Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Stuff and more Stuff (or Doom and Gloom)

Early in October I wrote about the futility of switching off the odd light and TV to save energy. It becomes more and more apparent to me that the whole issue of consumerism is being blatantly ignored by politicians paying lip-service to environmental concerns. It is perfectly obvious, that all these measures are doing is redistributing our spending. And almost everything we spend on has a huge resource implication. However, watching a TV programme on modern art made me think: Perhaps if millions of dollars/pounds/euros are spent on a piece of modern art (however that is defined) that at least does not have massive implications for the environment. After all a $5million painting only requires very few resources compared with a $5million ocean going boat. Trouble is, that the artist or dealer getting the $5million may well spend it on cars, intercontinental travel etc etc.

Which brings me full circle. While we have a free market, where commodities have to be as cheap as possible, there is little hope. Energy will be wasted, goods will continue to become increasingly disposable, and we will all make more and more unnecessary journeys, and commute longer and longer distances. And if at the same time the population continues to increase, there is only one possible result.

However, I was interested to read a geologist pointing out that this does not mean the planet will be destroyed -- it's not a case of saving planet earth -- it simply means that humans and a few hundred (or perhaps thousands) other species will go. The planet will survive, and so will enough of the other species to start the whole process over again. Over the millennia, catastrophes have wiped out large percentages of life. More recently human civilizations have regularly collapsed. The current 'civilization' has not been around very long, and probably won't be around much longer. But the planet shouldn't worry. But any person under 50 probably should worry. A lot.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Old Growth Logging in Tasmania

Guest blog: A letter received by the World Land Trust on behalf of Sir David Attenborough, and posted with his permission.

Dear Sir David Attenborough,

I urge you to campaign to protect beautiful Tasmania from the ravages of an unscrupulous logging industry which clear-fells ancient old-growth hardwood forests with impunity and is planning a new pulp mill to further accelerate forest destruction. I enclose an article by Richard Flanagan, recently published in The Telegraph in the UK, which eloquently expresses the plight of Tasmania.

The devastation wrought by clear-felling is total - nothing is spared. Many of the mightiest eucalypts are worthless being hollow and ridden with rot. These are bulldozed and burnt along with rare, slow- growing rainforest species such as myrtle, celery-top pine and sassafras. An acquaintance said walking the Tasmanian Trail (a north-south route) was one of the most depressing things she had experienced: 4m diameter tree stumps lay smouldering in wastelands of ash and starving animals were given handfuls of corn from the back of trucks. Gum seedlings, to be planted by hand as part of the 'regeneration' process, are left unplanted in piles by the roadside.

Every day the main road near us is clogged with countless trucks loaded with logs destined to be wood chips and ultimately newspapers in Japan and elsewhere. While the government claims the credit for reserving a large percentage of Tasmania's forests, the reserves mostly contain inaccessible and alpine forest that could not be economically logged. There is widespread use of 1080 bait and atrazine in forestry plantations. Tasmania's unique mammalian population is threatened since most cannot live successfully in new-growth forest, requiring old hollow trees in which to shelter. Tasmania's forests are also home to the majestic wedge-tailed eagle and rare swift parrot.

The logging industry is led by a single, voracious company called Gunns, that is the real power in Tasmania. Their interests spread into all walks of life. The state government seems to exist only to support their interests rather than those of the populace at large. A process was set up to review the viability and environmental credentials of Gunns' proposed new pulp mill, however the commission entrusted with this review started asking too many questions. The state government promptly changed the law to take them out of the process - a process that is in fact a sham, a farce with a guaranteed outcome. A sawmiller that spoke out against old-growth logging was virtually bankrupted by Gunns before being targeted for takeover.

Living here is like living in a feudal, oppressed state. No one dare speak out for fear of a 'red-neck' in a truck coming around to smash up one's place. The state and federal governments doggedly support a marginal industry - already being out-competed by plantation timber from elsewhere in the world - which employs a tiny percentage of Tasmanians, makes a handful of people very rich and denies Tasmanians the tourist wealth it could be reaping.

Because Australia is a western, democratic nation, the world thinks we exaggerate and turns a blind eye, but the destruction and corruption here is as bad as any in the third world. I believe the only way our forests can be saved is by greater international exposure of what is happening. That would surely lead to general vilification from all right-thinking nations. My plea is an urgent one as our forests are disappearing rapidly and the pulp mill is due for approval in August of this year. I thank you for your attention and hope you can help us save our land.

