Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

Community conservation needs to be meaningful for communities

Some good stuff pumped out by CIFOR as part of a big comms effort around the latest round of international climate change talks, that this year took place in Lima. Much of the best stuff has a relevance far beyond just the UNFCCC negotiations bubble. One thing that particularly caught my attention was this story about what conditions are required for the successful involvement of local people in monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon savings achieved through REDD+ activities. Manuel Boissière, a CIFOR researcher, boils it down to four things:

  1. Relevance – “if something about the project is not seen as relevant to their daily lives, local people might not be willing to commit to such a project.”
  2. Skills – not just technical capacity and literacy, but “is it always clear to local people what it is they are measuring?”
  3. Reporting systems – how do you get the data back to HQ? (An important consideration, but the least interesting lesson.)
  4. Quality validation – “the ability to check whether the data that have been collected are correct.”

The 4th is the hardest, Boissière reckons. Just using some remote sensing in the office doesn’t cut it, because it is a one-way street: the scientists can check their data, but it doesn’t provide any useful feedback to communities, and any good quality control system involves rapid feedback. Instead Boissière recommends an approach based around participatory maps that are meaningful to the local communities.

“If you look at academic literature [on community participation in MRV], it’s all about cost-efficiency—how to get local communities participating in tree measurement and what is the cost of it, and are they doing a good job compared to scientists or not? And that has been really the limitation.”

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s not just on the monitoring side. I don’t have a problem with those people who first come to the conclusion that they need to work with communities to deliver conservation goals because the resources just aren’t there to deliver ‘command and control’ conservation. It’s a valid observation, and often critically important in persuading officious bureaucracies to loosen up a little bit.

But if that is your sole basis for doing community conservation you are in trouble. If you want to succeed with community-based conservation you absolutely need to make your work meaningful and relevant to the communities. Providing a steady stream of recognisable benefits is very important, and without which you are likely to struggle, but beyond that communities need to be engaged as full partners. They need to have a basic comprehension of what they are doing and why. If they are truly going to (help) manage their local natural resources they need to be empowered to make informed decisions upon bases that they understand.

In short, community conservation will only work when the communities involved actually care. And how do you persuade anyone to care about something?


On the horn of a dilemma

A few years ago a report by TRAFFIC entitled Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum standards and best practices from east and southern Africa was a strong contender for the most ridiculous book title that year. The oxymoron seemed obvious. With the South African government now considering legalising the trade in farmed rhino horn that conclusion is rather less clear cut.

“According to a study supporting the South African proposal, existing ‘demand’ could be met by moving 2000 adult rhinoceros – 10% of the wild population – to fenced enclosures covering a total of 400,000 ha. These a poor animals would then have their horns ‘humanely’ removed once every two years over their lifespan of 35 to 50 years.”

That is Paula Kahumbu writing in the Guardian. However she is opposed. She goes on to argue:

“But in reality there is no way that the supply from farmed rhino could come remotely close to meeting the demand, which is growing exponentially as consumers in the principal markets in Southeast Asia become richer.”

This seems something of a non sequitur: yes if demand does continue to rise exponentially and farmed stocks do not increase then clearly this solution will not suffice. But when protected from the threats of living wild and given proper veterinary care then animal populations can also increase exponentially. (Although it should be noted that rhinos breed quite slowly, so that exponential growth might not be of the most impressive sort. But with another 90% of the population still in the wild, early short falls could be met by moving more of the wild population on to farms.) Conversely the potential for market demand to continue increasing exponentially rather depends on how much unmet latent demand there is, and how that might react to a rare ‘status symbol’ luxury good becoming that comparatively common place.

However, instead of focusing on the economics, Paula’s article focuses on the emotional, with distressing tales of the fate of poached rhinos. Her biases are clear in the above description of farmed rhinos as ‘’poor animals”. She should check out Gerald Durrell’s defence of zoos* in relation to the Hobbesian reality to life in the jungle (or savannah). And why is it ok to farm cattle and chickens (and ostriches and kangaroos these days), but not rhinos? (Especially since de-horning is rather less fatal than a trip to the abattoir!) This seems to be drifting dangerously close to much debunked Victorian romantic notions of the noble savage.

