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Trouble Back Home & International Regimes

Categories: Conservation, International Relations, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Portland Bight Protected Area

Only a few years after successfully resisting attempts to “develop” the Cockpit Country for bauxite mining, the Jamaican Government is apparently planning to sell off some of its most vulnerable and endemic ecosystems to Chinese developers.  This plan, which would likely involve clear-cutting mangrove zones near Portland, is a horrifying idea, as it would severely damage coastal integrity and endanger species on the verge of extinction.  Stunningly, this region was also declared a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 2006.  Needless to say, the development planned by Jamaica and the Chinese government will entirely undo the intent of the Convention.

Notably, the Chinese company that is behind this push has been blacklisted by the World Bank due to fraud and corruption.  For shame, Jamaica.  Anyone concerned about this – including non-Jamaicans – should sign this petition from

Occasionally, Things Go Right

Categories: Conservation, Environmental Rights and Justice, Green Consumerism, Morality and the Environment, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Donghra Villager

One of the challenges I’ve found in talking about environmental justice occurs when justice claims seem to oppose economic ‘development.’  In short, marginalized people around the world too often find their claims about appropriate land use policies and practices ignored or outright dismissed if these claims contradict large-scale industrial development.  For example, in the video below, the Dongria Kondh tribe in India tried to block the onset of open-pit bauxite mining sponsored by the transnational company Vedanta.  The Indian federal government and Vedanta made fairly similar arguments – opposition was ‘irrational,’ particularly since the arguments made by the Dongria Kondh seemed to rest so much on emotional, religious and cultural appeals.  Surely, these should matter little to the possibility of GDP growth, modernization, and capitalist development.  This is something we’ve seen before, including in this country.

However, the Dongria Kondh remained unconvinced: refusing to compromise on their vision of the sacred nature of the mountain, the tribe remained steadfast in their opposition to mining.  As described in this article by the Telegraph, one of the major villages, Lakhapadar, voted to ban mining in a move that was recognized as legitimate by the Indian Supreme Court.

While the Indian villagers are not convinced that this ban is permanent, it still represents a hope that even the marginalized, if supported by legal institutions, can have a positive impact on environmental practices as linked to social justice.

People, the Environment, and Garrett Hardin’s Eugenics

Categories: Conservation, Environmental Rights and Justice, Morality and the Environment, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

The Population of Asia


I find this to be an interesting map, because there are a few different ways to interpret the data (which seem pretty accurate), that reflect how you think about people and the environment.  The first is that the population of East and Southeast Asia is massive, and still growing.  Since our environmental impact is a product of our population, affluence (or rate of consumption), and use of technology – or I = PAT for short – we could say that the population of East and Southeast Asia is alarming.

This is a logical connection to make.  As multiple sites show, our 7 billion people on earth are consuming a lot of resources.  Water, oil, and other natural resources are being used at rates that may seem Malthusian.  Therefore, there is a solution that also seems pretty logical: we should curb (or reverse) population growth to slow the rate at which we are depleting the Earth’s resources.  As this handy-dandy video indicates, our population’s exponential growth over the past 200 years is something unheralded.

The problem with this line of thinking (i.e. focusing on population as the source of environmental woes), is that it shifts the blame for the state of the world’s current condition to people who have not historically benefited from its overexploitation.  While it is true that changing lifestyles in China mean that it (and other Asian countries) are consuming more and more, historically and presently, each North American and Western European consumes much more than each Asian.

Garrett Hardin – Secret Eugenicist

Further, this line of thinking may lead to very troubling conclusions.  If we focus on population as the source of our problems, then our solutions should likewise focus on population.  One prominent environmentalist, Garrett Hardin (read in almost every single class on environmental policy and politics) took this logic to its natural, eugenicist conclusion.  In a paper titled “Lifeboat Ethics,” Hardin, noting the problem of a growing world population, argued for cutting off foreign aid to poor people living in Asia.  He observed, as clinically as possible, that “every Indian life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain, and for subsequent generations.”

The fact that it is we, living in the industrialized world, that are the primary consumers does not seem to have impressed him at all.  Of course, population is a concern.  And of course Asians (like everybody else, I should add) are consuming more than they did a generation ago.  But let us not lose site of who is responsible for the ‘Non-Negotiable Lifestyle’ that started all this.

How I Single-Handedly Saved the Parque Nacional de los Arrecifes de Xcalak

Categories: Field Work in Mexico, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Field Research is the Best

One of the best things, obviously, about doing field work, is getting the chance to finagle yourself into areas where few people have, or will go.  One of those times, I recounted already, when I headed into the selva de manglar near the Laguna de Mala Noche in Quintana Roo, with a monitoring team from Simbiosis SA de CV.

