Fighting poverty with synthesis science

Researchers are uncovering win-win solutions for nature and human prosperity

By Amanda Kelley

A view from a canopy walk, a popular activity for visitors to Nyungwe Forest Park in Rwanda. Photo Credit: Justin Raycraft (CC BY 2.0)


Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest National Park contains one of the oldest forests in Africa and is a popular ecotourism destination for both foreign and domestic visitors, who are drawn to its diverse wildlife and pristine natural beauty. While national parks are often overlooked and underfunded in developing nations, Nyungwe may set an example for how a country could leverage its natural resources to increase national wealth and alleviate poverty.

Historically, natural resources have often been seen as economically beneficial in an exploitative context – to be extracted, processed, or otherwise used by people. But that perspective has been shifting, a shift to which Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) researchers, such as the Rwanda Natural Capital Accounting team, are contributing.

Using synthesis science, SNAPP researchers are providing evidence for the case that good environmental stewardship can be a useful tool in addressing poverty and improving a nation’s wealth, health, and food security.

Ending hunger, improving health conditions, and promoting economic development are just a few of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity. But meeting these multifaceted goals requires a coordinated and interdisciplinary approach, and SNAPP’s trademark collaborative, synthesis method places its researchers in a unique position to address these complex issues.

Rwanda, for example, has incorporated the SDGs into its Vision 2020, a government initiative that aims to reduce poverty in the country to below 30 percent by the year 2020. The Rwanda SNAPP team used cutting-edge spatial analyses and macro-economic models to identify ways the country could integrate its “natural capital,” such as its national parks, into efforts to achieve its sustainable development ambitions. 

There is currently no entrance fee to Nyungwe Park. But the SNAPP team’s research has revealed that not only would tourists be willing to pay a fee, they would also be willing to pay it on a sliding scale based on income, in which wealthy foreign tourists would pay proportionally more to visit Nyungwe than domestic visitors.

This solution would allow the park to generate more revenue for the country more equitably than a universally applied fee, because it would prevent lower-income Rwandan visitors from being priced out of visiting the park.

According to principal investigator Janaki Alavalapati, the collaborative nature of SNAPP was especially beneficial to uncovering such solutions. Their team combined expertise from conservation practitioners, local government, the World Bank, academia, and the private sector. 

“There is not a lot of public data available in Rwanda. You really need someone local to help acquire that,” said Alavalapati, who is based at Auburn University. “We were very fortunate to have Michel Masozera [Director of the Rwandan chapter of the Wildlife Conservation Society] on the project, as well as the engagement of other local scientists and civil servants from the beginning.”

Alavalapati also suggested that working directly with these respected locals throughout the project helped to keep the Rwanda SNAPP team out of the “ivory tower” and address the true needs of the community.

However, wealth is only one of the components that factor into the manifestation of global poverty. Health is another important variable.

This is especially evident when evaluating the cyclical poverty trap: an impoverished individual becomes ill due to poor living conditions, which is compounded by the inability to afford medical treatment. The individual is then unable to work and earn income, thus becoming further impoverished and continues to contract illness due to the inability to improve their living conditions.

“There is a really strong link between poverty and human infectious diseases, which are usually prolific in developing countries. Part of that is due to local ecology and a lack of sanitation, and part of it is due to that poverty trap,” said Skyler Hopkins, a postdoctoral researcher with another SNAPP working group, called Ecological Levers for Health.

Hopkins’ team is exploring the deep connections between environmental health and human infectious diseases. The working group’s burgeoning research involves synthesizing case studies that demonstrate how conservation interventions are intertwined with improvements in human health, which could, in turn, help break the cycle of the poverty trap.

One such case study is research from the team’s principal investigators, Kevin Lafferty of the US Geological Survey and Susanne Sokolow of Stanford University, who have examined the prevalence of Schistosomiasis in communities along the Senegal River. Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease that causes debilitating symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and in many cases, death. Its spread may be the result of human-induced changes to the river.

Local government agencies dammed the Senegal River for irrigation purposes in the late 1980s, a side effect of which was the obstruction of native prawn reproduction, a process requiring migration and access to the sea. The prawn are natural predators on local river snails, which are known vectors for the parasite that causes Schistosomiasis. So with the dams in place, prawn abundance plummeted and the snail population exploded.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the increase in snail abundance was concurrent with a sharp increase in cases of Schistosomiases in local villages.

“Damming is really common everywhere in Africa. Prawn loss is also really common, and so is Schistosomiasis. So there’s a good chance that this damming has increased schistosomiasis,” said Hopkins. “By restoring native prawns widely, we might be able to reduce infectious disease occurrence.”

Other examples of win-win-win solutions for the environment, human health, and community prosperity that the group has collected include an international study on the use of upstream re-forestation as means of preventing childhood diarrheal disease, and an evaluation of the role of vulture conservation in preventing the spread of rabies in India. A recent publication from the team interprets a set of mathematical models that describe the close relationship between ecological and economic systems and their resulting effect on human health.

“These environmental solutions can boost the effects of activities in the medical and public health spheres, allowing us to come at this problem [of poor health] from multiple angles,” said Hopkins.

Another new SNAPP working group, Food and Forests in Africa, is focusing on a different piece of the poverty puzzle: food security.

The conflict between agriculture and conservation is a familiar tug-of-war to managers in both areas. The activities are often at odds with each other in competition for space, and in developing nations, this relationship is made even more complex by the need to increase food production to feed growing populations while striving to meet Sustainable Development Goals.

This is especially evident in sub-Saharan Africa, where expanding crop lands could place agriculture in direct conflict with the forests that protect the soil and water necessary for food production in the region.

The SNAPP team is currently working with representatives from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia to craft nuanced solutions to this paradox that are specific to each country’s social and political structure. Although this research is in its infancy, their results could provide land-use planning frameworks for agricultural practices that promote sustainable means of income, protect forest habitats, and strengthen food security within these nations.

“This project is a great example of the research challenge facing many SNAPP teams -- how to understand the complexities and trade-offs associated with alleviating poverty and promoting conservation in tandem,” said SNAPP Deputy Director Geoff Willard. “Thankfully the SNAPP approach is time-tested, and our teams have a great track record at identifying the right policies and practices to support people and nature.”

Amanda Kelley has been an NCEAS E-Connect Fellow since Spring 2017 and is pursuing a master's degree at UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

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Posted on January 31, 2018