Of course, I am with Paula in my abhorrence for poaching and a preference for rhinos to live free. But if the choice is between extinction and managed trade then such principles do not get us very far. There are far better arguments against farming rhino horn in the lessons learned from attempting legal trade in ivory a few years ago (it provided plausible cover for poached ivory and undermined moral arguments against the use of ivory amongst consumers). It is also unclear whether farmed rhino horn would have the same cachet as wild stuff: economic conditions need to be right for farming to work.

I suspect some conservationists do not like to engage with such arguments because they fear that in doing so they concede the point that this is a question of economics, when for them it is a moral issue. However, we are a long way from global consensus at present, and the ‘enlightened’ minority for the most part recognise the limits to which they are prepared to impose their morals on others. And while I can happily agree that maiming rhinos is clearly immoral, such moral arguments have fuzzy enough philosophical edges (especially for meat eaters) that our pleas for a more moral approach may cut little ice with those who see the world differently.

So I think we need this debate. As with the War on Drugs, strictly prohibitionist approaches to poaching and the illegal trade in animal parts seems to be getting us nowhere. Populations continue to decline, and species are ending up extinct. Whether the South African plan could ever work is another question.

* In one of his books. Alas I cannot recall which one, and for once the interwebs have let me down.

Floods and conservation: best not to over-reach

“Nature has a way of dealing with high rainfall events and storms: in rainfall-prone areas, she covers the soils with thick, deeply-rooted plants, providing a network of vegetation that absorbs the water and hold the soils in place. Biodiverse ecosystems have a complexity and resilience that can take on more of the knocks that nature throws at us than eroded, heavily utilised or human-altered environments can.

Rich, dense vegetation in a landscape can dull the impact of a downpour, diluting, absorbing, channelling, holding and then slowly releasing water. Mangroves and salt marshes buffer coastal landscapes from storms, reducing the force of the onslaught by softening its power and slowing the erosive energy of wind and wave action. These systems are designed by nature to take on nature.

If you mess about with these systems, what happens? The services provided by ecosystems erode and things start to go wrong. If you remove vegetation from the land, soils are laid bare and are washed away. If you carve up a landscape, alter natural features, damage the soil structure, pave it, or build all over it, nature will battle to function.”

That is Pippa Howard from FFI on how poor landscape management in Britain has contributed to the current floods severely impacting parts of southern England. I agree with the main thrust of her piece, but I was nonetheless alarmed by a couple of important points.

Firstly nature never designs anything. It might seem a nice turn of phrase but it is sloppy language and a little bit of thought could have removed the anthromorphism without diminishing the power of the argument.

This has a bearing on the second point, which is that on their own nature’s flood defences are often not sufficient. Nature is as red in tooth and claw as she ever is nurturing and maternal, and certainly won’t hold back from the odd catastrophic flood just because we go all eco-activist. Indeed the occasional catastrophic occurrence is very much a part of how nature goes about refreshing herself.* How else do you think we got big wide flood plains around just about every major river in the world? Ecosystems have both short term cycles and longer term, often more abrupt and less predictable dynamics, that interact in complex ways. Some species even rely on once in a decade type events to reproduce (desert flowers are a classic case in point).

All of which is little comfort to flooded farmers in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere. Yes the focus may well have swung too far one way, and more sensible approaches to landscape management could undoubtedly help mitigate future floods. But I’d keep the man-made defences too.

* Ok I admit it: this anthromorphism can be hard to avoid!

