The readers of this blog will know that I am critical of current approaches to conservation. This because most current approaches don’t work. Conservationists never seem to be able to conserve anything. There are a few local success stories, but conservation needs to succeed on a much grander scale than is currently the case. My many friends and colleagues who work in this industry are committed and motivated people, with a great passion for the survival of wildlife and sustainable development in Africa. Thier commitment and passion are not under question. The problem is that we have failed to the stop the decimation of many key species. Across Africa we have failed to prevent the transformation of entire forest and savanna landscapes to a patchwork of rural agriculture and there is no indication that things will improve in the future. Why?
The reason is partly because failure is the self-fufilling prophesy of conservation. The conservation NGO that succeeds in ‘saving’ its target species (insert rhino or elephant, tiger, lion and more recently, giraffes) is doomed because the constant stream of emotionally generated donations will dry up. They need failure like a bleeding man needs blood. Failure (never their own, of course) sustains the vision of a possible future where things will be better if only a little more money is forthcoming. If the conservation NGO could finance yet another research project or fund another few years of a glamorous lifestyle in an exotic (and preferably warm, tropical) country, this will make all the difference. The whole business would be exposed for the scam that it is if the real problems were not so serious.
It’s not only me that takes a dim view of conservation policy. A new paper in the journal World Development exposes REDD+, one of the great recent ideas around conservation and sustainable development, as just another conservation fad. The paper says in print what has been whispered about in corridors and at conferences for the last few years: REDD+ is failing and is doomed to fail. It joins the list of other conservation fads like harvesting nuts from rainforests to generate income for communities, cutting the horns off rhino to prevent them being poached, burning elephant ivory and ecotourism and eco-certification systems. They don’t work.
To be fair the failure of REDD+ is not only the fault of conservationists. It could have all been very different. As I have written in a previous post on global climate negotiations, REDD+ could have served as the ultimate equaliser in global North-South relations. The north needs the forests of the global south to sequester carbon and slow the effects of climate change and they can’t get this through war, conquest or the usual methods of strategic domination. The global south can offer this service and earn a good income for doing so, but it cannot be done without a just and equitable system of forest ownership and environmental governance. Both parties have failed. The global north is in the midst of an economic crisis and won’t pay, and the governments of the global south refuse to make changes to their governance arrangements which devolves real power to local communities. They want the money for themselves and we all know what happens when you give money to governments in Africa.
Unfortunately the effects of giving money to an army of consultants, scientists and conservationists seems to have had much the same result in REDD+ programmes in Tanzania. Expenditure in the hundreds of millions of USD on staffing, logistics, administration and capacity building appear to have yielded not a single viable REDD+ project in the entire country. The development of expensive satellite imaging tools for detecting deforestation and forest degradation seems to have taken place without any link between the effectiveness of these tools and relevant forest policy. The reluctance and failure of both national and local government in Tanzania to devolve real power, enforce forest legislation and allow funds from REDD+ to flow directly to local communities has been ignored in the pursuit of ever more complex and sophisticated technology. Aldo Leopold foresaw the problem with technology and a sustainable approach to land use in 1938 when he wrote:
“Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
I’m sure Leopold would be astounded at the amount of money and effort that has gone into developing tools without any thought to how they link with governance, policy implementation and human behaviour with respect to forests. Despite calls for interdisciplinary research and policy implementation in sustainable development projects, research around REDD+ implementation has continued to compartmentalise the different requirements for on-the-ground success.
The most valuable insight in the paper however, is the way the authors seek to re-conceptualise REDD+ and other conservation fads as “discursive commodities”. This is a way of saying that these fads are an end in themselves. They harvest resources from an “economy of expectations” which takes advantage of the promise of possible future demand for the product. These expectations drive much of the species based conservation NGO’s justification for funding. Although there are also strong appeals to emotion which generate income, the central idea is that the future is always just out of reach.
Because abject failure would probably put off even the most ardent supporter of conservation, we see a lot of over-reporting of success. This is often achieved by reporting success at one scale and then failing to assess these successes at the scale at which the project was intended to achieve its objectives. If successful implementation of REDD+ is about anything it is about scale. A few farmers who have stopped cutting trees as a result of a million dollar intervention by highly paid consultants, does not translate into the landscape scale reversal of deforestation that REDD+ is intended to achieve. Saving a few rhino by cutting off their horns does not translate into the possibility of landscape scale reintroductions of rhino into vast wilderness areas like the Luangwa and Zambezi valleys where they were once abundant. Burning elephant tusks in Kenya does conserve elephants in Namibia where the social and governance problems are very different.
So what is the solution? The modern conservationist would almost always answer that we need more research. We need more feasibility studies. We need pilot projects. The future is just around the corner if only we could fund another three to five year project. I don’t agree. The solution lies in what we can do today. We have a vast body of sophisticated research that shows what is required from government. We know that devolution of real power is key to local conservation success. We also know that real devolution of power has seldom been implemented in conservation projects. We urgently need to implement policy that results in local success and slowly allow that to translate into regional and national success. Some of this policy may actually have little direct relevance to conservation or sustainable land use. It may be more important for the secondary effects on sustainable development than the primary effects which it is designed to address. Conservationists would be well placed to spend more time analysing, lobbying and contributing to all government policy where there may be an effect on wildlife, conservation and sustainable development. This would be a much better use of their time and taxpayer or donor money than strapping more satellite radio collars on more animals and developing ever more sophisticated remote sensing tools for detecting deforestation.
Ultimately I believe some of the more extreme views on deep ecology may need to be adopted to make conservation into a force that produces change. Unfortunately the philosophy of deep ecology appears to have been (superficially, at least) captured by misanthropic elements obsessed with animal rights. Deep ecology has always been concerned with humans realising their best potential in the natural world. The animal rights approach is deeply damaging because it simplifies the conservation debate to the point of absurdity when we consider what conservation needs to achieve at a global scale. If anyone thinks that stopping trophy hunting is going to achieve what needs to be done for wildlife and wilderness areas on a global scale they really need to stop and have a think about what the real problems are. It is encouraging to see a respected academic journal like World Development publishing articles that critique conservation policy. Now we need to do something about this criticism so that it produces results.
Lund, J., Sungusia, E., Mabele, M., and Scheba, A. (2016). Promising change, Delivering Continuity: REDD+ as Conservation Fad. World Development, in press.
Redford, K. H., Padoch, C., and Sunderland, T. (2013). Fads, funding, and forgetting in three decades of conservation. Conservation Biology, 27(3):437–438.
Fletcher, R., Dressler, W., Büscher, B., and Anderson, Z. R. (2016). Questioning REDD+ and the future of market-based conservation. Conservation Biology. http://DOI:10.1111/cobi.12680