Study of Critical New Forest Conservation Issues in the Glob

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Study of Critical New Forest Conservation Issues in the Glob

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Study of Critical New Forest Conservation Issues in the Global South
Final Report Submitted to the Ford Foundation
By Arvind Khare and David Barton Bray*
June, 2004



Shortly after the Ford Foundation’s “Study on Critical New Conservation Issues in the Global South” got under way, two board members—Yolanda Kakabadse, president of the IUCN, and Kathryn Fuller, president of WWF—reviewed the study’s work plan. They concluded that the studies of the two consultants, which no one at Ford had yet seen, should not become public— and, in fact, should not even be officially turned in to the Ford Foundation. They recommended that the studies be embargoed, and this indeed happened, at least for a time. Ford officials received a verbal briefing, and finally saw the full studies, but the studies were never made public. News of this chain of events rapidly leaked out and was widely disseminated among foundations and NGOs—causing a furor about which the larger public heard very little.

On April 20, 2004, WWF convened a meeting of representatives from the big international NGOs— WWF, TNC, CI, IUCN, and WCS—for a full-day session with the foundation representatives who had brought the issue to the fore in South Dakota, 10 months earlier. The Big Three presidents—Kathryn Fuller of WWF, Peter Seligman of CI, and Steven McCormick of TNC—all came, together with some of their technical people. No indigenous representatives were present. [xiv]

Beyond a bland summary document, nothing has been shared publicly from this gathering, but it is possible to piece together impressions from several accounts. Initially, the NGO people were somewhat defensive, but were unapologetic. The foundation representatives spent the morning voicing their concerns, and the NGOs responded that their primary mission was conservation, not “poverty alleviation”—which in many minds is equated with working with local communities. They denied insensitivity to traditional or indigenous peoples and cited their programs in “capacity building.” But for the most part, the NGOs gave little ground.

One foundation representative brought up the fact that multinational companies were extracting natural resources and destroying ecosystems in fragile forest areas, and that indigenous peoples were fighting these companies while the conservationists who were working there stood by in silence. This representative noted that the NGOs usually sided with the companies, especially when the companies were corporate sponsors to the NGOs. The NGOs responded that they didn’t want to intervene—that they wanted to remain apolitical. In any case, they said, these were matters for national governments to handle.

In the afternoon session of the meeting, the NGOs again defended their work and one of the officials even turned a bit testy, as if to say “Who do you think you are, to question us? Perhaps you should examine yourselves.” As one participant put it, some NGO representatives “pushed back,” accusing the foundation people of having their ears bent by “activist NGOs” and not getting their facts straight. On the whole, they were aggressive within the bounds of politeness—they didn’t want to bite down too hard on one of the hands that feeds them, suggested one participant, although the foundation hand has shrunk in size as new and larger hands have appeared.

In the end, it was decided that some studies of the situation in the field had to be done. The details of which sites would be chosen, who would do them, how they would be carried out, and under whose supervision, were to be worked out later. Another meeting would follow, perhaps with a larger group including some indigenous and traditional representatives. A couple of participants on the foundation side came out of the meeting saying that the NGOs “simply don’t get it. They don’t understand.” Several said that the NGOs see the whole matter as an image problem, not anything involving substance.


-- A Challenge to Conservationists, by Mac Chapin

1. Introduction

The last decade has witnessed a dramatic shift in the field of biodiversity conservation. Led by a handful of large conservation organizations, the new conservation strategy marks a major departure from the earlier approach of creating ad hoc protected areas toward scientifically identifying unprotected, endangered areas of high biodiversity concentration, and is accompanied by a shift from a species focus to an ecosystem and landscape focus. As a result, the scale of conservation projects has dramatically increased to landscape levels that may contain mosaics of protected areas, unprotected areas of conservation interest, and varying forms of human settlement and use. The landscape level focus also brings with it a new interest in designing and implementing biological corridors that connect the areas of conservation interest. The large scale of the new approach is matched by equally large efforts to raise financial resources and the engagement of policy-makers at national and international levels. The large conservation organizations are transforming their organizations and working methodologies in hopes of delivering large-scale biodiversity outcomes.

