Category Archives: Biodiversity

Saving the Chiquibul: What Will It Take?

Unless delimited by a river or mountain range, human boundaries rarely map to the habitats of non-human species. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face today in the field of conservation. For every political space entails its own unique set of policies, or lack thereof, that concern the management of ecological terrains vital to both human and non-human populations living in their precincts. And sometimes policy conditions of adjacent jurisdictions deeply conflict. Take, for instance, starkly diverging land management regimes of Belize and Guatemala.

In the Google Earth image below, one sees that the Chiquibul forest of Belize (on the right) remains largely intact. Conversely, neighboring lands on the Guatemalan side have been swallowed up by massive cattle ranches and expanding settlement—land-use inequities resulting from decades of state-sponsored genocide and social disarray. Thousands of local farmers have since been displaced from their lands and forced into Belize. While it would appear that the border follows the tree line visible from aerial view; it in fact lies a few kilometers to the west. Agricultural incursions have since moved across binational lines, posing a serious question for Belize: how is the country to keep Guatemalans from consuming its national forests?

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This question has taken up much of my thinking over the last two years. For I believe it gets to the heart of contemporary studies in politics and social theory on the environment. In context of Belize, one finds that the crux of the issue currently lies in a historic dispute over the legitimacy of the border itself. To this day, Belizeans are enraged by their neighbor’s claim over the southern half of their national territory. And the growing frequency of incursions into Belize’s forests only seems to suggest the onset of a surreptitious takeover. The political nature of these forests in turn have politicized nature conservation on the ground. Consequently, millions in public funds have been funneled to local NGOs working to curb encroachment.  

In a peculiar way, nationalist fervor kept alive by territorial anxiety thus directly benefits biodiversity on the ground. The scenario, however, is not merely one in which Belizean eco-nationalists link arms in opposition to a Guatemalan threat that looms from the west. Such could perhaps be said of the Belizean Territorial Volunteers, a group well known for their confrontational border protests and conservation background. But for other organizations such as Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), while territorial concerns have indeed helped it to raise programme funding—the disputed border serves less as a rallying point than as a roadblock to progress.

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While the BTV conduct protests provoking Guatemalan military forces, FCD forms allegiances with Guatemalan counterparts to target the ecological crisis at its root. From the perspective of FCD—whose mestizo heritage was forged at a time when Spanish-speaking peoples of Belize and Petén mingled while working in colonial forest product industries—ecological concerns in Belize are seen as directly linked to a growing insecurity of livelihoods across the border. And unsettled tensions at higher diplomatic levels only serve to disrupt the confidence it needs to work cooperatively with NGO and community partners in Petén essential to addressing this social crisis.

Is the poor Guatemalan campesino to be lumped into the same political category as a distant state aggressor? How is this complex demographic to navigate the double bind in which conditions of poverty due to landlessness compel involvement in more criminal avenues such as the illicit extraction of xate palm, gold, timber and scarlet macaw from Belizean forests? And how are conservation groups such as FCD to effectively address the transboundary effects of social inequity in Petén when the neighboring government has no legal incentive to take up the issue? 

Grappling with these questions exposes the challenges that Belizean conservationists must face while working to protect their western forests. Of course, there are no ready-made, clear-cut solutions. But there are certain policy pathways that perhaps bear greater long-term benefits than others. In this case, it would appear that the transcendence of historical divisions at the border affords greater comprehension of a truly multifaceted problem, and likely a more balanced approach to tackling it. Meanwhile, the macaws, jaguars and collared peccaries await patiently for what lies in store for the deeply troubled binational political ecology that confines them.

Will Evans is currently a postgraduate student in the School of Geography and the Environment.

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Fishy Business: Can blockchains provide supply chain transparency?

Transparency of product supply chains has become a key issue in recent years. Increasingly, we want to know what’s in a product, where it’s from, how it was made and by whom – just think the horsemeat scandal, stricter EU food labelling standards, and the creation of the UK National Food Crime Unit.

Continue reading Fishy Business: Can blockchains provide supply chain transparency?

The Cost of Biodiversity and Conservation: Can the Anthropocene Truly Not Afford to pay it?