Yesterday, I headed back to Xcalak, where I was staying for a couple days around selva work; this time, however, I wanted to examine the Parque Nacional de los Arrecifes de Xcalak (PNAX).  What I find particularly interesting about PNAX, is that it is a protected area established by the federal government, due in large part to local pressure by the local population of Xcalak, a small, politically and economically isolated fishing village on the southern-most tip of the eastern part of the United States of Mexico.

Location of Xcalak

Now, we usually think of protected areas and environmental regulation as restrictive, or at the very least, regulatory processes, limiting the kinds of human activity allowed in certain areas.  Certainly, some of the regulations required by the creation of PNAX – the prohibition on the removal and clearing of mangroves; restricted fishing quotas and techniques; limits on the size, location, and number of hotel rooms – have effectively prevented the possibility of the kind of tourism that has brought so much foreign income to Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya.  But, you see, that was the point.  While not all fishermen were entirely happy with the federal regulations of PNAX (some were very bitter, for example, about restrictions on the capture of conch and lobster, which would be used in subsistence consumption), all the ones I spoke to were adamant that that kind of desorbitado development was not appropriate, economically, socially or environmentally, for the tiny, underdeveloped fishing village.

Not Much to Do on the Beach in Xcalak

But, anyway, I digress.  I drove to Xcalak, and managed to convince (i.e. pay) the head of the fishing cooperative to take me out to the reefs to take a gander.  You see, the last time I was in Mexico, officials from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) took me out on a reef monitoring trip in the Parque Nacional de Puerto Morelos, and I wanted to see how this section of the reef compared.  Well, in short, it was… incredible.  Simply incredible.  I could go on about the vibrancy of the colours; the movement of the fan corals in the underwater currents; the section of the reef dedicated to the crianza of new corals; lobsters shooting themselves backwards on our approach.  But I won’t.  I will, however, say that on my tour around the reef park, I, with the eagle-eyes for which the Fuentes-George’s are rightfully famous, spotted the accursed Lionfish, the rat of the sea, that invasive species trying to take over our role as the destroyers of ecosystems.  I called Oscar, the cooperative’s head, over, and with a small, spring-loaded spear, he impaled the lionfish right.  Through.  The.  Mouth.

In your FACE, Lionfish!

“In your face, stupid lionfish,” I thought.  “If anybody is going to be an invasive species, it’s gonna be us.”  Oscar said the fish would be taken to CONANP’s Xcalak office, right off the beach, to be tallied.  Thereafter, the spines would be de-venomed, and made into artisanal jewelry, and someone would eat the filleted animal.  I would have liked to eat the stupid fish myself, but alas, it was getting late, and the drive back to Chetumal would have to traverse unlit roads, bordered by mangrove swamps and forest, and I’d rather not do that after sundown.  But, by finding that pendejo fish, I felt pretty happy that I could do one tiny, tiny thing to help keep the PNAX healthy.

The Challenges of Management, or: Nature is Horrible, and Wants to Kill You

Categories: Field Work in Mexico, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Potential Tour Guide/Nature Defender

One of the standard recommendations for attaining sustainable management and conservation of natural resources, is to involve local communities in their management.  In locales as diverse as Botswana, Mexico, and Qatar, the ideas are roughly the same: communities who live near, and depend on natural resources are often those with “lived-in” knowledge about how ecosystems function.  Moreover, by virtue of their proximity, they may be ideally placed to function as de facto watchdogs of environmental management.  This could also be converted into financial gain if, for example, local residents and users could be hired to act as monitors, or tour guides for ecotourists.  The added benefit, of course, is that this process may also contribute to greater environmental awareness – as local users are (presumably) trained as guides/monitors/stewards, they will become more aware of the trophic webs and chains in local ecosystems, and perhaps more ardent defenders.  This article, for example, is but one of many advancing this exact point.

However, it should be said that this idea that local communities can or should be drafted into the protection of environmental resources should come with a caveat: there has to be careful attention paid to adequate capacity-building and support.  Establishing management programs that place additional, inadequately compensated responsibilities on local communities – particularly when they are marginalized - may either be unfair socioeconomically, or problematic environmentally.  The fact of the matter is: monitoring natural environments is Hard Work.

