Thursday, 30 September 2004

The Trojans (Les Troyens) and wildlife?

Last weekI went to see the English National Opera company's production of Berlioz's The Trojans. It was a rare performance of the complete work, and by now I am sure you are wondering 'What on earth has a five and a half hour opera, got to do with conservation?' Read on, and you may find out.

The opera was performed impeccably -- the orchestra was superb, and there was magnificent singing. The hours slipped by. But what a production. A 'modern' reinterpretation. The characters were all in some sort of contemporary, or late 20th century, dress, which all looked a bit daft when they were singing about clashing armour, running around in the Royal Hunt with spears, the bloody ghost of Hector looming, and various naiads etc flitting around. And there was a hell of a lot of meaningless running about. Berlioz was a man who not only understood orchestration better than almost anyone before or since, he was also someone obsessed with theatricality. Consequently, although his operas are often accused of being rather static, there is absolutely no doubt he knew what he was doing. The oratorio-like narratives, combined with magnificent choruses, are interspersed with dramatic movement -- marches, and dance scenes -- giving a great sense of drama. Some of his 'stage' works are so static as to be often described as unperformable on stage. So when somone has the cast rushing around all the time, it rather destroys his original dramatic intent. Similarly, while some operas and plays tell timeless stories in a way that can transcend the period they were written in and for, The Trojans is a story so clearly rooted in history, that to have a bunch of modern day Greeks trudging round with boxes of household gods, and nuclear warheads is all a bit over the top, if not daft. The Trojans was designed by Berlioz to be an operatic spectacle, lavish costumes and all -- not trainers and shell-suits.

And this is the problem that seems to beset so much of humanknind. They cannot leave well alone. Wildlife is wonderful, but all too often we see it over-interpreted. Humans stamping their influence on a nature reserve -- 'improving' habitats. Deliberately removing certain species because they are 'exotic' and deliberately introducing others because they are 'native'. Of course there is often justification. Just as there is in opera. There would be little justification for going back to gaslight, and there is no reason to completely fossilise a production, but just as the performance of the music is usually to a certain extent sacrosanct, so should the composers intentions for the whole experience be treated with respect. And this concept should be applied to wildlife. Leave it as untouched as possible, and let the viewer make their own assessments. Interpretation is only a fashion, only ephemeral and temporal -- and generally speaking best left out of wildlife. Nature is best when totally untrammelled and untouched by humans -- if you want to see something artificial and man made -- then there is no substitute for opera -- which is probably why I enjoy it, it's such a contrast.

Monday, 27 September 2004

Latest news from Belize

Today, I returned from a flying visit to Belize -- in part literally flying, since we flew over the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA) -- the land owned and protected by the Programme for Belize, the WLT's local partner. The WLT was responsible for raising a large part of the $6.7 million originally needed to save the forests, and flying over them now, they looked in good shape. However the same could not be said for other parts of Belize.
Cleared forest in Belize
The edge of the world - forest clearance goes right to the edge of the protected areas of Belize.

A great deal of publicity has been given to the construction of the Chalillo Dam, which will destroy some 1000 hectares of forest, and there has been a massive amount of mangrove cleared around Belize City. But I also flew over an area of forest adjacent to the Guatemalan border, an area of about 10,000ha, which was sold to Menonnite farmers about five years ago, and that is now almost totally destroyed.

Little by little the Menonnite farmers have been buying up Belize, and while most would agree that they are very good farmers, they also appear to have an almost pathological hatred of trees. And although some Menonnites eschew modern machinery and ride around in a horse and buggy, wearing traditional clothes, many of those in Belize use big machinery, that is capable of clearing forest and turning into productive farmland within 2-3 years.

Although superficially living outside the modern world, pacifists, without TV etc etc, the reality on the ground in Belize, is that these farmers are destroying some of the last remaining forests in Northern Belize, and whenever forest comes on the market, they are among those who have the cash to buy it. This is particularly alarming as Belize has recently introduced a 'Speculation Tax' on land holdings of over 300 acres. In theory a very fair and equitable type of tax, to prevent wealthy landowners holding on to large areas for purely speculative purposes. But a negative effect is that large areas of forest are likely to be broken up, and sold off in small parcels, which almost certainly mean they will be cleared for agriculture and short-term gain -- and the most likly buyers are Menonnites, who will avoid the speculation tax, by 'developing the land' i.e., chopping down the trees, and planting crops.

It is no good suggesting that the Government should step in -- Belize has one of the highest proportions of land under some form of government protection of any country in the world -- it is unrealistic for it to be expected to buy land on the open market.

It is equally unrealistic for conservationists to expect to be able to buy land and simply lock it away as 'protected'. Conservation, if it is to play a part in the future development of Belize must not only produce sustainable incomes, but it must also be seen to be benefitting the people of Belize as a whole. This was always the original aim of the Programme for Belize, and conservationists can play their role, by supporting those efforts -- go to Belize, stay at the RBCMA, travel around, go snorkelling on the reef.

Tourist dollars (and pounds and euros) are the best way of demonstrating to the people of Belize, that the wildlife they value, is also valued by the rest of the world. Otherwise, the Menonnites will soon isolate more and more of the remaining forests in northern Belize.

Thursday, 2 September 2004

Is the Jaguar endangered or not?

Although the IUCN lists the Jaguar as NT (=near threatened), throughout its range it appears to be endangered, and it is difficult to understand how this classification was arrived at. Almost every country, province or other administrative unit in its range that has produced a Red Data Book or a Red List, includes the Jaguar as Endangered, and in a few cases it is listed as extinct. And earlier editions of the IUCN Red lists included it as threatened. Since there is little or no evidence that the species is getting any commoner (except in a few places such as Belize), it is even more difficult to understand IUCN's listing. There is little doubt among most naturalists within its range that it is seriously threatened. The same problem occurred with the African Lion, which was not listed as threatened for many years, despite disappearing from most of its range. Now when only an estimated 10,000 are left, in highly fragmented, often very small populations, is its possible extinction being considered.