During the same decade, a renewed commitment by the international community on poverty reduction (i.e. the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals) has re-energized the grassroots community organizations, development NGOs and the larger civil society. In addition, indigenous peoples, many of whom live in and around the areas of greatest interest for biodiversity conservation, have become increasingly assertive of their rights and claims to land. While the demands for biodiversity conservation and social justice and economic development for marginalized rural and indigenous peoples are both globally desired outcomes and can be seen as complementary, they are also frequently seen as being in conflict. Thus, the tension between conservation and equity has renewed the examination of the relationship between conservation of non-human nature and the equitable use of natural resources that contributes to poverty reduction. The challenge is to achieve conservation outcomes without compromising the aspirations of historically marginalized and impoverished local and indigenous communities. Empowered communities (and their ancient traditions of resource use) working together with the large conservation organizations (and their scientific and financial prowess) open up opportunities to achieve the large scale and historic outcomes desired by both.

This study looks at the new developments in the conservation world and explores the relationship of biodiversity conservation through protected areas to community development and empowerment. The study offers a very preliminary examination of issues such as

• The large landscape level approaches adopted by the large conservation organizations and their impact on local communities, local conservation and development non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local governments;

• The effect and influence of large conservation organizations in accumulating and allocating conservation finances; and

• The impact of large conservation organizations and their new approaches on policies at local, national and international levels, especially their effect on the policy space occupied by the local communities and non-governmental organizations and their agenda at international negotiations.

It is very difficult to study all these issues in depth, given the vastness of the organizational and geographic landscape. Hence, much of what is presented here must be taken as a first approximation. Many caveats apply to this report: it is based on home office interviews, telephone interviews, reviews of documents and brief visits to field sites. This kind of short-term qualitative study is subject to many errors of perception and incomplete data. Clearly much work needs to be done, yet, the study did provide opportunities for looking at these issues from multiple points of view that help in characterizing the trends and identify the opportunities and challenges. The remaining part of this report is organized as under:

Section 2: Large Scale Conservation

Section 3: Conservation Finance

Section 4: Impact at National and Local Levels

Section 5: Challenges and Opportunities

2. Large Scale Conservation

A recent article(1) reviews landscape conservation strategies in general and finds 21 different approaches by 13 organizations. However the two major landscape-level approaches that have attracted world-wide attention are the “hotspots” and “ecoregion” approaches, identified with Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund respectively. Hotspots feature “exceptional concentrations of endemic species and experience exceptional losses of habitat”. The argument is that 44% of all species of vascular plants and 35% of all species in four vertebrate groups are in 25 “hotspots” with only 1.4% of the land surface of the earth and thus represents a critical opportunity for conservation. With reference to degree of threat, a hotspot should have lost 70% or more of its primary vegetation. Hotspots have lost in fact an aggregate of 88% of their primary vegetation, although 38% of their total area is already in protected areas.

An ecoregion is defined as “a geographically distinct assemblage of natural communities that share a large majority of their species, ecological dynamics, and similar environmental conditions and whose ecological interactions are critical for their long-term persistence”, with over 200 ecoregions having been defined globally(2). The ecoregional approach seeks to follow a scientific process in establishing “the representation of all ecosystem and habitat types in regional investment portfolios”. Ecoregional planning is aimed at replacing the earlier ad hoc approach to establishing protected areas and biodiversity conservation projects with a more scientifically based approach, to move beyond a species focus to an ecosystem and habitat focus, to integrate conservation biology principles and landscape ecology into decision-making, and to ensure that scarce conservation funds are put where they are most needed(3).

There have apparently been few studies or evaluations of the impacts on conservation and local communities of the new landscape approach, despite the fact that many millions of dollars are being invested in it. One study in Madagascar(4) found that the move toward a more regional approach also signaled a move away from Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) in buffer zones. “As an intellectual construct, the regional model has considerable merit for both biological and socioeconomic reasons” but “the everyday situation is that the (landscape level approach) seems to have been more about the institutional dissolution of the integrated conservation and development approach than about the extension of these ideals to a regional scale of application”. Thus, the move to landscape level work may be accompanied by a declining commitment to traditional ICDPs. At the same time, there is expanding interest in many quarters of market-oriented activities such as shade-grown and organic coffee, community forestry for timber production, and ecotourism, which are seen as larger landscape activities that provide alternatives to local populations and which tap more directly into existing markets than many small local ICDPs. Of these, ecotourism is consistently pursued with enthusiasm by conservation NGOs since it is perceived as having low-impacts and helping to build developed world tourist commitment to conservation. The small, local initiatives associated with ICDPs, are likely to become relatively less important within the programs supported by the global conservation organizations.

