Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Life After the Tsunami (Part 2)

When the next tsunami occurs (note, WHEN, not IF) the impact could be even greater then the recent disaster. And over the next few months there may well be one or more. The recent tsunami was a result of movements in the tectonic plates -- a sudden jolt -- but that can easily increase pressures in other parts of the plate. It can also produce volcanic activity in the region. Following the tsunami, there has been a lot of discussion about the devastation of Krakatoa in 1883, but most the discussion ignored the fact that activity continues, and that there have been several other major eruptions particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. But they were nothing compared with the eruption of Tambora in 1815. Although the direct death toll was 'only' in the region of 10,000, another 85,000 died from disease and starvation. And that was at a time when the population of Indonesia was a fraction of the present day. The resulting ash and dust clouds rose an estimated 28 miles (44kms), and spread over an area of more than 1000kms; today the devastation it would cause is almost unimaginable. In fact, the whole of the Northern Hemisphere suffered a series of crop failures, and exceptionally cold winters. Charles Dickens (born 1812) grew up in this period, and his growing up with snow at Christmas, has influenced Christmas traditions in England ever since. But the crop failures were they to be repeated now, would be disastrous, and the impacts far reaching, causing widespread starvation in many parts of the world, not just southern Asia.

While there is very little that can be done to avert natural disasters -- Acts of a vengeful God -- there is plenty that can be done to avert the disastrous impacts of man's activities. Pollution can be reduced, and even human populations can be reduced. But they demand strong political will, in all countries. It may appear futile for governments to initiate pollution reduction, and population controls while some countries, particularly the US continue with expansionist policies, but a start has to be made. And perhaps eventually, a US president who is more rational and better informed will be elected, one who wishes to work with the world community. In an ideal world, conservation issues should be non-political, but in a world dominated by the largest superpower it has ever known, which is also the richest, and most consumptive, it is impossible to ignore politics. Nearer to my own home it is also impossible to ignore the fact that the British Government is still spending obscene amounts of money on arms and warfare, in comparison with what it spends on the natural environment.

Life after the Tsunami

The tsunami in the Indian Ocean has been one of the most devastating natural disasters in living memory, and it is also record breaking in many other ways, particularly in media attention and funds raised for the victims. This is all a very good thing. As BBC TV showed last night, even more importantly it has also raised public awareness over the huge disparities in the funding governments devote to poverty alleviation and other forms of foreign aid and what they spend on warfare and invading other countries such as Iraq.

Many of the supporters of the World Land Trust have asked how the disaster affects conservation, and fund raising by conservation organisations. This is interesting, because normally disasters affecting humans have a sudden and dramatic negative impact on conservation fund raising, but in this instance a significant proportion of the public are aware of the importance of habitat conservation as part of the process of general protection of the environment. Almost immediately after the Christmas holidays, we received donations from the public asking that we direct the funds specifically to restoration of mangroves. So it is clear that among the better informed sectors of the public, there is a very clear linkage between the damage done by the tsunami, and the loss of protective mangroves. The World Land Trust has for many years been involved with conservation and restoration of mangroves and the protection of coral reefs in the Philippines, and we were already discussing with the Wildlife Trust of India the possibility of assisting them with projects in the Andaman Islands, and so it is very timely that we are launching our Reef and Mangrove Appeal, which will assist projects aimed at habitat restoration and protection.

Wednesday, 19 January 2005

Rainforests: Imitations or the real thing?

Paignton Zoo is building a new rainforest exhibit in Devon, England, and not so long ago the Eden Project opened at a cost of nearly £100,000,000. While these are very laudable efforts to show the public the importance of rainforests, they are also somewhat depressing to us at the World Land Trust.

Most of the rainforest exhibits in England (as well as other parts of the northern hemisphere) are funded at least partially with public money – grants from the Lottery, government and foundations, but the amount of money these funders are prepared to put to funding real rainforest is absolutely insignificant by comparison. For £100,000, 000 the WLT could save around 10 million acres of land. Eden Project costs £8million a year to run – that's another million acres that could be saved.

