Yes, we know that forests are exploited during conflicts, serving as hideouts for rebels, staging grounds for guerilla warfare, currency for weapons and as rewards of the spoils of war. However, there are some forests who have not only benefitted from the need of our species to kill each other but whose very existence is dependent on it. These are the ‘Forests of War’ (though most prefer the more genteel sobriquet of ‘Peace Parks’). Now, I am not advocating that we embark on starting war campaigns to protect forests, but the fact remains that in some cases forest ecosystems fare better in war time. In some twisted circumstances, peace can actually spell devastation of previously undisturbed wilderness. Some notable examples;

1. The Demilitarized Zone, North/South Korea: This unwitting 4Km wide, 250Km long forest has been left relatively undisturbed since 1953. More than 20,000 migratory waterbirds use the forest wetlands and it is probably the last intact forest ecosystem in the region. The only threat to its survival; Peace.

2. Forests of Colombia: The forests of Colombia are HQ for armed groups, guerillas and paramilitaries. While they are responsible for converting forest tracts  into Coca and Poppy fields for the cocaine and heroin that pay the bills, their presence has simultaneously discouraged migration and organised exploitation of these frontier regions. Because of years of  ‘gunpoint conservation’, Colombia has more forest acerage than several decades ago.

3. Forests of Aceh Province: The Aceh province contains the largest remaining blocks of rainforests on the island of Sumatra. Most of the forests in Sumatra has been cleared by loggers or converted into oil palm plantations. The conflict in Aceh protected the forests by deterring such activities. The province now wants to earn carbon credits for its 3 million hectares of forest from ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon financing schemes.

4. Borneo: When Indonesia and Malaysia were fighting over border claims on the island of Borneo, very little damage was done to the wilderness. But in the 1990s they peacefully competed to cut down and sell Borneo’s forests. Businesses and the military raced to start forest fires to clear them for cash crop cultivation.

5. North Laos forests: Laos is paying part of its war debts from the Vietnam/American war to Vietnam and China with timber concessions in Northern Laos. Timber merchants from China and Vietnam are able to operate without consideration for logging bans or protected area boundaries. In August 1999 the state-run Vientiane Times reported that 90,000 cubic meters of timber went to cover ‘debt repayment,’ 12.5 percent of the total national timber quota for 1998/99.


Honestly, this is not just another World Bank bashing post. Alright, the Bank does have something to do with it but only as another link in the chain of unsustainability and short-sightedness we call ‘development’. The World Bank has agreed to fund the $4.4 billion, coal-powered Tata Ultra Mega Plant that is expected to become operational in 2012. The coal plant is predicted to become one of the world’s top 50 highest greenhouse gas emitters, emitting more CO2 annually than the entire country of Tunisia. The loan comes barely a year after World Bank President, Robert Zoellick pledged to “significantly step up our assistance” in fighting climate change. The Tata Group does not have the best environment record either. Their soda-ash plant on Lake Natron in Tanzania is facing strong opposition for jeopardising the largest breeding site of the Lesser Flamingo whose impressive, pink congregations are wildlife documentary staples. Closer to home, its private Dhamra port in Orissa, India, has been criticised for preventing endangered Olive Ridley Turtles from accessing their traditional nesting sites along the Orissa coastline. Like the World Bank, the Tata Group invests in a lot of greenwashing by sponsoring small conservation projects.

Can’t really place all blame on the World Bank because it is these sort of ‘dirty’ plants that offer the fastest return on investments while also conveniently meeting its supposed mandate of reducing poverty. In fact, the scheme is so delicious that the Bank not only agreed to lend Tata $450 million for the Ultra Mega Plant but may also buy a $50 million stake in it for itself (Do banks laugh all the way to the bank as well?) Tata is a private company that only has to answer to its shareholders and meet the laughable environment clearance processes in India. As a developing country with no CO2 emissions commitments, India is exempt from any mandatory obligations to produce clean energy. The cheapest kind (for now) will do, thank you. The electricity produced will be siphoned off by industry and the insatiable big & small cities. Urban poor will be forced steal expensive Tata electricity while their rural cousins continue to burn cow dung cakes and firewood. Both serving their purpose as mascots of Indian poverty for the next coal plant loan and keeping India’s per-capita CO2 emissions low enough to argue for a case for exemption from environment commitments. Made to order. We would even put these poor folks on an carbon trading scheme if we could get away with it. Who cares about vanishing islands in the Sunderbans, disappearing villages along the East coast or unproductive apple orchards in the lower Himalayas. Misery, unlike CO2 emissions is not so willingly shared on a per-capita basis it seems.

