Posts Tagged ‘biodiversity’

Map-a-doodle-do

“Not only does such a dodgy map give a false sense of confidence, it very explicitly prioritises certain knowledge types. In my field the typical example is expert engineers rather than communities with lived experiences.”

That was Shaz Jameson commenting on my piece a couple of weeks ago that worried about the perils inherent in mapping conservation problems rather than conservation solutions. (And before you say “But conservationists are always mapping their protected areas. Aren’t they solutions?” ask yourself whether they really are solutions, or just wannabe solutions?)

I think Shaz is bang on about the power and knowledge inequities that are inescapable in such a situation.

“A few, biophysical variables are singled out by engineering ‘experts’ and mapped with pretty colours. The map is spat out and then somewhat paraded as legitimate.
Harsh, I know. It’s easy to say that ‘oh it depends on what you want the map for’, but as you say, it very easily slips into false confidence.”

The criticism can seem quite harsh, and I equivocated for a while about blogging my thoughts, but Shaz’s comment has helped reinforce my convictions. I am not saying, and I suspect Shaz is not saying either, that we should just stop mapping the challenges we are faced. Mapping is such a crucial communication tool, that it would be absolutely nuts to do without it. But when it is so critical, and you have the capability to create a map while someone else does not, even if they have more at stake, it does imply all sorts of ethical obligations upon the would-be mappers.

Be careful where you point that map!

Once a map has been created, it can, indeed too often will be used for purposes other than for which it was intended. On many levels that is absolutely fine: it is the great thing about knowledge that what may be a trivial output for one person may be a critical piece of data for another whose purposes were never considered by the original knowledge creator. But, as anyone who has ever been misquoted knows, knowledge users can be casual in their use of their sources.

At least in any scientific endeavour most numeric results are these days reported with a standard error or confidence limits to indicate the degree of precision with which the result should be interpreted. But maps rarely come with such cautionary notes, and even where a diligent cartographer has noted the scale of data applicability, few people will understand the significance of such a statement, and probably even fewer pay it any attention.

Take, for example, that map of carbon and biodiversity values for Tanzania that I complained about previously. At first sight it looks pretty detailed, but closer inspection will reveal the biodiversity axis is in fact reported in huge hexagons that are several hundred km across, but these are somewhat obscured under the much more detailed biomass carbon data (with a scale of 5km per pixel). Worse, if you think for a bit about what the biodiversity index itself represents you will rapidly conclude that in itself it can only be an extremely approximate measure.

Again, as with the concerns over power relations, this does not necessarily mean you should not go about creating the map. But you should certainly try to follow best cartographic practice, and assume that people will not read the accompanying small print when they decide to utilise your work. Thus, as was done with that map of Tanzania, it is not unreasonable to overlay two sets of data of quite different scales, but you definitely should beware of users who might assume that the spatial accuracy on both layers is equally high. One possible solution: consider blurring boundaries so that there are no sharp boundaries for decision makers to latch on to with undeserved confidence.

(Note: it is clear from the text of the paper in which the Tanzania map was presented that the authors were well aware of various problems and limitations of data scale, although they do not explicitly discuss the different scaled data in their sample map, which is nonetheless presented as a sample tool for guiding REDD+ investments.)

I map therefore I conserve

Another criticism I have that merits further elucidation is over the motivation of the mappers themselves. Whether it is the implied “top down planning approach” (my earlier post) or the prioritisation of “certain knowledge types” (Shaz), I get worried about not just what is put in or left out, but why some maps are created at all (the prioritisation of certain activity types).

This criticism applies not so much to academic endeavours such as that which I have critiqued in this and my previous post. Instead it is directed at the conservation BINGOs and associated entities that, of late, have developed substantial units dedicated to mapping conservation problems and their own attempts to resolve them. Precisely because they are such great communication tools (and all successful BINGOs know the importance of good communications), I fear that the maps produced can give quite misleading impressions of competence and imply levels of understanding that do not exist on the ground.

This is because, quite simply, conservation is a human endeavour: responding to problems created by people with solutions that must, necessarily, be implemented by people. Biodiversity and other physical measures are primarily just indicators of how well we are doing. (Although not without other uses in guiding management decision making.)

