Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Water colonialsim

Last week I met with Pete taylor, who worked for the WLT a few years ago, setting up the Focus on Forests website. Since then Pete has worked with Friends of the Earth, and is now working for the World Development Movement (WDM) on their website. I had a good look at their website, and there are several parts of it which will have resonance with some of my readers -- they certainly struck a chord with me.

Unlike most of the big development agencies, WDM does not recieve large amounts of its funding from DFID, or other government agencies, and consequently is able to criticise, when criticism is justified. The following following link is a fairly alarming report:

The British Government, it appears is spending £30 million on encouraging poor countries to privatise their water companies. With predictions that the next majopr wars will be fought over water resources, this could be viewed as a very cynical attempt to recolonise the poorer nations. Imperial colonisation may have passed into history, but economic colonisation is alive and well -- just look at the spread of CocaCola and Macdonalds. But it is scary when funding ostensibly intended as aid, is used to encourage such economic colonialism. [When it comes to water, the French have achieved in England, a degree conquest which was beyond Napoleon's grasp!]

I confess a total dislike of the very concept of private ownership of resources such as energy and water. They should be a common heritage and managed for the benfit of the commonweal. They should not be used to line the pockets of a few investors and speculators. They are also the prime example of how when profits for the shareholders are claimed to equate with efficiency, other benefits are ignored. Which is easy to do, when you have an de facto monopoly. I have never ever really heard a convincing argument for privatising water supplies, for instance. Our local water companies have changed hands several times, but it's still the same water coming through the pipes, from the same boreholes; the only difference seems to be that different groups of shareholders have taken some of the profits that could have been used to repair the leaks in the system and help conserve water. And how energy efficient is it when French electircal engineers come all the way to East Anglia to repair cabling, because the company is owned by French shareholders? (as happened locally last week). If governments are going to be serious about energy and natural resource conservation, they are going to have to think very seriously indeed about privatisation, because in many cases privatisation of such resources is incompatible with conservation. I recall having the basics of this explained to me in the early 1970s, when I was part of a team working of the Whale Manual for Friends of the Earth. Under any competetive industry regime, it was not 'efficient'to conserve whales. It was in the interests of the investors to extirminate them as rapidly as it was compatible with profit margins, and certainly in the lifetime of equipment used to extirminate them..... but that's another story.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Sir Peter Scott's Legacy

In 1984, when I was the chief executive of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International, FFI), I edited a book published for the National Trust -- The National Trust Book of British Wild Animals. And the foreword to this volume was written by Sir Peter Scott, the eminent naturalist, conservationist and broadcaster, who at that time was Chairman of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society.

Sir Peter Scott concluded his foreword with the following paragraph:

"As the world's tropical forests disappear to become chipboard or make way for the grazing of beef cattle, one can only regret that the National Trust does not have an international counterpart.... At this time the importance of land acquisition, and preservation, and the power to declare it 'inalienable' is vitally important if we are to pass on to our children the still significant richness of wildlife we inherited from our parents."

Five years later I had left the Fauna & Flora Preservation Society and was starting what was to become the World Land Trust, but in 1989 when Sir Peter died, it was only a single project, fundraising for Programme for Belize. I can only think now how delighted Sir Peter would have been to see the World Land Trust really develop into what it is today. Throughout my early days in international conservation he had always been a source of encouragement and inspiration, and Vivien Burton worked as his Conservation Assistant at the Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust)in Slimbridge, before finally moving to Suffolk after we married in 1980.

It was only when skimming through the National Trust book, that I was reminded of Sir Peter Scott's support for the concept of land acquisition -- support that Lady Philippa Scott has continued, and Sir Peter has indeed supported posthumously through his foundation.

It is slightly depressing to me to find that many of the younger generation no longer relise the huge contribution made to conservation by Sir Peter Scott and his generation. His name, together with Julian Huxley, Max Nicolson, and a dozen more being almost unknown to the generation emerging from university today. There is a lot to learn from history. Particularly natural history.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Greenwash and carbon sequestration. And Will Rogers' relevance

The UK press has recently been full of articles concerning carbon offsets, mostly critical, pointing out that many people and companies are simply using it as a way of greenwashing and absolving their consciences. To a large extent I agree, and in discussions , the Board of Trustees have generally agreed. However, the WLT's position is equally clear, in supporting reforestation as a significant way of reversing environmental degradation. In fact the WLT's Chairman recently had a letter published in The Independent newspaper putting forward the WLT position:

With 20%-25% of atmospheric carbon coming from deforestation, clearly reforestation is a very important issue. And while the WLT's contributions are admittedly small, they are nonetheless important as a demonstration. And I personally would strongly argue that preserving existing old-growth forests is actually the most important way of off-setting carbon emissions. My reasoning is thus: almost all other forms of off-setting and emissions reduction have potentially negative impacts. This is something I have commented on numerous times in my blog. Saving energy means saving money = more money to spend. Go to a charity shop and you can see the end result of profligate spending and a society that is bent on having every up-to-date gizmo and gadget, the latest fashions, and too much 'stuff' all round.

