So how do we address such conservation vacuums? In my view, we have two options.
People will almost always choose better living conditions, more opportunity, education and higher income levels over subsistence living. And rightly so.
So the first option dictates that we provide these millions of people with another development alternative to breaking their backs over the land for decades to come—one that allows progress in place, rather than migration to the city.
Education and health have to go the village, likely in novel forms. Opportunities and amenities have to go to the village. The full right to govern has to go to the village. Only by finding serious ways for all aspects of wealth to accrue in these communities will their people remain in place as active earth stewards.
In the second option, we stop these kinds of engagements, given their likely short-lived returns, and deal with what comes next.
Conservationists know this act of the play well. If rural communities move off the land and into cities, the land left behind seldom just sits there as a thriving haven for nature. Most often, the space will be filled with large-scale corporate resource exploration and extraction, or subdivision and urban or residential development.
Even swooning success in establishing protected areas on some of these lands will leave small remnants of the remaining large landscapes at play. If we choose this option, we need to move much more quickly and boldly to embrace large corporate and government actors and find novel and compelling ways to align their activities with conservation.
Either path is a hard sell—not nearly so nice as the romantic notion of rural people as eternal earth stewards.
But in the developing world, the market economy hasn’t given these people a viable path to live comfortably off the land, and conservation hasn’t either.
Which path will we choose?