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.

CI screws up

I couldn’t ignore the big scandal about Conservation International’s apparent willingness to greenwash the biggest arms company in the world. That this story should break just after my post In defence of BINGOs is unfortunate.


The scandal raises many issues, but let’s start with the notion of greenwashing. The allegation is that a seat on CI’s ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ somehow absolves a corporation of all their eco-guilt. Whilst to a certain extent CI’s corporate relations officer was clearly peddling that line in the video, I don’t think that anyone really believes that. Just sponsoring a few conservation projects around the world did not give BP a free pass on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It wouldn’t surprise me if the greenwashing value of membership of that council is not far off from CI’s price of under $40k per year.

Should we take these guys’ money?

Next up is the question of whether conservation organisations should take big polluters’ money. I’ve been part of groups faced with this question several times. Each time our answer has been: “Yes. We can do something good and worthwhile with this money, and that outweighs any minor symbolic good we would achieve by rejecting it.” As above, we have tended to believe that the greenwashing value of our individual projects is fairly minor, although when put into a portfolio maybe that is less true. But then to overcome that problem we need to face down the tragedy of the commons; my guess is that there’ll always be conservation projects out there will to take the polluters’ grubby cash.

Certainly some organisations, especially campaigning outfits such as Greenpeace, need to steer clear of dirty money lest their campaigns be tainted and undermined. But for on the ground conservation work I am not so sure. What I can tell you is that corporate donors tend to be much more flexible than institutional donors with their myriad rules as to how we can and cannot spend money. So just as the greenwashery may be worth more to the polluter than they are paying, so can the financial support provided be worth more to a conservation project than the headline dollar figure.

Should we even be talking to them?

This kind of suggestion, which unfortunately comes up far too often from deep green types, I find most disappointing. I am very happy that the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are out there screaming from the rooftops about all the eco-crimes being committed around the world, many of them by these big, bad corporations. They are there to keep everyone on their toes, although sometimes they have been known to get it wrong, as with Greenpeace’s complaints about Shell’s plans for disposal of a North Sea oil rig ~15 years ago.

But equally we need to engage with these big companies on less emotionally charged levels and to understand their issues and their concerns. Most people working for these companies are not inherently evil, they are just working from a different starting point than we are. (If environmental degradation externalities are ever priced properly into accounting standards maybe this will change.) Some people work to change from within (the Gorbachev approach), others from without. I think it is right that conservation BINGOs talk to big business. When Greenpeace or someone else gives a company a PR beating (which they probably deserve), then they need to be able to turn to someone to advise them on how to fix it (and not just the PR but their underlying failings too). Importantly, big business needs to believe they can trust this organisation.

In addition, we need to remember that, as with the Asian sweatshops supplying multinational sports good companies, that often the risk aversion of big business, especially with respect to corporate reputation, tends to ensure that they are often far from the worst environmental offenders. Chinese mining and oil companies tend to cause more environmental damage than their western counterparts. We want everybody to improve, but if you beat up on the not-so-bad guys too much, they’ll just pull out leaving the field to the even-worse guys.

The fallout

I have previously discussed NGO accountability on this blog. It seems there is now a new kid on the block to keep us accountable. Overall I think this is probably a good thing. Suggesting, as one commenter did on the Ecologist article, that this is undermining the environmental movement, and that we should instead seek solidarity misses the point: such thinking leads to arrogance and poor responsiveness by BINGOs.

But, nonetheless, apart from the damage done to CI, and, by extension, other conservation NGOs, I am sad about the implications of this exposé. CI were naïve in how they responded to the journalists’ approach. Next time they will be less so, but more caution comes at a price. Lawyers and managerial checks get inserted into the system, gumming it up; conservation BINGOs will be less open in future.

Conservation International clearly need to clean up their act a bit, and I guess the ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ has now lost all credibility. Other conservation NGOs will learn important lessons. But I really hope that after this storm has blown over conservation NGOs continue to engage pro-actively with big business, balancing positive and negative, and that, as a result, big business continues to improve its environmental performance.

UPDATE 25/05/11: See my discussion of CI’s response here.

Something is better than nothing

A blog on conservation and development surely cannot let the Cancun summit on climate change pass without any comment. On the other hand it does all seem a rather long way from the day to day work in which I am involved. Many of my colleagues made the trip over but I cannot say I am sorry to have missed the whole jamboree. Apart from the odd publicity stunt, I’m really not sure what is the value of all the NGO presence at these summits. Fine, if a government official has invited you along because they actually value your input, but most NGOs seem to go just to be … er … well … seen.

After the complete disaster that was Copenhagen, expectations were so low that any kind of achievement was going to be applauded. And if it weren’t for that chastening experience I would expect far louder complaints about the huge number of holes left to be filled in the Cancun agreement.

Of course, I am disappointed at where we are now; the various pledges made don’t seem to amount to much more than a finger in the dike. But I am also a realist, and too often the environmental movement can sound far too shrill in demanding the infeasible. Sometimes the important thing can be to establish the principle, and then ratchet up the numbers later. The European Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme came in for huge criticism early on for being far too generous, but is now, gradually, making up for lost ground. Yes we need strong incentives to drive the sorts of investments necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, but there is also something to be said for getting the ball rolling; as it picks up steam, and technological improvements come through, the harder challenges will not seem quite so daunting.

REDD+ is one of the few real successes on the UNFCCC negotiations since Kyoto. Here Cancun has at last provided some solid ground for things to start to move forward. However, from where I sit, there is still one major problem if REDD+ is going to make a big difference in Africa; the extremely government centric approach. I think this might work in South America and SE Asia where management capacity is higher, and maybe even some other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but where I work I see a big problem. It goes like this:-

Natural resources and environment have hitherto been under-resourced sectors here; not top priority for the government and not top priority for donors. So let’s compare with a sector which is relatively well resourced: health. The health sector in theory reaches into every village with its drug provision programme, but in reality most village drug dispensaries are extremely poorly stocked. This ought to be the easy side of health care provision (in contrast trained employees can get easily tempted by better paid jobs), but the leakage and basic mismanagement are massive and endemic. Why then should we have any confidence that a government-run fund to disburse REDD money to villages protecting their local forests will provide money on time and without taking a huge cut?

Although I well understand the reasons for working at the national level – many drivers of deforestation are best addressed here – I think REDD will have much more impact on actual forest cover in Africa if the regulated market were to be opened up for direct access by the private sector. See also my previous musings about keeping REDD a transaction-based system.

ps. Beyond REDD, am I skeptical about how effective will be those huge sums being bandied around to help developing countries adapt to climate change? You betcha! But that’s just the same old story.

Is this a bad time to be associated with the colour green?

  1. A lot of Jihadist organisations use flags with a strong green element.
  2. Green is one of BP’s colours.
  3. And then there is England’s goalkeeper.

Let’s hope this doesn’t spell bad news for the environmental movement!

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