Thirteen years into an Indonesian anti-poverty program that delivers cash payments to poor citizen living in forested areas, experts are cautiously celebrating strong evidence that alleviating poverty—even without qualifications that require conservation work—helps arrest deforestation.
“Forest destruction is responsible for 10% of human CO2 emissions, and much of it is the result of extreme poverty,” writes Bloomberg Green. “For local communities, selling timber and clearing land for cultivation is an income stream of last resort.”
For years, scientists, governments, and NGOs the world over have agonizing over the choice between fighting the “twin scourges” of poverty and deforestation, believing that focusing on one required losses in the other. But the recent study of Indonesia’s Program Keluarga Harapan (Family Hopes Program) anti-poverty campaign found tree loss in the multi-island nation had dropped 30% since 2007, even though preservation wasn’t a part of the program’s mandate.
While previous conservation efforts “have had unforeseen or undesirable social impacts, and community-driven deforestation drives have achieved mixed results,” writes Bloomberg Green, the only caveats for income support under the Keluarga Harapan program are that families “register with local health and education institutions,” are vaccinated, and that all children attend school.
The unexpected decline in tree loss has policy-makers rejoicing. “Conservationists don’t have to see this as a zero-sum game—that if the money goes to poverty, it’s not helping the environment,” said study co-author Paul Ferraro, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.
But while declaring himself surprised and encouraged that the decline in deforestation “was about the same as those achieved by policies in other countries designed specifically for conservation,” Ferraro cautioned against reading too much into a single study.
“This is always the issue of single-country studies,” he told Bloomberg. “They’re more credible than all these global studies that just look at patterns in global data, but they have less ability to generalize, so it’s still unclear.”
Noting that his country has also made “significant progress fighting forest loss through targeted programs,” with primary forest loss falling by 60% in 2016, Indonesian Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani Indrawati also highlighted the “terrifying” lessons of COVID-19.
“We need to rebuild our economies, so they provide us with not only jobs but also a society that is secure, resilient, and safe,” he said. “We can no longer build our economies—our societies—in a way that too often ignores natural science and our dependence on the natural environment.”