Wednesday, 29 June 2005

Goats, desertification and aid

Amongst a wad of junk mail I recently received a leaflet from Christian Aid soliciting donations to give a goat to the poor of Rwanda. The leaflet explains how a Rwandan orphan was loaned two goats, which then produced three kids. What the leaflet does not explain is how a rapidly expanding goat population is sustainable. Desertification is rife in the more arid parts of Africa, and among the main agents are goats. In fact most wildlife conservationists see goats as one of the main threats to the African environment. Huge areas of Mediterranean Europe were devastated by overgrazing by goats, and fortunately more enlightened agricultural attitudes have allowed many areas to regenerate. But all over the world, goats are a major problem, particularly in Africa.

To me, the Christian Aid leaflet epitomises the problem of aid, in particular the drive to eradicate poverty. Both politicians and humanitarian charities are only ever looking at the short-term, rarely, if ever, at the long term. Competition for resources is usually at the root of wars, and unless those resources are more evenly distributed the ongoing cycle of warfare and famine will continue. A couple of years ago I travelled extensively in Uganda and it was a country of great agricultural wealth, and it also has mineral wealth, and an abundant labour supply. But it is aid dependent. What happens to the wealth of the country? Presumably, as is so often the case, it is shipped abroad to foreign banks, and invested in western economies. And with the profits made, a tiny fraction is sent back as foreign aid. But the continuing cycle of foreign aid allows this to continue. In fact it encourages it.

Refugee camps are sponsored by aid charities, absolving the national governments from taking any action. But what happens to the inhabitants of the refugee camps? What are their long term prospects? What are the exit strategies of the aid agencies? Amid great publicity Blair, Geldoff and others have trumpetted their ambitions to 'make poverty history'. But have any of them thought through what this really means? Have any of them thought what it would mean in terms of consumption of resources. What the energy bill would be for instance? How that would affect global warming. This came home to me in a rather bizarre way when visiting India recently.

As a westerner, I find the oriental methods of cleansing after excretion problematical, being used to using loo rolls. But it was pointed out that if a billion Indians converted to loo rolls and flush toilets, there would be one hell of an environmental impact. What would happen if every family in Africa had a single car? Or even a motorbike? What would happen if every family in Africa used the same amount of water used by Britons? That is what would happen if we wiped out poverty. This does not mean we should not try and do something to redress the terrible injustices that are reflected in the poverty of countries in Africa and elsewhere, it simply means that handing out aid over the past half century has not worked, and never will; it is time to try something different.

Saturday, 25 June 2005

Clothes moths -- endangered species?

I have written about the decline of insects from time to time -- towns were once full of flies, so much so that everyone had net curtains to help keep them out. Nowadays nearly every city is virtually a fly-free zone. Even Delhi and Madras when I visited recently were not the fly-infested places of yesteryear. To me this is very scary, and I am constantly on the look out for hard data on the quantitative decline of insects. There's a lot on the qualitative declines and extinctions, but very little on numbers. I have put down the disappearance of species such as Red-backed Shrike in England, to the decline in large insects. I have noted how the commons of London were once crawling with grasshoppers in summer, but now thanks to pesticides and rotary mowers, grasshoppers are a rarity. anti parasite insecticides have poisoned cow pats, and so the list goes on. The latest to join my list is the clothes moth. As a child growing up in the 1940s and 50s, I remember clothes moth being a real problem when our woolly jumpers were put away for the summer. But now no one seems to worry. Is this just because so much of our clothing is synthetic, or are there other causes at work? The natural habitat of clothes moths is in birds nests among other places, and there are still plenty of birds nesting in towns. So where have the clothes moths gone?

Tuesday, 21 June 2005

Art and endangered species

I am considering signing up to the National Art Fund. This is because I think they do a great job in saving works of art for the nation, and more importantly I like their magazine. It also has a sobering effect on me, and puts the work of wildlife conservationists in perspective. To read that a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Omai sold for over £10 million is a staggering thought. Omai was a Tahitian brought to England by Captain James Cook in 1773. At that time the islands of Tahiti, Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific contained dozens of species now extinct.

A medieval psalter was recently saved for the nation at a cost of £1.7.million and Damien Hirst's pickled shark sold for £7 million. All of these are 'unique pieces of art". But there is unique and unique. While these art forms can be copied, and these days copies can be made that are so close to the original that only scientific tests can tell them apart, the originals upon which they are based cannot be recreated. The Tahitians and their unique culture have been destroyed, the Medieval countryside teeming with wildlife, portrayed in the psalter has gone, and even Hirst's shark is diving towards extinction. And none of these can ever be recreated, or even simulated. Once they are gone, they are gone forever.

