by Judith Curry
Douglas Sheil from Uganda sent me an interesting article with the provocative title “A modest proposal for wealthy countries to reforest their land for the common good.” Following in Swift’s footsteps, the paper uses satire to highlight some inconsistencies regarding international agreements on land cover and ecosystem conservation.
The paper is published in Biotropica and can be found online [here]. Some excerpts:
A Modest Proposal
The Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees, known as CoFCCLoT, representing most of the world’s remaining tropical forests is asking wealthy nations to share global responsibilities and reforest their land for the common good of stabilizing climate and protecting biodiversity.
‘We are willing to play our part, but we require a level playing field in which we all commit to equal sacrifices,’ a coalition spokes- woman says. ‘Returning forest cover in the G8 countries and the European Union back to historic levels will benefit all of us in the long-term.’
‘For all the forests we in Indonesia, Brazil or Central Africa do not cut down, G8 countries should reforest a similarly-sized area,’ says the CoFCCLoT spokeswoman. ‘Too many agricultural areas in Europe and the US are only kept in business because of tariffs and subsidies.’
CoFCCLoT points out that nature in wealthy nations needs urgent attention. ‘Large areas are degraded. Soils are compacted, soil fauna depleted, and their hydrology disrupted and contaminated.’
The coalition says that if wealthy nations restore their forests, they can help slow climate change by absorbing atmospheric carbon and provide people with clean water and healthy soils. It also highlights the benefits for species diversity and environmental services.
CoFCCLoT notes the opportunities to reintroduce bears, lynx, wolves, beavers and other threatened animals that have been decimated or driven to extinction by rampant exploitation of natural forests in much of the industrialized world.
It says, too, that in the longer-term, ongoing climate change and reforestation may permit tropical mega-fauna to thrive in temperate countries. Lions could be reintroduced to Greece, CoFCCLoT suggests, and gorillas might thrive in Spain. Both countries face economic challenges that could be reduced by the revenues from ecotourism.
New markets for local handicrafts and also cultural entertainments are anticipated in G8 countries. These developments would reduce agricultural pressure on the forests.
CoFCCLoT expects that their member countries will provide funds for local capacity building, awareness raising, dealing with human wildlife conflicts and law enforcement in the United States, Japan, and Europe. ‘The limited capacity in many of these regions is a concern. But we are willing to share our skills and experiences’ says the spokeswoman.
The coalition acknowledges that their demands will meet some resistance. People might be scared to live near large forests with wild animals and may be resentful of not being allowed access to forest resources. ‘But people will get used to it,’ explains the spokes- woman.
‘It is time to share these global responsibilities,’ she adds. ‘The G8 cannot have their cake and eat it too.’
Satire as a Source of Serious Insight
Many of these issues have been written about at length in social sciences journals and other worthy fora. Great stuff, but we suspect that these texts have seldom been examined let alone discussed by practicing tropical biologists—satire, by being entertaining, may make the message more palatable and thus more likely to reach its targets.
The point of Table 1 is not to make factual statements. Our point is that these opinions exist and feature to varying degrees in many interactions concerning international conservation. Certainly we are only looking at half the picture (what richer nations think)— but the point is that richer countries largely call the shots and often end-up feeling misunderstood.
In some cases there are subtle factors at work. As we have argued elsewhere all of us may be deeply deluded about tropical na- ture and the actions it would take to protect it. Few of us are good at recognizing different frames and viewpoints.
The paper then examines two specific examples: spiking trees and oil palm plantations.
From the paper’s concluding synthesis:
Our nature-biased views are a strong motivator for conservation action but they can also blind us to alternative perspectives. If we hear that local people strongly support local oil palm development, we ignore it as an aberration or insist that they do not fully understand the associated ecological costs; if someone tells us they oppose such developments we use it for our cause. This may help win bat- tles but undermines long-term solutions. Many people in the tropics express feelings of injustice regarding how conservation is judged and implemented (Meijaard & Sheil 2008). To us that is a major concern as the world becomes more democratic. We need to be aware of different viewpoints, trying to understand, qualify and quantify them, and find ways to incorporate them into conservation solutions. This might feel like diluting our agenda, but the costs of not doing this outweigh the benefits.
We need to rethink our judgments and roles in conservation. Opening our eyes to inequity and double standards helps level the playing field and clarifies communication and debate. With the economic balance in the world shifting east and south, conservation power and ethical thought will similarly change. The sooner we recognize this and respond the more conservation stands to gain. CoFCCLoT has a point and we need to hear it.
JC comments: I find this paper interesting for two reasons. The first is that international top-down environmental agreements are invariably going to be associated with inequities and double standards. A more bottom-up adaptive governance approach is likely to be much more effective. Second, the use of satire here is a superb communication tool, far more effective than pleading consensus and shouting “denier.”