The sins of our forefathers

Last week Ed Carr and I had an amicable little to-and-fro in the comments stream of his blog on the culpability of the environmental movement in pushing economically restrictive rules on those least able to resist (the global poor). Ed concluded his post:

“Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a ‘think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)’ mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Ed’s case in point was restrictions on charcoal makers in Zambia, which appear now to be rationalised as part of the fight against global climate change. Although I do not know the Zambia case specifically I suggested that these restrictions might actually have much older provenance in colonial times, with an intellectual heritage that dates back to laws designed to safeguard mediaeval aristocracies’ hunting privileges. And indeed that much (though sadly not all) of the modern international conservation movement now opposes such anti-poor regulations, which are rarely very effective any way.*

Some people might get a bit frustrated with this unjustified negative image that others in mainstream development may have of us in tropical conservation. For my part, however, I think we need to face up regularly to the sins of our forefathers. Push back by all means, but better to have people like Ed Carr keeping us on our toes than to naïvely assume that just because now we are a bit more people friendly we have automatic claim to the moral high ground.

It takes a lot of hard work to shed a bad reputation, and the job is yet at best only half done.

* It’s a bit of a dirty secret that some community conservation programmes were at least partially originally justified on the basis that the government of the time simply did not have the resources to police their own laws, and community conservation was as much an attempt to co-opt local allies into the enforcement effort as to generate them any particular rewards.

Extinction: does it matter whether it is murder or manslaughter?

New Zealand’s government have been one of the most vocal critics of whaling, so I wonder what the Japanese et al. will make of news that the NZ government is not prepared to take on its own fishing industry to save one of the world’s most endangered cetaceans: Maui’s dolphin. Should we conclude that what matters most is the distinction between deliberate killing at the conclusion of a hunt, and accidental by-catch, even if such accidents are an entirely predictable outcome of certain types of fishing? That to Kiwis the former is barbaric, whilst the latter a regrettable but understandable outcome of modern civilization?

Victims of drunk drivers may have a few relevant points to make …

The parable of the huntress and the trolls


A modern day Artemis runs into a spot of bother

Bamm! And as quick as that it was all over for the lion. It was only just getting started for the self-proclaimed “huntress” though, as the hunter became the hunted.

Honestly, I tried to ignore this storm in a teacup when it hit my news feed. I mean on what basis was it not a dog-bites-man kind of story? The only discernible reason was that our animal-hating anti-heroine was made even more obnoxious by the triple sins of being American, a woman and kind-of-attractive in that rugged American way that makes some men nervous. Shame on her! But all that ridiculous out-pouring of misogyny is much better dismissed here.

However, there was another kind of hypocrisy also being practised. Quite simply were it not for people like Melissa Bachman, that lion she shot may never had a chance to live in the first place. Though I would hate to pull the trigger myself, and doubt I would particularly enjoy Ms Bachman’s company, the high license fees paid by big game hunters are an extremely effective and pragmatic conservation solution in southern Africa. Given that market-based solutions are usually much cheaper than the alternatives, I hope all those armchair critics are prepared to open up their wallets in a big way if they want to ban such trophy hunting for the sake of the lions. I also hope they are life long vegetarians.

Not true? Well maybe best you shove that supercilious moral superiority away where it belongs with the misogyny.

Update 22/11/13: So upon reflection, the temptation of a nice turn of phrase may have gotten the better of me there, and some readers may be forgiven for pondering whether “that supercilious moral superiority” might not also apply to a certain blogger. In which case I would have to plead “Fair cop!” Sometimes the immediacy of blogging gets the better of one. But there we go. This post has already been read by over 100 people, so it’s a bit late to take those words back. At least all those internet trolls out there should be used to the abuse: if you dish it out then you should be prepared to cop some in return.

Killing cuddly animals update

A quick follow-up to my post at the beginning of the year over the controversy surrounding the proposal to ban the hunting of polar bears. It appears that scientific sense and respect for indigenous cultures have prevailed over blind love for cute (on TV) animals: CITES have refused to pass a ban on hunting polar bears. My heart still weeps for the polar bears’ fate, but if we want to change that, then we need to tackle global climate change. Anything else is just a distraction; a chance to feel good whilst accomplishing nothing of lasting benefit.

More on monetising nature

Last week I blogged about how, despite all its drawbacks, monetising nature has a lot to be said for it in its ability to tap into the global system of values. As luck would have it I was not the only person pondering these questions that day; David Bent was also struggling with the challenges of lack of clarity over sustainability issues, but his dilemma was that of a consumer unsure as to which was the most “sustainable” carpet to buy.