With £5 million -- a quarter of the amount spent on these three art treasures -- the World Land Trust could save over 160,000 acres of tropical forests in Central America. Forests that are currently on the market and about to be sold into an unknown future. Countless species live in the forests, some of which may become lost for ever without even being known to humans. I am not such a Philistine as to suggest we stop preserving art and other aspects of human culture, but we should try and get a sense of perspective. Where are the wealthy collectors who will preserve the planet's heritage? Let's try and get some sort of ecological balance. It's a crazy world when a painting of an elephant by Stubbs (if one existed) could sell for more than the entire budget needed to create all 88 elephant corridors proposed for the Indian Elephant (Stubbs record at auction is over £3.2 million). And a single painting by Delacroix, famous for his lions and tigers has sold for over $9 million. Which is really worth more a painting, which can be copied, or a real living tiger and its descendants?

Fortunately, living artists are much more concerned than the collectors of art, and some of the most generous supporters of the World Land Trust have been painters -- and not just wildlife artists. And David Shepherd, famous for elephants and trains, has even created his own foundation, which funds conservation using income from his art. But compare the Getty Conservation Prize of $100,000 with the budget of the Getty Museum -- between July 2004 and March 2005 over half a million dollars were given as grants to interns alone. The total budget on art research, and the purchase of art objects is many hundreds of millions a year. Enough to make a sizeable dent on conservation problems of a large chunk of the world. And by a quirk of fate, it is the vast wealth of museums such as the Getty, that has sent art prices spiraling through the roof. If they were to change their remit, and treat wildlife as unique art treasures -- which, of course, they are -- perhaps there might be some hope for the future.


Orchids are often seen as the epitome of rare and endangered flora. In the UK they are often used as flagship species to halt development, and there is no doubt of their tremendous appeal, even to the non-naturalists. For the past 10 years or so I have made an annual pilgrimage to an old Suffolk Green to see the green-winged orchids -- a great expanse of purplish-pink orchids with scattered salmon pink and even white individuals. A sight that evokes the flower rich meadows before the advent of the motor car, pesticides and herbicides.

But this year I was stunned to see two amazing other nature reserves, with vast numbers of orchids. One was land surrounding a pair of trout fishing lakes, created by a Suffolk farmer 25 years ago. Here swathes of spotted orchids had colonised, together with bee orchids, on what was once open farmland. The other was a reserve created out of farmland a decade ago by herpetologist Tom Langton. Marsh orchids have spread all around the ponds he dug to encourage crested newts.

These two private nature reserves show very clearly what the individual can do, and really make an impact. Not everyone has several acres, but combined, our gardens add up to thousands of acres. I am lucky enough to have over three acres -- not enough on its own, but managed with the surrounding area in mind, even this size can have a major impact. So far we have only found a handful of bee orchids, but I am hopeful that in years to come others will spread.

Monday, 13 June 2005

Rail v air travel

While rail and sea transport may have environmental advantages over road and air, sometimes campaigners go too far in extolling its virtues.
An example: The WLT is based in East Anglia, and we work with colleagues in Netherlands. I personally prefer travelling by train, because it is less hassle. But to go to Amsterdam by train (on the 'new high-speed train and boat service' mentioned in the latest Ethical Conasumer (EC95 July/August 2005), is not a very realistic alternative to flying, and is certainly not hassle-free. A 7.30 am start from our office gets you to Amsterdam at 5.30pm, just in time to check in to an hotel. After the following day's work, you can go back to your hotel, and then either get up for a 5.30am departure, or hang around until 2pm, the following afternoon, and finally get back to to the WLT office at 9.45pm. The alternative to this three-day trip, is a plane from our local (Norwich) airport, that gets in to Amsterdam at 9am, and allows a full days work before flying back in the evening. It's going to be difficult to convince any business traveller that the 'high-speed' train and rail service, with the expense of two nights accommodation plus all the hassle, is a viable alternative,

And before we get too carried away with anti-flying sentiments, we should remember that flying is actually a form of public transport, every bit as much as railways. A full aeroplane, may be more energy efficient than a bus with three or four passengers, or a nearly empty train -- both of which are very common sights. Surely the problem is that with the privatisation free-for all, there are no rational planned strategies for transport? While profitability, is the main (only?) criterion deciding which routes and which type of transport are viable, it is going to be very difficlut, if not impossible to change the habits of travellers. A large proportion of the travel undertaken is not essential -- it is for 'pleasure'. And even a significant proportion of 'essential' business travel is because we have chosen to live a long way from our place of work.

