Walk into any conference on biodiversity or natural resources conservation today and you’ll find a whole host of characters that 10 years ago had no business or interest being there. Representatives from large companies, economists, vice-ministers for business development, UN agencies with annoying acronyms and consultants who always seem reluctant to reveal their area of expertise. This mixed bunch of folks are a bit like tourists who stumble into a local bar; tolerated as long as they keep quiet and pay for their drinks (at special tourist rates of course). Occasionally they are allowed on stage provided they punctuate their talks with suitable phrases like sustainable development, triple bottom lines and win-win situations.

The only ‘stakeholder’ you don’t see is a representative of indigenous people. I mean the real kind not someone who has ‘worked’ with them for 20 years. There is no shortage of representatives claiming to know what indigenous people want and willing to make decisions on their behalf. All one has to do is mention Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, Equitable Sharing of Benefits and Prior Free Informed Consent a few times and the box on indigenous people concerns is ticked.

That conservation organisations do not have the legitimacy to speak on behalf of indigenous people has become increasingly obvious. For example, the Resolution of Amazonian Indigenous Forum on Climate Change states in its introduction that;

“Considering that the positions and measures taken by the majority of the NGOs and their representatives do not represent our viewpoint in the decision making process in the negotiations and agreements on the Kyoto Protocol and its consequences;”

When indigenous people do make it to conservation forums, they end up feeling marginalised. For example, at the ad hoc Working Group on Protected Areas of the Convention on Biodiversity in 2008, members of the International Indigenous Forum of Biodiversity staged a walkout to protest against not being taken seriously. In their statement they said that;

“the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) withdrew from the Working Group on Protected Areas because on the previous two days, indigenous peoples were not given the floor on matters of concern to them in a timely manner. This led to missed opportunities for indigenous peoples’ comments and proposed text to be appropriately discussed and reflected in the conference room papers (CRPs)”

Indigenous groups are still hurting from the failure of big conservation organisations to support local movements relating to forest rights, land tenure, extractive industry and encroachment of forests by non-indigenous people. Lack of opportunities for meaningful representation and marginalisation is definitely not the way to rebuild trust. When it comes to indigenous people issues, conservationists tend to shy away as they believe it is a complicated minefield that is best left to others. If conservationists can spend lifetimes in hostile environments trying to understand what makes elusive species tick, they sure can spend some time trying to understand how to regain the trust of indigenous communities.

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.

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.

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.