We all know climate change is going to be the greatest long-term threat to wildlife. But we still seem to think that we could preserve our current biodiversity,ecosystems and ecosystem services with the same short-sighted conservation planning, hoping that plants and animals will somehow adjust or adapt. This is wishful thinking considering that governments are spending billions to help their human citizens adapt to current and future climate change by building sea walls, flood defence systems, early warning mechanisms and relocating millions from disaster prone areas. Dr. Barnosky, a palaeoecologist and author of ‘Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming’ says that in the worst case scenario, it will be hotter in the year 2100 than it has been in at least 3 million years, which is longer than basically any species you can name has been on Earth. He also cautions that animals and plants are wired to evolve to adapt to change, but not at such a rapid pace.

So what options do we really have? Well, according to scientists, it seems like we can’t have our cake and eat it too.There will arise a conflict of interest between preserving exisiting biodiversity and our need for authentic wilderness areas.

If we want to preserve a species or an assemblage of species that would otherwise become extinct due to climate change, we will need to create ‘artificial’ biodiversity reserves. These reserves would be heavily managed to compensate for the negative effects of climate change and allow us to hold on to our precious biodiversity resource. Practices like ‘assisted migration’ where we intervene to assist poorly adapted species to relocate to more suitable areas, will become more common. Ecosystems such as grasslands could only be maintained in their current form by introducing better climate-adapted species to occupy the ecological niche left by poorly adapted species. For example, the prairies in North America would have to be stocked with elephants, wilderbeest and cheetahs to replace bison, pronghorn antelope and wolves which cannot take the heat. We will have to reconcile that these heavily managed biodiversity reserves will eventially assume the status of giant living museums or gene banks.

Simultaneously we need to create reserves free from human interference to sustain true ‘wilderness’. These wilderness reserves will see changing species and even extinctions within them as a natural consequence of unnatural, human-accelerated climate change. They may in all likelihood be dominated by species and ecosystems that we don’t particularly have a strong emotional affinity for. But they would be still be more authentic representations of wilderness than the heavily managed biodiversity reserves.

There are many such innovative ideas floating around to address conservation in a changing climate but the notion has not yet been incorporated into mainstream conservation planning. We expect governments and the private sector to respond quickly to the new climate realities but seem to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to assuming responsibility in the conservation sector. Rest assured, there will be no Noah’s Ark waiting when the floods come.

Read this or else…

May 25, 2009

Despite the supposed increase in environment consciousness, very rarely does environment news make headlines. When it does, it usually involves some sort of disaster like an oil spill or some unlucky chap attacked or eaten by a wild animal.  More often than not, environment news is passed off as a ‘special interest story’ usually when the Taliban are taking a siesta or Kim Jong II isn’t being an attention-seeking dictator. I am guessing the environment figures somewhere between ‘Interviews with contestants bumped off the latest episode of American Idol’ and ‘Talented pets’. Which is why I can’t get why they come up with such boring captions for environment related articles. Common culprits include;

1. Generic Gloom & Doom: You know the type. “Latest studies shows that X number of species are facing extinction, our coral reefs are dying, X million hectares of forests are being converted to palm oil plantations, soya, cotton-candy…” We know things are heading downhill but please don’t keep harping on the same generic stuff over and over. Give us a new perspective, angle or outlook on the issue and don’t patronise us.

2. Doomsday warnings: Food shortages, water crises, economic recession, natural disasters and climate change have managed to dispel the notion that we are invincible. But do we really need to know exactly when our grandchildren will be annhilated by rising sea levels, droughts, floods, McDonalds…?

3. All Aboard the Guilt Trip: We are the only animal that recognizes we could influence the future by what we do in the present. We are also a species that hates being reminded of our collective failures. Pity us and leave the emotional blackmailing to our mothers.

4. Government Speak: We know our governments are selling out to oil/mining/automobile lobbies and trying to squeeze out of environmental commitments at international conventions. Why then do we have to hear/read their bleeding heart speeches or look at pictures of them planting saplings? Spare us their self-indulgence.

