Parks & Poverty

It’s a pattern seen throughout the developing world: Poor communities clustered around the edges of national parks. To some scholars, it’s a sign that parks are “poverty traps” that help keep people poor. A new long-term study from Uganda, however, disputes that idea.

“There is a lot of research looking at poverty in parks, but much of it amounts to looking just at the present-day location of poverty,” says geographer Lisa Naughton-Treves of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M), the lead author of the study, which appears in a special section of the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences focused on biodiversity conservation and poverty. In contrast, her team spent a decade – from 1996 to 2006 – studying the changing fortunes of 252 families living near Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Then, using statistical techniques to combine field data with land-use trends gathered from satellite images, the team was able to answer some basic questions, Naughton-Treves says: “What were the starting conditions? What were the ending conditions? And did the park matter?”

The general trend, they report, was toward greater prosperity, as measured by access to clean drinking water, ownership of more livestock, and living under an improved roof rather than the traditional thatch. “Most of the households came out ahead, are a lot better off than when we started,” said Naughton-Treves, who has worked in Uganda for more than 20 years. “I go back every couple of years, and people are generally optimistic, some say they never imagined life would be this good.”

That doesn’t mean poverty wasn’t a problem. Ten percent of the families in the original study sold or lost their land and moved away, which indicates severe poverty, notes co-author Jennifer Alix-Garcia of UW-M. “The sale of land does not sound so terrible to us, but in Uganda, land is your most productive asset, and once you sell it, you don’t have anything to rely on.”

The park, however, appears to buffer the very poor from the worst outcomes, perhaps explaining why the poor are disproportionately represented along the park boundary. “Apparently the park provides a source of insurance,” Alix-Garcia says. People “can hunt, or sell firewood or thatch from the park,” she says. So appearances can be “misleading. If you look, you see more poor people living near the park. But when you look at the change in assets, you see that the poor people who live next to the park have lost less than poor people who live farther away.”

The take-home message: The park is unlikely to explain the increased poverty among its close neighbors.

“This project demonstrates the value of using integrated approaches to examine the complex interactions between people and the environments they occupy,” says Thomas Baerwald of the U.S. National Science Foundation, which partially funded the study.

But it’s not clear what the Uganda results mean for the rest of the world, since parks, landscapes, societies and economies vary widely, Naughton-Treves says. But the study is one of the first to look at parks and poverty over the long term, and the results challenge the notion that parks are to blame for poverty. “There are many other factors,” she says, such shrinking land availability. “It’s not just the park.” David Malakoff | August 24, 2011


Source: Naughton-Treves, L., Alix-Garcia, J., & Chapman, C. (2011). Biodiversity Conservation and Poverty Traps Special Feature: Lessons about parks and poverty from a decade of forest loss and economic growth around Kibale National Park, Uganda. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (34), 13919-13924 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1013332108

Image Courtesy Lisa Naughton-Treves, University of Wisconsin-Madison