Helping People in Poverty Can Help Forests Too, Study Finds

Deforestation in Berau, Kalimantan, a region of the tropical rainforest nation of Indonesia. (Photo by Mahastra Wibisono)

(CN) — Researchers examining a program designed to help lift people out of poverty in the tropical rainforests of Indonesia say the effort also came with the unintended benefit of slowing deforestation and helping the climate, a sign that environmental protections and economic development aren’t always mutually exclusive.

“They key punchline is that reducing poverty does not have to create unavoidable environmental costs,” said Paul Ferraro, who studies behavioral science and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “We don’t have to view these at odds with each other.”

In a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances, Ferraro and co-author Rhita Simorangkir, an economist at the National University of Singapore, analyzed data from a government-led program in Indonesia that sent cash to more than 266,000 poor households in rural villages between 2008 and 2012.

Under these kinds of programs, money is sent to families with certain strings attached, like requirements that children stay in school and pregnant mothers stick to a health plan.

The researchers found that these “conditional cash transfers” caused deforestation rates in the nation of islands to drop by 30% in the villages that participated in the program, as the influx of money prevented poor farmers from having to clear land for additional crops when yields from their existing crops were low. The effort, called “Program Keluarga Harapan,” also enabled families that typically clear land to grow their own food to buy food from markets instead.

While the program wasn’t specifically aimed at helping the environment, the study concluded that it came with a “side benefit” of preventing climate change-causing carbon emissions that are released when forest land is burned for farming or other uses.

That finding is particularly significant because Indonesia has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. Environmental groups have warned in recent years that global demand for palm oil is driving the deforestation.

Still, Ferraro cautioned that more research is needed to figure out where the climate benefits of such programs might be more widespread.

“There’s some evidence from Mexico that conditional cash transfers increase deforestation,” he said. “But we have no evidence from any countries other than these two, so we don’t know which case reflects reality better.”

Ferraro said he and Simorangkir plan to continue researching the question.

“These cash transfer programs are common in tropical countries, so there is the opportunity to gather more data, do more analysis,” he said. “Is this something that’s generalizable to other countries, or is this Indonesia-specific?”

For now, the researchers are encouraged by another one of the study’s main findings: that the calculated economic benefits of preventing future carbon emissions were, in this case, about equal to the costs of implementing the program.

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