Category Archives: Politics

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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).

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

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?

Uncertain Environmental Future After U.S. Election

The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States sent shockwaves around the world. Many questions remain surrounding his presidency and the policies a Trump administration will seek to enact. Throughout the campaign, Trump avoided setting clear positions on policy and remained vague with the few details he did provide. Because Trump has never served in public office, he lacks a voting record making it very difficult to determine his likely positions. This leaves the question, what does this mean for the environment? Specifically, what does this mean for conservation and efforts to curb climate change? Continue reading Uncertain Environmental Future After U.S. Election

Cultural Constructions of ‘Nature’, or; How ‘Natural’ is it really?

“Stowe is not a garden of flowers or shrubs, it’s a garden of ideas”

from Gardens in Time S1E2, Stowe.

On the morning of Sunday the 23rd of January (prior to our field trip to Waddesdon and Stowe Gardens) our BCM class undertook an exercise analysing how we imagine nature. We each mentally conjured up images of nature: subjective of course as they are relative to our past experiences. For me, it materialised as a tranquil English countryside scene – complete with meandering stream, numerous imposing oak trees and a collection of beautiful butterflies, chirping crickets and feisty foxes – as this is the idea of nature I have grown up with in the UK (see picture below for an approximation). This image to me reflects the ‘naturalness’ and untouched qualities of nature. However, I was to learn that things aren’t always what they seem with regard to the ‘natural’ world.

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The English Countryside. Credit: Natural England.

Upon arriving at Stowe, it became apparent that my idea of nature had actually been constructed in the 18th century, with the development of the landscape garden. Stowe is a demonstration of the changes in this movement, as Cobham uses nature to create a powerful, politically charged, and influential gardens, bringing in examples and techniques from Europe and further afield. By introducing new designs such as the Ha-ha (France) and the Serpentine river (Japan) – as well as plenty of Greek and Roman influences seen in the Elysian fields and the statue of Venus – Cobham demonstrated his political ideology and rebellion against the Tory party.

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Ha-ha at Stowe. Credit: Willowbrook Park blog.

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The Serpentine River at Stowe Gardens.

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Statue of Venus at Stowe. Image released under creative commons.

It was during this time period (17th and 18th centuries) that influential British landowners begun to spatially delineate the English countryside in order to gain more power and control. This can be seen at Stowe, where Cobham inserted a thick treeline on the perimeter of his gardens to block the sight of the nearby village of Lamport, as he regarded it as unsightly and not in keeping with the ‘naturalness’ of the gardens. This reinforces the nature/culture binary, as well as the exclusivity of the property.

Some of the most notable features that appear completely incidental to the untrained eye are the serpentine river (actually designed and constructed by Charles Bridgeman to free the garden from the tyranny of geometry and filled with black sand in order to look like the river Styx), the various trees (managed and arranged to perfectly frame Cobham’s imposing military monuments), and the Grecian valley opposite the Temple of Concord and Victory (created with the intention of forming a man-made lake). Thus Cobham manipulated nature in order to demonstrate his political and military achievements to whoever was deemed important enough to be deigned with an invitation to Stowe.

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Lord Cobham’s Pillar.

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Grecian Valley. Credit: Mike Jackson.

As a desired result of this manipulation of nature, Stowe became THE venue for important political discussions, and Cobham would invite some of the most well-known and respected figures from the military, banking and political sectors. Henceforth, investments were discussed and decisions were made that would influence the politics of the Whig party for the next 100 years.

Cobham’s gardens at Stowe are a reflection of both his political ideas and military victories. It is here that nature begins to be interwoven into the rich historical and political tapestry of 18th century England, as Cobham incorporates the former (perhaps rather awkwardly) into the latter, disturbing and blurring the boundaries firmly set in place by the geometrical landscape garden previously dominant in Britain. The result is a co-produced ‘nature’ that is both cultural and natural, serving the purpose of amplifying the cultural successes of military victories and a new politics.

But where does this leave us today? I believe this field trip raised many important questions for today’s conservationists:

  1. To what extent is Nature a cultural construction?
  2. Will our society ever stop viewing Nature as something to be used and manipulated?   And more to the point…
  3. Should it?

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

Are we a grey wolf’s worst nightmare?

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Howlsnow

The Yellowstone National Park (YNP) grey wolf has had a colourful history. Depending on our circumstances, we both love or hate this animal. The question I ask is, are these feelings warranted or were they formed from the management and governance programs in place around the grey wolf?

There are two sides to every story.

From the past eradication, through to the present social perspectives of love and hate, does the grey wolf have a future in this new world it was reintroduced to?

The grey wolves successful reintroduction

The last pack grey wolf was killed in YNP in 1926. The 70 years following this eradication had detrimental effects on YNP. A number of ecological and biodiversity consequences were being realised because the elk and deer lost their predator.

Yellowstone National Park was dying.

To save YNP, a grey wolf reintroduction programme was designed and implemented as part of…

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