elements of poverty associated with development in the Dominican Republic and analyzed factors such as illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition, the lack of basic services, deplorable sanitary conditions, infant mortality, and migration. This group reported that in the Dominican Republic, the poverty rate has reached extreme levels. According to this group, the level of health and the infant mortality rate have been alarming throughout the nation's history. For example, in 2003, 20% of children with AIDS were abandoned in public centers. In the same way, widespread unemployment in many sectors, has given rise to constant migration in search of new opportunities.

Fortunately, these authors mention that in this situation, all government, business and constitutional sectors maintain a continual struggle to provide a better quality of life for the entire population on an equal basis. This is true thanks to the fact that in recent times, the Dominican economy has experienced a growth rate of up to 7 %, becoming the most solid country of the Insular Caribbean. Examples of this growth are the placement of computers in educational centers, new health facilities with more modern equipment, and the improvement of wages in the educational and health sectors, thus avoiding the brain drain to other sectors of society. All of this has produced an overall improvement in the quality of life of all Dominicans.

According to the IUCN, in countries such as the Dominican Republic, where a corresponding political will exists when in comes to accomplishing a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biodiversity, added to a strong interest in developing an integrated response to achieve a greater level of poverty reduction, an even greater difference can be made. Such a response, according to the IUCN, must come from different sectors and disciplines. For example, in rural areas and, in the country's Central Mountain Range (Cordillera Central), where poor communities depend on natural resources, conservation could allow the development of equitable and environmentally sustainable solutions. For this purpose, it is essential that organizations dedicated to conservation, both national and international, start to improve their strategies and skills and begin to collaborate with non-traditional partners in other sectors of society (for example, the health, education, housing, and production sectors). In this sense, it is vital that organizations dedicated to development and production improve their abilities to work with the environmental sector and include the conservation of the environment in their joint agenda. Both types of organizations should recognize the need to eliminate the inequity in coastal, rural and urban communities, when they assume the costs for development and conservation.

Finally, as the IUCN and other international agencies mention, there is still a pressing need to find economic mechanisms that are socially viable and environmentally responsible, to ensure a harmonious work flow between development and conservation, in order to achieve poverty eradication and a sustainable future in developing countries such as the Dominican Republic.