Category Archives: Governance

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?


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.


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.


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?

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.

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.

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?



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?

The Cow Conundrum

In a country where the cow is ubiquitous, either deified and included in the household as part of tradition by many, bred and consumed for subsistence by others, or just left to live off trash and roam the dusty city roads by the ignoramus, the relationship between man and cow is culturally multidimensional. Although the beef ban in many parts of India has raised questions on the existence and functioning of a secular state, the bovine ballad that shall unfold isn’t on consumption.

As the rising sun ignites the first dawn of the Tamil month of Tai on the 14th of January 2017 in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where farmers – landowners and agricultural labourers – celebrate the start of the harvest season through the festival of Pongal, a lacklustre display of colour and joy would result due to the enforcement of (yet another) ban on a sport of taming bulls: Jallikattu, also known as Eruthazhuvuthal or ‘Embracing a Bull’. In fact, it is the corruption of culture over time, written – or worse, rewritten – to the whims and fancies of a majoritarian many that has led to its acknowledgement as a “sport”, as the initial practice of the ritual was in consideration of taming aggressive humped Bos indicus oxen (that animatedly conjure the image of flaring nostrils) as suitable, dominant males for breeding a healthy population of cows. The ritual, much like many others with humble origins in indigenous settings, gained cult status over the course of history, from periodically being mentioned in accounts and inscribed in sculptures, and tactfully survived the 200 years of colonial chastisement in the subcontinent, much to the surprise of contemporary thinkers.

There is a supposed showcase of virility by man and bull during the ritual. The tamer is seen embracing the hump of the latter in the picture.

The controversial ban on this “cruel male entertainment” was enforced on ethical grounds by the Supreme Court of India in a landmark verdict, through a lobby of animal welfare activists, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and spearheaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)-India through an intensive campaign and investigation, citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The revocation of the ban due to colossal resistance by pastoralists and activists of traditional practices in view of the anticipated damages in the agrarian economy, the loss of traditional cattle breeds has produced a conundrum in the dialogue between various actors, and extended to pugnacious debates between non-governmental organisations, local-governance bodies, the State government and New Delhi.

In many parts of Tamil Nadu, bulls continue to be used for ploughing the land, although tractors have been included extensively. The gap between the economically sound and backward farmers is stark.

It is unfair, as a rational student of conservation science, to display a bias to gain resolution. What first holds the mind aghast is the perceived danger of activists pitted against the other, in a classic case of one-upmanship, where activists are somehow “superior people”, as noted by Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna, a renowned musician and musicologist from Tamil Nadu in a 2015 news article. Secondly, the arguments made in favour or against the ban are equally legitimate, giving both parties their fair share of voice and free thought, but share striking commonalities – they are rooted in the conscience of thinkers, in the support of people, in the cultural fabric of society, and most importantly, in the interest of the animal itself. Herein comes to the fore, the need for regulation – not prevention – and thence mutual cooperation for shared “benefits” in this dialogue, necessitating the horizontal division of conservation governance in India, for the inclusion of well-supported reason. The ideologues of animal ethics essay their role well in arguing against the “torture” of bulls for the sake of tradition, in support of the greater good, accommodating, and involuntarily adding this topic into the kettle of ethics-related (vegan) soup. The other school of support in favour of this form of traditional ecological knowledge seemingly argues for pastoralists who have tamed (or embraced, as the transliteration dictates) and hence bred cows through the practice, preventing the loss of native breeds like the Kangeyam, Pulikulam, Umbalachery and Malai Maadu in Tamil Nadu – the traditional keepers of livestock have evidently engaged in this form of conservation and allegedly resisting depredation of Indian cattle by the western dairy industry. The earlier utterance of corruption is certainly the point that weakens the case – the practice at large has lost its rubric as an intimate affair, shifting from craft to consumerism, with sole purpose of taming giving way to a messy affair of (reported) torture and cruelty, thus paving way for PETA & Co. Also in question is that artificial insemination and breeding technologies – which are in use amongst well-heeled agriculturalists – could be further popularised  to kindle the sake of attachment to breed. However, India (and recently, the UK and USA) knows the ramifications of emotional attachment to what is perceived as “culture” and “belonging”: the dangers of the currently trending rhetoric, ‘give my country(side) back’.

