Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Pragmatic Conservation

Rusty Pritchard


By Rusty Pritchard

July 28, 2014

I was dipping tuna casserole onto my plate at a church potluck dinner for grad students, when the man behind me asked what I studied. Tropical deforestation, I said. “I don’t understand,” he replied. “I thought you were an economist. What does economics have to do with deforestation?”

My wife beat me to the reply: “Why do you think people cut down trees? Just for the fun of it?”

The cognitive leap required for many people to consider the economics of the environment continues to amaze me. Asked about environmental issues, most people think about polar bears and global warming, or wilderness preservation-- not about people and their livelihoods. But a new generation of conservation scientists are hearkening back to what is actually an older form of nature stewardship, one that comes closer to common sense economics than to romantic ideologies.

The word “economics” derives from oikonomia--the rules of the household. Its etymology speaks of management of the home for its occupants. Ecology comes from the same root—the study of the oikos, or home. “Ecological economics” should be redundant, but in fact it is a newish field in the discipline, and the pragmatism of an economic approach to conservation rankles purists who want to see nature conserved for its own sake.

Enlightened self-interest motivates an anthropocentric form of nature conservation, one that asks about the costs and benefits of environmental interventions. The “new conservation” recognizes that most of society is thinking about the health and welfare of people (including their businesses), not ecosystems and other species. It seeks to find win-win solutions that are financially as well as environmentally sustainable; that sometimes means creating markets or economic exchanges where none currently exist. New York City, for example, when faced with the prospect of building new and expensive drinking water treatment plants, found that it was cheaper to pay for ecological conservation and pollution prevention in the upper reaches of its watershed, protecting the source.

I recently saw pragmatic conservation in practice firsthand in Haiti. Working with the conservation and development organization  Plant with Purpose, Haitian farmers in the barren slopes and steep ravines above Fond-Verrettes were engaged in soil conservation measures: building rock walls that created mini-terraces, densely planting contour lines with grasses to stop rainwater from washing soil downhill, and adding trees to their farms. Community groups had formed village savings-and-loan associations (VSLAs) and were generating their own capital through small weekly deposits, so they could make their own micro-loans without recourse to predatory lenders. Loans provided the resources for purchasing seedlings and high-quality seeds. Farmers were acting in their own interests, keeping valuable topsoil in place, generating soil through composting, and increasing the rate at which rain soaked into the soil instead of running off in flash floods. These conservation practices lead to increased yields, decreased purchases of fertilizer, and more profits, and the innovative practices spread rapidly from farmer to farmer.

Downstream from the innovative farms is the village of Fond-Verrettes, and further downstream, the Dominican Republic town of Jimani. In 2004, thousands of people died here; hurricane rains fell on the deforested slopes upstream, and, unimpeded by vegetation, rushed down the valley to wash away homes, businesses, and many lives. Now, the literal downstream effect of soil and water conservation practiced by the Haitian farmers further up has reduced flooding downstream, protecting roads, schools, and homes. Recently, leaders from a Dominican town travelled uphill to see the Haitian soil conservation, and publicly thanked the farmers who were, in an important but indirect way, protecting their town from floods. More powerful international diplomacy is hard to imagine.

Figuratively, these Haitian farmers are helping reduce the downstream burden of climate change, because their soil conservation and reforestation practices sequester carbon, reducing a major greenhouse gas. A rigorous approach to the new conservation would find a way to monetize these off-site benefits of on-farm conservation.  Establishing the right economic relationships, including a market for carbon and payments for flood protection, would help Haitian farmers engage in even more of their pragmatic conservation.  

Plant with Purpose also helps train Haitian pastors to teach about the intrinsic goodness of creation, and farmers learn about the dignity of their vocation in caring for the land. That’s not a message poor Haitians often get to hear. It’s gratifying that doing the right thing for the environment also benefits their families and their communities. In the end, the pragmatism of the “new conservation” comes full circle, as Haitian farmers do their work to the glory of God.

- Rusty Pritchard is a natural resource economist and consultant. In May, he traveled to the Haiti/Dominican Republic border to see the work of Plant With Purpose. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”