5. Pointless awards: I am all for celebrating worthy achievements but who cares about vague awards for vague accomplishments. Even more puzzling is the increasingly set pattern of the award being sponsored by an oil company and presented by some member of minor royalty. Yawn…

Every schoolkid in India studying the food chain in school has been told that by saving tigers we are also saving the deer, monkeys, birds, forests, butterflies, etc,etc. We also know that the Indian Government has spent a gazillion dollars on tigers justifying the disproportionate spending on the same premise. We have a National Tiger Conservation Authority and Critical Tiger Habitats but no parallel National Crustacean Conservation Authority or Critical Vulture Habitats. Critical Tiger Habitats/Tiger reserves get loads more money than other Protected Areas from the Government let alone the extra moolah from tourists who flock to see the striped icon of the Indian wilderness in droves. Yet, despite the supposed umbrella species approach, we are still seeing population declines of threatened Indian wildlife species including the tiger around whom this show is run.

In a study published in the science journal Nature, the scientists said it was wrong to use the plight of one species in a risk “hot spot” as an indicator of the threat facing all others in that area. “There is a big chance that conservation efforts to date have been misfiring,” co-author Ian Owens said. The scientists looked at species abundance in grids measuring 100 km by 100 km to draw up the most detailed world map to date of mammals, birds and amphibians.What emerged was a radically different picture from that dictated by common conservation theory, which takes one species as an indicator for all. Interestingly, though species richness is concentrated in certain places (supporting biodiversity hotspots idea) the degree to which endangered species overlap in range varies, and the overlap is especially low for the very rarest species. The authors warn that “Overall, our results indicate that ‘silver-bullet’ conservation strategies alone will not deliver efficient conservation solutions.” According to the study, the picture is far more complicated, with mammal, bird and amphibian numbers being threatened by different things in different locations. While endangered bird species are often at risk because their habitats are being destroyed, mammals like tigers face pressure from poachers, and amphibians may be threatened by imported non-native fish.

This study besides shattering a long held misconception, should also encourage governments, funders, researchers and NGOs to use conservation resources more effectively insteading of taking the convenient but inefficent route of pandering to iconic/umbrella/indicator/sexy species. For sure tigers and pandas are going to make more people reach for their wallets. But let’s drop the pretense that this is good enough for all of earth’s biodiversity. Let these charismatic species hog all the attention they deserve in Disney or Pixar films not in conservation policy and action.

Scientists studying Giant Weta, one of the largest insects in the world, stumbled upon an unusual problem. These giant cousins of grasshoppers can weigh more than a house sparrow and are endemic to New Zealand. Their populations are mostly confined to offshore islands as they have almost been completely exterminated from the mainland by introduced mammals. As part of a recent species release, research staff at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington, had fitted 10 giant Weta with radio transmitter units to monitor their survival and movements after release. One tagged female Weta could not be located and researchers followed the transmitter signal only to find it emanating from the middle of stream. As the signal moved closer to shore, the culprit revealed itself to be an eel. The slimy critter had just swallowed an endangered Weta and $ 350 transmitter for breakfast!

The point I am making is that we conservation biologists often lose perspective when we study species to oblivion. I mean, what a would a Pygmy Shrew think if it knew we were analysing its droppings, writing papers, getting doctorates and making distinguished academic careers out of it. Not very highly of us I am guessing. That darn eel that ate the Giant Weta teaches us not to poke and prod the natural world in the hope of making it into a prestigious journal, garnering a coveted fellowship or figuring in the special interest section of the papers. Even if our cherished hypotheses are shattered to pieces in the process of scientific investigation, we still want to walk away having had fun anyway. And let’s not get too carried away by the science bit.

Environmentalists usually go on endlessly about the magical ‘power of one’ to save the world from spiralling towards environmental disaster. But let’s face facts; lending your signature to save the tigers, adopting an orangutan or your annual subscription to that wonderful wildlife newsletter is not really going to make a big dent on an individual level at least. The lucky sods with a dispropotionate ‘power of one’ are the environment ministers of countries who can change the big policies that matter and steer the world to a more sustainable future one country at a time. A chance to be hailed as environment heroes that most of us would kill for. Well, they quite clearly have not been doing their jobs the way things are at the moment. If anything, they have gained notoriety as crafty stooges negotiating their way out of environment commitments for their governments, watering down environment legislation, cosying up to developers and giving boring speeches on World Environment Day. I felt some of these schmucks deserve special mention for disservice to the environment.

