Peeling the onion: how deep should conservation go?

Conservationists and their organisations are often accused of treating symptoms and not causes – as Bill Adams said on this blog a few weeks ago, “mopping nature’s wounds not addressing the cause of injury”. Bill was talking about the big global challenges of conservation, but this problem applies equally at the day-to-day level. The park staff have no equipment? Buy them some from a grant, and don’t worry about where the replacements will come from. The government counterpart is corrupt? Work with him or her anyway, because they can get things done in the next few months. And so it goes on.

Conservation researchers in general, and political ecologists in particular, like to look deeper, unravelling the chains of explanation that get to the processes that underpin emergent threats. They (we) often argue that by applying short-term sticking plasters, conservation isn’t really making much difference for the long term, and that more conservation effort should go to addressing deeper underlying problems. In other words, (and mixing metaphors) conservation should make more effort to peel back the layers of the onion, to see what lies beneath. Continue reading

Tigers or Transition?

Is biodiversity conservation part of the environmental movement? To what extent is the protection of species like tigers an integral part of wider concerns about transition to more sustainable lives on earth?  These questions came up at a recent meeting Conservation and Sustainability: Do We Practise What We Preach?, organised by the Cambridge Conservation Forum. The questions are simple enough.  The answers turn out to be a bit more complicated.

Historically, it’s a no-brainer.  The birth of the modern conservation movement in the late Nineteenth Century was strongly environmentalist, in that it was a broad-spectrum reaction to the depredations of capitalism and industrialism. In colonised territories like North America or Africa, the extinction of species (blaubok, quagga or passenger pigeon) and the settlement of frontiers drove a wave of sentiment for wilderness.  Yet in countries like the UK, conservation had broader roots: the founders of organisations like the National Trust and the RSPB and the Open Spaces Society were people who opposed the impacts of industrial pollution, urban sprawl, hunting and collecting, even if they enjoyed certain of its fruits.

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Tax dodging and conservation

Conservationists should take note of tax dodging and its potential links to biodiversity loss, argues Jonny Hanson, although research is needed to clarify the relationships.

Santa Claus is in trouble.  A recent cover of the satirical British magazine, Private Eye saw him being heckled for living offshore and not paying tax in the UK.  This irreverent take on Father Christmas may have been in jest, but it underscores the magnitude of the issue: tax dodging is highly political.  Especially since the financial crisis of 2007-08, and from the grassroots to the great and the good, it has rarely been out of the public spotlight.

That’s because tax dodging is big business.  Christian Aid, an international development NGO, estimates that $160 billion of tax is lost every year by developing countries due to tax dodging by multinational companies (MNCs) alone. This is 50% more than the entire global aid budget.

Tax dodging is an umbrella term that encapsulates both legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion.  In brief, it occurs through the artificial inflation of corporate profits in tax havens to minimise tax payments elsewhere, often through charging for opaque services such as insurance, finance, management or brand rights.  A banana, for example, between being harvested in Latin America and sold in the UK, may travel through up to six tax havens on paper: Bermuda, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands, and the like.

But is tax dodging a conservation issue?  Are there links between it and biodiversity loss?  This blog aims to answer some of these questions, looking particularly at the role of MNCs within developing countries. Continue reading

On the role of cynicism in conservation

“If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life” 

                                          Terry PratchettGuards! Guards!

A few years ago while I was a PhD student I took part in a roundtable discussion between postgraduate students and academics on the impacts of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects. The general message from the academics was ‘they don’t work’. They were deeply critical, and it was all quite depressing for us idealistic postgrads. One masters student ended up asking whether there were any examples of a really good ICDP. After an awkward silence, a senior professor moved the conversation on as if the question had not been asked, leaving the student, and several of us around the room, feeling completely deflated.

Now I am an academic, and I spend a lot of my time encouraging my students to be critical in their analysis of conservation interventions and their impacts. I ask them to consider the bigger picture, and whether the latest trendy ideas (ICDP -> CBNRM -> REDD+) will actually deliver the win-wins they promise for conservation and development. I strongly believe that such critical thinking is essential, particularly for the future Conservation Leaders with whom I work. However, I am also aware that there is a point at which critical thinking becomes cynicism, leading to the kind of ‘nothing works’ perspective that I encountered in the ICDP discussion above. As a Barclays bank executive said recently on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, “cynics and sceptics never built anything”. Not building investment banks is fine with me, but cynicism in conservation creates a conundrum. On the one hand cynics can see all sorts of problems with the world as it is, but on the other hand they also see problems with just about every proposed solution. This becomes a recipe for inaction and frustration. Continue reading

The BBC’s Africa as Middle Earth

The BBC Natural History Unit has done it again.  Its new wildlife documentary, simply titled Africa, currently showing on the flagship channel BBC One, is an extraordinary feast of natural wonders in high definition.  It is pulling in large terrestrial and ‘iPlayer’ audiences, impressing critics and setting the Twittersphere alight.  The photography is, as so often before, ground-breaking: slowmo battling giraffes in the Kalahari, a baby elephant dying in an Amboseli drought, starlight camera sequences of black rhino at a Kalahari waterhole and lingering wide-angle shots that capture the grand scale of the African landscapes.

But there is a problem. The ‘Africa’ on display is missing something rather important: Africans. In 2011, the BBC was criticised for splicing footage of a captive polar bear giving birth into wild sequences for the Frozen Planet series (a standard documentary technique). This time the BBC has edited out the people of an entire continent. The first episode of Africa begins with the comforting voice of David Attenborough: “Africa… the world’s greatest wilderness … the only place on earth to the see the full majesty of nature”.  His description might just about apply to the Kalahari of the first episode, an arid region with few people. But the second episode was about East Africa, a region home to over 130 million human residents. In fact, southern Uganda, in which much of the episode was filmed, has some of the densest human populations anywhere on the continent. Where were these people, their buildings, their farms, their livestock? Where were their nation states, which were not named in Attenborough’s narration? One aerial shot of Lake Mutanda in south west Uganda showed a few twinkling tin roofs, but this was the exception. Another, of the Virunga Volcanoes – mountains absolutely surrounded by smallholder farms – seemed deliberately angled to avoid showing any signs of agriculture. After watching this programme, anyone unfamiliar with East Africa could be forgiven for thinking that there is an unbroken chain of natural wildlife habitat stretching from the Rwenzori in the west to Mount Kilimanjaro in the East. There isn’t.

In Africa, the BBC is selectively editing its images of the African landscape to tell a particular story about nature.  When Peter Jackson wanted to portray Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he used the landscapes of New Zealand to represent Middle Earth.  To create the fantasy world, Jackson’s team had a huge struggle to find corners of land where the cameras could not see any imprint of human action. This is what the BBC has done in Africa, projecting a story onto a real landscape; a spell that would be broken if there were any sign of human residents or their creations. Continue reading