There appears to be an acceptance that as conservation NGOs venture out into larger landscapes they will inevitably have to confront sustainable use issues more directly, although they also clearly have a sharp eye out for possibilities to create more protected areas as well. Nineteen of the 25 global hotspots include 1.1 billion people living on less than US$ 1 per day and have higher population growth rates within them than the world average. In the few remaining wilderness areas in these “hotspots”, growth is twice the global average(5). Sixteen of the 25 hotspots are in areas where over 20 percent of the population is malnourished - accounting for a quarter of all the malnourished people in the developing countries(6). As the efforts to conserve these hotspots increase to encompass larger territories, the issues of livelihood and land rights of these millions of inhabitants will influence and will in turn be influenced by the new conservation approaches. Landscape approaches may at the moment be only priority setting exercises but they raise the issue of how to address questions concerning participation of local communities and inclusion of local perspectives in priority setting?

The locations of most of these identified landscapes are in developing countries, most of which have a complex land tenure history that has continually been a subject of tension between local communities and the governments. Despite the legal battles and continuous tensions, the last decade has witnessed a dramatic shift in the forest land ownership in developing countries. Current estimates show that communities own or administer approximately 25 percent of forest areas in these countries. Scaling up conservation-oriented management would therefore require a broad range of strategies across the mosaic of tenure systems and land uses that make up large areas. How can large-scale conservation contribute to increased attention to communities as managers of important areas of conservation landscapes?

The current evidence does not identify a clearly defined strategy to deal with this huge task, either in the existing literature and theories on large landscape approaches to conservation or in the discussions with the people in the conservation organizations.

Although most organizations realize that there are going to be limits to how much national territory can be put into formal protected areas and that limits may have been reached or nearly reached in many countries, nevertheless the scientific planning exercise initiated for large landscape projects has mostly resulted in identification of new areas for strict protection and marking of corridors to link them. Until now, there has been no indication that the newly identified areas for strict protection and the corridors linking them would be managed any differently than the prevalent methods for protected area management. Yet given the ambitious scales, this may be the right opportunity to deal with the questions of livelihood, tenure and participation that could enable large-scale conservation without the associated problems of conventional protected area approaches. However, it must be noted that the large conservation organizations, with notable regional and programmatic exceptions, do not necessarily see it as their responsibility to make links between biodiversity conservation and local sustainable livelihoods.

3. Conservation Finances

Parallel to the emergence of large landscape approaches, a profound change has taken place in the structure of conservation finance for developing countries. Traditional funding sources for conservation have undergone a steep decline while forest communities emerge as the largest investors. Between the mid 1990s and the turn of the century, the amount of funds available for conservation have declined almost by 50 percent. Overseas development assistance (ODA) for the forest sector in general has declined from an annual outlay of $2-2.2 billion in the early nineties to $1-1.2 billion at the beginning of this century. For protected areas in particular, ODA has declined from an annual funding level of $700-770 million in the early 1990s to the current level of $350-420 million. And despite the commitments made at Monterrey in 2002, ODA levels are unlikely to reach the level of the 1990s even by the year 2006.

Similarly, public expenditure on forests and protected areas in developing countries show signs of stagnation and are unlikely to increase in the near future. Public expenditure on forests and protected areas is estimated to be around $1.6 billion and $598 million respectively in developing countries. Only philanthropic contributions show an increase in allocation for conservation objectives. However, philanthropic contributions account for just about 3% of available finances for conservation. The most positive and probably the least recognized increase in conservation investment comes from communities themselves. Community investment in forest sector in developing countries has been estimated to have increased from $365-730 million to $1.3-2.6 billion in the last decade, although the large conservation organizations do not seem to take this much into account.

