Friday, 22 July 2005

Population, yet again

I may be wrong, but I get the impression that the burgeoning human population of the planet is becoming an issue, albeit slowly, once more. Have a look at this article, which gives an US perspective.

John Seager: Straight Talk about Population

As readers of this blog will know, I have a tendency to go on (and on) about the human population and its growth, being the factor underpinning almost all of the plantet's problems. Certainly, we cannot "make poverty history", and at the same time maintain western standards of living, unless the human population declines dramatically. To quote John Seager's article cited above weare "in deep denial about basic science..."

So please read Seager's article, and put it in a local perspective, wherever you are in the world.

The best thing anyone can do to help slow down global warming, is not reproduce themselves, or at least have families of two or fewer. And remember the wealthier you are, the more damage to the planet your offspring, and their future generations, are likely to cause.

In 2001, the industrialised countries of the worldconsumed 211 quadrillion Btu of energy, releasing 11,600 million tonnes of carbon -- compare this with Africa which conumed only 12 quadrillion Btu of energy, and released only 843 million tonnes of carbon. In other words the average peson in the developed world has an impact on global warming, 13 times greater than the average African, and is responsible for the use of nearly 18 times as much energy.

It's food for thought.

Monday, 18 July 2005

Light Pollution and insects

Outside our house , overlooking the adjacent Village Hall car park there is a light. An one-hundred watt lamp, high on a telegraph pole, and last night I noticed dozens of insects flying around it. Since the adjacent land is a mixture of woodland and meadows and organic gardens, this is to be expected. But this is but a single, relatively low powered light. What is the impact of the tens of millions of lights? Street lights line almost every road in every town, suburb and village. While the light in a room attracts moths and other night flying insects. Billions of insects are disoriented. But is it my imagination, or are there any data to support my view that there are significantly fewer insects flying at night? In tons and suburbs, hardly any are to be seen around street lights, and any that are attracted are likely to be swatted by passing cars. And what effect do car headlamps have on insects? Any one who has flown at night will be aware of how much light pollution there is -- from miles and miles away, the streets can be seen . So from what distance can lights draw in insects?

are there any entomolgists reading this blog? If so any pointers to relevant literature would be very welcome. One useful site I found was the following:

It appears that a lot of research has been done, and my initial understanding is that there are potentially very serious problems, but so far there is no coordinate plan of action, or indeed coherent summary of the problem.

Recreating meadows

A success story

Over the weekend I got some heartening news. A friend phoned earlier in the week to say he had heard a Corn Crake calling in a meadow he had created a few years ago. What should he do? I suggested he phone the RSPB, who after initial skepticism, having heard a tape recording came rushing round. It was indeed a male Corn Crake, and the RSPB also caught the bird, and established the fact that it was not one of the birds that had been released into the wild as part of a reintroduction programme. It was not ringed. Which all goes to show, if you create the right habitat, then wildlife can, and often will, flourish. The hay meadows were created out of arable fields, and are now mown, then grazed by sheep, as part of measures to increase the biodiversity of the are. And as further proof, as drove to the field on Sunday evening to hear the Corn Crake, there was also a hobby hunting in the dusk, chasing the swallows and martins that were feeding on the myriad insects that were found there.

DIY Meadows

On a much small scale, I have been managing a two acre field, to try and create a flower rich sward. Less than two years ago, when we moved in the field was completely overgrown and dominated by thistles and nettles, with barely any grass visible, and almost no other flowering plants. The autumn we moved in I had the field mown twice, just before the thistles set seed and soon after, when they had regrown. Grass immediately began to flourish and for the next three months I used a 'spud' to remove as many of the isolated thistles and nettles, and a mower to keep the dense patches under control. By early in the new year, grass was dominating, and we introduced a 'flock' of sheep. Four Shetlands and a Jabob. All small, very hardy breeds. By the end of the winter, they had done a great job and grazed the ground to a close short turf -- in fact we were having to supplement their diet with hay and other feeds. Sheep have little pointed hooves, and some areas of the new meadow became severely poached, and so having made arrangements to rent another field for grazing, we also acquired a llama. The idea was that llamas are much larger, and consume more vegetation, but have padded feet, so weight for weight (or biomass) cause less damage to the turf. And they also have a great advantage over sheep in that they deposit their dung in heaps. Good for the garden and good for nutrient reduction in the meadows.

