Post-Truthing Conservation

Interview with Carina Wyborn, Research Advisor at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, by Victoria Pilbeam, Masters student in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford.

One of the biggest conservation challenges is how to translate what we know about the environment into meaningful action. In conservation circles, this is often discussed in terms of the ‘science-policy interface’, the ways that conservation science connects and relates to decision-making. In an era in which some political leaders claim that the general public are “tired of experts” and draw their evidence from “alternative facts”, critical thinking around the science-policy interface is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. As conservation scientists and practitioners, we all have to do some soul-searching about the role of science in a ‘post-truth’ world, says Wyborn.

Continue reading Post-Truthing Conservation

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Misplaced compassion in a starving nation.

Place: Connaught Place, New Delhi. Time: Early morning hours. On my way to board the airport express metro train (revered as a top class facility in the world) I was caught by a pleasant surprise when I witnessed a middle-aged lady tossing several kilo of grains on the pavement for birds. This pleasure was short-lived as my eyes stumbled on a starving and shivering man on the other side of the same road. The elevated metro line gave me a snapshot of my historical national capital, rivalling the status of other mega cities, with “a large baggage” of its religiously inclined middle and lower class population surviving hand to mouth.

With 15.2% of its population undernourished, and 194.6 million people going hungry everyday, India has the largest undernourished and hungry population in the world

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Image: Food loss and waste (tons/year on a log scale) generated from human food production.Screenshot from: Ecological and evolutionary implications of food subsidies from humans, Ecology Letters, (2013) 16: 1501-1514 

The same nation feeds several metric tonnes of grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. to feral animals in its cities, towns, and villages. Unlike the West, animal feeding in India is largely motivated by religious purposes, aimed to seek after life benefits, or to request relief from sins. An age-old compassion for animals (as forms of incarnations or vehicles of Hindu Gods), which essentially has aided the conservation success in a billion strong nation, shall have some serious considerations over the economic and ecological repercussions of many food offerings to our animal friends . Few snippets: Continue reading Misplaced compassion in a starving nation.

But they smell so good – are real Christmas trees a problem?

Christmas trees are everywhere

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it is nearly impossible to ignore the decorations that pop up everywhere around the holidays. Shops, city streets and homes spend the month of December decked out with lights, garlands, and most prominently, Christmas trees. Compared to the blatant consumerism of the holiday season, Christmas trees seem so harmless and wholesome. Who doesn’t love the warm glow of the lights and of course that evergreen smell.

The Christmas tree industry is huge – over $2 billion was spent on real and fake trees in just the USA last year. In Canada that number is smaller, but ever rising – sales of fresh trees grew by over 20% in the last two years. Any industry this large has the potential for huge environmental impacts. Are real Christmas trees an environmental problem? And are fake trees any better? For consumers hoping to make conscientious decisions, it can be hard to find the kind of information that will put these questions to rest.

In writing this post I hope to dissect some facts about the tree industry, to weigh real trees against fake in terms of negative environmental impact, and to suggest ways for those of us who couldn’t feel festive without a tree to make more informed decisions. Continue reading But they smell so good – are real Christmas trees a problem?

Embracing Change

I was fortunate to know from a relatively early age where I wanted my life to go. I had a vision and crafted a path to get there and all in all (and after a lot of work!) things came together rather well. Of course through the years as I learned more the vision matured and developed but it always existed in the realm of wildlife conservation. Immediately after graduating with my undergraduate degree, I moved my life to Namibia to start my ‘dream’ job.

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Working on the ground in ‘front-line’ conservation for a very well respected organisation was everything I had hoped… and more. The once-in-a-lifetime experiences, professional (and personal) skills gained, and knowledge acquired were so worth the years of work invested to get to this point.

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Photo: Bobby Bradley

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I was working first-hand with my favourite species in one of the most beautiful places on Earth doing things that very few people in this world have ever done. So, I get the question all the time ‘Why did you leave?’, and its answer is something I have to remind myself of frequently.

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Planet Earth is the most unique and precious thing that exists in our wide wide universe (if you haven’t seen BBCs ‘Planet Earth II’ do yourself a favour and go check it out), but everything that makes it such an incredible place to call home is under immense threat. AND, as ironic as it would seem, we humans are to blame. There are those who have committed themselves to fighting these threats, and victories have been won here and there. My organisation for example had done an incredible job at addressing the threats to this species in Namibia, and is currently working very hard at expanding its programmes throughout Africa. However, on a global scale we are failing.

This being said, we gain more and more ground every year and I know that we can win this fight if enough of us are (actually) willing to get up and do something about it; I can’t let myself believe anything else. I loved my job and loved the work I was doing, but I felt that there was so much more that I could do (and needed to do) and that is why I left to continue with my studies.

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This is not at all to say that what I was doing before was not meaningful, or that the work of my organisation was not good enough. It’s just that I felt for me there was more to do and I knew I needed to go and find what that was. Though life in Oxford is not particularly for me, I’ve joined a community of people committed to the same goal (or set of goals at least – check out the other awesome entries on the blog!) and though I’d probably rather be back in the bush, I know that this experience is a necessary step to achieve my vision.