I am back where I always end up. Saving a few kilowatts of energy, sequestering a few tonnes of carbon, is not the answer. Though it certainly will not do any harm to reduce energy consumption. Slowing down consumerism, slowing down population growth is the only real answer. But who will face that reality?

So meanwhile I am back quoting Will Rogers: "Buy land. God ain't makin' anymore of it".

Nature notes: From Acorns grow mighty oaks

Walking the dog last autumn I also gathered a bag of acorns for Richard, our pet pig. And while gathering them I pondered why there were so many acorns. A huge oak produces vast numbers of acorns year after year (does anyone know exactly how many?), and an oak may live for several hundred years. But in the grand scheme of life, all it really needs to do is reproduce itself. So why does it have so many acorns? One possible explanation is that it prevents a disease, such as Dutch Elm which devasted the largely clonal English Elms, from wiping the entire species out. But another idea which occurred to me is that it may be a mechanism for preserving a species over longer periods of time. Perhaps time on a geological scale. Is it possible, for instance that among those millions and millions of acorns that there is one that could grow into an oak that is adapted to tropical conditions? One that is not deciduous? One that is capable of surviving arctic conditions? One that can survive waterlogged soils? This seems highly probable. This means that over a period of centuries, when climate change becomes a reality, the odd oak would survive, to start new generations. Just a thought -- and not something it would be very easy to demonstrate experimentally.

There was a bumper acorn crop last year in Suffolk, and there was also a bumper crop of blackberries, which are now withered and dry on the bramble bushes. This latter is worrying -- where were all the birds that normally would have grown fat on the crop? A stretch of hedgerow that would have had perhaps 2 or 3 pairs of whitethroats, a pair of lesser whitethroats a blackap etc etc, had but a single pair of whithtroats nesting in it, and during the migration season no noticeable influx of birds. Where are all the birds? As I write, early in 2007 it is still noticeable how few birds there are around compared with previous years. But more worrying is if I think back over the 50 years I have been watching birds, there is a huge number of species, once abundant, now rarely seen, a huge number of birding localities disappeared under concrete. And that's without taking into account of the millions and millions of hectares of habitat that have disappeared in the wintering grounds of our summer migrants. In fact it's a miracle there are any summer migrants left.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Buy More Land. Save More Rainforests

It is the begining of a New Year, (a happy New Year to all my readers), and a time for reflection on the past. Last year was a very successful year for the WLT. We raised more funds (thanks to you all) and helped our partners acquire some exciting new reserves. And 2007 could be even more exciting. We have already received a significant donation that will help buy a very important piece of rainforest in Argentina, and individual supporters are steadily increasing. It doesn't matter if a donation is £25 or £250,000, we have found that because the WLT produces tangible results, our supporters give according to their means. They don't feel that a £25 gift is meaningless, they know it makes a difference. And if they had got it, many of you have said you would give us £250,000; and some have. That is why I have high hopes for 2007.

Already donations are up on previous years', and we are planning to fund the acquisition of a large area of Atlantic rainforest in northern Argentina, more land in Brazil, even more in Paraguay. Dry chaco, humid chaco, pantanal, montane forests, Atlantic forest, elfin forests, are just a few of the habitats that the WLT is helping save.

Land prices have increased dramatically in the 17 years since the World Land Trust was founded, but because we are now helping such a wide range of projects, £25 is still a pretty good average. Some places it can be as little as $20 a hectare (£5.00 an acre, while others it is over $250 (£60.00 an acre). But the WLT is not looking at land in terms of a realisable future value -- we are concerned with its value for wildlife, and fortunately some of the really cheap land is also unbelievably important for wildlife.

So in 2007, please do keep the donations coming in, to quote Will Rogers (not Mark Twain as is often thought) "Buy land. God ain't makin' anymore of it".

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Taxonomy, and Endangered Taxonomists

I grew up in an era when natural history museums were populated with taxonomists, and the staff dealing with public galleries and exhibitions were a real minority. A situation now largely reversed. And at that time taxonomy was an essential part of botany and zoology 'A' level in schools, and later at university. Now hardly any British universities teach even the most rudimentary taxonomy. There has also been a decline in natural history in the form it used to exist -- primary schools now rarely have a nature table, and there are fewer natural history societies catering for the taxonomically minded -- partly because sticking pins in insects and squashing plants is not as popular as it once was.

