Connecting the dots from Wetlands to poverty alleviation


Anand Chandrasekhar, Geneva, 8 August 2013

Wetland based products and services form an important component of livelihoods of wetland dependent communities.

Ritesh Kumar is the Conservation Programme Manager of Wetlands International, South Asia and has led management planning for several South Asian wetlands during the 15 years, with a  focus on integration of wetlands in river basin and coastal zone management. He shared with me his views on how wetlands provide products that satisfy the livelihoods of many communities and therefore help to alleviate poverty alleviation.  He argues for development polices and strategies that recognize this value.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Could you tell us about the “poverty trap” that forces wetland-dependent communities to resort to the unwise use of wetlands?

Ritesh Kumar: Wetland based products and services form an important component of livelihoods of wetland dependent communities. However, in several circumstances,  imbalances in access to other livelihood capitals, communities tend to over-extract resources to such an extent that the potential for wetlands to deliver ecosystem services that help eradicate poverty is degraded or even lost. This “poverty trap” has made several wetland dependent communities highly vulnerable and exposed to a range of risks attributable to declining wetland resource base, and the linked impacts on other forms of livelihood capitals.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Security of livelihoods is usually tied to land-tenure. Is there an equivalent for wetlands?

Ritesh Kumar: It is hard to transfer terrestrial conservation or development planning approaches to wetlands, primarily because water plays a dominant role in structuring wetland functioning and ecosystem services, and water connects in a multitude of ways, across sectors, at multiple temporal, spatial and political scales.

The beginning point of articulation of wetland – livelihood inter-linkages is to appreciate the social construct of wise use. Wetland ecosystems and the services they provide form an integral part of the livelihood strategy of wetland-dependent communities. Their livelihood systems often involve adapting to the overall ecological character of the wetland so as to optimize livelihood outcomes. Similarly, livelihood strategies of communities living in and around wetlands also influence their ecological character. The existence of poverty, in its various forms, therefore influences, and is influenced by, wetland ecological character. The social, economic and political contexts under which ecosystem services integrate with livelihood assets therefore become important variables in influencing poverty within wetland communities. Most importantly, political contexts, including rights and power relationships help define tenureal relationships in wetlands.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Can national and international poverty-alleviation policies and targets be detrimental to wetlands and the communities that depend on them?

Ritesh Kumar: Much of the wetland degradation that we know of today can be attributed to sectoral development policies and strategies which fail to recognize the full range of ecosystem services wetland deliver. Efforts to achieve food security have been made through converting wetlands into agriculture, or intensive production fish culture systems. Tradeoffs in ecosystem services is inherent in these decisions, as increases in provisioning services (mostly related to production of food or water) are achieved at the cost of regulating services (e.g. the ability to regulate hydrological regimes, buffer extreme events, recharge groundwater). Such policy choices in the medium and long term enhance vulnerability of the poor by exposing them to a range of risks. It is important to align livelihood strategies with ecosystem functioning so that the two are mutually reinforcing.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) is a concept that is receiving serious financial backing. The assumption is that they will help safeguard ecosystem services and lift local communities out of poverty. To what extent do you think this is true?

Ritesh Kumar : Conceptually PES programs were not meant to be as an instrument for poverty alleviation, but instead for natural resources management. In several circumstances, it is assumed that ecosystem services are derived from areas that are dominated by poor, or have relatively higher incidence of poverty. In most of the cases which are said to have attempted to integrate poverty alleviation goals, these were not the major policy objectives but add-ons introduced either due to political pressure or to ensure greater acceptability in implementation. In terms of implementation, achieving complementarity is hard to achieve, instead a competition with the overall objective of ecosystem services provision is more likely to be the case.

The long held epitomized perception of markets as an optimal resource allocation mechanism is being increasingly challenged. Markets are seen as a part of multitude of institutional arrangements encompassing cooperative arrangements and hierarchies that guide decision making and resource allocation.  Thus, market based financial systems should not be assumed as “silver bullets” fixing all the problems of environmental degradation, but as a part of whole range of conservation-development options available to the decision maker and policy planner. This reference position is critical to appreciate rationally the role of financial mechanisms as PES in the overall conservation-development debate.

Anand Chandrasekhar: A criticism of initiatives that aim to combine conservation and livelihood creation is that they are very expensive to implement and hence prone to collapse when external funding dries up. Can such projects ever be sustainable in the long-term?

Ritesh Kumar: Programmes built on external aid, and which fail to integrate adequately with local developmental planning processes and create local ownership run the highest risk of collapse. An important factor to consider while combining conservation and livelihood creation within programmes is to vie for local ownership and a well-defined exit strategy.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Communities are diverse entities and even villages within the same river basin react differently to development schemes. This often leads to mixed outcomes and patchy results. How can this be overcome?

Ritesh Kumar: While planning for livelihood interventions, it is important to characterize the community adequately using the relevant differentiating variables, so that the targets can be defined in the given socio-political contexts. It is also important to understand the institutional dynamics within the village so as to design interventions appropriately.

Anand Chandrasekhar: In your experience, what are the most common mistakes made by projects seeking to integrate conservation and livelihood creation?

Ritesh Kumar: A common mistake is to oversimplify relationship between natural resources and livelihoods, and thereby presume that delivering conservation would automatically deliver positive livelihood outcomes. Conserving and restoring ecosystems can support delivery of ecosystem services in sustained perms, however, for these to transform into benefits for the poor, the role of institutions and freedoms become important.

anandAbout the author

Anand Chandrasekhar, is based in Switzerland and has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent, UK and a Bachelors in Forestry from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India. His experience extends to a wide range of environment issues including species conservation, environmental law and policy, natural resources governance, climate change and carbon markets. He now specializes in science and environment communications and enjoys developing thought-provoking content and challenging conventional thinking.


The views expressed in this blog are purely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of TEEB and should not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of TEEB.

Photo credits: Peter Prokosch

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