That childhood vision is alive and well, but I now realize that there is not necessarily one place it leads to. Just like in conservation science, as I continue to learn and experience more in this messy world, my vision for the future will continue to shift and grow… I (and we) just have to be willing to embrace whatever change that may bring to our thinking and our reality.

all photos by Eli Walker unless stated otherwise

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Looking beyond the Fortress: Expanding the Conservation Workspace in India

The year 1991 marked a major milestone for the Indian economy – a period when India opened its arms to the private sector, a giant leap forward for the country in its attempts to enhance the well being of its citizens. It is a popular discourse that increased growth (a given after liberalisation) would definitely put a strain on the environment and affect our natural resources. The battle between environment and development is an everlasting one. Adopting a Utopic Model of no growth will rupture the economy. On the other hand, renowned economists have always felt that India is too poor to be green. Economic liberalisation was seen as a holy grail to spur the country’s economy and bring millions out of chronic poverty.

The important question is, has India undergone complete liberalisation? While it is safe to say that the Indian economy is booming, have all sectors of the Indian market been opened up in its truest sense? Some sectors in India are still government controlled, bureaucratic and top-down with minimum contribution from outside actors. ‘Conservation’ is one such sector.

India is infamous for its ‘gun and guard’ approach towards conservation. Indira Gandhi the ‘Iron Lady’ of India, is remembered for the legacy that she left behind in the conservation movement in India. It was under her visionary guidance that fortress based conservation policies and legal frameworks were laid down. Her unbinding love for wildlife resulted in the formation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It was under the umbrella of this legislation that protected areas were formed which constitutes wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. These areas act as fortresses’ which protect the country’s rich natural heritage with minimal human intrusion and net zero development.

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The ‘Iron Lady’ of India

The conservation scenario in India, despite Ms Gandhi’s and environmentalists’ efforts, is at risk of being plundered by a Government with a single minded focus on improving the economy. Forests are diminishing with increasing amounts of land being allotted for development, resources are being plundered and functional ecosystems are destroyed.

The Fortress model in such a scenario can best be described as a utopic baseline that has limited relevance and context. Conservation in the 21st century has assumed a complex hue; there are several stakeholders who play a key role in this milieu and it is important to envisage a potential scenario that is dynamic and inclusive.

We need to explore solutions that go beyond the ‘fortress’ to achieve conservation that is relevant in today’s context. 24% of the country’s landscape is forested, while protected areas encompass only 4.89% of India’s area. A significant proportion of the forest cover outside the PA is degraded. In the past 30 years, India has lost large areas of forests to 23,716 industrial projects. It is not just loss of species that is an alarming issue, but the loss of functional ecosystems. These act as green infrastructure that is the backbone to the country’s economy. It is absolutely essential that India’s lost functional ecosystems be restored. For every habitat that has been lost, compensation must be carried out. Payments must ultimately result in the creation of lost natural capital.

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Mining in Bihar, India. Shows severe habitat degradation in the area. Coal still is the source of 60% of India’s power.

Compensation schemes through natural capital restoration form the basic premise of biodiversity offsetting. India is still at the rudimentary stage of implementing such schemes. One such policy intervention in the Compensatory Afforestation Bill in 2015. According to this bill, the developer has to pay the net present value of the forest land cleared for a project in addition to the costs of afforestation of an equal area of non forest (or double the area for a patch of degraded forest). This money goes into a Government managed fund that is used for afforestation purposes. This fund in India is worth more than Rs. 40,000 crores (5.9 billion USD).

Such Biodiversity offsetting programmes has polarised the conservation community globally. The Compensatory Afforestation Bill has faced major criticism in India for improper implementation. Some conservationists construe it to be a ‘sham’ that is a one- way ticket to promote monoculture timber plantations by the government. With rapid development as the norm, which is here to stay, it is necessary to start ‘internalising our environmental externalities’. The ‘handsome kitty’ sitting in the Government fund can be used to compensate every habitat that has been lost to development projects and to restore ecosystems in sites that are degraded, mined; abandoned agricultural land that is no longer cultivatable; restore corridors connecting protected areas. Most importantly, forest communities can be mobilised for ecological restoration augmenting incomes. This fund can strengthen our green infrastructure, create jobs, and be a source of ecological, social and economic security ultimately boosting our country’s economy.

The face of the ‘Corporate Sector’ in India is undergoing a change. As per the Companies Act, 2013, corporates have to spend 2% of their profits in the preceding three years towards social causes. Corporate Social Responsibility can be used to catalyse corporate funding in ‘voluntary biodiversity offsetting’ programmes. This multi-billion dollar industry can make a huge impact with regard to building green infrastructure and brand equity.

