Monday, 29 November 2004

More Hot air for the wind farm debate

According to an article I picked up in the internet
"...renewable energy specialist Bryony Worthington of pressure group Friends of the Earth countered that the climate crisis was now so grave that birds had to take second place to saving the planet."

This seems anexceptionally bizarre position from an organisation who's director, Tony Juniper, is a well-known and internationally respected ornithologist.

Bryony Worthington may well be a "renewable energy specialist", but that does not give her the right to condemn thousands of birds and bats to death. And I somehow doubt she's that well informed on the mortalities caused by wind turbines. Nor does it make renewable energy a solution to the climate crisis. Anyone who has been around for a decade or more following conservation issues, will realise that the linkage of climate change to non-renewable energy is simplistic to the point of naivety. No the real problem is that of burgeoning human populations, mostly aspiring to US standards of living and resource consumption. And those aspirations are fuelled not only by international communications, but also by the imperial aspirations of the US itself, imposing its version of 'democracy' on the rest of the world.

The issue that most energy conservationists, and renewable energy advocates, have failed to address is nothing to do with energy, per se, but to do with wealth. Saving energy, saves money, so what do the already wealthy do with that surplus wealth? The answer is, of course, they normally spend it on something that uses even more energy, such as international travel. Even the majority of FoE supporters are not of the dark-green, hair-shirted variety; they/we are all energy consumers on a grand scale. The only way of conserving energy, and preventing this vicious cycle, is to dramatically increase the price of energy - which of course, in the US style free-market economies, dominated by cheap energy, is impossible. With air fuel virtually untaxed, cheap airlines flourish, and it becomes economic to import luxury goods from countries with high levels of pollution, and poor health and safety records. But that's what the free market is all about. We have chosen that route, through our democratically elected governments ......

Many years ago I worked as Friends of the Earth's Wildlife Consultant, and one of my first tasks was to research some of the scientific data relating to commercial whaling. It was widely known that one of the reasons that whales were heading towards extinction was that it did not make economic sense to conserve them, if whaling was being operated in a free market economy. In fact it rarely, if ever makes sense to practice conservation of finite natural resources if you are an investor. No; it is better to exploit the resource as fast as possible, maximise your profits, then sell up and use the profits to invest in something else. Ideally getting out of one industry, at the time when the technology and other capital equipment is becoming obsolete.

The British coal industry, forestry, fisheries and many other resource-based industries illustrate this model. Of course, renewable energy is a good thing. But the problem is actually not so much to do with whether or not it is renewable, but the fact it is too cheap. However much energy is produced, whether renewable or not, while it is cheap, we will all use too much - and that is the real problem. And the other problem, which for the past two decades, has been swept further and further under the carpet, is the human population of the world. It is out of control, and it is only when (when, not if) catastrophic distaster hits, that this issue will be resolved. This is the real crisis.

Wednesday, 17 November 2004

Depression over Paraguay

After visiting Patagonia in October, I had been invited by the World Land Trust partners in Paraguay (Guyra) to stop over on my way back so that they could show me something of the work they were doing. Asuncion is very much on the way home from Buenos Aires, and it was an ideal opportunity, and despite only being there for two days, they were able to pack in a remarkable amount. First stop was the HQ of Guyra, and there it was immediately apparent that we were working with a small but dynamic organisation.

Guyra is a very similar sized organisation to the World Land Trust, and although known mostly as a bird conservation organisation, has a much broader remit. While visiting their offices it was very good to see the books that the WLT's Books for Conservation programme supplied, in a very prominent place, forming the core of their library. The staff were very enthusiastic, and told me the books had made a real difference, since they are virtually impossible to obtain in Paraguay.

After a dawn start the following day (a visit to the local marshes for birdwatching), we made our way to the airport, where we took off for San Raphael in a four seater plane. The purpose was to photograph the forests from the air, to monitor the rates of clearance. San Raphael is the largest remnant of the Atlantic Rainforest in Paraguay. This once extensive outlier of the Atlantic Rainforest is now seriously fragmented, with much of it gone in Brazil, and now broken into disconnected fragments in Paraguay; the only large tracts survive across the border in the Missiones Province of Argentina.

The wildlife of Paraguay is interesting, and also a first rate example of how misleading measures of endemism can be for making decisions on conservation priorities. Paraguay has relatively few endemics -- probably no endemic birds for example. But that is almost entirely because of the way political boundaries have been drawn. If the habitats are considered, or more relevantly the biogeographical regions, then it is apparent that Paraguay is at the cross-roads of several very important biogeographical regions. This makes it a very good place to go and see a huge range of species.

One area I did not have a chance to see was northern Paraguay. Here chaco meets the Pantanal, and the huge areas of grasslands and wetlands include some of the best places for seeing Jaguars. It is a remote part of the world, much of it still largely unexplored, and there are believed to be groups of Guarani Indians living there who have never been in contact with the outside world. How long this isolation will prevail is anyone's guess, but it's good to know that such places still exist.

But back to my title: depression over Paraguay. It was as we flew over the Atlantic Rainforests of San Raphael, that this became apparent, clear lines showed where the forest was protected. smoldering fires were burning, and agriculture bounded the forest everywhere. It was an image of pressure, as if agriculture was gnawing at the perimeter of the forest.

Birding with Bill Oddie

To any regular readers of this blog, first an apology for the silence over the past few weeks. Life has been hectic, starting with a visit to our projects in Belize, and then a trip to Patagonia.

Despite what some may think, travel on conservation business is rarely as glamorous as it sounds -- meetings, looking at accounts, planning strategies are often simply hard work, in an office. Nonetheless, I do try and see some of the wildlife. But Patagonia was different. This time my sole function (apart from the Annual General Meeting of the Reserve) was to make sure Bill Oddie and the BBC crew saw everything they wanted to. In other words I had to get out in the field and find wildlife. Bill was making a special one-off film on the wildlife of Patagonia (for transmission just after Christmas) and we (FundaciĆ³n Patagonia Natural and the World Land Trust) were providing all the facilities. It meant we were able to redecorate the Estancia buildings, so that even though they are far from luxury accommodation, they are adequate for the really keen visitor to stay in.

The Estancia La Esperanza delivered everything we promised -- and a bit more. Bill was able to see plenty of Guanaco, lots of Mara, wild Guinea Pigs, Armadillo and much more. There were plenty of birds, including Gull-billed Terns, which appear to be the first records for Patagonia -- and they were recorded on video. In fact we added six species of birds to the Estancia's list.

After a few days on the Estancia, I left Bill and the BBC team, to visit another NGO, in Paraguay (more of that another time), while they all went to the Valdes Peninsula. They were off to film the Elephant Seals, and go whale watching. The last time I had been involved in filming there was when David Bellamy came down, and on the last day, I left him on the Peninsula, and at the very moment I was flying to Buenos Aires, he was on the beach watching the famous Killer Whales, running up the beach to catch seal pups. This time I was again en route to Buenos Aires, when, according to Stephen Moss the producer, Bill was heard musing as he walked along the beach -- something along the lines of how much he'd like to see the Killer Whales coming for the seal pups, but how he'd really want the seal pup to escape. Then a few minutes later, it actually happened. The Killer Whale appeared, grabbed a pup, tossed it into the air, and the pup escaped, and ran up the beach, apparently unharmed.

I can't wait to see the film . And Bill's infectious enthusiasm will surely stimulate more people to experience Patagonia's stunning wildlife.