Whilst the topic of wildlife trade is vastly discussed in scientific papers and news reports highlighting on the charismatic and flagship species like sea turtles, tiger, and elephants across the global, there has been a rapid growth of research interest on the online wildlife trade reflecting the internet provides more opportunities for trading wildlife on e-commence websites with unregulated and loosen enforcement. Until a report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) focusing on online wildlife trade in global recently, it indicates that China is the foremost country trading the majority wildlife online while earning the profit of $2.7 million. The statistical is also striking that approximately 544 items traded in 2008 were illegal wildlife species which are listed under CITES Appendices. In short, online wildlife trade is very likely not only posing the wildlife in peril. Meanwhile, it also triggers the challenges on protecting wildlife conservation via the internet.

Continue reading The Cost of Biodiversity and Conservation: Can the Anthropocene Truly Not Afford to pay it?

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?

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!

Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Worldwide, countless people depend on fishing for food, culture, and economic well-being.  From local subsistence fishermen in small coastal communities to large industrial-sized operations, oceans contribute to societies and economies at all scales.  To keep pace with demand, fishing rates have greatly accelerated, to the extent that over 77 billion kilograms of seafood are harvested each year.

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Fisheries around the world capture large harvests of fish to sell at markets.

At such high rates, many fish populations cannot reproduce quickly enough to replenish their depleted numbers, thereby classifying them as overfished.  Currently, 90 percent of fisheries around the world are burdened with or on the brink of over-exploitation beyond sustainable yields. Continue reading Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Was Jaws Really the Villain?

Habitat destruction. Pollution. Over exploitation. All terms that have been echoed through the vast literature over and over again, and which are being institutionalized in our understanding of the world around us. Once again, my friends, we must apply the deleterious effects of these atrocious activities to yet another beautiful group of creatures, those belonging to the super order Selachimorpha under the subclass Elasmobranchii (for simplicity sake, we’ll call them sharks). It has been shown that population levels of sharks have been experiencing precipitous declines for many decades.

While all activities that impact the shark populations are of importance, the largest driver (and possibly most important) is that of over exploitation. Over harvesting sharks, especially for their fins, has decimated species abundances, resulting in losses anywhere from fifty percent to complete collapse. Continue reading Was Jaws Really the Villain?

Can One Bad Apple Rot Canada’s Sustainable Forest Management Reputation?

Canada is known for having some of the most rigorous sustainable forestry regulation and enforcement in the world. Holding 10% of the world’s forests including 552 million hectares or nearly 30% of the world’s Boreal forests and as a leader in the forestry industry, Canada’s sustainable forestry management has global implications, setting standards both environmentally and economically.

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75% of Canada’s forests are Boreal. 3.7 million people live within the area including 70% of Canada’s Aboriginal People. This area is also a major carbon sink, a source of freshwater storage and home to high levels of biodiversity.

Complementing the management process are three voluntary third party sustainability certifications that “provide a stamp of approval that shows consumers they are buying products from forests managed to comprehensive environmental, social and economic standards”. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global NGO initiated non-state market mechanism, and is considered the “gold standard for well managed forests”. The other third-party certification schemes, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA), are both industry-initiated under the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) international umbrella organization.

Resolute Forest Products, a global forestry force based in Montreal Canada holding logging rights on 22 million ha of mostly public land, has 100% sustainable timberland certification by third-party Forest Management Standards and is a signed member of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Resolute company values include be accountable, ensure sustainability and work together.

Corporate responsibility is clearly fundamental to Resolute, their management, brand value and reputation, so what is the problem?

It seems they will go to any lengths, including violating sustainable certification principles, disregarding indigenous rights, suing governments and suppressing environmental organization freedom of speech to assume this farce.

From an ecological standpoint, Resolute’s “sustainable”, “eco” and “recycled products” have in fact come from clear cutting three endangered forest areas; Ontario’s Caribou Forest and Quebec’s Montagnes Blaches and Broadback Valley. These areas are home to 150 birds, the highest densities of threatened woodland caribou and many Cree First Nations communities. Woodland caribou are considered an “indicator species”; sensitive to disturbance, and an “umbrella species”; their protection could ensure the survival of other species in the same habitat. The Grand Council of the Cree have challenged Resolute’s logging practices stating they are detrimental to their trapping lifestyle and the ecosystem balance throughout the area.

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Woodland Caribou have already been pushed north of their historic range. Unfortunately logging industries are also being pushed north and since protected areas don’t sufficiently cover their habitat meaning the caribou must rely on sustainable forest management for security. (Info-Map from Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society)

In what way can they continue to state claims of sustainability and certification?