However, the loss of taxonomists is becoming serious -- they are a vital link in the biodiversity chain. Without competent experts to identify wildlife how do we monitor its decline? How do we identify new species? While DNA and other advanced technological solutions will help, I can't help feeling that the oldfashioned naturalist -still has a major role to play. Afterall, they are often the ones who are passionate about an obscure group of arachnids or mosses. Lab-based taxonomy can never inspire that sort of enthusiasm, which is often so vital for conservation.

This year sees the tercentenary of the birth of Carl von Linné (more usually known as Linnaeus), the founding father of modern biological nomenclature. It is difficult now to realise how important the stabilisation of nomenclature was -- taxonomy and systematics both require as a prequisite stable nomencalture, and almost all other aspects of biological science, to a greater or lessser degree depend on it. Although Linnaeus did not nominate types for his species in the way modern scientists do, it is his collections, housed in a bomb-proof vault that provide the base-line collection for all museums throughout the world. If this is all new to you, have a look at

I have been a Fellow of the Linn.Soc. for over 35 years, and it is the hope of most Fellows that 2007 will see a resurgence of interest in classical taxomomy, as well as advanced taxonomy -- both have their place. And both are an integral part of the efforts to conserve biodiversity for the future. While the tercentenary will be looking back to the birth of Linnaeus, I and many other Fellows of the Linnean Society will be looking forward to see what we can save of the world's biodiversity.

For several years now, I have been advocating the use of taxonomy for helping fund conservation -- naming species after persons or institutions that have made significant contributions to conserving a species -- for instance by funding the purchase of a nature reserve. While there are plenty of precedents for this, it is truly amazing how this concept raises storms of protest, particularly from non-taxonomists. In many other fora I have argued the case and described the precedents, but to me it is such an obvious benefit, that I am still surprised when objections are raised. The main problem is that generally it is rather small and seemingly insignificant forms of life that are being described, and not many people are too keen on having a new species of snail or moss named after them, even if they have given £20,000 to save a huge area of habitat where it and other species are found. But birds and orchids would be a differnt matter.

In the year of the Linnean Tercentenary, it will be an interesting debate, and views are welcome from scientists, taxonomists and anyone else.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Do Fundraisers raise funds?

This week's Third Sector magazine (10 Jan 2007) has an interesting edtorial by Nick Cater, which is highly critical of professional fundraisers. It led me to dig out an old draft of a blog I wrote, back last summer, but never published, so here it is:

A fundraiser is a person who raises funds, q.e.d. And very often the persons best able to do that are staff involved with programme implementation and delivery, as well as volunteers. In my experience -- which stretches back well over thirty years -- almost every pound spent on a professional fundraiser would have been more cost-effective if spent on PR. If what a charity is doing is worth while, provided your target audience knows about it (hence the PR) then the funds will generally come in. And as far as writing applications to foundations generally, with a modicum of training, the programme managers can do it far more effectively than a professional fundraiser .

Like all generalisations, this is of course far too simplistic. But within the charity fundraising world there an almost cultlike dependency on fundraisers. And now that it is institutionalised, barriers and regulations have been established to ensure the sustainability of the fundraising industry. While I am not saying that all fundraisers are a waste of money, I am saying that they are not always the most cost effective way of raising funds. In other word "caveat emptor" -- anyone seeking to raise funds should be aware that professional fundraisers have a vested interest in promoting their profession -- which is, like the Emperor's clothes, relatively new.

It is of course almost impossible to prove claims such as I have just made, one way or the other. But, certainly PR has always achieved far more than fundraisers for the WLT. And in other parts of the charity trade press there are some scary examples of how professional fundraisers have ripped off charities -- raising £800,000 but only £50,000 going to the charity for example.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Buying rainforest IS the best way of preserving it

Trawling the internet for sites dealing with rainforest issues a few months ago I came across the following site

And in their 'kids corner' there was a Q & A, and among the questions and answers the following:

Q: Why not buy rainforest land instead? Isn't that better?
A: Rainforest Action Network believes that, in most cases, buying rainforest land is not the best way to protect it. Most "buy-an-acre" programs ignore the fact that there are people who live in and depend upon the forest. We believe that the best way to protect rainforest land in the long run is to allow the indigenous peoples who live there to control what happens to their own land. Because indigenous peoples depend on the rainforest for their survival, they often do the best job of protecting it. Besides, it would take a lot more money to buy fifteen thousand acres of rainforest land than it would to protect it through the Protect-an-Acre program.

