A personal message from ALERT director Bill Laurance: Unfortunately I've been ill and in hospital recently with an unusually nasty virus. ALERT blogs normally come out at least weekly, but because of my illness we skipped a week -- for the first time since ALERT was founded in 2013. However, all is well now, and I'd like to discuss here an issue that I think we all fret about sometimes: Is there really any hope for nature conservation?
A good friend of mine, Steve Blake, who led a major study of poaching of African forest elephants, often used to end his emails with the phrase, "We're all so screwed".
Steve is a dedicated conservationist and was deeply alarmed at the epic slaughter of elephants he was witnessing, but I don't think for a second he was suggesting we give up the fight. However, on the pages of ALERT and in many other places, we often hear depressing -- even devastating -- stories about the rapid destruction of nature and wildlife. So, is there any hope for nature conservation?
Here, I argue that, in fact, there's a great deal of hope: It's not all bad news. Sure, we're losing more nature every day, but we are also making some important gains. Here is a quick and partial synopsis of the good news:
Who would have believed four years ago that many of the world's leading corporations -- including many large oil palm, woodpulp, and food-manufacturing firms -- would announce that they would no longer destroy native forests? Even tire manufacturer Michelin, which sources much of its rubber from the tropics, has jumped onto the bandwagon.
That's not to imply that these pledges are perfect and are all working well: it's a mixed bag. But it's real progress and a remarkable milestone, illustrating that corporate behavior can be strongly influenced by public attitudes and pressures. For big corporations, the fear of reputational risk and loss of market share is a very big stick that conservationists can wave at them.
We Can Stop Some Really Bad Projects
ALERT, along with a number of other organizations, has played a leading role in convincing the Aceh Government in northern Sumatra not to further degrade the precious Leuser Ecosystem -- the last place on Earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans still exist.
The Government had planned to criss-cross this region with a massive road network and destroy large expanses of forest for oil palm, rice, and logging -- and in doing so would have opened up the forests to a wave of illegal poaching and mining.
But that's now been stopped, and the latest news (see here and here) shows that the Aceh and Indonesian Federal Governments really are serious about this commitment. We need to applaud their vision and efforts.
One could cite a variety of other examples: certain Amazon dams have been halted, along with the ill-advised Serengeti Highway in Tanzania and a planned road that would have cut through the heart of Seima Protected Area in Cambodia, among many others.
Despite such good news, we still have our work cut out for us. By mid-century we could have another 25 million kilometers of paved roads, several thousand new hydroelectric dams, and a total of 2 billion cars driving around the planet. In Africa alone, our research suggests that a large series of planned 'development corridors' could bisect over 400 protected areas and degrade another 1,800. We just have to roll up our sleeves and keep fighting the good fight.
Falling Commodity Prices
The global economic slowdown, particularly notable in nations such as China and Brazil, has reduced demand for many natural resources such as minerals, fossil fuels, and timber. Many of these resources were being exploited in developing nations that are exceptionally rich in biodiversity and environmental values.
This slowdown is giving us a bit of 'breathing space' -- which we desperately need, particularly to improve land-use and infrastructure planning in the developing world. In 2014 I led a paper in Nature called "A global strategy for road building" that highlighted where on Earth we should and should not build roads -- the idea being to maximize the economic and social benefits of new roads while avoiding serious environmental damage.
Our 2014 paper was a broad-scale effort, and what we need to do now is work rapidly -- especially in environmentally critical regions of the world -- to implement such strategies at the national level. We need to partner with governments and key stakeholders and do everything we can to help them make wise land-use decisions. The survival of nature depends on it.
We Can Influence Government Policies
Almost everywhere one looks, there is evidence that government policies are being shaped, at least in part, by environmental priorities. It is sometimes a tug-of-war with those who wish to exploit land and natural resources -- but still, great progress has been made.
For example, in the battle to reduce illegal logging, three major timber consumers -- the United States, the European Union, and Australia -- have enacted tough laws that put the burden of responsibility on timber-purchasing corporations to ensure they are buying only legally harvested wood and wood products (ALERT was active in pushing through the Australian legislation and I briefed the Australian Parliament on the benefits of the illegal logging bill).
These laws are having a real impact. A report by the respected UK think-tank Chatham House estimated that, globally, illegal logging has fallen by 22 percent since 2002. Especially impressive gains have been made in nations such as Indonesia and Cameroon, where illegal logging was rampant, and where it has now dropped by 50 to 75 percent.
I conclude with a final example. In 2001 an international research team I led published a paper in Science that showed what the Brazilian Amazon could look like 20 years in the future if the government proceeded with its scheme to build US$40 billion in new roads, dams, power lines, gas lines, and other infrastructure that would criss-cross the basin.
The paper went viral, and was featured on newspaper headlines across the world. Brazil came under tremendous international pressure, and there was also a huge outcry among many Brazilians worried about the future of their Amazon. The media storm lasted for many months, and I did literally hundreds of interviews and testified before Brazil's Congress and the U.S. Embassy about the proposed projects.
As a result of the hue and cry, the Brazilian Government eventually conducted a very thorough review of the projects, involving eleven different Ministries, and concluded that a number of them should be cancelled. In the end many of the projects did proceed, but only after important mitigation measures -- such as the establishment of new protected areas along planned road routes -- were put into place. These measures have helped to reduce the waves of deforestation and land speculation that often follow road-building in remote wilderness areas.
The Bottom Line
There is a vital reality here. We can influence public policies, governments, corporations, and public attitudes -- and we can achieve some very meaningful victories along the way. We will never win every conservation battle, but can prevail sometimes. The world will be a far poorer place if we fail to try.