What worries me is that faced with exceedingly difficult, sometimes almost intractable, and nearly always highly complex conservation problems, mapping becomes a displacement activity. The motivations may be honourable: what better way to start to grapple with such complexities than by mapping them? However, even with the necessary skilled staff, producing such maps is not easy: data availability and quality can pose significant challenges. Significant that is, but not insuperable to a well-resourced institution like a good BINGO. So effort is piled into the mapping initiative, and everybody feels good because they can see progress is being made: by the end of the project they’ll have some top-notch PowerPoint slides. If only the action on the ground were half as good …

Alas dagger-in-the-back politics and brutal economic forces cannot be tamed by a GIS program.

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The false confidence conferred by a dodgy map

Last Year Morten Jerven called into question the quality of statistics produced by (African) developing countries. In his musings on the political fallout from his publication, Professor Jerven summed up the situation as “governance by ignorance.” It also is clear that many stakeholders have a similar view but are reluctant to say so publicly for fear of the ‘anti-neo-colonialist’ backlash that Prof Jerven experienced.

Although I am slightly shocked that a statistic with as high a profile as GDP is so poorly computed, I really shouldn’t be surprised. Some of the government estimates for forest cover that the FAO collates each year in its annual Forest Resources Assessment are known to be extremely shaky; in some cases they are reportedly based on data years out of date, in others on little more than expert guesses. As with GDP, again many stakeholders are aware of this, and, in the case of donors, have money to throw at the problem.

Unfortunately this fits with a wider pattern in conservation: that we are getting better and better at identifying and measuring the biodiversity we are losing, but not much better at halting those losses. This is not to say that new knowledge is a bad thing; it is a vanishingly rare occurrence when an addition to our total body of knowledge does not increase the public good. But, as many researchers are all too aware, new knowledge can easily be misinterpreted or, worse, abused.

A paper last year from Gardner et al. (A framework for integrating biodiversity concerns into national REDD+ programmes) showed how biodiversity could be incorporated into REDD+ planning, and illustrated this with the map reproduced below that overlays biodiversity and carbon values for the case of Tanzania.

image

As I understand it, the map is a fair reflection of the current state of knowledge, and no-one should infer any particular agenda on the part of the paper authors. As a simplified guide to national decision making it looks eminently useful.

The trouble is, from what I gathered on a recent visit to the country, that this map may not be a good guide as to where are the best opportunities for effective REDD+ projects. The map highlights the Eastern Arc mountains as an area of “high opportunity (strong positive correlation in carbon and biodiversity values)” for REDD+ intervention. Most of these forests are, in theory, already protected in national parks and forest reserves, but which are threatened by encroachment and illegal resource extraction. A long developed strategy of Joint Forest Management (JFM) is intended to help resolve this, by giving local communities a share of forest revenue, except that this has been held up by the failure of the Tanzanian Government to agree a benefit sharing mechanism for JFM. I.e. potential REDD+ project developers would be advised to steer well clear of JFM in the Eastern Arc Mountains until the benefit sharing mechanism has been agreed and tested in practice.

Such policy issues cannot easily be represented on maps, and I would not expect an overlay to do so. However, theoretical exercises like this can be dangerous in how they may give policy makers and donors the illusion of agency: invest money in the sweet spots and best return on investment will be achieved. This omits the critical step that one needs credible potential solutions before investing money in actual projects. However, the reality of national planning in developing countries, often donor supported, and which this paper purports to assist, is that high level decisions may too easily be made without all the necessary information. Maps such as these are therefore potentially dangerous in implying a higher level of decision-directing knowledge than in fact exists.

(A second criticism is that such mapping exercises can sometimes almost imply a terra nullius – no-one’s land – attitude in which the wishes of existing inhabitants and forest users are irrelevant.)

In conclusion I would question the wisdom of a top down planning approach at all. Rather than prioritising problems I suggest we might be better off prioritising solutions. In which case the value of such maps are rather less than might be first supposed.

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.

No killing cuddly animals (even if they’re not cuddly)!

Polar bears made, I suppose, an appropriately seasonal topic for this article on the BBC news website that appeared on Christmas Day. Except that the contents were actually pretty grisly and touched upon a central tension of the conservation movement.

At question was what is driving polar bears to extinction. Is it climate change, hunting or both. WWF claim the main driver is climate change. The Humane Society say it is a combination, and that hunting will deliver the coup de grâce. They may be technically right, but, without, I confess, having actually examined the science, I would be inclined to trust WWF, IUCN and Traffic, when they suggest that hunting is little more than a side show and that climate change will likely cause the extinction of polar bears in the wild regardless of hunting pressure.

