The Importance of COP-15
It is easy to be cynical about UN conferences about global problems – hell, I have been extremely cynical about them. For over a generation now we have witnessed the spectacle of thousands of delegates flying into a locale, tussling over a declaration over the course of a few weeks, releasing it with great fanfare, and then shoving it somewhere in the UN archives to be read by postgraduates in thirty years’ time. I am not suggesting that the current COP-15 is likely to be any different; after all, the UN still doesn’t have the power to compel its member states to take action to fulfil those pledges. But that doesn’t mean that COP-15 is unimportant, since it has the opportunity to raise the profile of the current biodiversity crisis, and will likely shape how conservation is done for the next decade.
Most environmental reporting focuses on climate change, which is fair enough. Climate change is the most visible and most urgent of the various environmental catastrophes that could end advanced civilisation, but it is not the only one. Another, somewhat less focused upon one, is the biodiversity crisis. The earth is currently experiencing the 6th mass extinction event in its history – and by that I don’t mean in human history. I mean in the 3.7-billion-year history of life. The extinction of species and destruction of ecosystems is a tragedy in and of itself, and frankly I can only imagine that a morally or aesthetically stunted “person” could not feel at least a bit saddened at the scouring of the Amazon or the emptying of the oceans. But clearly many people are not motivated by instinctive biophilia, so for those who are only motivated by pelf and place, there is a practical reason to care about biodiversity. Most notably, our civilisation, and specifically our agriculture, is predicated on a functioning biosphere. So if the biosphere collapses, then so do we.
The biggest debate currently being had in COP-15 is about the 30% protected area goal. This proposal would say that there would be a worldwide goal to have 30% of the world under protected areas by 2030. In theory, almost none of the delegates are opposed to this proposal. However, when it comes to the detail of how it would be managed, there is a bitter debate between more traditional conservationists, who favour government run parks, and indigenous rights activists, who favour community ownership of biodiverse territories. As a socialist, and as a biologist, I find this debate rather difficult. Of course, I favour the oppressed, and the crimes done by conservationists in the past towards indigenous people are inexcusable. There is also good evidence that biodiversity is often higher in indigenous territories than in non-indigenous territories. From that, you might think that I side with the indigenous activists – and to a large extent I do. However, having worked in the field, I think that often the image of the ecologically noble savage portrayed by indigenous activists is just too rosy, and that top down fortress conservation efforts, for all their faults, have to remain part of the conservationist’s arsenal.
My fundamental source of disagreement with purely communally controlled parks is that I am unsure if the mechanism which permits them to exist in the long term will continue for a while. There are numerous studies showing that, while biodiversity is higher in indigenous areas, that this is not a causal link. Instead, biodiversity is often higher because indigenous people live at lower population densities and lack access to technologies, like chainsaws, to destroy the environment in an industrially efficient manner. That is not to say that there is no environmentalist ethos in indigenous communities – there very obviously is. But to say that all indigenous groups are stewards of the land is, unfortunately, just false. As a scientific socialist, I also recognise that any cultural traits which do not favour capital are inevitably dissolved by the markets, which demand perpetual growth. As markets expand into indigenous territories, we cannot avoid the destruction of many of the cultural and material conditions which currently make them havens of biodiversity. To protect biodiversity, governments should continue to have the ability to intervene in indigenous communities just as they have the right to intervene in any other community in such circumstance.
Ultimately, the debate of the role of communal vs top-down conservation is more of an academic than a real one. In the real world, conservation practitioners will continue to do what they have always done, namely work with whoever and whatever they can find. Without proper funding, fortress conservation projects end up as useless paper parks, and without a local environmental ethos, community conservation usually dies naturally. But while COP-15 may not change the facts on the ground immediately, its final resolution will influence conservation in the future. UN resolutions have a way of percolating down to the ground after several years, as governments use them to guide their funding decisions. It would be a mistake to suggest to governments that if a conservation programme isn’t local, it isn’t worth pursuing. Thus, for the sake of biodiversity, I hope that COP-15 finds some sort of middle ground compromise, which recognises the crimes committed by past conservationists, while not binding the hands of future ones.