The second structural change in conservation finance is its increasing concentration within a few large conservation organizations. The funding made available to the large NGOs have increased in both relative and absolute terms at a time when the overall availability of funds has declined. Analysis of the finances of just three large conservation organizations - the US branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-USA), Conservation International (CI) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) - reveals that their combined revenue and expenditure (i.e., their investment in conservation) in the year 2002 were $1.28 billion and $804 million, respectively. This snapshot of NGO finances in the year 2002 is not an aberration but rather part of a continuing trend evident since the mid 1990s of increasing revenue, expenses and asset accumulation. The combined revenues of these three NGOs increased from $638 million in 1998 to $899 million in 1999 to $965 million in 2000. During the same period their investment in conservation increased from $377 million in 1998 to $475 million in 1999 to $527 million in 2000. Making adjustments to account for their conservation spending in the USA, the combined NGO investments in developing countries totaled $487 million in 2002, $398 million in 2001, $330 million in 2000, $295 million in 1999 and $240 million in 1998. By comparison, these investments are either equal to or higher than those made by GEF except for the year 2001 (an unusual year for GEF) and more than double the level of investments made by US foundations.

The large conservation NGOs have adopted a mix of instruments to access finances from the various sources that fund conservation. The main sources of funds consist of multilateral and bilateral financial agencies, philanthropic institutions and individuals, the corporate sector and the US government. The large conservation organizations have been successful in raising funds from all these sources and in the process have also become the main channeling agency of funds from these sources to local conservation organizations, accounting for the third big change in the structure of conservation finance. Approximately 30 percent of centrally managed USAID funding for conservation goes to these three NGOs ($31.47 million in 2001). Total US government grants to the three NGOs between 1999 and 2001 vary between $45m to $58m. More recently, USAID has decided to channel its funding in developing countries exclusively through six partner NGOs (it excludes the funds managed through in-country missions) which include the three large NGOs whose finances have been analyzed in this section. The large NGOs in turn are obligated to fund national NGOs.

The present structure of conservation financing, in which the large NGOs play a dominant role, is unlikely to change in the near future as long-term commitments have been made. As a new force that is going to define the conservation agenda of the next decade, it is important to study their influence on landscapes, local forest communities, NGOs and governments.

4. Impact at National and Local Levels

The influence of large conservation organizations and their policies on local communities, NGOs and governments varies with the size of the country, the status of civil society therein, and the nature of governance in a given location. In larger countries, the influence of the large NGOs is more limited. These countries have large environmental bureaucracies and active environmentalists within civil society that both work collaboratively with global NGOs and serve to moderate their influence. There are multiple examples of national governments and civil society resisting initiatives of the large NGOs, usually when they try to impose a more strict conservationist agenda over sustainable use. Even in smaller countries, a combination of government and civil society (some of it international) resistance often encourages the large NGOs to modify their conservation initiatives to suit local conditions.

There are no reported cases of large conservation organizations directly assuming the control and management of conservation areas. There are however several cases of global conservation NGOs purchasing land in developing countries and currently administering it, although in all the cases the arrangement is stated as being temporary until control is transferred to national entities. Except for these few cases, the global conservation NGOs are not directly involved in protected area management, but there are examples of efforts at fundraising for this purpose. As mentioned earlier, the new landscape level approaches seem to imply a relative abandonment of local level ICDP projects, but they also force engagement with potential sustainable use activities in the larger landscapes. The large NGOs do have programs that are aimed at communities. Some of their community programs have achieved a measure of success, especially those relating to community enterprises. Market-based instruments as a method for community engagement is at a nascent stage and while there are cases that show promise, it is still early days to assess its suitability for large-scale conservation.

In some smaller countries the situation can be quite different, due to a number of contributing factors. Some of these countries have yet to establish robust democratic institutions and the role of larger civil society participation in various facets of governance remains undefined. Comparatively smaller, the local NGOs feel bypassed, not only by their own governments but also by the large conservation organizations (though capacity development of local organizations remains a stated goal of all large NGOs).

