Conservation Debate: A Question of Growth

Alan Oxley, Jakarta Globe

The refusal of the Indonesian government to allow Rainbow Warrior, dubbed by some as Greenpeace’s environmental warship, to dock in Indonesia recently, reveals a growing impatience in Southeast Asia toward the attitudes and methods of Western environmentalists.

There are two sources of disaffection. The first is disregard of the poor and economic growth.

The second is distortion of science to make a political case.

The declared aim of Greenpeace and WWF is to see an end to all conversion of forest to any other purpose everywhere. There is no scientific case for this and a powerful economic argument against.

World Growth joined the global debate to argue for solutions that respected action to reduce poverty, not displace it. This has drawn criticism, as we expected, and we welcome it.

At last the impact of green strategies on poverty is now on the table.

To those who argue that biodiversity is threatened unless all conversion of forest land ceases, we ask the questions: “What biodiversity is expressly protected by global cessation of conversion of forest land to other purposes and how is that biodiversity scientifically measured?”

To World Growth’s knowledge, no scientific analysis supporting this position has so far been produced.

However, one political effort has been made to set how much forest should be preserved globally to be able to protect current biodiversity.

Signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity proposed at one point that 10 percent of the world’s forests needed to be set aside to protect biodiversity.

WWF has reported that that target has been met. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 21 percent of forest land in South and Southeast Asia has been set aside for biodiversity conservation (considerably more than the CBD’s proposed 10 percent).

The United Nations Environment Program has reported that 21 percent of tropical forests are in protected areas. In temperate forests the percentage is less than 13 percent, but even then we cannot be too precise.

For example, the FAO recently revised its deforestation figures for 2000-2005 downwards by more than 12 million hectares — half the area of Britain.

Two points to underline here are that plenty of forest land remains for productive activity and that globally the rate of deforestation is modest and declining.

The FAO reports the global deforestation rate has declined from 0.20 percent of forest land per annum to around 0.14 percent per annum over the past two decades.

This reflects historical and current empirical research on forests and economic development — that as societies become wealthier, deforestation slows, stops and eventually gives way to forest expansion.

That said, this is all educated guesswork. The technical basis of the measurement of global measure of forest cover could be significantly improved, and the FAO has been pressing for this to be done.

This would evidently be useful information. Instead of agitation for this from biodiversity activists and environmentalists, there is silence.

This is not surprising. Science is adduced to support a political case when it suits, not to establish facts.

Greenpeace and WWF have a long record between them of producing supposedly scientific reports where claims are not supported, even false and facts are misrepresented or distorted.

Greenpeace has been caught out twice in the last few months, producing heavily distorted reports about the pulp and palm oil industries.

WWF’s record is little better. It has made claims about the rate of burning down Indonesian forests which have been publicly demonstrated as wrong.

The London Telegraph dubbed as “Amazongate” revelations that WWF had produced supposedly science-based reports on the adverse impacts of forestry in Brazil which could not  be supported.

There is a political campaign at work here. The aim is to brand the largest plantation operators in Indonesia as responsible for the bulk of the country’s deforestation.

The group of mostly biodiversity scientists who here challenge World Growth share that sentiment. It is not true.

The FAO routinely states that worldwide around two-thirds of forest land clearance is by the poor — to acquire fuel wood, to practice low-return agriculture or to acquire shelter.

The other third is converted to highly productive use — commercial agriculture (including palm oil) and forest plantations.

These activities are important contributors to economic growth. A large share of it is undertaken by large companies.

Most land clearing by the poor in most developing countries already flaunts local land use rules. It’s hard to see how a ban on deforestation driven by Western campaigners is going to make any difference.

The answer to this problem, as we have noted before, is the postulation by Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Price laureate, Wangari Maathai: End poverty.

It is the large corporations and the plantation industries which create the jobs which remove the incentive for the poor to clear land. Stopping corporations converting forest land to more productive uses removes the best tool (employment — and therefore food security) to stop wasteful conversion.

There has been a response to World Growth’s call to address poverty, but it borders on the disingenuous.

It was advanced by WWF and echoed by the biodiversity scientists that protection of the forest preserves the subsistence lifestyles of indigenous forest peoples.

But in fact, all this preserves is high rates of infant mortality, illiteracy and short life spans.

The forest dwellers might as well be in an open-range zoo established for the pleasure of environmental campaigners.

And how does that help the 40 million people in Indonesia still living below the poverty line?

Here, we arrive at the nub of World Growth’s position.

Apart from the fact that deforestation rates have been overstated, and that the leading cause has been misrepresented, humanitarianism dictates that we devise solutions to protect the environment without restricting our capacity to lift people out of poverty.

No reasonable person would object  to that.

A reasonable person would, however, object if solutions to environmental problems exacerbated rather than improved the condition of the world’s poor, unless they elected to subscribe to sort of morally unacceptable strategies to reduce population, which has been entertained by one of our critics, biology professor Paul Ehrlich.

Alan Oxley is chairman of the Washington-based World Growth Institute and a managing consultant at International Trade Strategies in Melbourne.

This article was written in response to an open letter by 12 leading conservation scientists.

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