If you ask aging environmental activists, the worst thing that can happen to nature is to have people step onto it.

This is the completely wrong approach, but one adopted by their corporate leaders in the last two generations when they found their donor base becoming increasingly urban. While it was once recognized that hunters, hikers and other sportsmen were obviously the most in love with nature, gradually they became treated like the enemy of environmentalists.

Younger activists are a little more practical. They recognize that parks where standards are maintained and the funds are spent in the local community are better than trying to buy up land and tell people they can't walk on it. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that it helps alleviate poverty. And it is an economic truism that when basic needs are met, people care more about where they live.

Protected natural areas in Costa Rica led to 16 percent reduced poverty in neighboring communities, mainly by encouraging ecotourism. It was obvious why that would happen, of course. Tourists are spending a lot of money so someone is going to build up ways to insure they have an easier time doing it and enjoy their stay.  What is weird is that environmentalists had insisted parks would increase local poverty. Again, they seem to hate people and invent rationales to reinforce that, like mumbo-jumbo about globalization. 

"Our goal was to show exactly how environmental protection can reduce poverty in poorer nations rather than exacerbate it, as many people fear," says co-author Paul Ferraro, a professor of economics and environmental policy in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, in their statement.

In "Quantifying causal mechanisms to determine how protected areas affect poverty through changes in ecosystem services and infrastructure," Ferraro and Merlin Hanauer of the Economics faculty at Sonoma State University, examine three potential causes of poverty reduction linked to the establishment of protected areas: 

  • changes in tourism and recreational services,

  • changes in infrastructure including roads, health clinics and schools, and
  • changes in ecosystem services such as the pollination and hydrological services a protected area may offer.

They find that increased tourism accounts for two-thirds of the reduction in poverty caused by protected areas. Changes in infrastructure and land use had little effect on the poverty in surrounding communities.

"Our results suggest that by using existing data sets such as poverty estimates from census data, the impacts of conservation programs and policies on human populations can be better defined," says Ferraro. "Our findings may result in improved conservation programs and policies, and better impacts on the communities adjacent to these sites, locally and around the globe."

Published in PNAS.