Now I am afraid this is simply NOT TRUE. The World Land Trust is one of the relatively few organisations involved in land purchase, and 'most' buy an acre programs do NOT ignore the fact that there are people who live in and depend on the forest. In fact I don't know any organisations that ignore this so-called fact. So in May 2006 I challenged the authors of this text to identify the projects which have bought land inhabited by people. And also justify all their other claims. Another fact is that huge areas of forest are not inhabited by indigenous peoples, or anyone else.

The WLT is currently investigating two major land purchases in South America, with our local partners. Both these areas have populations of indigenes living in or around them, and it is of critical importance that their needs and aspirations are taken into account when developing a strategy for managing these forests. However, since the lands are already privately owned, there are very real problems that have to be addressed.

However, the Rainforest Action Network have never responded to my emails -- and I strongly suspect that this is because they cannot find any evidence to justify their claims. However, I don't see any point in arguing about the pros and cons of purchase versus lease because, in fact, both have their place.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Science for the poor

And another paper in this excellent on-line journal. This really does give food for thought, and one which I will be circulating widely. It deals with an issue, I believe the World Land Trust really needs to take to heart.

Corridors work!

This contains an interesting article, for the more scientifically minded of my readers. It shows how effective wildlife corridors can be, in this case for wolves and elk (wapiti) in Canada. It is likely that the same effects will be observed in India with Wild Dog (dhole) and other carnivores, such as tigers. In places like india, where land is costly, corridors between protected areas can be a very cost-effective way of increasing the area of land available to populations of larger mammals.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Meanwhile, back on the bridge of the Titanic

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is a metaphor I rather like.

The iceberg is there, very clearly looming in front of us.

The Titanic has all its engines throbbing away, and the politicians, rich industrialists and their cronies are still rearranging the deck chairs.

That's probably OK for them because, being the passengers travelling in First Class, they will stand a very good chance of getting into the lifeboats, and they have already located where they all are.

The hundreds of other passengerss, travelling Steerage, can't even see the iceberg, don't know where the lifeboats are, and in any case will be trapped below decks when the Titanic hits the iceberg.

Over Christmas I pondered the impending environmental crisis. Like the looming iceberg, 9/10ths of it is invisible, but it is nonethess very obvious.

We are all being urged to save energy, and cut back on environmentally damaging activities. Lots of us gave ethical or environmentally friendly Christmas presents. But what real effect did any of this have? We may cut down on our energy use over Christmas but what did we buy with it? Possibly some electronic or electrical equipment such as a new refridgerator -- but made in China, and shipped across the world, helping boost one of the most polluting economies in the world. That's part of the other 9/10ths of the iceberg.

The iceberg that is looming is simply comprised of too many people with unattainable aspirations. I got into some fairly heated debates in the run up to Christmas, with aid agencies, trying to bring Africa out of poverty. But what was never mentioned was the environmental implications of the 'make poverty history' campaigns. There is a wall of silence -- the fog surrounding the iceberg. Making poverty history is a nice concept. But where will all the resources come from? Where is all the water needed for starters. A pretty basic need, which has never been adequately thought through. In the course of discussions with various agencies dispersing goats to the poor of Africa, it became very apparent that despite a lot of their talk, there was very little long-term thinking, very little environmental impact assessment. It was all short term thinking, driven by emotional, quick-fix responses. A quick glance at any of the websites is all you need to confirm this.

The problem is, that if one starts to look at the problems of Africa as an anthropologist or a biologist, one of the first things you realise is that for several hundred years, the human population was controlled by disease, famine, warfare and slavery. Just removing these, without replacement with effective alternatives, actually allows the population to spiral, and then crash when disease, famine, warfare and slavery reappear in an even more dreadful guise. Britain and the rest of Europe went through these phases, as did many other parts of the world, on a much smaller scale. And Europe, after centuries of evolution has finally reached a degree of stability and prosperity which is unthinkable in most of Africa and many other parts of the world. But sending second hand clothes, giving people goats, and equipping modern armies will not help Africa achive that stability.

So what can we do? Try and get as much as we can into the lifeboats, before the Titanic goes down. And that is what I feel we at the World land Trust are doing. Saving small bits, that are saveable. By not overloading out lifeboats, there is a chance they will be able to survive the collision. But like the Titanic, there are not enough lifeboats - so help us provide a few more. Each of our partners' reserves are lifeboats for endangered species, many of which will not otherwise survive when the Titanic hits the iceberg. It probably won't help Africa get out of poverty, any more than any of the present solutions, but it might mean there is some sort of future for the planet's other inhabitants. And unlike some of the so-called solutions to Africa's problem, it won't do harm or make the problem worse.