Money and conservation

I’m still in an ecological reserve in the South American Andes, but my whole world is different. I followed Professor Stuart Pimm, my project advisor, to the La Mesenia Reserve in Colombia. While so many things remain the same as in Jama-Coaque, the ecological and operational differences between the two places are astounding. The Jama-Coaque Reserve protected lowland forests, only miles from the shoreline. In La Mesenia, I am at the highest elevation that I have ever been – nearly 8,000 ft! La Mesenia’s biodiversity of plants and animals are much more visible and amazing. I’ve seen red and black poison dart frogs, emerald-glinted moths the size of my hand, and birds of every color. Aside from the differences between the climate, flora, and fauna of both places, the operational attitudes between the two places are a source of major deviation.

The La Mesenia Reserve feels like a five-star resort compared to Jama-Coaque. JCR began as a land-buying conservation effort by three eco-conscientious surfers wanting to make a difference, and it is now run by a panel of science-oriented biologists. They make just enough money to make repairs or pursue their next environmental project. There is less long-term commercial strategy and investing at Jama-Coaque. La Mesenia, however, is run by business people with a philanthropic passion for conservation. There are big-name donors – some of whom give so much money they get a new species named after them – and the reserve reflects it. I’d even argue that La Mesenia, despite spending more money and attention to building headquarters with electricity, warm showers, and even a TV, they also do a better job doing conservation work. But I wondered: at what cost?

This week, I became greatly interested in what I viewed as the business model of nature preservation. I wondered if there was justification for using a business model in the environmental sphere. How is money best spent? Which is the smarter and more effective technique? And what are the costs of each attitude. As far as becoming a powerful economic presence in the local community, having a business-oriented model is important. The director of La Mesenia can employ many of the community members with well-above-average wages. They are also able to purchase competitive land for high prices and spend the necessary money reforesting those areas. Jama-Coaque struggles to employ and pay local community members and is less of an economic presence in their community. La Mesenia’s economic power allows them to compete with local cattle or palm oil businesses that hold most of the political power. This allows them to shift money and attention towards conservation. Because people are able to create livelihoods out of ecotourism and conservation work, the local community has largely chosen to protect their beautiful biodiversity over less lucrative sources of money.

Before this trip, I naively thought everyone could have a strong appreciation for nature and a desire to protect it. What I hadn’t realized is that the area of work I am interested in is somewhat of a privilege. No matter how the people of the La Mesenia or Jama-Coaque communities felt about the plants and animals around them, they deforested land for themselves and their families to make a living. It wasn’t until conservation work became a lucrative option that people changed their attitudes. This to me was a bit of a shock. It snapped me out of the former expectations I had for people. I needed a bit of a reality check with my ideas. People first and foremost need security in their lives, and they will do anything that needs to be done to achieve it. No matter how important people think nature is, they are going to continue to deforest and destroy natural habitat for their own livelihoods unless financial incentive is created to do otherwise. This is one of the reasons why I think running a reserve like a business is a good idea.

On the other hand, I do think JCR is doing many things right. Despite not having the financial backers of La Mesenia, every single resource they have is being put towards purchasing land or pursuing the next conservation project. While there is less activity spent on finding donors and wooing them, more time is spent by on the ground with the local community. Without great financial power, JCR develops strong relationships to the people in the local community by educating them about their mission and working with them in any opportunity. Each of the directors knows Spanish fluently and knows the names of the community members and their relationships. JCR is also free from the demands of big investors. Without receiving money that has an attached agenda, JCR spends what resources they have to their fullest capacity.

In conclusion, I believe that the attitude toward conservation that the people at Jama-Coaque have is with the best (and most ethical) of intentions. But as romantic as it is to work on the ground, using scare resources to the fullest, the business model can be more effective at achieving the ultimate goal: conserving biodiversity. Using a business model means that money is spent in ways that don’t directly protect nature, but it all builds the power and presence of the reserve to protect more land. If I were to run my own conservation reserve, I would try to get people who care purely about the protection of land and resources to work with people who will spend the time wooing donors and creating long-term business models.

As a side note, I also had the pleasure of teaching a rising 7th grade student all that I knew about biodiversity and conservation. This student was visiting with her mother from the United States, and she had an interest in the technology we were using to monitor animals on the reserve. She came with me on my daily hikes, and before long she was switching out SD cards and mounting cameras with prowess. Engaging this student was incredibly rewarding and it allowed me to reflect on how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned. I also recognize the importance of sharing what I am doing with others. I hope to have inspired appreciation or some new ideas in her!

Andrea Kolarova is a T’20 Undergraduate and a 2018 Kenan Summer Fellows Participant. 

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