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Relevant reading

Frozen evolution

by Rüdiger Korff
Elephants in the Amboseli National Park

Elephants in the Amboseli National Park

It does not make sense to strictly distinguish nature on the one hand from human activity on the other. In the end, isolated conservation parks are nothing but artificial, human-made environments, in which genetic exchange and evolution take place only to a limited extent. What is required is a healthy balance that gives both society and biodiversity enough scope to evolve. [ By Rüdiger Korff ]

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the conservation of diversity is an end in itself, the value of which is not defined in terms of economic returns. At the same time, the Convention states that human activity is threatening biodiversity. Thus the question arises of how to reconcile conservation of biodiversity with sustainable business activities. No doubt, it is necessary to improve incomes to fight poverty, and that normally implies more intensive use of resources, which, in turn, reduces biodiversity in the long run.

The idea seems obvious that human activity must be excluded from specific protected areas to conserve biodiversity. Indeed, many measures to protect biodiversity are based on conventional conservation programmes. Typically, the focus was initially on areas which were considered to be largely undisturbed and thus “natural”. In “Serengeti must not die”, Grzimek warned back in 1959 that humankind destroys nature wherever it tries to make use of it. The concern that farmers, indigenous groups and resource companies degrade the biosphere is nothing new.

Isolated protection

Protection of specific areas is no real solution, however. Doing so always means people must be resettled – with the result of serious social problems. Conservation parks become ecological islands, while natural resources are exploited even more intensively on their fringes. Genetic exchange between different protected areas becomes impossible. Corridors for the migration of genes were supposed to remedy this problem, but it still exists even though protected areas now cover some 10 % of the terrestrial land mass (Brockington, Igoe 2006).
Nonetheless, sustainable development has not been achieved. Since the late 1980s, integrated conservation development projects (ICBD) have been implemented with the intention of diffusing conflicts that stem from the extension of protected areas. However, the results of these projects are still rather unsatisfactory (Wells, McShane, 2004). Distinctions between protected areas and areas of use have not proven to be very helpful. In many cases, it is precisely the border zones that provide especially important habitats. Therefore, it is obvious that using nature does no harm per se. That is only so in the case of one-sided, monocultural use – which, however, is often the more or less unintended result of free-market dynamics.

In a next step, it seemed promising to turn to the indigenous communities and their knowledge. After all, the “hotspots of biodiversity” are located in remote regions. Since ethnic minorities living there are part of the respective ecosystems, it was assumed that they and their knowledge are important for maintaining the ecological balance. This approach is taken, for instance, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (http://cms.iucn.org).
But this approach leads to problems too. For example, people may migrate from other regions and plunder resources. Furthermore, indigenous groups do not all behave in the same way, as is illustrated by the example of the Mekong region in Southeast Asia. While the Karen protect biodiversity, the Hmong exploit it. The reason is that the Karen are optimising their subsistence economy, whereas the Hmong have long since begun to maximise incomes. (Indigenous Knowledge and People, IKAP, http://www.ikap-mmsea.org; Centre for Biodiversity ands Indigenous Knowledge, http://www.cbik.ac.cn). Studies in other regions have also shown that indigenous groups do not necessarily protect biodiversity (Nygren 1999).

Eco-tourism can help to reconcile business and conservation – but it doesn’t necessarily do so. It can also aggravate the strained relationship, if, for instance, the construction of hotels gets out of hand, or tourism companies get privileges not extended to the local communities. In any case, it is doubtful whether air travel can be considered environmentally correct in the age of climate change.

Hunting elephants prudently

The notional distinction between nature on the one hand and society/economy on the other is almost always made – as though nature became somehow more natural without human involvement. Thompson (2002) provides an interesting case study in this respect. In Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, the elephant population grew because of the ban on hunting. It became so big that it endangered the Park’s vegetation. There were two alternatives to solve the problem: either the elephant population had to be reduced or the park had to be enlarged. Elephant experts favoured the second solution, suggesting that the park administration compensate farmers who lost fields in the process.

Development experts argued in a different manner. They considered both the elephants and the local population, the Masai, to be stakeholders. The latter should therefore be allowed to shoot elephants on a restricted basis if they came onto their fields. At the same time, the Masai were to get a share of the tourism revenue, so they would take interest in the elephants’ well-being. This approach is pointing in the right direction, even though it raises problems of its own. Not only the Masai, but many other people in the surrounding area will want to profit from tourism. Moreover, legalised elephant hunting could impair the National Park’s image.

In any case, the insight matters that nature and humankind are interdependent and even constitute a unity. Bateson (2000) recognised this back in the late 1960s, stating that the environment and organisms mutually influence one another and undergo constant evolution. If the environment changes, so too do the organisms and vice versa. Ultimately, isolated protected zones only provide an artificially created environment – and certainly not untouched nature.

Human activity impacts on biodiversity, which is becoming especially apparent in agriculture. In the long run, the basis of conserving biodiversity cannot be conservation in enclosed protected areas and gene banks. Freezing evolution in this manner can only ever be a temporary measure. Sustainable development must be based on new possibilities to safeguard biodiversity and to improve human standards of life. Both must continue to evolve. In the end, it comes down to constantly readjusting an interdependent relationship. By contrast, conservative conservation approaches lead to dead ends, as does economic policy aimed exclusively at maximising use.