How can improving ecosystems contribute to poverty alleviation in the Global South?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Planning for UN-led climate change negotiations, COP26, to be hosted in Glasgow by the UK Government in 2021, recognises the importance of protecting and restoring ecosystems in adapting to climate change.”


Can protection of the environment in countries of the Global South also improve local people’s lives? What is the role of management structures and systems of fisheries, forests and grazing land in helping make that happen? 

The damaging implications of biodiversity loss for people and the planet have been recognised globally, most recently in the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, launched on World Environment Day in June 2021. The Decade calls for communities, governments and the private sector to all play their part in restoring ecosystems, whether in forests, wetlands or urban areas.

Restoring ecosystems is also part of nature-based solutions to climate change. Planning for UN-led climate change negotiations, COP26, to be hosted in Glasgow by the UK Government in 2021, recognises the importance of protecting and restoring ecosystems in adapting to climate change.

Critical to any response to ecosystem protection and restoration is how local people are involved in planning and delivering on measures – how much say do they have from the start and over time and how will their livelihoods be affected by protection and management measures? This is particularly important in rural areas of the Global South, where millions of people rely directly and extensively on natural resources.

How are local people involved in managing natural resources?

Communities throughout the world have always had their own rules and systems to manage their local environment and resources. Over time though, governments have taken more control and centrally decided how resources should be managed. Since at least the 1980s, however, community involvement through new forms of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) and collaborative management (communities working with governments) have been introduced, with varying degrees of success in terms of delivering on more sustainable use of resources and impacts on people’s livelihoods.

Much research has been carried out over the years on which factors contribute to enabling these management and decision-making systems to work more effectively and deliver on sustainable use of natural resources. What is less well understood, however, is how governance – the structures and systems of management and decision-making - can encourage positive links between sustainable use of natural resources and poverty alleviation. 

How can governance make a difference?

Research published in World Development reports on a systematic mapping and thematic synthesis of literature to answer that question. Three key insights were identified through the research:

1.Governance that is locally owned and inclusive increases the potential for ecosystem services to deliver on improved livelihoods

Governance arrangements for fisheries, forests and other natural resources are more effective where local communities, often resource users themselves, have a strong sense of local ownership. Local ownership implies that decisions about the use of resources can be made by local people, not by distant bureaucrats. Evidence for local ownership is particularly found within customary systems and within some examples of community-based management, where devolution of power has resulted in genuine voice in decision-making.

Inclusivity is also critical and implies that decision-making is not limited to a narrow group of people. In practice, governance systems are often dominated by more powerful people, whether government officers or wealthier people in communities, or those with a higher social status. Social norms in many places mean that women are less likely to be actively involved in decision-making and so measures to support their effective involvement are needed.

2.The co-existence of multiple governance systems and institutions helps people to use different components of each and alter rules and systems to benefit from ecosystem services

Very often, multiple governance structures and systems exist in one location. These might include local councils, customary leaders and community-based natural resource management committees. This multiplicity of systems can be positive as people can draw on and turn to different structures to secure access to natural resources and support their livelihoods. However, it can also be problematic as these systems may be fragmented, with little coordination, leading to duplication of activity, conflicting messages and priorities and competing claims. The existence of multiple structures and systems can also make it difficult to attribute improvements in ecosystems and livelihoods to specific systems and measures.

3.Governance systems should offer appropriate and adequate incentives to deliver on poverty alleviation through ecosystem services

Literature consistently highlights the inadequacy of incentives to encourage pro-conservation behaviour by people expected to play a role in governing natural resources. The lack of incentives particularly comes in the form of limited, or no, increase in income resulting from conservation. Conservation of natural resources is generally prioritised above livelihood objectives, including food security, meaning that insufficient attention is given to the delivery of other benefits from the outset. However, a common finding in the literature is the people often report wider societal or community benefits arising from community-based management, such as a sense of pride and ownership. 

Recommendations for policy and practice

  1. Sufficient and appropriate power must be devolved to local communities involved in governing natural resources so that they have a genuine say and strong sense of ownership.
  2. Specific mechanisms to encourage and support effective participation in decision-making by all community members are needed. Mechanisms may be particularly needed to support the participation of women, as gender norms often prevent their effective involvement.
  3. Governing arrangements will be adapted and modified over time as structures and systems interact. This means that they will look and perform differently from one location to another and over time. Policy and guidelines to support community-based and collaborative governance should recognise this and be flexible in expectations.
  4. Appropriate incentives and compensation are essential to deliver on improved livelihoods, as well deliver conservation that is fair and just.