Many major US and global brands have moved away from SFI citing “the logging industry-run program misleads consumers and allows massive clear cuts, other destructive logging and human rights abuse”. Resolute instead is moving towards them. Their FSC certified lands have dropped by 50% since 2010 because of non-compliance and non-renewal. By switching to SFI, Resolute improved their sustainability certification cover to 100% without environment practice or management changes

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative offer competing sustainability certifications. While all non-state market driven certification schemes have implementation, management and accountability issues to contend with, FSC is considered more non-discretionary and broad based in their policy. 

But how is Resolute getting away with this?

Resolute, aware that its reputation is at stake, has used its corporate weight and legal prowess to squash critics and competitors with SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation).

Following a failed audit in 2014 for “not complying with good environmental standards”, Resolute sued Rainforest Alliance, the FSC certified auditor. Bypassing the normal FSC dispute resolution, the case was settled and the report sealed. In 2015 Resolute filed a $70+million suit against the Canadian Government because the Nova Scotia Provincial government provided a subsidy to their local mill creating competition, which Resolute says caused their Quebec mill to go under. Resolute is in court with Greenpeace over a $7 million defamation suit for a report Greenpeace published in 2013, which critiqued the logging companies environmental and social conduct. While this case is still in progress, the Ontario Superior Court has dismissed broadening the case stating Resolute’s allegations of Greenpeace are “irrelevant”, “scandalous and vexatious”. They have now brought the case against Greenpeace to the US under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) with goals to silence Greenpeace’s freedom of speech.

Well, what are the implications of Resolute’s actions? It’s only one company right?

Public interest groups are worried over extrapolated implications of using the RICO lawsuit against freedom of the press/speech. The RICO law originated to combat the mafia, but it’s use “as a club to silence Greenpeace from using non-violent means to mobilize the public, raise awareness alongside the necessary funds to operate, and seek to bring about change in respect of environmental practices it opposes would chill the exercise of First Amendment rights not only by Greenpeace but by other groups, by Amici. It would endanger the ability of non profits to operate and set a dangerous precedent,” says the Sierra Club. Resolute’s lawsuits against NGO’s, governments and auditors can threaten not only the viability of non-state market drivers of forest governance, but traditional governance and advocacy roles.

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80  public interest organizations have come together to “condemn Resolute’s intimidation lawsuit and call on the company to respect the US Constitution – and our planet” via an advertisement in the New York Times earlier this month.(New York Times)

Sustainable forestry certifications are growing in supply and demand without a price premium attached or new markets opening up. Consumers aren’t willing to pay more yet they appear to expect these certifications as a minimum standard for forest products. Resolute feels their; “adherence to third party verified forest certification standards gives [them] an important competitive edge. It provides our customers with the assurance that our forests are managed responsibly according to rigorous standards”. With Resolute’s reputation benefiting from eco-certification where does that leave other logging companies particularly smaller ones. Forest managers must absorb the costs to gain and comply with certification schemes. Without significant product pricing benefits, where is the incentive to comply with stricter FSC protocol? This leaves the door open for industry-wide environmental degradation and unsustainable forestry practices.

Resolute has failed to adhere to not only it’s sustainable certifications, but it’s own corporate values of being accountable, ensuring sustainability and working together without any consequences. As indigenous groups are undermined, protected areas harvested and species threatened, Canadian Sustainable Forest Management practices are fundamentally destabilized. What does this mean for the legitimacy of Canadian Sustainable Forestry Management and third party sustainable forestry certification schemes? Can they continue to function as global environmental and social responsibility standards? How can the system be revised so the Boreal Forest, it’s residents both human and non human and it’s consumers aren’t left vulnerable to corporate greed?

The author will continue to look at these questions over the next month while writing a paper on Corporate Social Responsibility in Canada’s Forestry Industry. If you are interested in learning more or have insight, critiques or ideas please feel free to leave a comment or contact the author.

Natalie Knowles is an MSc student from Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include forest protected areas, ecosystem function and indigenous roles in conservation.

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Wilderness: A Documentary Illusion

The footage that reached our television screens last Sunday was no doubt familiar to us all: a sea of densely forested hills expanding for miles in every direction as the camera broke through the clouds. The trees were seemingly endless. Other episodes of this series of Planet Earth will show similarly dramatic landscapes: perhaps a savannah dotted with wildebeest; or a vast expanse of desert; or a towering mountain range. One thing is certain: they will all be landscapes without humans.

Wildlife documentaries, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth (and most recently Planet Earth II), are beloved by the public and conservationists alike. They offer us inspiration, an insight into the lives of the world’s most charismatic creatures – and an illusion of a global wilderness.