1. Sammy Wilson, Current Environment Minister, Northern Ireland

Not for nothing is he the British Green Party’s ‘Green Wash Award’ winner for ‘the minister most likely to damage the environment’. Prior to his appointment, he campaigned against the setting up of an independent environment agency and was a passionate advocate for nuclear power. He is credited with the statement “I do not believe in man-made global warming” and has blocked the broadcast of climate change advertisements from television, calling them part of an “insidious propaganda campaign”.

2. Jim Prentice, Current Environment Minister, Canada

He won Canada the ‘Colossal Fossil Award’ at the climate change meeting in Poznan in December 2008 for  failing to embrace science-based emission-reduction targets and, generally, for slowing negotiations. In his first speech as environment minister, he has stated that we can’t afford to “aggravate an already weakening economy in the name of environmental progress.” The final icing on the cake was his statement that climate change could actually benefit polar bears. “I don’t think anyone disagrees the whole process of climate change has implications for polar bears,” Mr. Prentice said. “What those implications are is still under scientific investigation. It could be positive, it could be negative.”

3. Ján Chrbet, Ex-Environment Minister, Slovakia

He was fired by the Prime Minister recently for refusing to divulge the details of a dodgy emissions trading contract he had masterminded. The contract allowed a newly-formed company to buy Slovakia’s excess emissions quotas at only two-thirds of the price for which Slovakia’s neighbours Ukraine and the Czech Republic sold their own quotas. This could cost Slovakia tens of millions of dollars. Chrbet refused to disclose the contract details even at the cost of his job. Someone is getting a fat cheque in the mail soon.

4. Peter Garett, Current Minister of Environment, Heritage and Arts, Australia

This was one guy who had the potential to be the coolest environment minister ever. Lead singer of Aussie rock band Midnight Oil, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation for a decade, Order of Australia recipient and LiveEarth Australia presenter. He had it all, until he became environment minister that is. In office he approved a controversial uranium mine expansion, a paper pulp mill in environmentally sensitive Tasmania and dredging Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay. How could you Peter? Sob…

5. Shigeru Ishiba, Current Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Japan

Hardline supporter of Japan’s dubious practice of killing 800 whales a year for ‘scientific research.’ He told reporters that Tokyo “will not be able to accept any proposal that would prohibit Japan from continuing its research whaling.” 18 years and 6800 dead whales later, the research programme has managed to publish a mere 4 peer reviewed papers that demonstrate the need for lethal whaling. Mr. Ishiba is also the second person in the Cabinet of Fukuda to express belief and concern in the existence of UFOs. I rest my case.

Rocket launchers are expensive, especially when taxpayers are not footing the bill. It has now been revealed that the Taliban is paying for its killing hardware with timber from the Swat and Dir provinces through its ‘government approved’ occupation of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. It now joins the list of conflict timber beneficiaries such as the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, Charles Taylor of Liberia, the Burmese Junta and other dogs of war for whom sustainable forest management meant converting timber depots to ammunition depots.

Timber has always been a much favoured currency among the lawless kind as it is a high demand product that is very difficult and expensive to trace. So are forest carbon credits if you ask me. A World Bank administered Forest Carbon Partnership Facility worth over $200 million is in place for funding REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) schemes in developing countries as felling and burning forests accounts for up to 20% of global CO2 emissions. With potential income from carbon credit schemes through ‘avoided deforestation’, terrorists, rebels and mercenaries could hold forests to ransom in return for a cut  from developed countries. Developing countries, alarmed at the prospect of  ‘leakage’ of their forest carbon would strike dodgy ceasefire deals with terrorists in return for leaving their forests alone.

Worst-case-scenarios aside, control of forests translates to control over the 1.2 billion people who depend on them for livelihoods. Countries with State controlled forests could deny access to forest dependent communities as they would have mortgaged their national forests for some carbon scheme. Indigenous peoples are not happy and have protested against the exclusion of the word ‘rights’ from the Draft Declaration Text on REDD at the climate change meeting in Poznan in December 2008. There is also growing concern about the World Bank positioning itself as a broker for forest carbon credits. In short, there is great scope for abuse of forest carbon financing schemes by vested interests. These vested interests could be your government, greedy carbon speculators, polluting countries, lending institutions or your not-so-friendly neighbourhood terrorist.