Yours sincerely
Mrs Jenny Cambers-Smith

The newspaper article referred to in this letter can be found at:

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Goat and Cow season is upon us

My attacks on the misguided philanthropy that involves 'sending' cows, goats and other domestic animals to Africa, has had an impact. One very positive outcome has been that Oxfam entered a dialogue with the World Land Trust, and recently assured me that they were starting to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments for their projects. This is clearly a good thing, as it appears that Christian Aid, Send a Cow and many of the others are still not carrying out EIAs. All they seem to do is produce statements from the recipients saying how grateful they are. Well they would, wouldn't they?

My criticisms were very fundamental: overgrazing by domestic animals is one of the most significant causes of habitat degradation in Africa, and hence one of the causes of poverty. The numbers (published by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation -- FAO) speak for themselves. And the published literature on the subject is vast. In the past, whole cultures have disappeared as a result of desertification, in which goats are known to have played a significant role.

But beyond this basic flaw in the arguments for promoting programmes that increase the numbers of livestock in Africa, there are other issues which never seem to be openly addressed. In many parts of Africa, animals are a form of wealth and are often accumulated in numbers way above that needed for sustenance; indeed, animals such as camels, are often status symbols. Whenever there is a drought, (and as everyone knows, these are far from infrequent), hundreds of thousands of goats, sheep, cattle and other livestock, die. Each time there is a drought the numbers dieing increases, simply because more and more animals are being kept, with less and less pasture for them. From a wildlife perspective this is even more disastrous, because the domestic livestock are usually in direct competition with the wild antelope and other grazing animals. But whereas the wild animals are often adapted to cycles of drought, and each species has its own niche, the domestic animals simply turn the landscape to desert.

Of course the philanthropic organisations encouraging poor Africans to keep even more livestock are able to demonstrate that a few of the animals they distribute do no harm, but it is the fundamental principle that I am attacking: more livestock is not a solution to poverty in Africa. It is also a form of Aid Imperialism, often making the recipients dependent on imported veterinary supplies, and potentially creating welfare problems, as many of the animals will be kept in conditions that would not be tolerated by those donating the funds.

But perhaps the most bizarre response came from the International Director of Christian Aid, who seemed to imply that I should not criticise them because we were both charities, and it harmed all charities if I criticised them. The reality, of course was very different; last year we received overwhelming support for our stance against increasing livestock in Africa, with virtually no criticism at all. In fact it is almost impossible to find a conservation scientist who does not believe that the overpopulation of both humans and their domestic stock, is the single most serious cause of poverty in Africa.

Until aid agencies tackle these problems head on, there is little hope for either poverty-stricken humans or wildlife.

10 million more people in Britain?

The Government have predicted that the population of Great Britain will grow by about another 10 million, in the next couple of decades. And this means that hundreds of thousands of new houses will be needed, and that in turn means that parts of the Green Belt will be ripped up, and thousands of acres of agricultural land, as well as wildlife habitats, will disappear under concrete and tarmac. Apart from the direct devastation, there will be indirect problems, such as increased flood risks, pollution etc etc.

But, even though I am no economist, as I have pointed out before now, it does not take a genius to work out that the other solution is to reduce the size of the population. At present the government subsidises children, and encourages those on lower incomes to have larger families. At a stroke, the housing crisis could be reversed simply by encouraging smaller families, or couples to remain childless (a decision I took voluntarily 30 years ago). Economists will often trot out the argument that we need a young, working population in order to support the aging, retired population. But this simply does not hold water. The first twenty years or so of a person's life are very expensive, in terms of healthcare, and education, and that person does no generate any wealth. In the last twenty years of a person's life, they generally have significant wealth, in the form of pensions, savings and property. The problem is, they want to hand this capital over to the next generation, rather than spend it. In historic terms, this is a relatively new phenomenon, and that is where the problem lies.

And until the governments of crowded countries like Britain, realise that continued population growth, and continued nation economic growth are unsustainable, there is little hope for the future of the planet. By allowing the population to decline, individual economic growth may be possible, but corporate profitability will almost certainly decline, and there is the nub of the problem. Policies – from environment to health -- of the world are all being driven by ultimately unsustainable economic growth. Call me old fashioned, but capitalism, as presently construed is clearly unsustainable, as it is concentrating more and more of the world’s wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. In order for this to continue, ever-expanding markets are needed to invest in, and this is seems to be what is driving the politicians to oppose any restrictions on population growth. But perhaps I am missing something?

