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Improving tropical forest conservation through interdisciplinary research

In July 2020, an article was published on the INNOVATION magazine website. It is about Dr. Peter Beck, Professor and Coordinator of Environmental Science and Policy at St. Edward’s University, who describes tropical deforestation as a ‘wicked’ problem, and discusses the role of incentive policies in encouraging private landowners to adopt land use practices that maintain ecosystem services are working in practice. ‘Wicked’ problems involve issues, such as poverty or inequality, that are difficult to solve due to complicating factors such as incomplete knowledge, large numbers of involved actors, and interconnections with other problems.

Critical environmental issues, such as tropical deforestation, climate change, and emerging infectious diseases can also represent ‘wicked’ problems. Addressing tropical deforestation is especially important as tropical forests represent one of the most valuable ecosystems on earth. Although they cover less than 7% of the earth’s surface, tropical forests house over half of the Earth’s plant and animal species. In addition, they provide essential global services such as regulating climate, purifying air and water, and serving as a source of resources for local communities. However, half of the Earth’s tropical forests have been lost in the past 50 years. Moreover, much of the forests that remain exist in smaller patches, or fragments, of which the ecological value is uncertain.

The search for effective conservation policies
Reversing deforestation and maintaining the services that tropical forests provide represent ‘wicked’ problems, in that most exist in the Global South where they face numerous threats that in themselves are difficult to solve, including poverty, rapid population growth, political influence of logging interests, and lax enforcement of forest protection laws. Further complicating conservation efforts is that most remaining tropical forests exist outside of protected areas, primarily on private lands. Thus, the traditional conservation strategy of demarcating the forests as national parks is often not only politically unfeasible but also practically ineffective given the inability of many governments to adequately enforce protected area regulations. Effective conservation efforts therefore need to extend beyond protected areas such as national parks to include efforts to gain co-operation with private landowners.

As a result, policies that provide incentives to encourage private landowners to adopt land use practices that maintain ecosystem services are becoming an increasingly important conservation tool. Funding local development projects, sharing tourism revenues and starting ecotourism businesses are some of the more popular approaches to providing communities an economic incentive to support conservation. Despite the increasing promotion of these community-based alternatives by both scholars and practitioners, in practice they have often proven to have limited effect at changing individual behaviours or maintaining forest quality. Moreover, even when the policies successfully encourage landowners to maintain the forests on their land, it is often unclear to what extent these fragments are able to maintain wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services.

Interdisciplinary tropical forest research in Costa Rica
Despite the mixed record of success of community based conservation initiatives, such approaches are essential to protecting the remaining tropical forests. Thus, it is imperative to better understand the factors that lead to their success. Improving outcomes will necessitate answering two difficult questions:

Which policies most effectively encourage people to adopt conservation practices; and
If successfully adopted, to what extent will the resulting forest fragments maintain ecosystem services?
Answering these questions requires an interdisciplinary approach to studying and designing conservation programmes.

Dr Peter Beck from St. Edward’s University and Dr Michael Wasserman from Indiana University have been examining these questions by exploring the effects of tropical forest conservation approaches in Costa Rica through research funded by the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Students (NSF IRES) programme. For the past three years, the researchers and 16 student participants have been integrating ecological and social research methods to evaluate the effectiveness of tropical forest conservation initiatives. This project addresses several issues that highlight the ‘wicked’ aspect of tropical deforestation – how to gain co-operation from private landowners, integrate ecological and social research methods and data, and determine the effectiveness of forest fragments at maintaining ecosystem services.

Costa Rica is an ideal location to examine tropical deforestation policies as it is one of the only countries in the world that has been able to successfully increase its tropical forest cover since the turn of the millennium. The government has made conservation a central national objective, adopting policies that promote ecotourism, incorporate environmental education in the public school curriculum, and pay landowners to maintain the forests on their land.

Participants in the NSF IRES programme are trained in ecological and social research methods and then spend ten weeks conducting research facilitated by local hosts (the Organization for Tropical Studies, and Osa Conservation) across four regions of Costa Rica.

To collect data on forest condition and ecosystem function, students have employed numerous field research techniques, including the deployment of camera traps and echolocation recording equipment to census wildlife populations, the collection of faecal samples to measure primate physiology, the testing of air and water pollution, and the quantification of canopy cover and forest biomass. To collect social data, students have surveyed residents on their land use practices, agro-chemical use, and participation in conservation incentive programmes to ascertain the extent that different policies have influenced landowners to maintain their forests. Integrating these ecological and social data helps reveal the extent that incentive policies influence conservation practices by landowners and the extent that these practices are able to maintain ecosystems services and protect biodiversity.

