Christoph Nolte: Studying the economic tradeoffs of land conservation in Brazil

April 18, 2012

Christoph Nolte is the winner of the 2012 Marshall Weinberg Population, Development, and Climate Change Fellowship, administered jointly by the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Population Studies Center in the Institute for Social Research.

Had it not been for a chance trip to the Amazon more than a decade ago, Christoph Nolte might be designing buildings today. Instead, the 31-year-old German with a craggy face and intense eyes, is earning his Ph.D. in Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, and studying whether global forest conservation efforts are succeeding.

Back in 2001, Nolte intended to major in architecture. Then two spider-enthusiast friends announced they were planning a trip to the Ecuadorian rain forest. Nolte learned Spanish—he was already fluent in German, French, and English—and joined them as a volunteer at a biological station, where they worked on reforestation projects for a month.

It was a life changing experience. Instead of architecture, Nolte decided to focus on conservation policy, getting a bachelor’s degree in environmental and resource management and a master’s degree in rural development.

Along the way, Nolte spent two months developing a tourism information system for the Galapagos National Park Service, another two months working on conservation websites in Morocco, and a year visiting 18 UNESCO biosphere reserves in 16 countries to evaluate whether participation in the program made the sites more likely to achieve their sustainable development goals. His conclusion? “Whether a reserve was strong or not depended on a multitude of factors, but very little on whether it participated in that program.” Lest the research leave him deskbound, Nolte traveled from biosphere to biosphere by bike, riding 12,000 km, or just over 7,456 miles.

Now, as the first Marshall Weinberg Population, Development, and Climate Change Fellow, Nolte has taken on a new challenge. Using Brazilian census data from 2000 and 2010 covering 30,000 Amazonian census tracts, Nolte is tackling “one of the core questions of conservation. To what extent does setting aside land for conservation impact global economic opportunities?” Specifically, Brazil has doubled its protected areas in the last decade, and Nolte is studying what difference investments in those protected areas have made in poverty levels, migration, and reducing deforestation.

According to Nolte, only recently have scientists taken a rigorous look at the question of how efforts to conserve forests impact the people and economy of a region. Researchers in Costa Rica and Thailand showed in 2010 that in these eco-tourism rich countries, protected areas had a positive effect in alleviating poverty—particularly near park entrances. Conservationists were ecstatic. “Within the conservation community, there’s an enormous self-perpetuating narrative that conservation brings economic opportunities,” Nolte says, “and this argument has been made for years.”

But Brazil, he says, is a very different story. For one thing, the Amazon is vast, and not so easily accessible to well-off tourists. In addition, highly capitalized farmers ready to move in and raze portions of the rain forest stand to make good money off of deforested land. It seems to pain Nolte to say it, but he doesn’t expect his findings to mirror those in Costa Rica or Thailand. “Conservation does bring economic opportunities,” Nolte says. “It will not bring enough opportunities to make Amazon conservation self-justifying as a local sustainable solution. Brazil will always get more money from destroying the rain forest than from preserving it.”

Showing what the deforestation/poverty tradeoff looks like in different parts of Brazil can inform spatially sensitive policies to compensate regions for lost economic opportunities.”

Which is not to say that conservation—and rain forest conservation, in particular—isn’t essential to combat global warming and preserve natural resources, Nolte says. Instead, he expects his research to support Brazil’s argument that the global community must continue to compensate it for its efforts to protect the rain forest. “Showing what the deforestation/poverty tradeoff looks like in different parts of Brazil can inform spatially sensitive policies to compensate regions for lost economic opportunities,” he says.

Nolte’s concern for the rain forest and his affection for the outdoors are obvious. His other interests reflect his desire to travel and engage in different ways with the environment. He has vowed, along with a friend, to learn the six United Nations working languages, which include Chinese and Arabic. He’s learning to tree climb—to go up and move around high in the tops of trees—“both to be able to move safely in trees and to appreciate them more.” He is tantalized by guerrilla art.

And some day, he wants to build a house in a tropical tree. “There was a beautiful beautiful spot in Bolivia,” he muses. “But I want to look at Colombia first.”