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The really wild side of Paraguay: A visit to the Chaco-Pantanal reserve

Guest blog by WLT's web manager, Helena Akerlund, who recently returned from Paraguay, where she did some volunteering with Guyra Paraguay.

The Chaco: Vast and harsh, but inhabited landscape

Jabirus (Jabiru mycteria) on the track
When we reached the Humid Chaco, the dry scrubland gave way to a series of ponds and bogs, and suddenly there were birds everywhere - these are Jabirus (Jabiru mycteria). Note the state of the road - it was like this for the full 400km journey!
If the San Rafael Reserve is relatively accessible, the Chaco-Pantanal Reserve certainly isn't. To get there is the opposite of straight forward! Located in the north-east of Paraguay, the reserve is accessible by boat (a one week journey on cargo boat from Concepción), plane (when the weather isn't too stormy) or car (when the roads don't become impassable due to rain.) We travelled in 4x4 trucks, a 900km journey that started with a five hour drive from Asunción on the Trans-Chaco route towards Bolivia. After a stop-over at a hotel in Los Pioneras, we turned off the tarmac road onto an unpaved track crossing more of the vast Chaco region until, after about nine hours (400km) of bumping around on the pot-hole ridden track, we finally reached Bahía Negra (The Black Bay), a small settlement neighbouring the reserve.

The long journey gave us the chance to really get a feel for the Chaco landscape, despite not actually stopping to experience it. In short, the Dry Chaco consists of scrubs, cacti and occasional trees, while in the Humid Chaco you'll see bogs and wetlands, surrounded by palm savannahs and forests. During the rainy season the road turns into little more than a pool of mud, and getting through is virtually impossible. Even outside of the rainy season a sudden downpour can make the journey hazardous, the road becoming more like a newly harrowed crop field: Once, Guyra Paraguay's Rodrigo Zárate with his then eight month pregnant wife Elizabeth Cabrera got stuck here en route to the reserve - for five days! Not an experience they would want to repeat...

Despite the harsh conditions in the Chaco, with temperatures in summer often reaching 45 degrees centigrade or more, there are people living here, and the road passes through several ranches and small settlements. At night the extensive fires lit up the dark sky and during the day we could see the many hundreds of cows grazing the barren fields. In contrast, the area north of Bahía Negra is truly wild, with virtually no settlements and only a few nomadic indigenous communities.

The Pantanal - true wilderness

Caiman (Caiman yacare)
Caimans (Caiman yacare) line the river edges and are fairly unfussed about the occasional boat going past.
From Bahía Negra, we reached the Chaco-Pantanal Reserve by a small motorboat; an hour-long journey up two rivers. First Río Paraguay, with Brazil to the east and then Río Negro, so named because of its silty, black water, surrounded by impenetrable jungle, with Paraguay on one side of the river and Bolivia on the other. With no official crossings, this is not a place you would come if you didn't have a good reason. The nearest doctor is in Bahía Negra and the nearest hospital more than 300km away in Concepción and if planes can't land to pick you up (which is often the case), you are pretty much on your own. Here I finally found real wilderness!

Three Giants Lodge
A sight for sore eyes! After a 15 hour journey, we finally arrived at the Three Giants Lodge.
This is the Pantanal, an area very different from the Chaco, and from any other ecoregion I had so far seen in Paraguay. Dry palm savannahs rub shoulders with incredibly dense forests, where the stunted trees are completely covered in parasitic climbers, clinging to and wrapping themselves around any stem or trunk available, in their search for light. Here, you don't get very far without a machete! When the Three Giants Lodge was built earlier this year, the workers also cleared the area surrounding the lodge. In fact, arriving to the reserve by boat, the first thing you notice is the clearing, with the dark, wooden lodge visible through the palm trees that line the river edge. This was the first significant gap in the vegetation for the entire boat trip! Luckily for visitors to the reserve, the workers have also cleared vegetation to form a network of nature trails. I felt very spoiled walking these trails, knowing how laborious they must have been to create - and maintain.

