Alternative livelihoods and biodiversity conservation

Are alternative livelihood projects effective at reducing local threats to defined elements of biodiversity and/or improving or maintaining the conservation status of those elements?

Lead reviewer:Dilys Roe, IIED
Collaborating institutions:
Zoological Society of London (ZSL)
International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Archipelago Consulting
IIED blog post: “Are ‘alternative livelihoods’ projects effective?”

Systematic review protocolJournal of Environmental Evidence 2015, 4:22

Systematic review: Journal of Environmental Evidence 2015 4:22


Alternative livelihood projects are used by a variety of organisations as a tool for achieving biodiversity conservation. However, despite characterising many conservation approaches, very little is known about what impacts (if any) alternative livelihood projects have had on biodiversity conservation, as well as what determines the relative success or failure of these interventions. 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. This systematic map and review intends to contribute to this critical review and provide an overview for researchers, policy makers and practitioners of the current state of the evidence base.


Following an a priori protocol, systematic searches for relevant studies were conducted using the bibliographic databases AGRICOLA, AGRIS, CAB Abstracts, Scopus, and Web of Knowledge, as well as internet searches of Google, Google Scholar, and subject specific and institutional websites. In addition, a call for literature was issued among relevant research networks. The titles, abstracts and full texts of the captured studies were assessed using inclusion criteria for the systematic map and the systematic review, respectively. An Excel spreadsheet was used to record data from each study and to provide a systematic map of the evidence for the effectiveness of alternative livelihood studies. The studies that met additional criteria to be included in the systematic review were described in more detail through a narrative synthesis.


Following full text screening, 97 studies were included in the systematic map covering 106 projects using alternative livelihood interventions. Just 22 of these projects met our additional criteria for inclusion in the systematic review, but one project was removed from the detailed narrative synthesis following critical appraisal. The 21 included projects included reports of nine positive, nine neutral, and three negative conservation outcomes.


Our results show that there has been an extensive investment in alternative livelihood projects, yet the structure and results of most of these projects have not been documented in a way that they can be captured using standardised search processes. Either this is because there has been little reporting on the outcomes of these projects, or because post-project monitoring is largely absent.

Implications for policy and management

Our work has a number of policy and management implications specifically for alternative livelihood projects and more generally for conservation investments. Implementation of the recommendations below would dramatically improve the ability of projects to monitor effectiveness and understand causal linkages between their project activities and conservation outcomes.

1. Performing a systematic review before beginning significant investments in a new area should be a sine qua non. If the systematic review does not reveal a solid evidence base on which to begin the program, then investments should be constructed in a formalised adaptive management framework that allows testing and learning – both by project implementers and those outside the project. All projects involving alternative livelihood should also have a “theory of change” (TOC) to make explicit the causal pathways through which the implementer believes the intervention would work.

2. Alternative livelihood projects must specify the biodiversity outcomes they wish to achieve, as well as put in place a monitoring system for determining the impact of the project on the biodiversity target. All alternative livelihood projects should also include an assessment of the potential risks of the intervention and only include interventions that have been vetted by local stakeholders. Part of this risk assessment must be an examination of the sustainability of the intervention.

3. The considerable work that has been undertaken on implementing alternative livelihood projects does not provide compelling evidence that they work or explanations of why such is the case. Future research and evaluation must focus on project design, monitoring and sharing of lessons learned.

Funding Partners