Hidden Costs of Conservation Take Bite Out of Benefits

Farmer Working Remaining Crops

A farmer in the Szechuan Province of China tends to his remaining crops after returning a portion of his cropland to be reforested. Credit: Hongbo Yang, Michigan State University

Scientists at Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability show that even popular conservation programs can harbor hidden costs, often for vulnerable populations.

Returning croplands to forests is a sustainability gold standard to mitigate climate change impacts and promote conservation. That is, new research shows, unless you’re a poor farmer.

“Those sweeping conservation efforts in returning cropland to vegetated land might have done so with an until-now hidden consequence: it increased the wildlife damage to remaining cropland and thus caused unintended cost that whittled away at the program’s compensation for farmers,” said Hongbo Yang, lead author in a recent paper in the Ecological Economics journal.

Yang, who recently earned a PhD at from Michigan State University (MSU) and is currently a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and his colleagues analyzed the reforestation achieved via programs that encourage, and compensate, farmers to convert their cropland to forests via China’s enormous Grain-to-Green Program (GTGP).

Hidden Costs of Re-Establishing a Forest

Illustration of the change of crop damage by wildlife before and after afforestation on cropland promoted by conservation program. Before afforestation, cropland close to wildlife habitat is more severely affected by crop damage by wildlife than distant ones. After afforestation, cropland close to wildlife habitat are afforested and the nearby remaining cropland becomes more severely affected by crop damage by wildlife. Credit: Michigan State University

The research found that even as newly regrown forests are sucking up greenhouse gases, they’re also sheltering critters bent on destroying crops. And while farmers were compensated, they ultimately took a financial beating. Not only did they find that converting a portion of their fields brought wildlife that much closer to their remaining crops, but they were also now farming smaller areas and thus recognizing lower yields.

Bottom line: The costs of conservation were being borne by poor people and those impacts have been slow to be revealed.

“Conservation policies only can endure, and be declared successful, when both nature and humans thrive,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, senior author and Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU’S Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “Many of these trade-offs and inequities are difficult to spot unless you take a very broad, deep look at the situation, yet these balances are crucial to success.”

As a first attempt to quantify this previously hidden cost, the authors estimated the impact of converting cropland to forest under the GTGP, which is one of the world’s largest conservation programs, on crop raiding in a demonstration site.

They found that GTGP afforestation was responsible for 64% of the crop damage by wildlife on remaining cropland, and that cost was worth 27% of GTGP’s total payment to local farmers. That loss was not anticipated as the policy was designed and was in addition to the known loss of income from farming smaller plots, Yang said.

“The ignorance of this hidden cost might leave local communities under-compensated under the program and exacerbate poverty,” Yang said. “Such problems may ultimately compromise the sustainability of conservation. As losses due to human-wildlife conflicts increase, farmers may increasingly resent conservation efforts.”

Reference: “Hidden cost of conservation: A demonstration using losses from human-wildlife conflicts under a payments for ecosystem services program” by Hongbo Yang, Frank Lupi, Jindong Zhang and Jianguo Liu, 18 November 2019, Ecological Economics.
DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106462

In addition to Yang and Liu, “Hidden cost of conservation: A demonstration using losses from human-wildlife conflicts under a payments for ecosystem services program” was written by Frank Lupi and Jindong Zhang, both members of MSU-CSIS.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Michigan AgBioResearch, Michigan State University, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Key Laboratory of Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation, China West Normal University.

1 Comment on "Hidden Costs of Conservation Take Bite Out of Benefits"


    Admittedly, most climatologists believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) but your organization overlooks (intentionally?) the fact that most astrophysicists insist that our Sun is the main driver of any warming and these solar scientists have asserted that the Earth will be cooling over the coming years due to a Grand Solar Minimum which begins in 2020. The last IPPC report asserts that CO2 is the cause of over 50% of the warming since 1850 but Prof. Judith Curry contends that CO 2 is the cause of less than 50% of the historic warming.

    Recently, Prof. Nir Shaviv has contended that our Sun has driven about 67% of our planet’s recent warming while AGW has accounted for at most 33% of the recent increase in the average worldwide temperature. Subsequently, a Finnish paper (that has yet to be accepted for publication) asserted that humans accounted for at most 10% of any warming. In July 2019 Prof. Hyodo of Kyoto University and his team of investigators reported in a top scholarly peer-reviewed scientific journal (Nature) that AGW accounted for very little of any recent warming. They instead suggested that the “cloud umbrella effect” was the major contributor to an increase in temperature. Next, in August of 2019, a paper by Prof. Wu of China’s National Academy of Science and her team was accepted for publication in an important peer-reviewed journal and this research found no evidence of any human-induced warming. Their research confirmed the findings of an earlier 2014 scholarly paper. Then in September of 2019, a letter signed by over 700 climate experts was delivered to the UN Secretary-General insisting that “NO CLIMATE EMERGENCY EXISTS” (emphasis in the original). Interestingly, this letter came to life in Italy and most of the signatories are from Europe. Couple this with the 145 US “deniers” and the size of the entire group becomes very compelling. In an October paper published in the scientific journal, “Geology”, it was reported that climate change and ocean acidification has occurred before the appearance of hominoids on our planet. Lastly, in November, five papers from the Federal University of Sao Paolo came to light which confirmed the veracity of this other research. In Oct. 2019 David Attenbougher stated publically that the BBC has lost its reputation for reporting the scientific facts accurately. Thus, it is longer possible to rely on the mainstream media regarding the truth about climate change. The following Table and Graph show the facts:

    Based upon these very latest scientific findings the case for the claim of AGW is starting to crumble before your eyes.

    For those who require links here are several:










    “Calcium isotope evidence for environmental variability before and across the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction” by Benjamin J. Linzmeier, et. al. 28 October 2019, Geology.






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