There is also a discernible trend that some activities of the large NGOs in these countries tend to be more controversial at community levels, especially in the countries where land tenure laws are not settled and communities are engaged in a struggle to claim their land rights. There are subtle distinctions between what is legal and what is legitimate, between actual displacement and threatened displacement and between suppression of land rights and non-recognition of land rights. In some cases, the positions taken by the large NGOs are similar to the current position takens by local governments and local conservation organizations. The local governments themselves, in some cases, do not have participatory processes in place or a robust legal system to help resolve the difficult issues of resource rights. The large NGOs are not directly involved in the displacement activities. That can only be done by the legally authorized government agencies. There are however sporadic examples that show that large NGOs are intervening in very complex tenurial situations, taking positions in multi-stakeholder disputes, and supporting displacement of “illegal” communities. This situation sometimes acquires a conspiratorial overtone in the local press due to a lack of reliable information. Few of the large NGO projects undergo rigorous, publicly available evaluations and there is an increasing demand for transparency and accountability. The history of some large conservation NGO involvement in particular areas of Latin America, such as the Petén in Guatemala and the Lacandon Rainforest of Mexico appear to have been highly problematic, yet there have been almost no publicly available evaluations on the part of the NGOs as to the outcomes in these areas. There are also very disquieting reports of large-scale displacements for protected areas in the Congo Basin. As the finances handled by large NGOs increase in size, it may be the opportune moment to improve systems of information sharing and accountability that would not only reassure the donors but also help win local support.

5. Challenges and Opportunities

At a time when there is a discernible decline in the finances available for conservation, the large NGOs have emerged as the most powerful financial players. They have not only obtained a greater share of the declining conservation resources but also spectacularly increased their investment in the conservation field in absolute terms. As a group, these NGOs are now the biggest investors in conservation, almost twice as big as the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank. By forging strategic alliances with donors, they also control and channel a substantial portion of funds going to local and national NGOs. The sheer size of their finances and spread of their activities establish them as key players and their policies, programs and methods of working are likely to influence and shape the conservation field in the coming decade. The growing power and clout of these organizations raises questions about accountability which could be offset by more rigorous, publicly available evaluations.

Conservation NGOs have as their primary mission the conservation of biodiversity, so advocates of community development and indigenous peoples are often frustrated that all of these resources are not being invested more substantially in their areas of concern. For the conservation NGOs, local communities and indigenous peoples are one component of a suite of possible options for achieving conservation objectives. This is complicated by the fact that under some circumstances these same elements can also undeniably be threats to biodiversity conservation. Academics and conservation practitioners can become quite heated as they debate the relative weight that should be given to protected areas, sustainable use or indigenous reserve strategies. In practice, all of the large conservation NGOs bridge this gap by carrying out both traditional protected area and sustainable use strategies. For most however, the traditional protected area strategy is by far the dominant approach.

However, the new large landscape approaches propagated by the large conservation NGOs do provide a new opportunity for continued dialogue about a reconciliation of approaches. As priority-setting tools, these new strategies have already created a new wave. The infirmities of the past protection paradigm that continue to influence the new approaches also pose a challenge that calls for a new thinking and a new paradigm that would squarely face the difficult trade-offs inherent in large scale conservation. The large landscape approaches have brought the large NGOs face to face with millions of impoverished people and their livelihood issues, which are now a definite part of the new conservation agenda.

But the new agenda shows a number of positive features. Large NGOs have used a variety of approaches of working with people. While still in their infancy, the new market-based approaches and conservation concessions are attracting world wide interest. However, given the financial and intellectual power of the large conservation NGOs, there is also a tendency to oversell some new approaches. For example, the conservation concessions approach, where governments or local people may be directly paid to protect biodiversity, is an experimental strategy that currently has both failures and successes to its record, yet it is trumpeted as the most important new conservation idea of the 21st century(7).

The indigenous and tribal peoples’ land right issues continue to be a contentious issue, and conservation NGOs continue to be unclear about how to work closely with local and indigenous peoples. The challenge is to deal with these issues in a manner that empowers the indigenous peoples and other forest communities to contribute to conservation. There is sufficient evidence of their capability to pursue conservation goals as demonstrated in the 25 percent of the world’s forest area where their tenure rights are comparatively more secure. Adoption of progressive indigenous peoples’ policies by some of the leading large conservation organizations is an important step in addressing this challenge as is increasing recognition of the multiple opportunities for conservation on private lands. Community ownership or secure access is also a form of private land, and presents opportunities as great as those in developed countries.

