Can Protecting Nature Reduce Poverty?

Published on August 20th, 2014 | by

Ecotourism Can Help Reduce Poverty
Little is known about the mechanisms through which ecosystem conservation programs affect poverty, but scholars are now accumulating evidence about the effects of environmental programs on social outcomes. A recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the progress being made by researchers in Costa Rica to answer the question of reducing poverty through environmental protection of natural areas.

New Applications For Matching-Based Statistical Techniques

Old techniques are being utilized in new ways to quantifiably answer questions related to environmental impact. The recent upsurge in environmental science writings using matching techniques follows in the footsteps of such use in economics, medicine and public health. It is proving to be an important tool for improved estimation of causal effects of environmental interventions. A matching-based statistical approach to estimation can make it easier to establish clear links between observational data and their infered causes.

Two leaders in using matching-based techniques to identify impacts of protected areas on poverty are Paul J. Ferraro of the Department of Economics, Georgia State University in Atlanta, and Merlin M. Hanauer of the Department of Economics, Sonoma State University in California. In their article, “Quantifying causal mechanisms to determine how protected areas affect poverty through changes in ecosystem services and infrastructure,” Ferraro and Hanauer present a fresh innovation for environmental social scientists. They supplement the matching-based approach to estimate the effects of protected areas on poverty in Costa Rica with an analysis of three causes that may connect protected areas to an observed reduction in poverty.


Quantifying Effects of Costa Rican Protected Areas on Poverty

“Our goal was to show exactly how environmental protection can reduce poverty in poorer nations rather than exacerbate it, as many people fear,” says Ferraro, a professor of economics and environmental policy in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. The overarching goal of their study was to expand the analysis of Andam et al. by clarifying and quantifying three potential channels through which Costa Rica’s protected areas that were established before 1980 affected poverty in surrounding communities between 1973 and 2000.

Ferraro and Georgia State alumnus Hanauer developed an approach to quantifying the causes through which protected areas affect poverty. They focus on three mechanisms: changes in tourism and recreational services; changes in infrastructure in the form of road networks, health clinics, and schools; and changes in regulating and provisioning ecosystem services and foregone production activities that arise from land-use restrictions.

The Face Of Poverty In Costa Rica

The variables used in Ferraro and Hanauer’s study provide sad indications of the daily existance of poor people in Costa Rica. Their poverty index estimation included percentages of: men in total population; families who cook with coal or wood; families without a washing machine; families without a refrigerator; people who receive actual money for their work; illiterate population aged 12 or more; household dwellings without connection to a private or public water system; household dwellings without sewers; household dwellings without electricity; household dwellings without a telephone; dwellings with earth floors; dwellings in bad condition; dwellings without a bathroom; and dwellings without access to hot water. The team also collected dependency ratio, average number of occupants per bedroom and average years of education per adult.


Ferraro and Hanaeur’s study empirically estimates previously unidentified contributions of ecotourism and other ecosystem services to poverty alleviation in the context of a real environmental program. They demonstrate that, with existing data and appropriate empirical methods, conservation scientists and policymakers can begin to clarify the mechanisms through which ecosystem conservation programs affect human welfare.

Protected Natural Areas In Costa Rica Reduced Poverty by 16%

Protected natural areas in Costa Rica reduced poverty by 16 percent in neighboring communities, mainly by encouraging ecotourism, according to Ferraro and Hanauer’s research findings, which were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

ecotorism reducing poverty in Costa Rica

The researchers further state in their publication, “Nearly two-thirds of the poverty reduction associated with the establishment of Costa Rican protected areas is causally attributable to opportunities afforded by tourism. Although protected areas reduced deforestation and increased regrowth, these land cover changes neither reduced nor exacerbated poverty, on average. Protected areas did not, on average, affect our measures of infrastructure and thus did not contribute to poverty reduction through this mechanism. We attribute the remaining poverty reduction to unobserved dimensions of our mechanisms or to other mechanisms.”

Improving Local And Global Conservation Programs And Policies

“Our results suggest that by using existing data sets such as poverty estimates from census data, the impacts of conservation programs and policies on human populations can be better defined,” says Ferraro. “Our findings may result in improved conservation programs and policies, and better impacts on reducing poverty in communities adjacent to these sites, locally and around the globe.”

Costa Rican Tree Frog

Protecting natural areas benefits entire ecosystems, reducing deforestation and providing safe refuge for wildlife. Factoring ecotourism into the equation nets many social benefits. Ecotourism is known for improving our understanding and appreciation of conservation needs in developing countries, and improving access to some of the world’s most beautiful and well-hidden wilderness oases. It is also socially satisfying to recognize material improvement in the people’s lives surrounding the protected areas, as a result of our enjoyable and educational travel.

Costa Rican Corner Market

About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid is a native of Long Beach, California, residing in Egypt. Besides being the Site Director and a writer for, she also writes for and A retired Computer Engineer with the U.S. Dept. of Defense, her latest work published for the DoD was "Personal Financial Management." Commissioned by Congress, this award winning 10-course training set is hosted by NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, and is mandatory financial training for every branch of the US Military.
  • Hello Aisha,
    Thank you so much for sharing article. Very inspiring. Forest ecosystem and other natural resources has been the provider of mankind for its existence. Protecting the planet and poverty alleviation is one and the same. We should also work to encourage restoration, sharing the opportunities for more green jobs in degraded areas.
    Thank you Aisha, we will work on this together.
    Happy Sunday.