Reducing Nutrients

One of the key actions needed in creating a flower rich meadow, is reducing the nutrient levels in the soils, otherwise grasses will dominate. There has been a lot of research carried out, and in some cases most of the topsoil has been removed in order to create a flower-rich meadow. It is early day to decide whether or not llama grazing is effective, but it will be interesting to know if any of the people keeping llamas and alpacas (of which there are quite a number in Britain and North America now) have observed any changes in the flora.

Implications for Nature reserves

Many nature reserves, both managed by English Nature, and those managed by RSPB, local Wildlife Trusts and others now have grazing animals as part of their management regime. Usually they use sheep, but Polish Koniik ponies (popularly referred to as Tarpans -- which are actually extinct) and sometimes cattle are used. The problem is, that most of the reserves using animals in this way, are keeping the animals on the pasture permanently, or at least seasonally. In the past this was not the case, animals were usually coralled or 'folded' at night. One of the reasons for this was that the dung was a valuable resource, needed for fertilizing the arable fields. Consequently the fertility of the pasture, common lands etc was gradually reduced. This concept was underpinned in a recent farm tour given on Anne Clifford's family farm (Anne is the WLT Donations Manager). This is an organic farm, and part of the management includes sheep, and one of the functions of the sheep is to produce manure for the arable crops. They are not just for meat and wool production.

Current management regimes do not take all this into account, and therefore using grazing animals on permanent pastures may well be increasing the nutrient levels, and leading to long-term changes in the flora. Consequently, while it may be aesthetically pleasing to have sheep or other animals grazing a nature reserve, it is. Unless they are being rounded up at night, it may be ecologically better to mechanically mow, bale and remove the hay, in order to keep nutrient levels low.

Hope for the future

But whatever is done, it is certainly better than the barren wastelands of agri-business that once dominated the rural landscape. Already change is apparent in East Anglia. Broader margins around fields, and more pasture; and more organic/ conservation grade farming. There are still thousands of sterile acres, but it is getting better. There is hope.

Tuesday, 12 July 2005

Making the population crisis history?

Something has been conspicuously absent from the agenda of any of the debates on global warming, or at the G8 Summit. Human population growth.

It has been widely stated that global warming is the single greatest threat to the planet. But this is NOT true. The single greatest threat to the world is the CAUSE of global warming, and the cause is the human species, its insatiable demand for energy, and its rapid, uncontrolled growth. In terms of energy, the growth is more damaging in the developed world, so far. But what if the Blair and Geldof succeed in their mission to 'make poverty history' in Africa for example?

Historically, in most parts of the world, wars, famine and disease kept the population low. In Britain and most other parts of the developed world, disease and other 'natural' mortality such as death in childbirth, were greatly reduced, at the same time that food production increased, and better education of women reduced the reproduction rates. This has not been the case all over the world -- with dire consequences.

What will happen in Africa?

Until female education levels greatly improve, and women are able to control their fertility, populations will continue to grow; that is a widely observed fact. The only process that is limiting that growth at present is famine and warfare, and to a greatly reduced level of disease, and death inchildbirth. Humanitarian aid is aimed at wiping out disease, and curtailing warfare. This in turn leads to population growth, which in turn leads to stresses leading to warfare, poverty and disease. It's a vicious cycle, but looking at it from the perspective of a population biologist, the only way to break the cycle is to reverse or slow down the population growth rate, and the only way to do that is to improve female education levels. It may be a tough one to swallow, but is it possible that instead of spending money on food aid, which might exacerbate the problem long-term, the aid should only be directed at education?