Here’s an example: on Wednesday June 14th, I went out with a group of paid monitors hired by Simbiosis SA de CV in Chetumal, Mexico to monitor the mangrove forest near the coastal community of Xcalak in the state of Quintana Roo.  This monitoring was done, mind you, in support of a law approved in 2007, protecting mangrove zones at the federal level – they have a wide impact on the health of coastal ecosystems, including coral reefs, juvenile fish, and coastal integrity.  The monitors, all three of whom came from an ejido near the politically marginalized municipality of Carillo Puerto were paid about US$20 for a day’s work.  So this is what it entailed:

As soon as we stepped off the road, into the outer zone of the selva, we were surrounded by small armies of mosquitos.  And worse.  Large, ominous flies, about two inches long, buzzed threateningly, waiting to alight and draw blood.  We moved off at a rapid clip, and I saw a veritable cloud of them, hovering behind the man in front, tracking him through low-lying forest: I imagine we all had one. 

Our speed declined rapidly when we got to the first start of the mangrove swamp. The puddles of rank, foul-smelling, foetid, black water were small enough at first – only ankle deep. (I only began swearing when I realized that my allegedly waterproof Timberlands were NOT). Then knee deep. Then thigh deep. And this, mind you, with the swarms alighting when they could, always finding that spot that the repellant didn’t cover. And with half-rotted branches, and putrefying gunk underneath the black, turbid water. And having to climb over and under bone-white roots of the mangroves, tangled together like a corpse’s fingers.  Footing was, to say the least, insecure.

Like This, Only With More Roots

It took us about an hour to get to the first monitoring zone.  At that point, we were all soaked from swamp water and sweat, and stinking.  At that part, mercifully, there weren’t many mosquitos, and few black flies.  However, a gorgeous, tiny golden bug alighted on my knuckles, and only when it flew off did I notice the blood.  Monitoring itself was tedious: you mark a tree (we were looking at species of mangle rojo, or Rhizophora mangle) with a piece of tape, then measure the diameter of the trunk, estimate its height, its cupula size, and count how many propágulos it has.  Over, and over, and over again. “¿Diámetro?” “5cm.”  “¿Altura?”  “3.5m.”  “¿Mande?  ¿2.5 dijiste?”  “No, son 3.5m.”  Etc.  Then it rained.  It poured.  We were soaked again.  Fortunately, this at least broke the heat of the Yucatán in summer.

Now, it was absolutely fascinating.  Bugs, plants, and critters I’d never seen before.  Butterflies broke up the monotony of the green and green over a greener green.  After the rain, flourescent green spots appeared on some of the roots of the mangrove.  Occasionally, geese flew overhead, and we heard the ceaseless moving of iguanas and lizards right out of sight. 

But still, this is not easy work.  5 hours, maybe in the mangrove zone, and two hours through very difficult terrain.  To this day, I don’t understand how we didn’t get lost - you can’t cut paths in the mangrove, because it’s a protected species, and while there were some strung up lines and markers at some places, these were few and far enough between that you could only navigate with an already-present real knowledge of the area.  And if you got injured or lost in this area, you would be effed.  I asked one of the monitors, a young guy from the ejido, why he did this, if he liked the environment a lot, or something?  No, he said, it’s just a job, and he has no idea what it’s for.  A job that pays $20 a day.

Now, these things have to be done, clearly.  But NGOs, project directors, and activists have to be really careful about how community-based management programs are designed.  They can be a source of empowerment and development, but they are additional responsibilities and we should recognize this.

Notes From the Field: A Prelude

Categories: Conservation, Environmental Rights and Justice, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Well, perhaps it will take longer to update than May 14, after all.

In any case, the next few updates will be from the field: for the next three weeks, I will be travelling through southeastern Mexico – through the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Yucatán and Chiapas – studying the politics of biodiversity conservation, land use management, and local autonomy over natural resources.

Why do these things matter?  First, as recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity, Mexico is one of the 12 “megadiverse” nations in the world – 70% of the world’s biodiversity is found in these countries. Consequently, if we want to maintain the world’s natural capital, we should be concerned about what happens there.

Second, like most countries around the world – but perhaps moreso in developing countries – Mexico is under pretty severe political, economic and social structural pressures from international, as much as domestic, forces to promote economic growth. Naturally, the idea that promoting growth in certain sectors will bring ‘development’ to a still underdeveloped country and comparatively poor population is attractive; even if such growth comes at the expense of environmental quality in the short term, it may be in the national interest in the long term. In addition, if you consider that much of the environmental issues in developing countries are linked to poverty – issues such as poor water quality, a lack of adequate sanitation, exposure to preventable diseases – then there may also be an environmental justification in promoting ‘development’ in key sectors.