The Pantanal is also a vast wetland. Naturally the reserve is located on dry ground, but gazing up the river, you can see a smaller scale version of the wetland: The river sides are in places boggy, with large sheets of lilies, which occasionally come loose and float downstream like small islands. Here the caimans hide, only their eyes and nostrils visible above the water. And on top of and around the lily leaves are thousands of birds, each one with a territory seemingly less than a square metre large.

Wildlife in the Pantanal

Giant Otters (Pteronura brasiliensis)Giant Otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) in the Chaco-Pantanal Reserve.
During our three days stay we didn't see a single boat go past, but we did spot the neighbours: A family of giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis). We couldn't believe our luck when we saw the heads of two otters bobbing up and down in the river, but the following day we saw the whole family: eight adults and four cubs. The otters swim past the lodge at least twice a day on their journey between their holt (den) and feeding grounds, so if you keep your eyes on the river you're pretty much guaranteed to see them.

Then there was the resident jaguar (Panthera onca). Two of the Guyra staff, who travelled up the evening before the rest of the party, spotted the big cat wandering right past the Three Giants at midnight, and with its favourite claw-sharpening trees situated in the middle of the trails, no more than a few hundred yards from the lodge, we were hopeful of a sighting. But no such luck. Perhaps it was the cheer number of people that put it off (a group of teenagers from Bahía Negra were also visiting the lodge at the time), perhaps we were just unlucky. But it did make its presence known to us...

Walking along one of the trails, we suddenly heard a muffled growl, and stopped dead in our tracks. Not sure whether it was what we thought it was we listened, too alarmed to breathe. Then we heard it again, but this time from the other side of the trail! We now thought we were surrounded by two angry jaguars, and suddenly we weren't so sure we wanted to come face to face with the cat after all. We waited, hearts beating so hard we were sure the animals could hear them, but there were no more growls. Eventually we carried on, slightly more hesitantly than before, and made it back to the lodge safe. One of the guards ensured us that if the growl had sounded at all quiet it meant that the animal had been far away. I'm not so sure... Suffice to say that there are jaguars here, and that the guards built their hut on stilts just in case. (And we slept with the shutters facing the veranda closed, as we didn't fancy being woken up by a jaguar jumping in through the window...)

Staying in the Chaco-Pantanal Reserve is very much on nature's terms - but we wouldn't have wanted it any other way!

In my next and final post I'll talk about the enthusiastic, young explorers we met in the Chaco-Pantanal (which there wasn't enough space for here) and I'll outline why you should go visit the reserves in Paraguay too. (And perhaps I'll include the full list of birds I saw, for those serious birders who may be reading this!)

Friday, 9 November 2007

Too Many Orang-utans

There are hundreds, if not thousands of orang-utans, gorillas, gibbons and other primates in rescue centres in Africa and Asia and elsewhere. There are so many that it is difficult to know what to do with them. Suggestions to release them back in the wild are given a luke-warm reception, at best, by conservationists. This is because releasing primates that have been in captivity back into the wild is fraught with problems, and can even have negative impacts. It is also rarely a cost effective method of conserving an endangered species -- spending the equivalent amount of money on conserving existing wild populations is invariably a far more cost effective way of helping a species.

But there is a huge welfare issue, with more and more of these animals accumulating, often in conditions that are not ideal. So what can be done with them? One thing I am fairly certain of, and that is that this is a welfare issue, not a conservation issue.

Meanwhile back in the northern hemisphere, zoos are struggling to breed orang-utans, gorillas and other primates, in order to create self sustaining populations, that do not create a drain on the wild -- often dressing it up as part of their conservation programmes.

Surely it would make sense for zoos to stop trying to breed orangs etc., and to put them on birth control pills, and to take in some of the hundreds of animals languishing in rescue centres? Or am I missing something? For someone who has spent a large part of his working life opposing the trade in wildlife, this is a pretty heretical concept. But when confronted with the sheer numbers of orangs in captivity, which still continue to grow, some radical rethinking is needed, which does not waste conservation money. Unfortunately, in the public's mind, separation is often very difficult indeed, and orangs are highly emotive. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised each year from a public who often mistakenly believe they are helping an endangered species survive. Those thousands of the dollars spent on rescue centres, would of course, if spent on conserving wild populations and their habitat have a much bigger impact.

But it would still leave a thousand or more orangs in captivity.