Firewood collection in western Uganda. Photo credit: Janet Fisher.

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Because much of the world’s biodiversity resides in lower-income countries, nature conservationists have confronted challenges of human poverty for a long time. Conservation and poverty are linked in many ways, not least because conservation interventions sometimes impose limits on people who use nature for their livelihoods. This year, the international community will set targets for the post-2020 conservation agenda, and animated debates focus upon how the sector should respond to various challenges, including poverty.

This paper examines the perspectives of professional conservationists on poverty. We sampled conservation practitioners in western-headquartered organisations, and in Bolivia, China, Nepal and Uganda, thus garnering some insights from countries with different geographical characteristics. Our research shows that there are three distinct perspectives on conservation and poverty and we detail where consensus and divergence exist between perspectives.

While there are some elements of consensus, for instance, the principle that the poor should not shoulder the costs of conserving a global public good, the three perspectives diverge in a number of ways. One aspect that distinguishes the perspectives is whether they are primarily nature-centric, or people-centric. Importantly as well, this research shows that conservation practitioners subscribe to two distinct framings of poverty. The first prioritises welfare and needs and is more strongly associated with the China, Nepal and Uganda case studies. The second framing of poverty focuses much more on the need for ‘do no harm’ safeguards, and follows an international human rights-oriented discourse. There are also important distinctions between the perspectives we uncovered about whether poverty is characterised as a driver of degradation, or more emphasis is placed on overconsumption and affluence in driving conservation threats. Overall, this paper provides a contemporary analysis of how conservation practitioners think about poverty, illuminating where consensus exists between perspectives, and revealing where critical differences remain.