Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Letter to the Guardian in response to The Great Land Grab

Last week, John Vidal published an article in the Guardian, The Great Land Grab, which was very critical of land purchase as a method of conservation. World Land Trust Patron, Sir David Attenborough, responded on the Trust's behalf in Buying land can save the world's wilderness areas and a discussion sprung up on the WLT's group page on Facebook. Below is a letter to the Guardian in response to Vidal's article, from Dr. Michael S. Roy of Conservation through Research Education and Action, providing a voice from the 'front line' of conservation, which we thought our readers would find informative.

Dear Editor

In his article "The Great Green Land Grab" of 13th February (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/feb/13/conservation) John Vidal raises our awareness of the current trend of land purchasing by environmental charities in order to save critical and highly threatened habitats across the world. He also brings to our attention the failures of some of those purchases but does not provide full details as to why they failed. The article offers little hope only nightmarish scenarios of conservation groups cheating indigenous people out of their birth right, but fails wholly to identify the complexity and ultimate causes of both the conservation crisis nor the plight of indigenous peoples.

In my first point I would like to set the record straight since John Vidal paints a very disturbing picture of environmental NGOs, the great majority of which are standing against the tidal wave of planetary change using justice and peace as their core weapons. As our last wilderness areas with high biodiversity come under the axe, the developing world, where most of these areas are, have been incapable of thwarting the pressure to give up their natural resources by large corporations and western governments. To work with local people and hope for internal change through aid incentives and education is a necessary but long term approach to conservation. Sometimes however, these simply do not work as stand alone strategies in the face of governments with huge foreign debts to first world nations that will bend over backwards to attract international investment. In these cases natural resources may be a long term necessity but are often seen as a short term luxury. We simply don't have time to wait in many critical areas of the globe and as many learned reports show (eg Millenium Ecosystem Report), conservation is losing the battle. It has therefore been reasoned by many conservation groups that the best and most lasting way to conserve what is left is to buy or rent land, before developers can irreversibly extract the natural resources from them, and provide education and develop sustainable livelihoods for local people during and after the process. Buying land to advance conservation and social ideals is a valid and acceptable practice that has brought prosperity and sustainability to many poor rural communities.

In my second point, Mr Vidal cites conservation as a major player in the social upheaval of indigenous people in the developing world, coining the phrase eco-colonists. However this is very far from the truth in my experience. In many countries again root causes stem from indebted or corrupt governments and multi-national business. It is these that pose the greatest concern for indigenous groups, from eviction from badly planned national parks by national governments (as Mr. Vidal correctly identifies), to mining, petroleum and logging. In Panama, a tropical country rich in biodiversity, indigenous peoples are not being evicted from their land, they are just totally neglected in land use planning. In one case a multiple hydroelectric scheme to be built and operated by the US firm AES will flood part of the Amistad National Park, a World Heritage Site, and drown the homes and livelihoods of the indigenous Teribe people whose ancestral home is the watershed. These dams will also cause the very likely extinction of at least 9 fish species representing about 75% of the river biomass and food source for local people. Many conservation organisations, local and international, are rushing to the aid of the indigneous people and helping them with their legal battle against the government who gave away the concession without the consent of the tribe.

Along the Caribbean coast the Panamanian government has given a 13,000 ha concession to the Canadian Petaquilla mining company, that will devastate this Atlantic primary forest and make it an huge toxic open cast gold and copper mine. This region is part of the Meso-American Biological corridor, a supposed conservation region that has cost millions of dollars to implement (a large part paid for by the European Union) and has included rural development projects to aid local communities achieve their conservation goals. Conservation and social justice groups in Panama are joining forces to condemn this project due the impact that it will have on the local people and the environment.