Throughout the history of indigenous people and local communities, the enforcement or mere presence of Western thought is regarded as neo-colonialism – in most cases, according to Thomas Thornton in Being and Place Among the Tlingit, it is blamed for deeming tradition with “mechanistic or estranged” views, disparaging the “intimate, enchanted union with the landscape”. Whilst the animal rights activists sympathise with cows and advocate ethics, in sync with the tone of ahimsa or non-violence that gripped the nation during its struggle for freedom, hasn’t folklore from the native Sangam literature indicated the presence of the system percolating from the Mullai tribes that embraced man-animal interaction for the “management” and “survival” of these species – terms that are commonplace in modern conservation policy? Sustainability should be tested through healthy skepticism, as many yesteryear practices were regressive. As for Pongal in 2017, there is bound to be ‘a countenance more in sorrow than anger’.

Dhruv Gangadharan Arvind is from Chennai, India and aspires to be a columnist. He occasionally writes on the interface between nature, culture and society in his blog, Veritable Verses, and is the co-author of Airflow, Comfort and Habitability of Game Reserves.


Conservation and Economics: Why should we love Ecosystem Services?

I have always been passionate about nature and its wonders. I am therefore extremely concerned about the destruction that we humans are causing, as it does not only compromise our future, but the one of all the other species with whom we share this -one and only- planet. I just cannot stand the idea that our selfishness and blindness is a death sentence for many of the marvels of this world.

I studied Economics as undergrad because I understood that economic incentives are one of the primary causes of nature depletion. However, while I was studying, it seemed difficult for me to find a concrete link between economics and conservation. This was until I discovered the concept of ecosystem services (ES), which gives an opportunity to merge the two fields and get answers that can be useful for both. In other words, win-wins everywhere! (This is however not exempt of polemics as I will explain).


Food. An example of a Povisionning ecosystem services. Photo source:

To give a general idea, ecosystem services can be understood as all the goods and services that nature provides, and that enhance humans’ wellbeing. Continue reading Conservation and Economics: Why should we love Ecosystem Services?

Albert Liu talks about his dissertation and being appointed to a Singapore conservation committee

When Albert joined BCM he told me how Singaporeans were looking to create a national identity beyond that of a smart metropolitan transport and trading hub. For him the future of the small island of Pulau Ubin – a remnant of the old Singaporean landscape – was central to this cause.

He felt a sense of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the government’s public consultation on the island’s future and decided to make this the topic of his dissertation.  It turned out to be a wonderful piece of action research that resulted in a two hour meeting with the Minister responsible and an invitation to join the committee overseeing Pulau Ubin’s future.

In August Albert called in to see me and kindly agreed to share his dissertation story via this video interview.

I ran out of memory on my iPhone so we continued the interview in the MSc coffee room.


Science isn’t everything – the importance of interdisciplinarity in conservation policy-making

CITES roleplayCITES role-play, 4/12/2015. Credit to Jenny Wong.

On Friday, our BCM class participated in a CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) role-play workshop. Our simulation was as follows: a proposal to list Cedrela odorata on Appendix II of CITES. Each student was either a delegate from a country or an NGO. As an ‘NGO delegate’ I was in favour of the listing, and on revision of the science I thought it would be a piece of cake to have the listing voted through, as it was the logical conclusion when taking into account the degree to which the species has been declining in recent years. However, it proved to be completely impossible to overcome the economic and political concerns of the developing countries involved. Continue reading Science isn’t everything – the importance of interdisciplinarity in conservation policy-making