The Economics of Biodiversity Conservation: Valuation in Tropical Forest Ecosystems, edited by K.N. Ninan, with S. Jyothis, P. Babu, and V. Ramakrishnappa. London, United Kingdom: Earthscan, 2007. £70.00. 336 pp. ISBN 1-84407-364-5, 978-1-84407-364-1.
The livelihoods of rural populations, in particular of those living adjacent to or within tropical rain-forest areas, tend to depend largely on the continued provision of goods and services from their natural environment. Especially in the surroundings of conservation areas, such as national parks, people find themselves situated between predominantly globally-defined biodiversity conservation objectives and—often pressing—local needs for development. The significant overlap of poverty and biodiversity hotspots is illustrative of this pressure (Fisher and Christopher 2007). At least in the short term, local economic agents often face high opportunity costs for conserving biodiversity (Bawa et al 2004) due to income forgone, for example, by not converting forest for agricultural land use or intensifying forest use. This is one reason why the role of national and global social benefits is emphasized in closing the gap between private costs and social benefits of rainforest conservation, referred to as (global) market failure (Balmford et al 2002).
This book explicitly takes a rare focus on the local costs and benefits of biodiversity conservation in one of two biodiversity hotspots in India: the mountainous region of the Western Ghats. The presented analysis of costs and benefits of non-conversion borne at the local scale is an important contribution to an improved understanding of private motivations to convert tropical forests, which may facilitate the development of incentive mechanisms for conservation to account for market failure. The book does not excite with innovative economic approaches towards valuation—which in turn means that it is generic enough to appeal to those interested in the conservation of biodiversity in tropical forest areas in general.
The book is structured around 3 case studies in the Western Ghats that reflect a range of local situations, which differ with respect to population structure, land use, and legal status of forest protection. Two chapters precede the case studies. An introduction briefly establishes the main aspects driving biodiversity loss, the economic perspective on biodiversity conservation, general information on the methods used, and the research region. Chapter 2 is a detailed account of changes in land use, demographics and the populations of endangered species throughout the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. Overall, the authors conclude that there is cause for concern about the future of forests—and therefore biodiversity—in the Western Ghats, while regionally differing patterns of change are acknowledged. Interestingly, crop patterns are found to have changed as a result of ‘wildlife attacks’ on cropland, the costs of which are borne by locals. A vivid description of the acquisition of wildlife census data reveals problems and challenges related to the assessment of the state of wildlife and the governance of wildlife reserves. This is one of a few more ‘entertaining’ sections in an otherwise rather fact-laden book.
The core of the book comprises 3 chapters, each presenting a case study. The study areas are: 1) a coffee-growing village close to a protected forest; 2) tribal villages around or within a national park; 3) mixed cropping and livestock villages around a wildlife sanctuary. The structure of each of these chapters is similar: the case study setting is described; an analysis of the opportunity costs of forest conservation is presented; results from a local survey of public attitudes towards conservation and non-market benefits are reported; and the findings are summarized. The structural similarity facilitates comparison between the case studies, and therefore helps to put them into context. The book ends with summary conclusions and some policy recommendations.
In all 3 case studies, opportunity costs of biodiversity conservation in terms of benefits from coffee production and the collection and sale of non-timber forest products (NTF-Ps), as well as forgone income from agriculture and forest resources are found to be high and significant. In the level of detail and thoroughness, the analysis of opportunity costs in all 3 case studies is exemplary, and outstanding in the case of tribal villages which benefit from forests mainly by collecting NTFPs. The review on NTFP valuation and the discussion on the challenges of valuation and the way these challenges are addressed for this case study are truly enlightening. For the case of the coffee-growing village, damages by wildlife to crops are particularly relevant. An existing state compensation scheme for damage is found to be ineffective, partly because of high transaction costs involved in obtaining compensation and because of the legal status of the land on which the damage occurred. This example reveals that institutional aspects play an important role for the success or failure of (incentive) schemes for biodiversity conservation.
The second parts of the case studies, covering attitudes towards and preferences for conservation, are less convincing. A similar set of questions is used in all 3 case studies to assess perceptions and attitudes towards biodiversity conservation. It is encouraging that the vast majority of the villagers think that “environmental issues” and “conservation of biodiversity” are important, but doubts arise on how meaningful these questions can be. They are not very specific, response options were limited, and no attempt has been undertaken to understand what villagers actually had in mind when they were confronted with such complex terms as “biodiversity” or “keeping the ecosystem stable and functioning.” The (stated) preference questions ask for the willingness to spend time on elephant conservation, in the case of the coffee-growing and mixed arable and livestock villages, and to accept a re-location package as offered by the state, in the case of tribal villages in the national park. Although the preference exercises are interesting per se, their analysis and discussion of results lack the detail and thoroughness that is present in the rest of the book. Because of this, the attitude and preference parts only partially substantiate the authors' claim that knowledge on these aspects would be very important for policy-making (p 158).
This criticism should not take away from the fact that this book provides a wealth of relevant information that can help to develop economically sound strategies for biodiversity conservation in the Western Ghats. Some options are briefly touched upon in the closing chapter, which also highlights the importance of an effective long-term strategy for wildlife censuses as a basis for detecting change. Some readers may find the suggestion disputable that “especially beheading or long-term imprisonment for habitual offenders [against the forest law] … are worth considering and incorporating into the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act …” to save elephants, leopards and tigers from extinction (p 226).
For consideration on the purchase of this book, it should be mentioned that one case study has already been published (Ninan and Sathyapalan 2005). K.N. Ninan is also editing a book entitled “Conserving and Valuing Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity” that will be published in late 2008 by Earthscan. It includes a chapter on “Non-timber forest products and biodiversity conservation—a study of tribals in a protected area in India”: a title that has a striking resemblance to one of the case studies presented in the book reviewed here.