June 16, 2005

Save the people, too?

Nature sermonizes in an editorial (Save the people, too; paid subscription required) about the role of conservation biologists in Burma, renamed Myanmar by the military criminals that rule the country. The editorial discusses a report published in the same pages and written by a journalist who talked with the biologists. According to Nature, biologists "must pay attention to the needs of local human, as well as animal, populations."

"[S]ome statements [by conservation biologists] do give cause for concern. Attempts to justify engaging with a government guilty of atrocities by arguing that other regimes are just as bad are not compelling. The suggestion that Burmese exiles have exaggerated the abuses in Myanmar is discomforting […]."

Nature finds the suggestion (perceived by Nature; I am not sure anyone mentioned in the report makes such suggestion) "discomforting" but is not interested in whether it might be true.

"We should also heed the lessons of history. Today it is widely accepted that effective conservation requires the involvement of local people, and should bring them tangible benefits. But the annals of conservation are littered with instances of people being seen as obstacles that must be removed to make way for parks and reserves."

Nowhere in the report could I find statements by the biologists bearing on this matter. But anyway, of course people are sometimes obstacles for conservation. If I want to preserve a wild population of tigers in a forest I cannot build a suburb inside the forest. What is wrong with this idea? It would be wrong if I forced the rightful owners or dwellers out of their forest. I must reach a peaceful (in other words, commercial) agreement with them. The fact that a voluntary agreement is good for all parties does not change the fact that those people were initially an obstacle to my wish of preserving the tiger population, just as valley dwellers are an obstacle to building a dam. In this example the only "involvement" of local dwellers would be to abide by the contracts. In other instances conservationists and local people may agree on the long-term, active involvement of the latter, but by no means is this a universal requirement.

"Given this legacy, conservation biologists have a responsibility to ensure that their efforts do not conflict with local peoples' rights, or lend legitimacy to regimes that have dismal human-rights records. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't work at all in countries such as Myanmar. But they should set out for their field sites with their eyes wide open, having researched the humanitarian issues and engaged with parties who may not share their view that conserving biodiversity is the overwhelming priority for the region in question. That will build more confidence that saving the rhino doesn't require unacceptable compromises on human rights."

Adhering to cardboard ethics easily results in inconsistencies. Right after the above editorial is another editorial about the work of conservation biologists in the International Whaling Commission, which includes such luminaries of liberal democracy as China, Côte d'Ivoire and Morocco:

"And despite its grouching, Japan wants to be seen as a good international citizen; it is unlikely to pack up its marbles and go home. It will remain at the table [of the IWC], infuriating its opponents at times but basically conforming with an imperfect international process. Conservation biologists should do likewise, cajoling more friendly nations to sign on and grimly adhering to the only path that can, in its convoluted way, save the whales."

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