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Shots of undisturbed rainforest are common in wildlife films (Source: pexels.com)

The emphasis within wildlife documentaries on wild landscapes without people can be understood as a manifestation of the wilderness ideals embedded in the conservation and nature movements. The concept of wilderness as we understand it today grew up in America in the late 19th century as a product of Romanticism. It was rapidly exported worldwide, particularly to colonial governments in Africa, who saw the vast sparsely populated savannahs of eastern Africa as pristine regions, unchanged by humans. It was these areas, with their abundance of game, that were designated as some of the earliest protected areas and which formed the blueprint for conservation as it developed.

Wilderness ideas have remained central – and often pervasive – in the conservation movement. To this day, protected areas in many regions of the world are created with wilderness ideals in mind: activities within them, such as resource extraction and tourism, are strictly limited, often to the detriment of local people. ‘Fortress conservation’, as it is known, may involve the removal of indigenous groups from the landscape in order to create these wildernesses, as has been seen in Tanzania and India. It is this style of conservation that we see reflected in wildlife films. Nature is presented as something exotic, distant and entirely non-overlapping with the human world.

 

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The Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, where the Maasai people were threatened with eviction (Source: wikimedia.org)

 

But why does this (largely Western) cultural perception of wilderness matter, and what are the implications of a focus on wilderness ideals, both for conservationists and the general public?

Firstly, we need to recognise that, despite the emphasis on wild nature in documentaries, wilderness landscapes form a minority of land area globally: only around 23% of habitable land area remains as wilderness. In contrast, around 50% of habitable land area is now agricultural land. This means that across the majority of landscapes globally, humans are interacting with and influencing ecosystems. If we are to get a handle  on conservation and the natural world we need to be considering these non-wilderness landscapes too.

This is especially important when we consider the fact that even landscapes that are human-dominated may still have high biodiversity value. As an example, many habitat types across Europe developed as a result of centuries of agricultural production and extensive human-nature interactions. Importantly, this does not lessen their value for biodiversity: moorlands, heathlands, calcareous grasslands, cork oak forests and coppiced woodlands so familiar across Western Europe are actually reliant on traditional human management to maintain their unique structure and high biodiversity. However, if wildlife documentaries only feature landscapes devoid of humans as containing valuable or charismatic biodiversity, we may forget to connect with this biodiversity in landscapes closer to home.

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Cork oak forest in the Mediterranean: a human-managed, biodiverse ecosystem (Source: wikimedia.org)

 

Furthermore, even landscapes that are presented as pristine and untouched may well have a history of human interaction, and viewing them as wilderness only tells half the story. The Amazon rainforest is widely regarded as an ‘unexplored wilderness’, but prior to European colonisation, areas of the Amazon basin were densely settled. Paleo-ecological studies have shown that across these inhabited areas forests were impacted through burning and felling, creating areas of open forest, rather than the closed canopy forest we see today.

Secondly, consideration of humans as separate to nature erases the ways in which humans need nature. The concept of ecosystem services has become an increasingly popular framework for understanding the benefits that ecosystems provide. These benefits occur across a whole range of scales from large scale carbon sequestration by tropical forests all the way down to local opportunities for recreation in nature parks. Crucially, humans can generally only profit from the full range of services when they live in close proximity to an ecosystem: for example, the flood regulation provided by wetlands or mangroves is only appreciated when there is human infrastructure in the area benefiting from protection.

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Wetlands provide protection against flooding by absorbing and holding large quantities of water (Source: flickr.com)

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, human influence on ecosystems is growing. This pressure will only increase through the 21st century as the global population nears an estimated 10 billion. With the growing impact of climate change, even the most isolated areas of wilderness will soon be unable to escape human impacts. It is imperative that we recognise this fact and move to work with it, rather than against it. Increased impacts need not sound the death knell for biodiversity. Instead, with targeted research on the impacts of human activities it will be possible to properly manage ecosystems under environmental change. For example, recent research on the impacts of logging in tropical forests suggests that carefully managed low-intensity logging can have minimal impacts on species richness. If we only value pristine wilderness systems, we risk devaluing human-altered systems, and overlooking the myriad ways in which nature persists in these landscapes.

Though wildlife documentaries are valuable, for education, enjoyment and for inspiration to value the natural world, by omitting humans from the stories they tell they miss the nuance inherent in our relationship with the environment. The way we interact with wild places is complex and evolving, and only by considering these interactions can we hope to fully understand and conserve nature in all its forms.