Posts Tagged ‘environmental movement’

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.

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.

For what dost thou lament?

Traditional livelihoods decline in Borneo forests as communities rely on mining, logging jobs, so say CIFOR:

A new study by the Center for International Forestry Research has found that villages along the Malinau River, an area rich in valuable timber and mineral resources, are relying less on traditional livelihoods — typically a mixture of hunting, fishing, cultivating fruit gardens, collecting eaglewood and bird’s nests.

The study found jobs in mining, agriculture, construction and services accelerated economic growth in the Malinau district from 1.24% in 2004 to 8.96% in 2009. Most of those interviewed said they supported development as beneficial to their quality of life.  Indeed, development projects in the last decade have brought jobs, health and education services and infrastructure improvements. But villagers said they were concerned such growth is threatening traditional livelihoods and comes at the expense of reduced access to their forests and forest resources.

So it sounds like things are actually getting better for the communities! Smile  This is what we call Development. Often it comes with an environmental cost. This is unfortunate, and it is good for environmentalists to point this out, and to devise means to ameliorate that. If “Giving villagers a say in forest management would provide greater protections for forest resources” then great, although I can bet there will be management challenges for the big investors.

However, I do think we need to watch ourselves so that we do not unconsciously project our own views on to those resource-dependent communities we study and/or work with. I do not know Borneo, so I cannot say for sure that CIFOR have not accurately reflected the Malinau communities’ priorities. I also generally have a very high opinion of CIFOR, as a rational, objective research institute who do not get too dewy eyed about the fate of doomed ecosystems, but instead consider practical issues and what might be feasible solutions. That said, I cannot help but suspect that the author of this piece laments the passing of a simpler age when she could expect to have a fulfilling job, and her research subjects could not.

Update 27/02/2012: See response from study author and my reply in the comments.

Conservation and Compromise

Here are some recent posts on blogs I follow which, depending upon your perspective, may count as either good or bad news:

I could write a lot of preachy stuff about each of the above, but I will content myself with this: most conservation is highly political, and politics is famously the art of the possible. I’m mostly glad that there are the likes of Global Witness out there manning the barricades *, but I prefer the messier stuff of working out practicable solutions that take due note of the fact that environmentalism is not the only narrative out there.

The difference is summed up for me with the simple observation that while those who take a strictly moral view of things object to a single elephant being shot (especially if it is in the name of conservation!), experience has shown that one of the best ways to increase elephant numbers is by leveraging lucrative hunting fees to manage habitat to suit elephants and compensate local farmers whose crops are damaged. I’m tickled that Switzerland would even consider mandating legal representation for animals. (It was rejected, but I’m even more intrigued as to where they proposed to draw the line as to what counts as an ‘animal’.) Maybe, in the distant future we will be regarded as barbarous for even suggesting people could ‘keep’ animals (in the same way that we now regard keeping other people as slaves is barbarous), but in the here and now most conservation action will come about through dirty compromise. Time to roll up our sleeves …

* Though sometimes I wish they wouldn’t crowd out the more nuanced discussions.

World Whatever Day

Yesterday was World Environment Day. Woohoo! Being of a greenish persuasion I guess I should be more enthusiastic, but, honestly who exactly pays attention to these things? How many such days are there, any way? I suspect rather more than 365 …

I can see they are not without their uses. They can be good for getting high level political support for key issues, but politicians have a nasty habit of breaking promises, so I would heavily discount the value of commitments they make during their speechifying. Nonetheless I can see the value, particularly for new up-and-coming issues. E.g. I would imagine that in the early days of the fight against AIDS, events like World AIDS Day might have been quite important in building awareness. I can also see how such days might be quite handy in getting things into the newspapers; no self-respecting international conservation organisation seems capable of letting the opportunity for a press release pass by.

World Environment Day does seem one of the bigger such days, and round here people do take notice, but unfortunately in the wrong way. The government clearly thinks it is an important event, so every province and sub-province is expected to organise its own jamboree at which local leaders will pontificate to the people about the importance of all things environmental: tree-planting is something of a perennial favourite. All of which is fairly unobjectionable on the face of it, but communities are well used to their so-called leaders saying one thing, and doing the complete opposite (see Sleeping with the Enemy), and so are unlikely to pay much attention.

Furthermore these jamborees consume significant scarce financial resources, resources that could be put into something a bit more constructive, of practical conservation value. Then, because the government is financially constrained, we are asked to contribute, and find it hard to refuse. So our limited resources also get used up. The provincial leaders, of course, will not pass up the opportunity to make some political capital out of the event, so we end up subsidising their political posturing.

More importantly, though, I think this kind of problem is symptomatic of too many initiatives in tropical conservation and development. Real conservation is hard, and there may be vested interests opposed to really seeing it through, but speechifying is easy, and raising awareness in general looks good on paper without stretching peoples’ capacities too much. But at some point you need to move beyond just a bit of awareness-raising and actually deliver something of conservation value.

In conclusion: if lack of awareness is a key constraint to achieving a conservation goal then you should leverage the slightly higher profile that World Environment Day brings to get your message out. But if awareness isn’t the problem, then keep your resources for something more worthwhile.

Whatever, I guess I won’t be winning this blogging competition any time soon. Seriously? Cleaning your windows with coffee filters?!?

CI’s Defence

Conservation International have hit back at their accusers over the ‘scandal’ of their engagement with big business with CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann’s robust defence of their approach. I note that Seligmann raises many of the same points I did last week.

Seligmann also points fingers of his own, accusing the investigators of using all the usual journalistic dirty tricks of taking things out of context, thus highlighting the supposedly inappropriate elements of the conversati0n without the balance of the safeguards that Seligmann claims CI always seek. There is a simple solution to this; Don’t Panic TV should release the entire recordings and other correspondence that they had with CI, then others can decide for themselves.

On CI’s side, though, they could do with highlighting what specific improvements to business practice have they been instrumental in achieving through their money-spinning engagement with big business. What do they mean by their “expectation that our partners will pursue best environmental business practices”? Without a bit of substance to this CI might appear to be just spinning around the same old greenwash they’ve been accused of providing.

My guess is that the business improvement aspect might have been a bit weak, and that CI and other conservation BINGOs that engage with big business may need to tighten up their acts a little bit. If that happens then this storm in a teacup might have been no bad thing.

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