Of course, the problem is that this idea that developing countries can solve their issues through development should be critically examined. While major economic sectors such as tourism (since I’ll be in the coastal area of the Yucatán Peninsula) do promote GDP growth in the aggregate, it’s not always clear that this growth ‘trickles down’ to the marginalized population who needs development most. Ownership of capital and resources tends to be highly concentrated in the large earners, and aggregate figures may mask real socioeconomic inequalities. In addition, while it would be impossible to escape an environmental impact in any human activity, a lot of this activity is highly ecologically unsustainable. Coastal hotels, such as those that characterize Cancún, are severely disruptive of natural ecosytems. Over time, the precise features that the economic sector depends on – an aesthetically pleasing coastline – are those that are at risk of overexploitation and collapse. Without proper management then, these economic activities may contain the seeds of their own destruction.

In any case, I’ll update when I can – I’m about to board, so the next time I post, I’ll be in Mexico!

Thanks for the Shout Out

Categories: Conservation, Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism, Nature Preservation

Worth, Literally, Millions of Dollars!

Wow, this is flattering: my blog has been listed as a useful resource tracking the Durban climate talks.  This plug provided on the Forest Carbon Portal, a website run by the Ecosystem Marketplace, a research organization dedicated to analyzing the benefits of marketizing ecosystem services, including biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water.  As indicated, their primary goal is to help “…give value to environmental services that, for too long, have been taken for granted.”

They have a wealth of information on forest and carbon markets, including work on REDD.  Check their site out, see what you think, or see the new links provided to their reports in the Research and Resources tab.

It Can Be Done

Categories: Environmental Rights and Justice, Nature Preservation

Chipko Women

A lot of the news on environmental management and conservation tends to be pretty grim.  For those concerned about climate change, for example, continued political, corporate, and industrial resistance to the call for increased regulation is disheartening and frustrating.

But, there are examples of successful environmental movements.  One of those is the Chipko (lit: “tree hugger”) movement of India.  Very briefly, the 1970s and 1980s in India were characterized by state-sponsored development projects – that is, governmental sponsorship of infrastructure and extractive practices in the interest of economic growth.  In Uttar Pradesh, this meant rampant deforestation, legitimated by the Indian Forestry Department, for the production of commercial timber – used in paper, railway construction, sports goods, and so on.

Forests and the Environment

As most people are aware, deforestation carries with it, multiple environmental impacts.  First, and most obvious, is that forests are an important source of biodiversity, both by virtue of the diversity in flora species that make up a forest, and by virtue of their function as habitats.  According to UNEP, forests comprise 50% of terrestrial biodiversity.  Second, forest loss can contribute to other, attendant problems, such as land degradation: as trees are removed, soil becomes vulnerable to erosion, flooding, and landslides.  Third, as well recognized by the UNFCCC, forests can act as ‘carbon sinks,’ storing carbon dioxide, and preventing greater atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Forests and Socioeconomic Inequity in Uttar Pradesh

But adding insult to injury, the quest for “national development” via deforestation and timber industries was socioeconomically inequitable.  The forests had served as a source of subsistence and silviculture for traditional communities living in the area.  Not only were they not incorporated into the aprovechamiento of benefits garnered by capitalist timber production, they lost access to traditional livelihoods when local agriculture,food production, and environmental security were overridden in the interest of commercial timber, as seen here (PDF).

Gendered Resistance

But the residents of Uttar Pradesh were not helpless.  In an uplifting display of bravery and solidarity, local residents – primarily women – confronted timber interests using nonviolence.  They intervened between corporate-state interests and environmental degradation, literally inserting themselves between logging companies and the trees.  Hence the name Chipko – they hugged the trees.

From an environmental perspective, the end result was heartening.  There was a 15 year ban on commercial cutting in some areas; a moratorium on clear-felling in others, such as in the Western Ghats.  From a socioeconomic perspective as well, the movement was encouraging.  By sheer virtue of the fact that women were some of the primary drivers of Chipko, the movement emphasized the agency of women, and centered them as important actors in the politics of social resistance.   Further, as can be surmised, this also meant the privileging of local production in the shadow of inequitable and unsustainable capitalist expansion.  So, it can be done.  The fact that women, of a marginalized and disempowered traditional society, can confront unsustainable resource extraction – even when supported by government interests – should encourage us all to at as good environmental stewards.  Even if it’s difficult.

Feeding the Food that Feeds Us

Categories: Conservation, Green Consumerism, Nature Preservation

Oceanic Fish Farms

Here’s a telling discussion: in order to deal with the fact that certain commercially consumed fish species, such as salmon, have declined precipitously, human society has engaged in fish farming.  In short: commercially consumed fish, such as salmon and tuna, are raised in captivity, corralled and contained on the coast in full or semi-captivity, and fed a controlled diet to ensure maximum marketability.  The problem, however, is that in order to raise salmon and other carnivorous species in captivity, aquaculturalists end up capturing and ‘converting’ lesser fish into fish meal.  In doing so, we end up consuming a greater amount of fish as hidden costs: it takes about 20kg of fish meal to produce 1kg of farmed tuna.