Finally, there is the problem of public transport in rural areas. In the modern world, no one expects to be tied to their villages as they were in the past, and in any case, there are no longer the shops and services once found there. But is public transport always the answer?

Wednesday, 8 June 2005

Just how green are biofuels?

By Professor Renton Righelato, Trustee of the World Land Trust

In many parts of the world, ethanol, produced by fermentation of carbohydrates from crops such as maize, sugar cane and sugar beet, is seen as way of supporting farmers and reducing dependence on imported fossil fuel. Higher oil prices are making “gasohol” increasingly economic, even without subsidies. Brazil's production from sugar cane is growing rapidly and they may soon become a major exporter1. Gasohol is presented as green petrol; the concept is superficially attractive - carbon is recycled from sugar cane to car to atmosphere and back to cane - but just how environmentally beneficial is it? A hectare of cane in Brazil can produce around 4 tonnes of ethanol, equivalent to around 5,000 litres of fossil fuel. After taking into account the fossil carbon needed to make the ethanol, there is around 13 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) less released from fossil carbon for every hectare of land converted to sugar cane2. For biodiesel from soya oil the CO2 benefit is somewhat less.

On the other side of the equation is the cost in terms of creating agricultural land or the opportunity cost of not regenerating forest. When a hectare of forest is burnt and ploughed up, as much as 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere3. The damaging impact of this on atmospheric CO2 and global warming is immediate; even it it were recoverable, it would take nearly a century to overcome through the use of gasohol.

Regenerating rainforest on existing agricultural land takes some 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide/hectare out of the atmosphere each year as it grows; it is thus almost twice as efficient a strategy for reducing CO2 levels as making gasohol.

Whilst there may be short-term economic arguments for biofuels like gasohol and biodiesel, let us not be taken in by the green-wash. For climate change and for biodiversity they are a disaster. The logic of carbon taxation would demand they be taxed more highly than fossil energy, not less!

  1. Economist, 14 May 2005, 75-77. Special Report on Biofuels.
  2. Macedo, Copersucar Technological Centre
    Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Avoided Emissions in the Production and Utilization of Sugar Cane, Sugar and Ethanol in Brazil: 1990-1994
  3. Palm et al. 1999. Strategic information on changes in carbon stocks and land use.

This is an update on Prof. Righelato's previous post: How green is green diesel? from June 12, 2003

Monday, 6 June 2005

carbon emissions and population

Over last week-end there was a lot in the press about the damage being done to the environment by cheap air travel, among other sources of carbon emissions. This is all true, but the solutions being offered are often very unrealistic. And the ultimate origin of these problems is still being ignored by nearly all the green groups, and certainly by the politicians. That is human populations. And I am not just talking about the one billion in India. I am talking about the 60 million in Britain, that is still growing. In England the rate of of oil consumption (which can be used as a reasonable measure of carbon emissions) was an alarming 28 barrels a day, per 1000 of population. [The figures are from a couple of years ago, but serve to illustrate my points]. The equivalent figures for the USA were 68 barrels a day per 1000. But the population of India, although topping a staggering one billion people, only used less than 2 barrels of oil per day, per 1000 of population. The population of America has grown by over 10% since 1990, and if it grows at the same rate over the next decade, that increase in population will demand as much oil and emit as much carbon as the whole of India.

This puts a perspective on the realities of controlling carbon emissions. Controlling human population is the priority, and controlling it in the developed world the highest priority of all. We are not going to convince people to lower what they perceive as their standard of living. Therefore the only way to reduce demand for resources is to reduce the population consuming them. But no politician or economist is going to accept this -- their whole way of thinking is based expanding economies and growth. The depressing truth is that none of the solutions proposed for alleviating climate change are actually viable. At best they are delaying the inevitable. Which is why I believe that preserving existing habitat, such as rainforest, and preventing all that carbon being released, is just about the best we can do. And it also preserves all the biodiversity and species richness that goes with it. None of the other options on offer have these benefits, which are probably more important, in the long term than anything else.

Thursday, 2 June 2005

Belize losing its credibility as Ecotourism destination

The past couple of years have seen Belize's reputation as an ecotourism destination seriously dented.

First there was the Chalillo Dam, which was pushed through despite widespread international opposition. This is widely perceived as a political issue, which has little or no benefit to the Belizean economy. Belize has a need for energy, but there are plenty of alternative sources. But worse was to come, with the arrival of hundreds of cruise ships. These visitors have little benefit to the majority of Belizeans. But put an extra burden on an already overburdened infrastructure.And big ships cause irreparable damage when they hit Belize's unique reef. Another potential disaster has been the "liberalisation" of fishing restrictions -- luckily on hold for the time being. And now the Government have approved a Dolphinarium. Not the sort of facility that is going to enthuse ecotourists, who prefer to see their dolphins wild and free.

