Conserving rainforests may help to reduce poverty as well as protect biodversity, according to analyses undertaken in Costa Rica and Thailand.
Researchers from Georgia State University looked at the long term impacts of poor people living near parks and reserves set up before 1985 and found the net impact of the protection was to alleviate poverty.
Study author Professor Paul Ferraro said the findings went against the conventional wisdom that says biodiversity conservation was not compatible with development goals.
'The results are surprising. Most people might expect that if you restrict resources, people on average will be worse off. In contrast, the results indicate that the net impact of ecosystem protection was to alleviate poverty,' he said.
The findings come as seven countries; Norway, Germany, US, UK, Australia, Japan, France commit to funding projects that will protect rainforests.
At a meeting in Oslo this week they reached an interim agreement to help get REDD projects (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) up and running while they wait for an international agreement on tackling climate change. A new body to manage the funds will be set up by the end of the year.
Professor Ferraro admitted that the countries analysed in his study, Costa Rica and Thailand, may not representative of all developing nations having both experienced rapid economic growth within relatively stable political systems.
He also said the study did not look at the reasons behind the fall in poverty. However, he believes the expanding eco-tourism sectors in both countries may have played a significant part.
'The question we need to answer now is whether poverty is being reduced through ecosystem protection per se or because tourists come to see the biological diversity or because the protection maintains the supply of other valuable ecosystem services,' he said. 'Or is poverty reduced through donor investments in development activities and enhanced roads and public services (e.g. electricity and water infrastructure) that often accompany the establishment of a protected area?'
The Rainforest Foundation said the findings indicated that protected areas could have a positive, rather than the usually negative, impact on poverty alleviation in poor countries in and around areas for biodiversity.
'However, they have to be treated with caution, as we do not know from the study whether specific 'pro-community' measures were in place in the cases studied, as these tend to be the exception rather than the rule, and could distort the findings of this study,' said UK executive director Simon Counsell.