Obviously the money spent on Eden and other UK attractions – probably in excess of £50 million a year, is not available for land purchase, but it does put it all into some sort of perspective. If every pound that was spent on seeing these imitation rainforests was matched with a donation for the original thing, the WLT could achieve a lot. I can speak with some authority, as for several years the World Land Trust owned and managed Wyld Court Rainforest, near Newbury (now the Living Rainforest) and compared with raising money for the real thing, fund raising for a glass-house rainforest was a walkover.

Food for thought?

Wednesday, 5 January 2005

Indianapolis Zoo Conservation Award

Indianapolis Zoo have just announced a Conservation Prize of $100,000 to be awarded to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the conservation of endangered species. The first Indianapolis Prize will be presented in September 2006 at an "Oscar-like" gala, complete with celebrities, possibly to be televised nationally. "We're hoping that this really can change the world," said Indianapolis Zoo President and CEO Michael Crowther. By focusing attention on someone who has labored and sacrificed for animal conservation, the award can help the issue resonate with the public, Crowther said. "We think their stories need to be told," he said. "The way we can do what we do best is by changing hearts and minds."

But the reality is that Indianapolis Zoo are using the 21st century cult of the celebrity to create publicity for the zoo, first and foremost, while achieving relatively little for conservation. Awards invariably go to the person who is charismatic, a good self-publicist, knows the right people, or who works with charismatic species. For every person who gets an award, there are bound to be dozens of others equally deserving who are ignored. And of course the really effective conservationists are never individuals, they are always team-workers - It is the only way that conservation work is sustainable. Egocentric individuals rarely leave a lasting legacy.

And then there is also the political correctness of awards. An "Oscar-like awards ceremony" will cost more than the $100,000 prize to organize, and could only be justified if it raised several hundred thousand dollars for real conservation.

Myrta Pulliam, chairwoman of the Indianapolis Zoo board of trustees claimed that "There are awards and grants shared by institutions and individuals in the conservation world, but no prize always directed at an individual. We decided to make it unrestricted so they could have the freedom to do whatever they wanted [with the money]. And [she] hopes future award winners will become better known to the general public, maybe even on par with celebrities from the entertainment field who lend their names and time to such efforts. They should know who these people are and what they're doing. . . so we can say, 'Hey, this could be you when you grow up.' "

Actually, this is untrue; there are already significant awards for individuals, and far from achieving their stated objectives, I believe that Indianapolis Zoo's award will simply further the cult of the celebrity and encourage competitiveness -- neither of which are healthy for sustainable conservation. The last thing conservation needs are airheads who are in it because they love the celebrity status or because they are competetive 'alpha-males' (of either sex); there are plenty of the latter already, don't encourage them. If Indianapolis Zoo really wants to help conservation, there are plenty of ways of doing it, but an award like this is not the way. But it's probably a good way of publicising the zoo.

Tuesday, 4 January 2005

More on wind turbines

Responses to the Green Issues are relatively few and far between, but it is exceptionally depressing to get a response such as the following:

100% of the population are to be denied job oppertunity [sic]for a few birds?? get a life.
Sent anonymously, if it represents the view of even a minority of the world, it gives little hope for the future, showing a complete lack of understanding of what the debate is about, let alone the issues.

I presume it relates to a piece I posted about wind turbines in the Hebrides. Fortunately such responses are outnumbered by those in agreement with my articles – afterall thinking about the issues is the most important step to take. Blindly criticizing and assuming jobs can be even equated with bird mortality, is so crass as to be hardly worth discussing. However, it is worth mentioning that there is increasing evidence that turbines do kill significantly more wildlife than was once thought. In principle, it seems sensible to place turbines off shore, but there is so little data on the impact of them on seabirds that even here we should exercise caution.

Building wind turbines will certainly create jobs, and will almost certainly make profits for the manufacturers, but the real question should be : “Will they actually save non-renewable energy”? That’s the difficult one to answer. Before supporting proposals to turn the wilder parts of the landscape into industrial sites, we should first assess if we really need all this energy? It is in the interests of the numerous competing energy businesses to sell us more and more. But is it in our interests to consume more and more?