Overall, there are many opportunities that must be utilized to enhance the compatibility of large conservation efforts with the development aspirations of communities in the developing countries. It will also mean facing the inherent challenges with bold initiatives. Some of the opportunities and challenges are briefly described here:


The large conservation organizations have done ambitious and ground-breaking scientific work in prioritizing the globally significant areas of biodiversity concentration that are endangered and therefore need a high level of protection. Some have also become leaders in academic research on biodiversity issues. The forest communities with their indigenous knowledge-base and resource use patterns offer another perspective in determining the priorities and methodologies to achieve the conservation goals in the prioritized areas. A more systematic integration of these two forms of knowledge offer an opportunity for participation of forest communities in realigning the global priority-setting exercises that can fulfill the twin global objectives of conservation and poverty reduction.

The traditional protected areas approach that has underpinned the conservation efforts so far has had negative consequences for forest communities. The recent Durban Accord at the 2003 World Parks Congress recognized these impacts. The new landscape approaches are set to increase the scale of conservation to unprecedented levels. The large territories contemplated under these approaches will encompass multiple use patterns and a variety of tenurial arrangements that may or may not have legal recognition. The new landscape approaches could imply a higher level of negative impacts on forest communities or present new opportunities for nature conservation that respect the resource rights and conservation capacity of indigenous peoples and other communities and diminish the threats of displacement.

The new landscape-level conservation approaches have realigned the powerful stakeholders, finances and policies needed to achieve large conservation outcomes. The equally challenging task of poverty reduction requires simultaneous attention to the resource relationships of communities, their tenurial security, management capacity and the contribution that it makes to their livelihood patterns. The difficult trade-offs required to achieve the twin objectives of conservation and poverty reduction call for new mechanisms of negotiation. New conservation strategies could provide the mechanism for negotiation that ensures the sustainable resource-based livelihoods of communities and aligns the powerful array of conservation stakeholders to the equally important objective of development.


1. The ambitious new conservation goals supported by large accumulation of finances bring with them the challenge of development of genuine empowering partnerships with communities and the local NGOs whose conservation agenda may be different. How can large conservation organizations effectively build capacity in communities and their support organizations through true partnerships? In their role as intermediaries for finances and other resources, how can they be more accountable to communities, their needs and demands? The contemplated large landscape level scale of activities will bring the large conservation organizations face to face with these difficult choices.

2. The new scale of operations and relatively high level of investments will further increase the partnership of large conservation organizations with the national governments. A number of these governments have yet to streamline the tenurial arrangements, recognize the land rights of indigenous peoples and develop a robust set of laws. How can the partnership of large NGOs with these governments improve natural resource governance and ensure the resource security of communities and ensure that they do not contribute to more difficult relations between protected areas and local communities?

3. Some development and infrastructure projects pose a threat to the biodiversity conservation. The conservation community has vigorously campaigned against these projects, (although there has also been some criticism of a possibly contradictory tendency to court corporations for funds and to otherwise work with them over the heads of local affected communities). In a number of cases in developing countries, the development and infrastructure projects are a key to the socio-economic development of impoverished people. The challenge therefore is to incorporate the genuine development aspirations of indigenous peoples and other forest communities into conservation efforts. How can the large NGOs enable communities to negotiate their development goals at the project and policy levels?



(1) Redford, Kent H. et. al 2003. Mapping the Conservation Landscape. Conservation Biology. 17:1, pp 116-131.

(2) Dinerstein, E., D. Olson, et. al. 1995. A Conservation Assessment of the Terrestrial Ecoregions of Latin America and the Caribbean. World Bank/WWF: Washington, D.C.

(3) ibid

(4) Gezon, Lisa L. 2003. The Regional Approach in Northern Madagascar: Moving Beyond Integrated Conservation and Development. In Contested Nature: Promoting International Biodiversity with Social Justice in the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Steven R. Brechin, Peter R. Wilshusen, Crystal L. Fortwangler, and Patrick C. West. State University of New York Press: Albany

(5) McNeely, Jeffrey A. and Sara J. Scherr. 2003 Ecoagriculture: Strategies to feed the world and save biodiversity. Future Harvest and IUCN. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. and Cincotta, Richard P., and Robert Engelmann. 2000. Nature's place: Human population and the future of biological diversity. Population action International: Washington, D.C.

(6) Cincotta and Engleman 2000

(7) Ellison, Katherine. 2003. Renting Biodiversity. Conservation in Practice. 4:4 Pp. 20-29
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