The World Wildlife Fund sets out to preserve habitats and create economic growth at the same time.

In areas where farm land encroaches into rainforest, or urban areas crowd out animal habitats, human development and the preservation of species and environments seem to be in conflict. But a report published last week by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that biodiversity and the alleviation of poverty don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals.

“It is critical to maintain and enhance healthy ecosystems and species populations not only in and of themselves, but because they are vital to the lives and well-being of rural communities dependent on them for their survival,” wrote Susan Lieberman, director of the WWF Global Species Program, in the foreword to the report, titled “Species and People: Linked Futures.”

The report represents an ongoing shift within the conservation community from traditional top-down defenses of individual species, such as WWF’s giant panda mascot, to a more holistic approach that acknowledges the codependence of humans and their environment.

A main impetus for this policy shift has been an increased sophistication in tracking equipment and data collection, which provided the WWF with a new awareness of the long-term benefits of attacking poverty along with ecological depletion.

“As we’ve become more sophisticated, and our scientific tools have become more sophisticated, we—along with everyone else in the conservation community—fully understand that you can’t save species without saving habitats. And then the next step out is, you’re not going to do it unless you fully involve local people,” said Ginette Hemley, WWF’s vice president for species conservation.

The report details six case studies around the world where initial efforts to preserve a single species evolved into outreach programs including the entire community. In the Terai Arc Landscape in Nepal, for example, efforts to increase the tiger population eventually led to a community reforestation program. WWF provided the seed money for a sustainable logging industry that helped reforest large areas of the tiger’s natural habitat, while also generating income and creating jobs.

Hemley acknowledged that, should a local government not support a WWF-initiated program, it has less chance of long-term success. The WWF is not meant to replace local governance, she said, but to act as a catalyst for change.

“We’re in it for the long term in the sense of wanting to make sure there are long term solutions,” she said. “It does mean that governments have to embrace these [plans] in the end.”

In all six of the case studies in the report, governments have at least partially supported the WWF’s work. In Nepal, the WWF reforestation plan has been written into law.

Peter Ashton, Bullard Professor of Forestry, Emeritus at Harvard’s Center for International Development, agreed that biodiversity and development should be complementary goals.

“Biodiversity cannot be conserved if poverty persists and is accompanied, as it usually is, with a continuing rise in human population therefore increasing demand on resources,” he said via e-mail.

WWF has created partnerships with health organizations and companies, such as Save the Children and Johnson & Johnson, to bring healthcare, including family planning, to indigenous groups in the remote areas that it is working to protect.

“We’re operating under the assumption that when people are healthier,” Hemley said. “They are better stewards of their environments because they can plan for the long term.”

Originally published March 27, 2006

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