Impact Assessment for Large Conservation Programs: A Growing Necessity?

Biodiversity conservation has become a very important issue in light of global warming and the environmental degradation that is going on all around the world. It has also become a top priority for many environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While the creation of protected areas has been a primary means of achieving this objective, community-based conservation and decentralization of conservation program governance have become increasingly popular concepts despite not having been adequately tested (Chapin 2004). In theory, these approaches aim not only to improve the chance of conserving biodiversity, but are also geared towards providing the concerned communities and indigenous people with alternative means of living and income that will constitute the incentives that encourage locals to conserve their own environment (Brown 2002).

However, these types of conservation programs are far from perfect and still face many issues, especially from a social perspective. Problems that have been identified years ago are still being discussed throughout the literature pertaining to this very topic (e.g. Agrawal & Gibson 1999; Campbell & vainio-Mattila 2003; Garnett et al. 2007). More surprisingly, large international NGOs, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), have been the subjects of accusations concerning abuses towards indigenous peoples and their rights in various ways (Chapin, 2004). In the 2004 WorldWatch report written by Chapin, he explains:

“In late 2002, the director of the WWF Latin America program told me flatly, in reference to the Amazon Basin, “We don’t work with indigenous people. We don’t have the capacity to work with indigenous people.” Around this time, a CI biologist who works with the Kayapó in the Lower Xingu region of Brazil told me: “Quite frankly, I don’t care what the Indians want. We have to work to conserve the biodiversity” (p.21).

This indifference (to say the least) towards indigenous peoples on the part of conservationists  is compounded by the unfortunate fact that conservationists with this mentality will stand back and watch as the multinational corporations (pharmaceutical, mining, etc.) funding their programs evict and destroy the homes of locals (Chapin 2004).

(World Watch: A Challeng to Conservationists, Chapin 2004)

(World Watch: A Challeng to Conservationists, Chapin 2004)

Although environmental NGOs have very admirable and ambitious mandates to protect biodiversity, I cannot help but draw parallels between these conservation programs and industrial developments, which so often require an environmental impact assessment called for by the law. Rao & Geisler (1990) have said that, “large-scale conservation projects are frequently portrayed as alternatives to development rather than as yet another type of development with important social consequences” (p. 19). Many other experts agree with the fact that impact assessments should not be made after the programs have already been implemented, but done from the very beginning (INTRAC, 2001); that they must not only analyze the impacts of the objectives, but also the long-term impacts, predictable as well as unanticipated. Experts also call for monitoring and evaluation programs, as well as for participation of all stakeholders (INTRAC 2001).

It appears that biodiversity conservation programs are now growing to a point where EIAs, and more importantly SIAs, will become crucial in order to ensure that such programs are designed in the best possible way to achieve both their biodiversity and development objectives. This is especially true because NGOs like the WWF, CI and TNC have been receiving more and more funding from large multinational corporations, who then can have control over the objectives of the conservation strategies the NGOs put in place with those funds (Chapin 2004). These NGOs are thus no longer obligated to fulfill all of the requirements imposed by financial institutions like the World Bank who used to be their biggest source of funding once upon a time. The mechanisms in place that were once strong are thus no longer adequately implemented, creating a need for a different assessment process in order to fill the gaps and cover the bases. This new process will have to be overseen by a governing body possessing the power to control how NGO-designed and implemented conservation programs are being done and to incorporate all of the elements of a standard EIA.

Biodiversity conservation strategies have much more complex effects on the locales where they are being implemented than what many believe. They have often been based on the premise that nature and humans cannot co-exist harmoniously, and thus humans must be extracted from nature in order for biodiversity conservation to succeed. Not only is this untrue, but it is no longer feasible given our growing population and the need to respect human (and indigenous) rights.


  1. Agrawal, A. and Gibson, C.C. (1999). Enchantment and Disenchantment: The Role of Community in Natural Resource Conservation. World Development, 27(4): 629-649.
  2. INTRAC (2001) NGOs and Partnerships (NGO Policy Briefing Paper No. 4, April 2001), Accessed April 14 2013.
  3. Brown, K. (2002). Innovations for Conservation and Development. The Geographical Journal, 168(1): 6-17.
  4. Campbell, L.M. and Vainio-Mattila, A. (2003). Participatory Development and Community-based Conservation: Opportunities Missed for Lessons Learned? Human Ecology, 31(3): 417-437. 16.
  5. Chapin, M. (2004). A Challenge to Conservationists. World Watch, 17(6): 17-32.
  6. Garnett, S. T., Sayer, J., & du Toit, J. (2007). Improving the Effectiveness of Interventions to Balance Conservation and Development: a Conceptual Framework. Ecology and Society, 12(1), 2.

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