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

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