Johnson: The Impossibility of Untangling Conservation and Development

Los Alamos
(Currently doing an internship in Mongolia)

This is the first of a series of (roughly) monthly columns I’ll be writing for the Los Alamos Daily Post on international development, humanitarian aid, and related issues.

In the United States and much of the developed world, we primarily think of conservation in terms of protected areas such as national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. In these areas, human activity is usually limited to tourism and research. In such countries, only a small portion of the population earns significant income from their own use of natural resources such as wildlife or forest products. In most cases, restricting access to these resources may cause political divides, but seldom does it have a direct economic impact on many citizens.

The situation is very different in many developing countries. The traditional protected area approach to conservation has largely failed in these countries. Many rural residents in developing countries rely on natural resources for a significant portion of their livelihoods. At the same time, governments usually lack the level of enforcement capacity available in developed countries.

Consequently, it is not feasible to create such strictly controlled protected areas. Local residents will continue to use natural resources as they had before the creation of the protected area, and the government often lacks the capacity to prevent this. When they do, it creates animosity which can be directed at western conservation organizations that backed the creation of the protected area. In either case, conservation and development objectives are not furthered.

This goes to show that conservation and development are inextricably linked. To be successful, any conservation program must intimately involve local people and their needs. At the same time, improperly designed development programs can harm the environment.

I am currently working in Mongolia on wildlife conservation. The country has a rich diversity of mammal and bird species, such as the iconic snow leopard, brown bears, an array of ungulates, and many raptors. About a third of Mongolians are still nomadic herders, and half the country lives outside of large urban areas. The Mongolian people have traditionally relied on wildlife for meat, furs, and traditional medicines. For hundreds of years hunting was done sustainably, and strict hunting laws were enacted under the Mongol Empire in the 1200s.

During the communist period, hunting and gun ownership were strictly regulated, though commercial fur hunting became a major industry. Strong government control still allowed hunting to be reduced effectively if a species was overharvested. The end of communist rule in 1990 caused the economy to collapse and made guns more widely available. At the same time, increasing demand for fur and traditional medicine products in China created new economic incentives to hunt. Consequently, the last 24 years has seen drastic declines in the population of many species, especially mammals.

Studies have shown that Mongolian hunters are aware that their levels of harvest are unsustainable. However, hunting forms an important part of their income, and the lack of government oversight pressures them to use this resource now, before someone else does. In such a situation, traditional measures available to western conservationists fail. In such a situation, a nuanced understanding of the human situation along with the environmental is required for success.

Editor’s note: Dustin Johnson is a native of Los Alamos pursuing a career in international development. He is currently doing an internship with a local conservation NGO in Mongolia before returning to Halifax, Nova Scotia in the fall to complete his masters degree.