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Burden to protect tropical forest disproportionately higher for local population

24 August 2023
To keep valuable tropical forests protected worldwide, local communities in those areas must receive financial support. That is the main finding from the study of environmental economist Marije Schaafsma of VU Amsterdam.

Schaafsma and colleagues conducted 10 years of research and the results were recently published in the scientific journal Environmental and Resource Economics.  

The Eastern Arc Mountains in Tanzania, considered a global priority for conservation provided the backdrop for the study. These mountains are a so-called biodiversity hotspot. Unfortunately, it appears that local communities bear the heaviest burden for their conservation. According to the researchers, local rural communities are not financially compensated to protect such natural habitats. For them, fully understandably, their need to make a basic living comes first and they rely heavily on agriculture to earn a living. Schaafsma: "Agricultural land in Tanzania is scarce, leading to the clearing of forests and woodlands - many of which are not formally protected."


Intact tropical forests are hugely important. They remove CO2 from the atmosphere and thus help regulate the global climate. In addition, forests are crucial for providing drinking water to millions of people living downstream. However, converting these natural habitats into agricultural land is necessary for local (small) farmers to maintain their productivity and yields. In addition, Schaafsma's research also shows that the greatest global economic value comes from precisely these natural habitats. So that is exactly where it conflicts. The preservation of globally important places for society as a whole versus the threat of losing potential income from agriculture and the sale of timber and charcoal.

Contribution international community

The researchers argue that investments could help smallholder farmers increase yields on their existing land and thus boost forest protection in the long term. They estimate that US $2 billion in funding is needed from the international community to support local farmers near forests and woodlands such as Tanzania's Eastern Arc Mountains. Schaafsma and colleagues conclude, "If we want to preserve these important wildlife regions, the international community should make a larger contribution and not let local people bear these costs."

Eastern Arc Mountains

The Eastern Arc is home to nearly 500 plant species found nowhere else in the world, plus many rare animals, including a crab that lives in trees and a monkey previously unknown to Western science, the kipunji. The forests not only enhance biodiversity, but also remove CO2 from the atmosphere, harbour widely used medicinal plants, provide major cities with drinking water and support national and international tourism. But their conservation entails significant management costs.

This is the largest and most detailed study of its type ever undertaken in the tropics. Schaafsma conducted the study with scientists from the University of Cambridge – United Kingdom (UK), University of Agriculture - Tanzania, University of York (UK) and the University of Vermont – United States, amongst others. This news article is adapted from the official press release by the University of Cambridge. Read the full press release here.