Dictators. They get a lot of bad press and deservedly so. Military rule, gagging of free speech, rigged elections, genocide, crushing dissent and plundering natural resources are all in day’s work. Perks of the job include absolute power, opulent lifestyle, constant media attention and a swanky pad in a safe haven when the War Crimes Tribunal comes a’ calling. Do these bad boys have a single good bone in their well-fed bodies? Well my exhausting research (try finding ‘good facts’ on dictators) proves some of them did (for wildlife conservation at least anyway). Welcome to my list of Five Green Dictators;

1. Omar Bongo, President of Gabon from 1967 to 2008

Elected unopposed 3 times, he is world’s longest serving ruler (excluding monarchies). Money from Gabon’s once booming oil trade is rumoured to have made him one of the richest heads of state in the world. Mike Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society melted the patriach’s heart by showing him pictures from his ‘Megatransect’ expedition through Gabon’s forests. Gabon went overnight from zero to 13 National Parks covering 25,000 Sq.Km or 10% of the country. Try achieving that in a democracy!

2. Francisco Macías Nguema, President of Equatorial Guinea 1968-79

Repression by his military and clan members caused more than a third of Equatorial Guinea’s residents to flee to other countries. Fuelled by his consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, he assigned himself titles like ‘Unique Miracle’ and ‘Grand Master of Education, Science & Culture’ while simultaneously banning the use of the word ‘intellectual’. His claim to green fame was the banning of fishing in his reign. The presidential order was given to prevent citizens from fleeing the country by boat. Fishes of Equatorial Guinea lived unmolested in the 10 years of his reign while its human populace was not so lucky.

3. Daniel arap Moi, President of Kenya from 1978-2002

One of the ‘Big Men’ of Africa whose supporters called him the ‘Giraffe’ and ‘Professor of Politics’ in admiration of his far-sightedness and political strategems. His presidency brought corruption, political repression and ethnic tension to Kenya.  His wildife conservation record is better. In true dictator style he dramatically torched 10 tonnes of elephant ivory seized in Nairobi National Park worth over 60 million Kenyan shillings to demonstrate his stance against slaughter of elephants in his country. He also issued shoot-on-sight orders for poachers.

4.Major General Omar Torrijos Herrera, Commander of the National Guard of Panama from 1968-81

The General scorned the pedestrian designation of ‘President’ in favour of the more worthy titles of  ‘Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution’ and ‘Supreme Chief of Government’.  He gained power in a coup and was credited with making his opponents ‘disappear’, nepotism, corruption and turning Panama into one of the countries with the highest per capita public indebtedness. To his eco-credit he ‘adopted’ the wilderness of El Cope which was designated as the 25,000 hectare Omar Torrijos National Park in 1986. He never got to see it as his plane crashed in 1981 in the same wilderness area during a thunderstorm. A population of the Harlequin Frogs, presumed to be extinct, was found here by Jeff Corwin’s expedition team for Animal Planet recently.

5. Fidel Castro, President of Cuba from 1959-2006

His ‘Revolution first, elections later’ soon became one-party rule. The U.S was so desperate to get rid of him and he is believed to have remarked that “if surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal”.  However on the plus side, more than 20 percent of Cuba’s land is under some form of government protection  and since Castro seized power in 1959, logging has slowed significantly. Forest cover has increased from 14 percent in 1956 to about 21 percent today. One could argue that this is because Cuba has been excluded from much of the economic globalization that has taken its toll on the environment in many other parts of the world. However, a stable population, clear land tenure, strict enforcement of environment laws have also had a role to play.

Top 10 excuses for out of work environmentalists;


2. Competition from late arrivals; banker turned NGO CEO, burnt-out software chap turned conservation warrior …

3. Total lack of finanical skills. We are not in it for the money etc, etc…

4. Volunteers willing to slave for free. NGOs running on volunteers willing to slave for free.

5. Too many of those modelling projects beloved by number crunchers, death of field biology…you get the picture

6. Canny impostors; civil engineers pretending to be environment consultants, grandpa masquerading as Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, bureaucrats as the next brown/black Al Gore, Shell as Gaia…

7. Dubious hiring practices; Advertise job but hire our man in Kampala.

8. Bankrupting big ticket real estate deals. Buy a gazzilion hectares of forest for a bazzilion dollars and flog it for all its worth master plan.

9. Consultants. No comment.

10. Love Paradise Flycatchers, hate networking.