Motivating people to protect nature takes more than money

Do people best protect nature when they stand to gain from it economically, or when their love of nature is its own reward? It’s a central question in the world of conservation and sustainability, with mainstream practices presently tilted toward a focus on the economics. But, suggests a study of orangutan protection in Indonesia, money alone is not always enough.

Writing in the journal Conservation Biology, researchers led by ecologists Danielle Nilsson and Clive McAlpine of Australia’s University of Queensland describe their surveys of people living in three northern Indonesian villages where conservationists have sought to protect orangutans living in nearby forests. For local villagers, many of whom might otherwise profit from orangutan-harming logging and development, those efforts offer financial benefits from income generated by tourists eager to see the imperiled great apes.

Yet while the potential earnings indeed changed how villagers felt towards orangutans, it didn’t have much effect on individual behaviors. People might like orangutans, but they didn’t necessarily do much for them, especially when it came to wildlife conflicts and habitat destruction. When utilitarian benefits were accompanied by a sense of kinship with orangutans or a love of the forest, however, people were much more likely to change their behaviors.

It’s just one study in one specific context, not a prescription for policy—but it touches on a larger, vitally important issue. As the researchers note, economic incentives are the “predominant paradigm” in conservation efforts aimed at people in the developing world. And while this strategy was a much-needed corrective to earlier programs that focused almost entirely on conservation goals while ignoring local people’s interests and well-being, it risks ignoring human nature.

“Economics is not the only determinant of individuals’ decision making,” wrote Nilsson and colleagues.  Monetary rewards can help spark conservation, but something more than nature’s utility is needed to make changes durable. “I do believe that, as a whole, there has been too much focus solely on these utilitarian approaches,” says Nilsson. “There hasn’t been enough focus on creating or promoting intrinsic motivation for nature.” — Brandon Keim | 24 August 2016

Source: Nilsson et al. Community motivations to engage in conservation behavior to conserve the Sumatran orangutanConservation Biology. 2016.

Image: Victor Ulijn / Flickr

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