East Asia and Pacific

Fighting Poverty Accidentally Stopped Deforestation

Evidence from Indonesia shows that development goals don’t have to come at a cost to the climate.

FROM BLOOMBERG GREEN, By Eric Roston and Jess Shankleman

June 15, 2020, 5:00 AM EDT

A truck loaded with logs in the Penajam area of Borneo, Indonesia. Photographer: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

Forest destruction is responsible for 10% of human carbon dioxide emissions, and much of it is the result of extreme poverty. For local communities, selling timber and clearing land for cultivation is an income stream of last resort. Researchers, governments, and non-governmental organizations have debated for years how to rid the world of these twin scourges. But which comes first, alleviating the poverty or saving the trees?

Data from an Indonesian anti-poverty program that began in 2007 provided researchers a natural way to answer that question. The result: Cash payments to people in impoverished areas led to a 30% drop in tree loss, even though the payments came with no conservation conditions.

“Conservationists don’t have to see this as a zero-sum game—that if the money goes to poverty, it’s not helping the environment,” says Paul Ferraro, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School and the study’s co-author. (While Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, endowed the research chair, neither Ferraro nor any of the other Bloomberg Distinguished Professors coordinates with Bloomberg or Bloomberg Philanthropies.) “For years, these two camps have been at loggerheads, anti-poverty and the environmental protection camp.”

Indonesia’s Program Keluarga Harapan, or Family Hopes Program, promises six years of quarterly payments as long as recipients register with local health and education institutions and ensure that pregnant women and children receive exams and vaccines. Children must also attend school.

While the relationship between anti-poverty and conservation measures is poorly understood, past conservation efforts have had unforeseen or undesirable social impacts, and community-driven deforestation drives have achieved mixed results. Research efforts have more commonly looked at the effects of healthy forestry on well-being, not the other way around, note Ferraro and co-author Rhita Simorangkir, an economics researcher at the National University of Singapore.

Even more surprising than the result itself, says Ferraro, is that the drop in deforestation seen in Indonesia was about the same as those achieved by policies in other countries designed specifically for conservation. The paper doesn’t advocate for reallocating conservation payments to anti-poverty programs or vice versa, and while Ferraro says he’s encouraged by the results, he also cautions against reading too much into them.

“This is always the issue of single-country studies,” he says. “They’re more credible than all these global studies that just look at patterns in global data, but they have less ability to generalize, so it’s still unclear.”

Kira Sullivan-Wiley, a post-doctoral researcher at Boston University who specializes in conservation and human behavior, says the study is “a very tidy and thorough analysis.” She credits the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious program to attack the world’s ills by 2030, with drawing anti-poverty and environmental advocates closer together. Solid results showing that an anti-poverty measure has forestry benefits “will please a lot of people who care about both,” Sullivan-Wiley says.

Indonesia has made significant progress fighting forest loss through targeted programs, as well. Primary forest loss fell by 60% in 2016 due to stepped-up policies and enforcement, and the years since have sustained those gains. It’s a part of a broader strategy for the country to moor its development to a realistic and practical relationship with its environment, says Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

“What this pandemic has shown us in such a terrifying way is that we need to rebuild our economies, so they provide us with not only jobs but also a society that is secure, resilient and safe,” Indrawati says. “We can no longer built our economies—our societies—in a way that too often ignores natural science and our dependence on the natural environment.”

Yet she also warns there’s a danger that the challenge of climate change could be put to aside if it appears to clash with short-run political and economic objectives. Economic pain from the pandemic now threatens poverty-relief efforts that Indonesia has carried out for more than a decade. At the end of March, President Joko Widodo signed into law a stimulus program that includes further relief for the 10 million households in the Family Hope Program.

It’s too soon to tell whether today’s hardships will lead to further deforestation. Temporary cash transfers and forest-friendly job creation can help reduce the need for people to revert to deforestation if they take a financial hit from the pandemic, says Frances Seymour, distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. “We need to distinguish between crackdowns on organized crime and appropriate actions to address exploitation of forests by people made desperate by the economic crisis,’’ she says.

— With assistance by Grace Sihombing