Are Alternative Livelihood Projects Effective at Reducing Local Threats to Specified Elements of Biodiversity and/or Improving or Maintaining the Conservation Status of those Elements?

Publication Details

Roe, D., Booker, F., Day, M., Zhou, W., Allebone-Webb, S., Hill, N.A.O., Kumpel, N., Petrokofsky, G., Redford, K., Russell, D., Shepherd, G., Wright, J., Sunderland, T.C.H. (2015) Are alternative livelihood projects effective at reducing local threats to specified elements of biodiversity and/or improving or maintaining the conservation status of those elements? Environmental Evidence, 4 (22). 

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Dilys Roe, Francesca Booker, Mike Day, Wen Zhou, Sophie Allebone-Webb, Nicholas A. O. Hill, Noelle Kumpel, Gillian Petrokofsky, Kent Redford, Diane Russell, Gill Shepherd, Juliet Wright, Terry C. H. Sunderland
East Asia and Pacific (includes South East Asia), South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean
Multisector, Environment and Disaster Management
Biodiversity , Natural Resource Management , Community Action Program, Community Driven Development
Equity Focus
Review Type
Effectiveness review

Main findings

Headline Findings: a summary statement

There has been an extensive investment in alternative livelihood projects, but a lack of high quality studies and reporting of findings preclude policy-relevant findings. 

Evidence Base

Twenty-one studies met the systematic review’s inclusion criteria. These studies used quantitative (n=7), qualitative (n=9) and mixed methods (n=7). They covered the period between 1999 and 2014. The 21 studies covered countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (n=7), East Asia and the Pacific (n=6), Sub-Saharan Africa (n=4) and South Asia (n=5). The majority of projects were implemented in forest habitats, followed by marine habitats and wetlands. The projects focused on a range of different biodiversity targets. The most common was a protected areas, followed by non-protected area, and a generic resource type. The the majority of studies assessed the impact of an alternative livelihood intervention on behavioural change followed by changes in attitude and conservation outcomes. 

Implications for policy and practice

  • Only two studies measured changes in conservation outcomes following an alternative livelihoods program. One study in China reports a reduction in tree-felling in villages where fuel-efficient stoves were used. Another study in Brazil finds that promoting small businesses of non-timber forest products and ecotourism did not reduce the amount of forest used by local people.
  • Two studies measured changes in attitudes towards conservation. One study finds deterioration of attitudes towards conservation in two projects. The study links this outcome to participant frustration with bureaucracy and dissatisfaction with externally driven conservation initiatives. Another study finds that while some expressed negative attitudes, most households participating in an alternative occupation project had a positive attitude towards conservation.
  • Twenty studies measured the effect of different livelihood projects on changes in behaviour of people posing a conservation threat. Eight projects studied by these papers have were found to have a positive effect on this outcome,  but an equal number of projects report no effect.

Implications for further research

There is a lack of high quality studies measuring the effectiveness of alternative livelihood projects. Only five of the 21 effectiveness studies were of low risk of bias. Further, only two studies measured changes in conservation status of the biodiversity target. The majority of studies measured changes in the attitudes and/or behaviours, but not effects on final conservation outcomes as per a theory of change model.  This highlights a need for more studies assessing changes in the outcomes of biodiversity targets and using a theory of change. The authors suggest interviews with program managers identified in their scoping of the evidence base to learn from previous projects that were not evaluated using evaluation methods.


Alternative livelihood projects are a popular strategy to  reduce locally created pressure on species, habitats and resources by providing local people with an alternative means of making a living. This might mean the introduction of a more environmentally sustainable alternative resource, occupation or method for the exploitation of resources.. Little is known about the effectiveness of such approaches, despite the fact they have attracted a significant amount of donor funding. Since many households typically engage in multiple household activities, concerns have been raised alternative livelihood activities become additional rather than a replacement strategy. Reflecting this concern, motion 145 was passed at the Vth IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2012 calling for a critical review of alternative livelihood projects and their contribution to biodiversity conservation. 

Research objectives

To systematically review the evidence on effects of alternative livelihood projects are effective at reducing on local threats to biodiversity and conservation outcomes.  


The authors included studies comparing a livelihood intervention to an alternative intervention or to a control without an alternative livelihood intervention. Studies had to assess the impact on biodiversity outcomes (including improvements in local attitudes toward conservation, improvements in environmentally damaging behaviour, and improvement of conservation status of the biodiversity target) for a biodiversity target (e.g. a protected area, a forest, a particular threatened species). The authors did not exclude studies based on date of publication.  

The authors searched online bibliographic databases such as CAB Abstracts and Web of Knowledge, a number of individual journals and five thesis databases for relevant publications. They also searched a range of sources of grey literature, such as websites of key donors, implementers and research organisations such as CGIAR and the Center for International Forestry Research. In addition, the authors sought expert advice on relevant studies from stakeholders. The authors devised an adaptation of the Quality Assessment Tool for Quantitative Studies (QATQS) to assess risk of bias (RoB) of studies.  Narrative synthesis with vote-counting was used to analyse the studies included in the systematic review. 

Quality assessment

The review has clear criteria for the inclusion of participants, interventions and outcomes. They searched a range of relevant databases (including the grey literature) and spent some effort on contacting experts to identify additional studies. However, the review has some major limitations. While the criteria for assessing risk of bias (RoB) and the RoB outcomes of each included study is reported, the actual RoB tool the authors used is not accessible. The review does not report findings according to the RoB of included studies, and because of the broad inclusion criteria this is a particular concern. Finally, the authors use vote counting according to positive, negative and neutral effects and do not explore the reasons for heterogenous effects.

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