Enlightened self interest – the bottom line for protected areas

Recently I watched ‘Conservation’s Dirty Secrets‘, a Channel 4 documentary that originally aired in June. Even a not very good documentary, which seems to be the overwhelming response to the programme judging from the comments posted about it, can get you thinking, and this one gave much food for thought.

I was struck by a comment made by Pete Seligman, the CEO of Conservation International about their engagement with the private sector. He explained it was important to demonstrate it was in a corporation’s own best interests to help conserve nature. This is the very same language we use to explain to communities and their leaders why they should support their local national park or reserve. “It is in your best interest to keep these places and their biodiversity,” we say. They contribute water and soil to farmers, attract tourists, and contain valuable resources. We use the same language to explain conservation initiatives to donors, describing them in terms of sustainable economic development.

Uganda Photo: Mark Infield/FFI

The idea that conserving nature in general and protected areas in particular, supports economic development is an attractive one in a market economy. When communities recognise the financial worth of protecting nature, enlightened self interest will lead them to support it. There are some problems with this. One is that it has proved very difficult to deliver financial benefits to communities living around protected areas.

There are few examples where the financial benefits of conservation outweigh the local costs, especially in the short term. More fundamentally worrying is that if conservation is justified in financial terms, if a better deal delivering higher returns comes along, it is hard to argue against the bottom line. After all, we raised the argument appealing to financial self-interest.

The famous CAMPFIRE programme in Zimbabwe did an excellent job of delivering financial returns to communities from wildlife hunting, cropping and tourism, but when a new commercial package for cotton farming offered higher profits, communities, not unreasonably, decided to do that instead.

So I was interested to hear that the same ‘enlightened self interest’ argument was underpinning CI’s efforts to engage the corporate world. Working with companies to reduce their footprint on the natural world is critical. I wonder, though, if it will be any easier to demonstrate to corporate leaders who are employed to make decisions in the basis of profits, share price and investor dividends, that reducing impacts on the natural world or supporting endangered species is in their best interests.

Perhaps, whether we are talking to poor subsistence farmers living around a national park in Africa, commercial farmers living around a Site of Special Scientific Interest in the UK, or the managers of large corporations sitting in their board rooms, we need to appeal to more than the bottom line if we expect to gain their long-term support?