It is of course necessary to take indigenous and rural communities into full consideration and even hand over control of natural resources to them but this must also be done with caution and good planning. Indigenous people in Panama remain the poorest group with high infant mortality, low life expectancy and chronic malnutrition. Under this situation even indigenous people can fall into the natural resource sell off trap for short term profit. The Ngobe-Bugle of Panama have laid waste to their forest habitat as a result of selling off their timber and adopting western farming techniques but still remain the poorest of the indigenous groups in Panama. The Kuna of Madungandi are currently selling their forests (albeit unwillingly) to logging companies and trucks laden with trees hundreds of years old are often seen in long convoys along the Pan-American highway to saw mills outside the city. The Kuna remain desperately poor and many live in squalor. Through the responsible buying, renting or shared ownership of land and the provision of post purchase development aid that trains communities for sustainable livelihoods which can include sustainable natural resource extraction, conservation groups can and do deliver conservation and development goals at the same time.

Conservation is a crisis discipline and adaptive management is its core philosophy. Conservation in practice is highly complex and requires teams with diverse skills in diplomacy, anthropology, biology, economics, marketing, agriculture, natural resource management, law and politics to name a few, that must deal with the specific cultural, religious and political nuances of each human society. But true conservation respects all biological diversity including the diversity of people and for this reason conservation is an all encompassing movement and the people involved in this field deserve much better than that article written by Mr Vidal.

Dr. Michael S. Roy
Executive Director and Chief Scientist of
Conservation through Research Education and Action

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Good news for tigers

We hear a lot about the depressing fate of tigers in India and elsewhere. Numbers continue to fall, and last year they were declared extinct in Sariska National Park. However, it is not all doom and gloom.

When I was in India over Christmas I visited Nagahole National Park and was told that tigers are doing well there, and that they were also increasing in Corbett National Park. A depressing fact is that a worryingly large proportion of the money spent on tiger conservation over the past 40 years or so, has probably been watsed. Tigers now only survive in viable populations inside National Parks and other protected areas.

Huge amounts of money have been spent on public education, and protecting tigers outside the protected area network. But if all that money had been spent on ensuring the integrity of the best reserves, with the largest populations, and if money had been spent on corridors between protected areas, the tiger population would probably be in far better shape now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what is now apparent to me, and everyone else at the WLT, is that our approach is certainly one of the approaches most likely to succeed in conserving wildlife. Over the 20 brief years that the WLT has been in existence, we have evolved an approach, which seems to have a very high chance of success -- building on and strengthening existing successful local NGOs, and expanding protected areas, based on biodiversity, and creating networks and corridors.

One of the corridors our Indian partners, the Wildlife Trust of India, have created for elephants, has already been used by tigers. Corridors are expensive, as the land needed is often expensive, but in the long-term, it is a very cost effective way of conserving endangered species. Donate now, and ear-mark it for corridor projects. We can't predict the land will be £25 an acre (sometimes is may be £2500 an acre or more) but we can predict that even a small corridor will have disproportionate benefits to the wildlife.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Tacky gifts

To start off my quest for the most inappropriate wildlife gifts here are a few websites for you to evaluate. What do readers think of them? Do they do more harm than good? Is this a good way of raising funds? Should the World Land Trust develop a similar range of gifts for sale (I have already made up my mind!).










Fundamentalist religion and conservation

Conservative religion and conservation are rarely sympathetic. As the rest of the world becomes more and more enlightened, it often appears that the USA becomes more deeply entrenched in pandering to the fundamentalist wing of Christianity -- none of the presidential candidates seem prepared to speak out against what is a significant minority of voters. Not all conservative Christians are right-wing bigots of course, and some are even perceived as rather benign isolated, peace-loving outsiders. The Amish (Mennonites) for instance.

But the Mennonites in general, while avowedly peace-loving, are also a major threat to wildlife and the natural environment. They are a priori farmers, often living on the edges of the modern world. Often ultra conservative in both their dress, and their way of life, as well as their farming methods, but they can destroy nature on a grand scale. The last desert-dwelling population of the Aplomado Falcon, in the grasslands of Chihuahua is threatened by Mennonites plowing up their habitat. In N Belize, it is the Mennonite famers that have cut down the rainforest surrounding those protected by the Programme for Belize, while in Paraguay, they are spreading into the Dry Chaco, one of the world's most fragile habitats. Mennonites have large families - often very large - and nearly all their children want to have land. And they are very efficient at clearing wilderness. And they are great pioneers of the untamed frontiers -- do we really want to see those last untamed frontiers disappear under the plow......?