With 1.2 billion people, the war between environment and development is still in its preliminary stages in India. Whether we like it or not, we no longer live in an era where conservation is only about maintaining pristine wilderness, which is barely 5% of India’s landmass.  We need larger functioning healthy eco systems.  We cannot consider ‘man’ and ‘nature’ to be separate entities. The Conservation workspace should no longer be limited to just the ‘Government’ or wildlife enthusiasts but to all stakeholders who believe in its value and significance.  Will 21st century India see the onset of a diverse and dynamic array of conservation actors – Corporates, Activists, Communities, Ecologists and Government representatives working in unison to forward the Conservation cause in India?

 

 

Conservation? There’s an app for that.

The number of smart phone users is set to increase to over 2 billion by the end of 2016. Technological advancement has altered may aspects of our lives, from the way we interact with others to the way we conduct business.

Apps in particular have had a large impact, the latest huge success being Pokémon Go, which became the most downloaded app in the app store and resulted in huge numbers of users making significant adjustments to their daily routines.

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From an environmental perspective, they have the potential to provide innovative solutions to problems and even change the way that we engage with nature. For example, if Pokémon Go players were identifying real animals they could collect as much data in six days as has been collected in 400 years of natural history effort.

Continue reading Conservation? There’s an app for that.

Saving Spoonie: The spirit of China’s youth

On watching the documentary “China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ I was introduced to the spoon-billed sandpiper. These charismatic migratory birds have been reduced to as few as 100 breeding pairs making them one of the most endangered birds on the planet. As well as facing threats from subsistence hunting, in China large-scale reclamation projects are draining the intertidal areas that provide important mudflat habitat along the Yellow Sea. These mudflats are also polluted and so the marine invertebrates the birds use to refuel for their journey ahead are sparse.

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Spoon-billed sandpiper (Source: ken, Flickr)

The five-part documentary, that recently aired on Channel 4, looks into China’s private relationship with nature and the environment amid increasing industrialisation. Amongst the stories told was that of 4 young children embarking on an investigative journalism exercise for their school newspaper. After learning from their school teacher about the plight of the spoon-billed sandpiper they were instantly inspired to “Save Spoonie”. With vigour and urgency they interviewed trawlers working on the mudflats, factory owners and local communities revealing the tensions and conflicts underpinning many of China’s environmental problems.

Despite a bleak picture being painted for the viewer one thing that remained constant was the resolve of the children that if they shared the story of Spoonie far enough they could save the bird that had captured their imagination from extinction. Watching their youthful optimism made me think about the power of people and public perceptions. In a country such as China, ever growing and ever polluting, can people make a change?  Continue reading Saving Spoonie: The spirit of China’s youth

Bring the kids back to the woods!

Someone told me a while ago that a surprisingly large number of inner-city kids today are not aware that milk comes from a cow. That is, they have not considered where the milk was before it ended up in the carton that they then pick up from the supermarket. I laughed and shook my head at the time, but the statement has come back to bother me lately.

Back in the day, if you wanted to have a glass of milk, you would first have to find the cow in a pasture somewhere, make sure it had some milk to give (i.e. that it had a calf) and then convince it to stand still while you milk it. That, I would assume, would make that glass of milk mean something more to you, and also perhaps make you grateful to the cow (and calf) for sharing it, and to nature for feeding the cow so that she in turn could give it to you.

We are living in a time of rapid technological development and urbanization. This means that an increasing number, more than half of the world’s population according to the United Nations, are living in cities. City-life and innovations have enabled a lifestyle where you seldom have to risk bumping in to dangerous animals, where one can swoosh from one end of the world to the other in a matter of hours by airplane, and where you can get basically everything you would ever need and want from a store a few kilometres away. But what implications does this lifestyle have for our perception and understanding of nature?

Continue reading Bring the kids back to the woods!

Small islands or big oceans?

How big do you think the Pacific islands are?

To paraphrase,  Epeli Hau’ofa when we think about the Pacific are we talking about small islands in a distant sea or are we really talking about a sea of islands? Are we talking small islands or big oceans?

The answer is very much a matter of perception but it has a big impact on the way we think about the role of small island states in conservation and our own responsibilities towards the world’s oceans.  Especially, given the rapid increase in large marine parks in the Pacific. Continue reading Small islands or big oceans?

Brexit and the environment: gold stars and silver linings

Unless you are a mad-keen vexillologist, a certain flag’s anniversary might have unsurprisingly passed you by last week. On 8 December 1955 the Council of Europe first adopted the iconic European Flag, now used by the European Union. Under this banner the EU has endeavoured to ‘fly the flag’ for environmental issues on the global stage and, according to a recent Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP) report, has developed “probably the most complete and influential body of environmental law and policy in the world”.

For a long time it has been the EU, rather than UK-initiated policy, which has been the major driver of UK environmental legislation. The unexpected referendum result on 23 June will inevitably trigger a full policy and legislation review, putting around 70% of UK environmental protection laws at risk and potentially exposing the UK to all manner of environmental vulnerabilities such as habitat destruction and species loss.

61 years after the European Flag – a visual representation of steadfast unity – was unveiled, could the current period of flux amidst uncertainty about the Brexit process present opportunities for positive action by the UK environmental movement? As one of the 56% of 26-49 year old ‘remain’ voters I certainly hope so.

Continue reading Brexit and the environment: gold stars and silver linings

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