Quite apart from the likelihood that the big guns have got their science right, my suspicion is aroused by the name of the disputants. If the Humane Society are concerned that the hunting of polar bears is inhumane they should say so, and preferably put it in context by comparing it with, say, the trauma that livestock experience at a typical abattoir. But when they start arguing the toss over biodiversity losses with the experts you have to wonder at their motivation.

Mike Shanahan touched upon the same problem in his confession that he once ate shark fin soup. We are back at the same question of “What is conservation for?” that I tackled in my series last year on the Sakhalin whales.

I suppose in some ways it is a good thing that urbanites consciences should these days extend to the killing of animals previously seen as dangerous predators. But there surely is a limit to this inter-species empathy; I bet few such urbanites would hesitate to call a pest control company if they experienced a sudden rat infestation. And the romantic fantasising about the fierce world of the top predator is as nonsensical as the Victorian myth of the noble savage. We should respect other cultures and other species regardless of their apparent nobility or lack thereof.

The fact is that we find the lives of these charismatic species inspiring. The soaring flight of an eagle will always have considerably more emotive power than the domestic fluttering of a sparrow (unless there are chicks involved). Moreover these emotive connections are what first drew all of us in; nobody was inspired to be a conservationist by biodiversity loss statistics. So we should harness these stories.

But conservation policy and practice is best if it is science-driven. What good is saving a polar bear from a hunter’s bullet only for it to die of starvation as its arctic habitat disappears? The bullet might be the kinder way to go; something the Humane Society might wish to reflect upon.

I still (probably naively) harbour hope that humanity will get its act together to stave off catastrophic climate change, and thereby save the polar bears and many other species from extinction. A ban on hunting polar bears would be the equivalent of worrying about whether you made the bed while the house burns down.

So what, finally, about those Western Grey Whales?

This is the conclusion to the series I have run recently on the fate of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin, and whether or not we should care about them. This was all prompted by an article by Richard Black on some esoteric arguments about whether some of the Sakhalin whales may actually be temporary visitors from the much larger population of Grey Whales in the Eastern Pacific, and the implications this discovery has for how they may be treated from a conservation perspective.

Such, apparently unexpected outcomes of conservation analysis and regulation are not as rare as one might expect. Global warming is shifting species ranges across national borders. When this first happens the new arrivals instantly become a rare species in their new country, and may be afforded all sorts of protections (and thus constraining businesses) as a result. Viewed globally this is nonsense since the vast majority of the population is elsewhere; so long as it is not globally endangered then there is no real reason to grant it extra protection in a country it has not historically called home.

So how did we get here? We start from a basic moral argument for conservation that is usually rooted in a love for nature, that assigns it some intrinsic value. Aesthetics and empathy for our mammalian cousins (except for some of the rodent class) often plays a big part. How many conservationists were converted to the cause by watching the likes of David Attenborough?

This, however, only serves to protect a few gems in national parks and other protected areas, and is not very scientific. So biologists have long talked about biodiversity, a measure of the degree to which wildlife found in a given place is both different from each other (many species) and different from elsewhere (unique). Biodiversity hotspots have become a major theme of conservation. It helps that many of these hotspots coincide with traditional views of conservation priorities, e.g. the lemurs on Madagascar, but not all such hotspots are so charismatic; it is unlikely that the East African Coastal Forests will ever attract huge numbers of tourists. More tellingly, biodiversity itself is an abstract concept; easy to relate to when marvelling at the lush and beautiful diversity on display in a tropical rain forest or coral reef, but much harder to grasp when, say, a new car park obliterates the last home of a hitherto undiscovered beetle.

So where do I stand?

I kicked this series of posts off with a poll. I asked you readers to select from a number of options:

Alas less than 10% of you bothered to vote. I guess I should be flattered that you are rather more interested in my opinion than in expressing your own (either that or you couldn’t care less either way). The votes were fairly evenly split except for the last option which received no votes, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions. I shall leave the poll open for a while longer and watch to see if anything interesting does come of it.

As for my position, it is this. I think it would be great if sufficient moral clarity existed in the world that the top arguments held sway. But that is not the case. Other moral arguments about the ‘rights’ to development, food and clean water, and to health and education, also command our attention, and often compete with conservation. Sometimes, as in this case, there is a direct trade-off, other times it is simply a matter of competing for scarce financial resources. Thus conservation must prioritise internally and compete with other causes externally for support. Such prioritisation requires careful, rational thinking which often takes us some distance from our purer, more emotive starting points.