Any suggestions.....?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Poverty: What does it mean?

One of my (many) criticisms of charities aiming to "make poverty history" in Africa, is that they never define what they mean by poverty. Try and find a definition on Christian Aid's website, or any of the other charities -- or try writing to them and you will see what I mean.

The UK Charity Commision have really helped muddy the waters now to the point of 100% turbidity. According to a Third Secor report: 'poverty', in charity law "means people who are financially disadvantaged"..... It continues 'in developing countries the phrase could mean those "who lack even the most basic essential to sustain life, such as clean water, food or shelter. But in the UK, it could refer to those "living on less than 60 per cent of the average income, or below the level of income support." Talk about all people being equal, but some being more equal than others...." Either way, it remains to be seen how any of the organisations aiming to raise the entire human population of Africa out of poverty, intend to do it. While it may be a noble aim, I would suggest that it is an impossibility, and that they are misleading the public by suggesting it can be done. Worse still some of the methods being used could actually be creating long-term poverty. Goats for eaxample, to cite my bete noir....

World Land Trust in India and an old quoteation.

Just after Christmas, I returned from visiting India, and seeing what the Wildlife rust of India has been doing over the past few months. And very exciting it is too. The elephant corridors are a great success, with not only elephants using them, but lots of other wildlife including tigers.

That was the good news. But travelling around India, it was hard not to be filled with a sense of foreboding. Every three years or so, the human population increases by the size of Britain's population -- that's an extra 60 million people. And the standard of living, for a large proportion of that population is galloping ahead. The almost grid-locked cities are a testament to the new prosperity.

But one has to ask, What is fuelling this economic growth? And the answer is, to a large extent, the west's demand for cheap, mass produced goods. And despite all the rhetoric about 'sustainable development', there is no question that this development is far from sustainable.
And while travelling, I read a book, published nearly 70 years ago. Before foreign aid, and organisations like Christian Aid were saving Africa. But the writing had an amazingly contemporary ring to it. But can any of my readers identify the source of the following passage?

"..... the most significant facts are these: the inhabitants of every civilized country are menaced; all desire passionately to be saved from impending disaster; the overwhelming majority refuse to change the habits of thought, feeling and action which are directly responsible for their present plight. In other words, they can't be helped, because they are not prepared to collaborate with any helper who proposes a rational and realistic course of action. In these circumstances, what ought the would-be helper to do?'
'He's got to do something'said Pete.
'Even if he thereby accelerates the process of destruction?'....Doing good on anything but the tiniest scale requires more intelligence than most people possess. They ought to be content with keeping out of mischief; it's easier and doesn't have such frightful results as trying to to do good in the wrong way. Twiddling the thumbs and having good manners are much more helpful, in most cases, than rushing around with good intentions, doing things..... Incidentally, the price measured in human terms, is enormously high. Though, of course, much lower than the price demanded by the nature of things from those who persist in behaving in the standard human way. Much lower than the price of war, for example -- particularly war with contemporary weapons'...'

I would make a strong case for this line of thinking being just as valid today, as it was before the outbreak of World War II, when it was written. Rushing around doing good by aid agencies has caused many of the problems they set out to solve, simply because they do mot deal with the underlying, real reasons for the problems. They treat symptoms, not causes.

But can any reader identify the source of this quotation? I'll happily send a copy of Endangered Mammals of the World -- now 20 years old, and one of my last remaining copies, to the first person to identify the quote.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

How to support a wildlife organisation and help destroy the world


Why do wildlife conservation organisations encourage blatant consumerism of tacky goods, many of which will be made in China, causing an accelleration of pollution, depletion of fossil fuels, etc etc etc.? It's too depressing for words.

I would be very interested to hear others' views on this. I make no claims to being a hair-shirted dark green conservationist, but I do think that some organisations have seriously lost the plot, when they use really tacky consumer goods. What are the worst examples you know of?