Study: For 1.2 Billion People Living in the Tropics, Basic Human Needs Depend on Nature

October 4, 2021

Arlington, VA (October 4, 2021) – A new study finds that 1.2 billion people in tropical countries are highly dependent on nature for basic human needs. The research, led by Conservation International, was published today in Global Environmental Change and illustrates how failures to act on the continuing degradation and loss of nature, together with climate change, could threaten the lives and livelihoods of so many.

While all people need nature, the study, “Nature-dependent people: mapping human direct use of nature for basic needs across the tropics,” reveals that 1.2 billion need nature to directly fill at least three of four basic human needs: shelter, clean water, energy for cooking and main income source. These “nature-dependent people” across 85 tropical countries studied – those between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – represent over 30% of the total population living in those areas.

“We know that nature conservation and human development are deeply intertwined, but quantifying how and where this relationship is most critical can expand our understanding of nature’s value and help us re-position nature at the heart of sustainable development, especially for those that are most vulnerable and in need,” said Giacomo Fedele, the study’s lead author and climate scientist at Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science.

Of the 1.2 billion people, most rely on nature for their primary energy source (31% of total tropical population), followed by occupation (29%), housing materials (29%) and water (16%). However, these patterns of dependency are not evenly distributed across continents:

  • Nature-dependent people in tropical Asia-Pacific total 636 million, or 27% of the total population in that region;
  • In Africa, 478 million (48% of regional population) are nature dependent; and
  • In the Americas, 48 million (9% of regional population) rely on nature to fill basic human needs

The study’s results also revealed that countries with higher proportions of nature-dependent citizens are also often those with lower scores on the human development index, indicating that their populations may lack sufficient access to alternative technologies, infrastructure and services, and so often rely on nature as an essential primary source to fill their basic human needs.

“A high direct dependency on nature for basic needs makes people particularly sensitive to changes in their environment – due to shifts in climate, land management or land tenure, for example. Like so many of the effects of climate change, this will sadly impact some populations more than others, with the most nature-dependent people particularly at risk,” said Fedele. “But the opposite is also true - when nature is managed sustainably the benefits for people can be maximized. That’s why it is essential that leaders prioritize the inclusive conservation of nature and entrust environmental stewardship to those living among it.”

The study outlines how nature-based strategies that protect, restore or sustainably manage ecosystems can be carefully designed to promote inclusive human development alongside environmental benefits.

Effective strategies include the protection of old-growth forests to maintain carbon stocks in ways that also allow access to, and sustainable use of, forest products (e.g., wild fruits, honey) and in places where those forests can provide flood protection benefits for communities downstream. Another example is restoring coastal ecosystems and mangroves to not only support global biodiversity and protect carbon-rich mangrove trees, but also to protect the assets of fishing communities by buffering strong winds and waves and providing materials for diversified livelihoods.

The authors highlight the critical importance of taking into consideration the needs and aspirations of people most directly dependent on nature in the design and implementation of conservation strategies, meaning environmental justice and equity must be top of the agendas of the climate change negotiations at COP26 this November and the UN Biodiversity Convention next spring, where the next Global Biodiversity Framework will be approved. Prioritizing inclusive conservation and sustainable management of nature in areas where people most rely on it will remain essential for ensuring that nature can help meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable people, resulting in more effective and just nature-based solutions to address societal challenges.

The authors have also released an interactive map to aid in nature-based strategic planning. The map provides sub-national data highlighting patterns in the numbers of nature-dependent people across all 85 tropical countries studied – with the potential to help support human development goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.


About Conservation International Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation NewsFacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.