First and foremost I am a conservationist, but I recognise that conservation must fit with the economic realities in which we find ourselves; people who argue it should be the other way around are simply being Utopian. It is possible, nay desirable, to change the rules of the game, e.g. with the introduction of natural capital accounting, but it is not feasible to change the game entirely.

Thus my preference, were it possible, would be to try to combine economic development (in this case drilling for oil and gas) to go ahead with appropriate regulation to minimise such negative impacts as could be mitigated cost-effectively. If that were not possible, and as I previously remarked, the situation in Russia is not encouraging in this respect, I would probably be prepared to sacrifice the sub-species, with the hope of achieving better conservation results elsewhere, unless the umbrella species argument were particularly compelling, which I do not believe to be the case, though I know far too little about the Sakhalin environment to know for sure. Finally I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me to pony up the cost to buy the rights to the Sakhalin oil and gas if they think it is so important.

Whither the Western Grey Whales? You want them, you pay for them!

This is part seven of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “This is just red tape dyed green, strangling legitimate business. If you want to keep the grey whales then you pay for it!” At the time of writing this is the only option to have received no votes, which I think is a real shame for I think it encapsulates a reality that many Western environmentalists fail to grasp.

It is nice to be able to assert that wildlife has intrinsic value and should be protected for its own sake. But such moral values are more often than not the preserve of the relatively well off, a category into which only a minority of the world’s people fall today. For the rest, jam today nearly always beats jam tomorrow. If cutting down a forest may lead to devastating soil erosion then it is possible to convince even the poorest farmers that conservation is in their own bests interests. But when arguments get more esoteric, such as bemoaning lost opportunities to find possible anti-cancer drugs, it is not so much a case of jam tomorrow, as somewhat hypothetical and probably irrelevant jam in twenty years time. Poor peoples’ priorities, quite simply, are elsewhere.

So, goes the argument, if you want conservation so badly then you pay for it! And, indeed, a lot of modern conservation practice is all about trying to monetise good environmental stewardship, whether it be through ecotourism or payments for ecosystem services (including REDD). Indeed the Ecuadorian government is already doing just that: being paid not to drill for oil in the Yasuni National Park (part of the Amazon rainforest). Researchers Costello et al. have suggested a similar possible solution to whaling: auction permits to harvest whales, and anti-whaling groups could simply outbid whalers and eaters of whale meat (see ungated commentary by the Economist here).

All this may offend the purists who will contend that the natural world is priceless, and/or that whaling is morally wrong, but such cris du coeur will only ever motivate a minority. Putting your money where your mouth is, on the other hand, will always get somebody’s attention. A more important concern is that of a small minority of richer people paying for public goods that everyone enjoys, including those filthy rich rapists and pillagers of our natural patrimony whose business interests have created the opportunity cost in the first place. That, however, is how much of the world goes much of the time, and in the meantime you could at least achieve something useful with your money.

ps. If you made it this far, congratulations. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series. I’ve enjoyed writing it, but am still hoping for a few more votes in my poll. Us bloggers don’t ask for too much and voting in a poll is a lot less effort than writing a post or even commenting upon one, and we do so love to get a bit of feedback every now and then! So it would be great to hear from a few more of my readers before I conclude with my own position on the Grey Whales of Sakhalin tomorrow.

Whither the Western Grey Whales – will regulation suffice?

This is part six of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “Economic development should generally take precedence over conservation within bounds, i.e. allow the oil and gas developments to go ahead with appropriate regulation.” On one level there is not much to argue with in this proposition which suggests we can have the best of both worlds: economic development for Russia and Sakhalin and effective conservation of the endangered grey whales … if it works.

And therein lies the real question. Are these two goals actually reconcilable? If so will the necessary regulations actually be written, or will lobbying by one side or the other ensure that the ‘compromise’ option in fact only works for one side? Even if good regulations are promulgated will they be effectively enforced? Recent history in Russia suggests, if anything, over-enthusiastic enforcement of environmental regulations with respect to foreign investors but complete amnesia when it is local (usually government controlled) firms which are doing the investing.

This option is thus for the optimistic amongst us who like to think they can have both conservation and development together. The pessimists, though, may simply conclude that, as is so often the case, it is simply not possible to have your cake and eat it, and that compromises are as likely to please nobody as to please anybody. I do not myself know enough about the situation in Sakhalin to say who would be right in this instance.

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