Thursday, 2 June 2005

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.

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