As I have written many times before, politicians rarely look beyond the next election when making their promises. And unfortunately most aid charities look to solve the immediate problem, without having an exit strategy or a long term plan. And even when there is, in theory, a long term plan, the ramifications and implications of success are rarely examined. These factors all combine to create a recipe for future disasters.

Wednesday, 6 July 2005

More criticisms of Foreign aid

As a result of my criticisms of foreign aid, I am often asked how I justify the work of the World Land Trust. To me the answer is simple. First it is not aid, in the way that humanitarian charities dish it out, and second it is part of a clearly thought out strategy.

What does the WLT fund?

When the WLT is approached with a project by a potential overseas partner, the project is evaluated against a set of criteria -- these criteria are given on our website for anyone to see. Particularly important criteria, are the exit strategy, and the prospects for long-term sustainablility. And this is where I see major differences between our approach and those involving humanitarian aid.

Muddled thinking

Everything I see and hear leads me to the conclusion that there is a huge amount of very muddled thinking, with totally unrealistic targets being set. We realise that what the WLT is doing is small, and not on the scale that is really needed to change the world. But at least it is realistic and achievable, because we have thought it through. But for politicians (looking at the next election) and rock stars (image conscious) to claim they are going to make poverty history, is not only unrealistic, but misguided. First, what do they actually mean by poverty? Poverty does not have objective criteria, it is a constantly moving and variable definition. Do they mean raise everyone to the minimum standard of living expected in Britain or the USA? If so have they thought of the implications for global warming, if the population of Africa or Asia consumed the same amount of energy as even the poorer people in the developed world? In our money-orientated world, we have perhaps forgotten that money cannot solve all problems. In fact, the introduction of cash into rural economies can be a contributing factor actually causing poverty.

Where does all the money go?

And what happens when aid is dished out? What happens when a developing country's economy starts to grow as a result of aid? Where are the profits from such development banked and invested -- that is surely the root of the problem. The so called free market philosophies simply mean that anyone making profit in the developing world, will inevitably invest those profits in Swiss banks or other parts of the developed world. Even such countries as Argentina, with considerable natural wealth, have seen exactly that happen; as soon as there was an economic downturn, there was a mass exodus of capital to the USA and elsewhere.

The demands for debt relief are well meant, but if they simply lead to more debt being incurred, probably pointless. And while the developed world continues to give loans (in order to sell arms and other commodities), the cycle will continue. Will the debt relief have any impact at all on those living in refugee camps? I doubt it.

Buying Land

A dilemma for the World Land Trust involves the purchase of lands. When for instance, we provide the funds for our partner to buy land, in Ecuador, the funds are in dollars. The vendor may or may not put that money in a local bank -- there is nothing to stop those funds going straight into the USA. However, the positive side is that the land, which is in the longterm the most valuable asset, is retained within the country, owned and managed by a local NGO. The land becomes the capital needed for developing sustainable incomes -- for ecotourism, scientific tourism and any activity which provides employment and local incomes, without destroying the resource base.

Finally the sort of criticisms bandied about concerning foreign aid ending up in the wrong hands, often all too true. And the NGOs are often far from blameless. I don't think I have ever seen so many gleaming new white 4x4s as in Kampala, and a large number were for the NGOs, who are also drawing fat salaries, living in airconditioned hotels, while doling out aid to truly impoverished and desperate people. I could go on, but before anyone rushes to the defense of individual projects (and I know there are some that are well thought out) I would point out that it is the overall impact I am discussing. I do not see any evidence that the majority of humanitarian aid achieves its long term objectives (presuming that the long term objectives are to improve the lot of the poorer people dwelling in a country). This is particularly true in most of Africa.


Solving the problems is more difficult, and I do not pretend in anyway to have relevant expertise, but land reform is probably one of the issues. Certainly, in effect that is what the WLT and its partners are attempting. We are bring back into public ownership lands that should be owned by the world at large, and not exploited for individual gain. Finally it all boils down to the thing that no one mentions: human population growth.