Interviewing a forest villager

Finding the right balance between global and local demands on the natural world could help reduce poverty.

How do we balance the interests and rights of individuals living in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities with the global demands for ecosystem services?

Dr Bhaskar Vira

The forests, lakes, oceans and other ecosystems of the world are sometimes referred to as the planet’s life-support systems because of the global services they provide. They preserve biodiversity, soak up atmospheric carbon and are fundamental to the water cycle. These same resources are also used by people who live in their proximity for food, fuel and employment. Often, these local needs are not compatible with global needs.

‘How do we balance the interests and rights of individuals living in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities with the global demands for ecosystem services?’ asks Dr Bhaskar Vira, in the Department of Geography. ‘If the balance is tipped unfavourably away from consumers in the developing world, so that they can no longer use their local resources in the same way, the effects on their livelihoods can lead to, and exacerbate, poverty.’

Dr Vira’s research examines these conflicting demands upon nature, and whether synergies can be found that achieve developmental aspirations for reducing poverty and yet keep the human impact on the natural environment within ecologically safe limits. To do this, his research group is looking closely at ecosystems around the world where trade-offs between different objectives are in evidence – such as in the case of the Indian village of Botezari.

Tiger territory

Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in India’s Maharashtra State is home to around 45 of India’s dwindling population of tigers, as well as many other rare species. In 2007, to protect this globally important site of biodiversity, the village of Botezari, then consisting of 76 households and situated within the reserve, was moved to a new location approximately 40 km southeast.

Conservation-induced displacement is a classic example of the complexities that underlie the juggling of ecosystem services. PhD student Kim Beazley has spent the past four years examining the intricacies of Botezari’s displacement strategy – how it was formulated, instigated and justified, and the key players, institutions and external structures that drove the displacement process over time. Her work is interrogating the intricate politics that surround such operations, and is providing important new information on the impact of ecosystem management on the welfare and poverty of a community.

Negotiating trade-offs

‘Of course, the reality of ecosystem management involves making difficult choices and trade-offs between different types of ecosystem services and between the competing claims of different groups in society,’ says Dr Vira, who has just commenced a new research project to understand how stakeholders negotiate over such trade-offs.

The new study is aimed at helping policy makers to develop better strategies for pro-poor ecosystem management and has been funded jointly by the Department for International Development, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. The project also involves colleague Professor Bill Adams plus two India-based NGOs (Winrock International and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment), who have first-hand knowledge of the case studies under investigation: forest–hydrological–urban landscapes in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats.

A second new study has also commenced thanks to funding from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. Working with Birdlife International, the RSPB and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Dr Vira leads a study that aims to identify trade-offs and synergy over ecosystem service flows across a range of landscapes. ‘Ultimately, it’s important not just to determine the economic values of ecosystem service flows, but also to see how these are captured by specific groups in society, and what this means for poverty, equity and justice.’

For more information, please contact Dr Bhaskar Vira ( at the Department of Geography, or visit the Cambridge Conservation Initiative website (, which seeks to transform the global understanding and conservation of biodiversity.

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