Further problems have arisen in one of Belize's "star" reserves -- Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Belize Crodcodile and Reptile Breeders Ltd, have started clearing land within the Sanctuary. The Chairman of the company is Luke Espat, who is also one of the main shareholders in the development company that wants to enlarge the facilities for cruise ships. One can assume from his behaviour, that the future of wildlife and natural resources is not something he considers at all important.

Ecotourism is good for the country, but not good for individuals who want to make huge profits, and it does seem that a few wealthy individuals are going to get even wealthier. Ecotourism is also, by definition sustainable, but the rapid development associated with cruise ships is far from sustainable, and may simultaneously kill the ecotourism on which Belize has built its reputation.

IUCN losing its way?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as it used to be known, has been nick-named I Used to Conserve Nature by some scurrilous NGOs disillusioned with the direction IUCN has been moving in recent years. The reason is not hard to understand, when you read IUCN's latest Bulletin. In actual fact, IUCN was originally founded as the International Union for the Protection of Nature, and later changed Protection to Conservation and added Natural Resources.

The most recent Bulletin, has within its 32 pages over 50 photographs of several hundred people, but less than half a dozen of nature, and most of those are covers of books. The people are generally seen sitting at conference tables, receiving awards, standing behind microphones, or attending yet another workshop. Rivetting. Makes you really glad you put money into the conservation organisations that fund IUCN.

I have been a member of IUCN in one guise or another for 30 years, and am still a loyal supporter of some of its aims and objectives. I am also very enthusiastic about the work done by individual members of staff. But as time goes by, IUCN has become more and more like just another UN-style beaurocracy, and the latest Bulletin epitomises this decline. Acronyms and buzz-words abound, and are only out-numbered by good intentions.

According to the opening page of the Bulletin the week-long Congress held in Bangkok November last year, attracted 4,800 participants, including 40 ministers, 1000 scientists, 150 business people etc. There were over 500 sessions and events. One wonders what this all cost Looking at it superficially, there is no way it could have cost less than an average of $5000 a head to actually attend (including airfares), which adds up to a tidy $24 million. And that is without any costings for the time of the people attending, and the opportunity costs of their time spent away from their normal work. A very, very conservative way of estimating this would be to double the actual cost. Add a couple of million for secetariat expenses, publications (such as the Bulletin) and it all comes to a minimum of $50 million. Of course getting the rue figures is nigh on impossible, since most organisations don't like disclosing such information, But $50 million would be a reasonable minimum.

For $50 million one can conserve a lot of wildlife. With plenty of good tropical forest available at $10-$20 a hectare, this means around 5 million hectares (50,000 sq kms) of forest could have been saved -- twice the size of Belize, and roughly the size of Costa Rica. That's a lot of wildlife. Even at 10 times the price, 5000 square kilometres would save a lot of critically endangered species.

I have been actively involved in wildlife conservation for over 30 years now, and watched the number of workshops, and the number of professional conservationists all increase dramatically. At the same time, the loss of habitat has been dramatic and catastrophic. The funding for one, could provide the funding for the other.

But perhaps the most bizarre feature of the IUCN Bulletin, and its report on the Congress is the lack of any mention of human populations. I cannot claim to have read the Bulletin from cover to cover ( I have some respect for the few remaining grey cells I possess), but a glance through certainly demonstrated that it was not given prominence, if indeed it was mentioned at all. With a current world population of around 6.5 billion, and an increase on last year's of around 75 million, there can be no question that this is the single most important issue confronting nature. It is the issue that drives global warming, rainforest destruction and everything else. But it appears to be politically unacceptable to discuss it.

I believe it is high time that conservationists went back to their roots. The International Union for the Protection of Nature was founded by some of the most eminent international conservationists of the time including Hal Coolidge, Julian Huxley, Max Nicolson and Jean Delacour; they knew what they were doing when the used the term Protection. What is needed is a new movement to protect what little is left. Protection is not incompatible with sustainable development, but conservation is a word that has now been thoroughly abused, and allows the theorists, and the workshop organisers to take over. Protection needs action -- not discussion, nor a profusion of desk bound administrators and accountants.

I will still continue to support the bits of IUCN that are trying to fulfil its original aims and objectives, but I wonder how long it will be before a new organisation will be formed to fulfil the wishes of the disillusioned members who are interested in wildlife.

These are of course personal views -- but if any other individuals who belong to member organisations of IUCN are reading this, I would be interested to know thier views - and publish them here if they wish.