Now, one group of scientists at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is working on a solution to the problem.  Tellingly, the issue is not framed as a matter of reducing consumption, but as a matter of reformulating the produced fish meal so that the quantity of lesser fish is reduced, and substituted by, for example, soybeans and poultry.  As described in this article, one of the scientists argues that “We have to raise more fish,” noting that “…it’s simple economics.

Simple economics.  What a shame.  There are a variety of problems with this attitude – instead of re-examining the nature of excessive consumption (a worthwhile topic, considering the rates of obesity), science is being dedicated towards maintaining the rate of resource exploitation – worse yet, advocating the adoption of engineered and unnatural fish food in the guise of environmentalism and sustainability.  It should be noted as well, that reforming the fish feed process will also likely lead to greater environmental stress in other ways.  Raising fish in captivity, regardless of whether they are fed an unnatural vegetarian diet (to which they have to become ‘accustomed’), places them at greater risk of disease.  To take only one epidemiological study, in a 2007 study published in Science Magazine, projections of the spread of salmon lice indicate that 99% of farmed pink salmon populations could collapse in 4 generations.  This is not even to mention the contribution of unnatural concentrations of fish waste and byproducts of antibiotics to marine coastal pollution, nor the fact that the industrialization of fish production means a greater concentration of capital, market share, and hence wealth among an elite few.  For a more in-depth critique of fish farming, which also has negative impacts on socioeconomic equity, food security, and animal rights, see this study.

Once again, the problem is straightforward – excessive and unbridled consumption threaten ecosystem stability and the natural balance and, not surprisingly, socioeconomic justice.  The solution should be straightforward as well – change the patterns of consumption.  Reduce the quantity of fish consumed – avoid industrially produced farmed fish for sure – and try to live sustainably.  Yet, once again, human ingenuity is being dedicated to maintaining irrational behavior at all costs.

Tradition: Some Things Change, Some Things Remain the Same

Categories: Morality and the Environment, Nature Preservation

Old meets new.

One of the first international campaigns, and one that has become a shorthand for international environmentalism as a whole, was to Save the Whales.  However, the initial attempts by the International Whaling Commission to regulate the killing of whales were dismal: improperly chosen international quotas, a lack of monitoring, and rampant defection meant that for the first few decades of its existence, the IWC permitted a fundamentally unsustainable rate of killing whales – to choose one specie for example, only 3% – 11% of the pre-industrial population of Blue Whales remains. As is usually the case, human technical ingenuity, including but not limited to the invention of the exploding harpoon in the 19th century, and the development of whaling vessels that functioned as floating factories, permitted mankind to change the environment (read: kill whales) faster and more efficiently than before.

Nevertheless, environmental movements in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged by the emergence of international environmentalism embodied in the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, with the US as a powerful ally, and with the votes of new non-whaling members, persuaded the members of the IWC to adopt a de facto commercial moratorium.  At the same time, given the dependence of some traditional indigenous communities on whales, member states included an exemption to the ban on whaling in the IWC, permitting Eskimos (among others) to hunt a limited number of whales under the current Schedule.

But things are more complicated than that: while it sounds romantic to imagine the traditional whale hunter, spear in hand, plying the waters for trade, the reality is that indigenous populations are no more immune to the allure of technology.  The Inupiat, for example, use powerboats and grenade-tipped harpoons to hunt.  While causing nowhere near the level of environmental impact implicated in the real transgressors of the whaling moratorium – the Japanese Nisshin Maru is currently the world’s last remaining factory ship – for some, this does raise questions about how “traditional” the practice is.

However, there are other, potentially more serious environmental issues at play here.  First, as indicated in this wonderful video on the practice, the practice of whale hunting is now – like many other forms of human activity – being affected by climate change.  Thus, another ostensibly traditional activity is under threat from the process of industrialization.  Second, as described by the EPA and other international regulatory bodies, whales are, by virtue of their position in the marine trophic web, likely to accumulate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), long-lived, bio-accumulating compounds that can cause cancer, developmental defects, and function as endocrine disruptors.  This is somewhat alarming, considering that, as indicated in the video mentioned above, the consumption of whales is shared by entire communities, women and children alike (confession: the thought of eating whales is – to me – a scrumptious one).  Could it be the case that we do need to ban whale hunting,  not necessarily out of some desire to impose our cultural preferences on other societies, but rather out of humanitarian concerns?