“By studying a series of forests across four regions of Costa Rica, we have found that each area has its own unique social-ecological system with unique environmental problems from the ecosystem level down to the molecular level. If conservation is to prove effective over the long-term, each localised system must be understood from both social and ecological perspectives, as well as from ecosystem to molecular scales. If such an holistic approach is not used, critical factors driving loss of biodiversity may very well be overlooked,” Wasserman said.

Integrating ecological and social data
Integrating the ecological and social data helps the researchers connect specific incentive policies to forest outcomes. The social science questions focus on examining the extent that providing landowners economic incentives, such as through ecotourism or direct payments for forest conservation, influence landowners to adopt conservation practices. When landowners are deciding between conserving their forests or cutting them down for agriculture or some other purpose, are the economic returns offered by conservation incentives substantial enough to influence their decision? Or are most people participating in the incentives programmes because they already support conservation and would be unlikely to cut their forests down anyway? In the latter situation, identifying increased forest cover on those properties receiving the economic incentives would produce a misleading result as to the effectiveness of the programme.

The ecological questions involve measuring environmental, biodiversity, and physiological indicators to determine the extent that forest fragments maintain ecosystem services, such as water quality, and protect wildlife populations in a healthy state. Examining the health of primate populations through physiological and behavioural indices is a particular focus of the project, as primates have been significantly affected by tropical deforestation – with 60% of all species listed as vulnerable or endangered by the IUCN. Primates tend to travel widely and require larger areas of contiguous forest than many other species. They are also important seed dispersers, helping to promote reforestation across the landscape. Thus, their presence and health status can provide a strong indication of the overall health of forest fragments, including the likelihood that these fragments can support other wildlife species.

Thus far, the study has produced some unexpected findings. While much of the literature treats economic incentives and protected areas as competing alternatives, our results indicated that a combination of policies into a ‘conservation portfolio’ was most successful at improving forest and primate outcomes. As a combined public and private strategy, this portfolio proved the greatest opportunity to balance ecological and social needs. The results also highlighted the importance of non-economic benefits. While Costa Rica’s direct payments for forest conservation are popular with landowners, the amount received rarely makes up a significant enough portion of household income to be the primary determinant of land-use decisions. Nevertheless, despite their relatively small amounts, the payments still seem to encourage conservation practices. One explanation is that respondents indicated that they also valued non-economic forest benefits such as shade, aesthetic beauty, and the feeling that they are supporting national objectives. Identifying the importance of non-economic benefits can help the design of conservation policies by expanding the potential pool of incentives and reducing the cost of the programme, which low income nations may be unable to afford.

In addition to the knowledge gained regarding tropical forest conservation, the project has also provided valuable experience and training for the student researchers and Costa Rican collaborators. Utilising field research technologies such as bat echolocation recording equipment, Geographic Information Systems, and air and water quality monitoring equipment has provided essential skills for those students planning to continue in field research. The project has also helped support the development of a fully functioning endocrinology laboratory in Costa Rica for studying primate hormone levels. Additionally, all equipment purchased by the project will remain at the research stations to be available for use by Costa Rican scientists.

Currently in a funded doctoral programme at Indiana University, Eric Johnson is one of several project alumni who have used the experience as a stepping stone to further research in MS or PhD programmes.

He said: “After working on the NSF IRES project as a student and then supervising student projects as the project manager for the past two years, this programme not only allows for students to ask thought provoking questions that help uncover the major components of the social-ecological landscape that will aid in restoring and conserving tropical forests in Costa Rica, but it also enriches their burgeoning careers as researchers.”

As over 75% of the participants have come from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, the programme has also served to help diversify the research community.

Future directions
The project was recently renewed for another three years. Although fieldwork this year was postponed due to COVID-19, in the second phase of the project, Beck, Wasserman, and their students will continue exploring how incentives influence forest conservation in Panama and Uganda. Adding these new sites will enable comparisons between similar forests with different conservation incentive policies (Costa Rica and Panama) and different forests with similar incentive policies (Costa Rica and Uganda) to enable a greater understanding of the effectiveness of different incentives to influence tropical forest conservation across national boundaries. Additionally, comparing results in middle- and low-income nations will enable an enhanced perspective on the relative value of economic and non-economic incentives.

This project demonstrates how interdisciplinary research can assist in addressing ‘wicked‘ global problems such as tropical deforestation. Incorporating both ecological and social theory and research techniques enables a greater understanding of the various factors that influence individual behaviours regarding conservation and how these decisions affect tropical forest and primate conservation.

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