A simple case of demand and supply

Having been fortunate enough to experience living in Latin America and visit many remote locations, I have often pondered over the question of what impact modern-day lifestyles and demands have on global natural resources.

The day-to-day economic pressure on families and individuals is the same no matter where in the world we live. Putting a roof over our heads, food on the table and clothes on our backs are basic essentials for everyone. But the further from the developed world we venture, the harder and more complicated it can be to meet these priorities.

The daily realities and hardships facing the average family in developing regions, such as Latin America, have become very apparent to me over the years. The more remote the community, the more challenging it is to meet basic daily needs. Often this is due to the lack of a secure income.

Within these types of communities, livelihoods are more often than not tied to the surrounding environment. Living far away from markets, and with limited education and employment opportunities, often communities make do with subsistence living – fishing, farming and hunting wherever their immediate environment provides the possibility.

So what happens when these people happen to live surrounded by a natural resource that is in demand by a wider market, be it national or global? In such a case, communities suddenly have a simple means to make a living, using resources that are ‘on tap’.

In Nicaragua, for example, coastal communities found that they could earn a living by harvesting turtle eggs and selling these to people across the country who liked to eat them.

Baby turtles (credit: Victor Medina/FFI)

Turtles are threatened by poaching of their eggs (credit: Victor Medina/FFI).

In Belize, meanwhile, rosewood (which is popular around the world for making instruments and furniture) has become an accessible source of income for many people in the south of the country.

Gold also provides a living for many communities across Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela (to name but a few), and both small- and large-scale mining – often illegal and unregulated – is widely undertaken.

With the luxury of education, science and research, most people in developed countries are well aware that the global supply of natural resources is not bottomless. But without the benefit of this knowledge (and given the daily struggle that many families face to make ends meet) it is hardly surprising that communities will take the easy option to survive off their apparently never-ending supply of natural resources.

Short-term benefits, long-term cost?

Despite our knowledge that resources are limited, demand from economically rich countries continues to put pressure on resource-rich (but economically poor) regions and communities to over-exploit their local environment, furthering the decline of species and habitats around the world.

If you are struggling to make a living why would you not capitalise on your resources? If you do not have the educational insight and awareness that this resource will eventually be gone, there is no reason to stop using it. Often these activities are illegal, but if you need to put food on the table and if there is no real law-enforcement, wouldn’t you be tempted?

The result is that the western world’s demand for many natural resources is met – but at what cost?

And with more and more species and habitats threatened with extinction, what does the future hold for subsequent generations of people who depend on them for a living?

How conservation fits in

Having seen these realities first-hand, I wanted to try and play my part in the conservation world – but this is never a simple task. Stamping an area as ‘protected’, or classifying an activity as ‘illegal’ does not solve the problem on its own (as the continuing trade in ivory attests).

Despite restrictions, the illegal ivory trade still poses a major threat to elephants (credit: JABruson/FFI).

Protecting habitats and species is a starting point, but there are so many other factors to take into consideration: How will the protection be enforced? Who will do it? Who will finance it? How will the communities make their living? Who will raise awareness of why the area is protected or the activity illegal, and educate people about dwindling numbers and species? How can the global demand be minimised in our increasingly consumer-driven lifestyles?

There are so many questions to consider and, more than anything, the communities have to be open to input and opinion from the outside.

So, coming back to the question I posed at the beginning, it would seem that modern-day lifestyles add to the already intense pressures bearing down on the natural environment in developing countries. Alongside this is the ever-increasing clash of cultures, as traditional communities slowly but surely come into contact with a more modern world (and the economic implications).

Latin America is not unique in its struggle under these global pressures and indeed the examples mentioned merely scratch the surface of the rising number of regions and communities across the developing world facing similar issues.

I believe a vital component of conservation is education and creating awareness, both within local communities and the wider global audience. Empowering communities, as the keepers of our natural resources, with the knowledge and skills that will allow them to meet their basic necessities (without compromising their traditions and culture) is key to successful conservation.

It’s a tricky balancing act, and one that Fauna & Flora International (FFI) strives to achieve by involving the local communities in and around protected areas and conservation projects.

Community awareness, Nicaragua

Children build a 'sand turtle' as part of an education campaign in Nicaragua (credit: FFI).

In Ecuador and Belize, teaming up with locally managed foundations has helped gain the trust of the local people where FFI works. Nicaragua, meanwhile, sees a team of local staff driving FFI’s work forward, allowing a greater insight into (and understanding of) the local, regional and national issues on the ground.

Nothing happens overnight, but long-term commitment has its rewards. The coastal communities in Nicaragua, once poachers of turtle eggs, now protect these animals, their eggs, and their nesting beaches. In Belize and Ecuador, individuals who were once part of the very real mining and logging threats (and unaware of the damage it caused) are now the guardians of their natural resources and surrounding environment.

There is no simple solution. Tackling the problem on the ground is one thing but, as consumers, we also need to be more aware of our impact. Do we need all those goods sourced from far-flung places to get by?

It gets you thinking, doesn’t it?