David’s challenge was to determine which was the most sustainable carpet, what forms of sustainability were good value for money versus which primarily worked by appealing to middle class faddishness, and that the complexity in this field was such that the salesperson struggled to explain the differences and thus to make a well-informed recommendation. When confronted with these multiple interacting and complex variables on top of the standard set of consumer choices, such as colour, pile, look, pattern of the carpet, it is not surprising that even an expert can quickly become bewildered.

However, if each of these different variables could be priced then the problem would be rapidly reduced to the standard choice of which products do you like most (in a subjective sense) versus their respective prices. For instance if carbon were taxed or otherwise priced, those manufacturers who sought to reduce their carbon footprint would benefit from lower prices compared to their competitors. They need not directly reduce their carbon footprint, however, they might find it cheaper to buy offsets off the shelf, e.g. from forest protection. Water and biodiversity can be similarly priced and thus incorporated into our economic decision making. Yes having the wrong price can be harmful, but it is easier to adjust a price once you’ve agreed the principle, than it is to agree it in the first place as has been highlighted by the entrenched opposition to global climate change negotiations.

I think part of the problem is that many environmentalists hope or assume that biodiversity and landscape conservation can all be marketed like ecotourism. While some tourists will always opt for the simple pleasures of the Costa del Sol or the bright lights of the nearest shopping paradise, there is a very substantial market of tourists who want to go somewhere different, that feels a bit special, makes them feel a bit special, and is away from the beaten track. The hotels that appeal to such tourists are all unique in their own particular way, little of which boils down to price, although accessibility can have a big impact on the price at which services can be delivered in remote wild locations. Ultimately, such tourists are choosing a place, with all its attendant charms and flaws: more than anything else, it is an emotional choice.

A shopper in need of a carpet, however, is in a totally different position. They have no access to the sort of  detailed information about the sources of the products they are comparing or glossy photographs of the landscapes, and even if they did would unlikely to be motivated enough to want to peruse it all in detail. Instead they want a mechanism that makes their life easy. This doesn’t have to be entirely monetary, e.g. the energy efficiency star ratings system is rarely translated into the dollar cost to run the device concerned over its expected life span, but internalising such costs as carbon emitted or biodiversity lost into the product price, is the only guaranteed way to ensure the consumer pays attention (or pays the price for not).

Will monetising nature lead to distortions in how certain landscapes are managed? Without doubt. Will it be a shame if some unique characteristics are lost as a result? Yes. But if those unique characteristics are not sufficiently well appreciated to merit more stringent protection then that is s decision that society has collectively made. Moreover such distorted landscape management will almost certainly be better than converting the whole place to mechanised agricultural production.

At the end of the day the choice for society is very simple: pay for it, one way or another, or lose it.

Monetising nature

“Finally, conversion of complex landscapes into numerical and monetised metrics instrumentalises peoples and non-human natures so that these conform to a homogenising system in which money is the mediator of all value. This can displace local eco-cultural knowledge, practices and values which may be more benign for biodiversity, thereby reducing options for transferring maximum socio-ecological diversity to our descendants.”

That is Sian Sullivan on writing on Financialisation, Biodiversity Conservation and Equity: Some Currents and Concerns (emphasis in the original).

It is both an important point and also rather stating the obvious. (Important, because in our enthusiasm we are apt to forget the obvious rather too often.) However, I think such analyses sometimes miss the point in failing to fully consider the counterfactual.

We cannot put anywhere as much of nature as we would like into protected areas, and even where we can someone needs to pay for their running costs. So how can we incentivise management of other parts of the world to promote conservation and environmental issues? More to the point how can we do so efficiently and cost-effectively?

Monetisation is often not simple – just ask any REDD project proponent – but once completed you are tapped into the only globally understood system for valuation of products and services and for trade of said values.

The environmental movement is not sufficiently resourced to undertake entirely bespoke conservation in every place of interest. Monetisation may be a crude tool, but it is brutally efficient, in both positive and negative senses. It may also be the only tool available to deliver wider scale conservation.

Hat tip: Just Conservation

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