Drumming it in

Should local communities pay for Western notions of 'global benefit'?

By Anju Sharma
Published: Friday 15 November 2002

-- To what extent has the Global Environment Facility (gef) succeeded in poverty alleviation through its biodiversity projects around the world? To begin with, we must understand that any poverty alleviation benefit is purely incidental to gef projects. The gef's focus remains biodiversity conservation as defined by the donor countries. Poor local communities are perceived to be a hindrance that must either be removed, or else diverted with 'alternative livelihoods' that require major changes in their lifestyle.

Take, for instance, an example in the second gef Overall Performance Study (ops-2) -- of the Mgaginga Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust in Uganda. The trust contributed to the construction of 18 schools and 11 clinics. The schools were built because the community argued rationally that schools were necessary to provide education for their children so they can get jobs in Kampala and elsewhere, and become less dependent on the national parks for their livelihoods than their parents. Evidently, gef-funded conservation projects do not take into account that such migrations could create other environmental problems related to urbanisation, including an intensification of the unemployment situation, in Kampala. They are only concerned with getting rid of people from around protected areas.

A more rational development approach, followed in most industrialised countries, would instead focus on making it viable for future generations to stay on where they are, and provide them incentives to protect their habitat. In Switzerland, for example, considerable emphasis is placed, and massive subsidies provided, to create sustainable livelihoods to keep people in the Alps, instead of having them migrate to cities in the plains.

The ops also documents that the clinics were funded by the trust because the communities argued that they would treat ailments that were previously treated with herbal medicines harvested from parklands, which people are now restricted from entering to harvest medicinal plants. Here again is an extremely narrow approach to biodiversity conservation -- one that ignores the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd). cbd also places considerable importance on benefits to local communities, particularly through benefit sharing arrangements, but gef does not fund such projects.

The communities should, instead, be encouraged to derive economic benefit from their knowledge of the local herbs. And yet, gef does not fund model projects for revenue sharing from exploitation of indigenous knowledge of biological resources. Such benefit sharing goes against global benefits as perceived by donor countries with pharmaceutical industries.

Unfortunately, however, neither Southern governments nor civil society have had such a strong influence on gef or its major implementing agency, the World Bank (wb). gef, thus, seems to actually have quite a will of its own, and does not reflect the priorities of cbd -- instead, it reflects the priorities of wb donors. For instance, gef emphasis on global benefits ends up directly undermining national and local ownership of biodiversity projects.

The gef approach has, in India, for instance, alienated communities from their habitats, and proved counterproductive to the cause of conservation. The gef-funded India Ecodevelopment Project, with wb as implementing agency, resulted in strong protests by local communities affected by the project, who had never been consulted in its design. I have visited a few of the project areas and seen what the implementers meant by alternative livelihoods -- the communities are treated like criminals in need of an alternative profession, and have little say in whether or not they wanted an alternative in the first place. gef will have to stop viewing the poor as the cause of biodiversity loss, and start seeing them as allies, who, given the right incentives, can become champions of conservation.

gef has often been criticised of addressing the symptom, and not the root causes of environmental degradation. This is a failure listed by ops-2 as well. The only way gef can address the cause of environmental degradation is if it moves away from its current charity-based approach, to a global implementation of the polluter pays and liability principles that are accepted by countries around the world. Only then will poor communities be able to define their own development goals, instead of havingto conform to Western notions ofdevelopment. Utilisation of their biodiversity, a local benefit, will provide them incentives for its conservation here and now, not for some global benefit in the future.

Anju Sharma is coordinator, Global Environment Governance unit, Centre for Science and Environment

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