Freedom: The Best Conservation Strategy
Do-gooder environmentalists trying to save the Amazon rainforests make the problem worse.
After a decade of stability, deforestation in the Amazon is skyrocketing, New Scientist warns. The pessimistic article by Richard Schiffman leaves no solution in sight, concluding dismally that the rainforests could be gone in 30 to 40 years unless something changes.
In another article on New Scientist, Fred Pearce has a curious solution: “To save the rainforest, let the locals take control.” That seems a recipe for disaster; wouldn’t locals, free to do what they want, ravage the forest for their own selfish interests? Here’s his rationale:
Bray has spent a lifetime studying Mexico, where rural communities have long-standing ownership of 60 per cent of the country’s forests, and have logged them for timber to sell. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, yet he says that deforestation rates in community-owned forests have been “generally lower than in regions dominated by protected areas”.
One example is in the Yucatan region, where communities outperformed the local Calakmul Biosphere Reserve 200-fold.
Why? Because, Bray says, “communities with rights to resources conserve those resources; communities without rights have no reason to conserve… and deforestation will ensue”. Andrew Steer, the head of the Washington DC-based environment group the World Resources Institute, agrees: “If you want to stop deforestation, give legal rights to communities.“
Pearce reinforces his argument by showing how well-meaning conservation groups have come into areas, taken over tracts of forest in the name of conservation but made things worse. An example is REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), a mechanism designed by climate-change groups to wrest control of rainforests for ostensibly conservation purposes.
It is becoming clearer that forest communities are best placed to do conservation – especially in frontier zones next to heavily degraded forest, where the biggest carbon savings can be made. So you might expect communities to be in the forefront for owning, managing and profiting from REDD schemes. But so far it hasn’t turned out that way.
For most, the legal, logistical and scientific barriers are too high. And their governments, sniffing revenues, are not generally supportive of community proposals.
Instead, most pilot REDD projects have been set up by governments with international environment groups and corporations, often in countries with a poor record on land rights for forest communities. Such projects amount to “green grab”.
What happens, Pearce shows with examples, is that anger over the land grabs (undoubtedly coupled with corruption), leads to worse outcomes for the forest, while the local people are deprived of their “traditional livelihoods of hunting, gathering and forest farming.”
The thinking that indigenous people cannot be trusted to conserve their habitat is based on flawed assumptions about human nature and economics. Pearce concludes that we need to rethink the globalist schemes and return, instead, to a tried-and-true principle: individual liberty.
We are used to thinking of the rights of forest communities and the need to conserve forests as competing imperatives. But the good news is that conservation and human rights can and do go together. To deny forest communities territorial rights is bad for them, but also bad for maintaining the forests.
The benefits of a more people-based approach to conservation could be huge.
Rhino Saving in Name Only
Another disaster in the making is the slaughter of African rhinoceroses by poachers. National Geographic says 2014 was a record year for deaths of the endangered species, killed for their horns under the mistaken belief by some Asians (particularly in Vietnam and China) that the keratin horns have curative powers. That myth has made rhino horn more valuable than gold or cocaine to customers. The white rhinoceros could be driven to extinction in a matter of years. There are only five northern white rhinos left, PhysOrg says: a crisis leaving experts looking at drastic solutions to save them.
What to do? The knee-jerk approach has been to send in more helicopters and police to shoot the poachers. Paul Rincon at the BBC reported on efforts to save rhino eggs for in-vitro fertilization. So far, nothing has worked.
South Africa, with 20,000 rhinos remaining, is seriously considering another method to stop the poaching, PhysOrg says: legalizing the rhino horn trade. The article does not explain the rationale, but presumably it’s based on old-fashioned free market economics. Those who can own rhinos and sell the horns will have a vested interest in keeping a supply to match the demand. If a trader runs out of rhinos, he’s out of business. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” will ensure that an equilibrium is reached, so that both seller and buyer settle on a price that satisfies both parties’ interests.
The “tragedy of the commons” (see John Stossel’s explanation) leads to environmental destruction. Free markets, historically, have provided the best conservation ethics—and results. See this video at Prager University to see how it works.
We acknowledge limitations on free-market conservation. Consider trees: Christmas tree farms work, because private owners have an interest in satisfying their customers with the finest trees, even if the owner has to wait a few years for the trees to grow. But this wouldn’t work for giant Sequoias, because nobody is going to wait 2,000 years for the trees to reach maturity. The “tragedy of the commons” threatened these majestic giant trees in the late 19th century, because loggers, who didn’t own them, came in and took whatever they desired. It’s good that many of the best have been preserved in national and state parks. Douglas fir, on the other hand, grows quickly. As an excellent lumber tree, it can be grown on private land by private owners who will care about keeping a supply to match the demand. The ethic of conservation diminishes, though, the larger and more remote the corporation.
We’ve just read about rainforests (plants) and rhinos (animals) threatened by the tragedy of the commons. Historically, private ownership and free markets have worked for most natural resources. Those guiding principles are best suited to channel human ambition toward satisfying solutions that conserve resources, provided there is the rule of law, enforceable contracts, and punishment of corruption. Let the natural economic system work. As seen so many times, the globalist do-gooders who come to impose their own ideological solutions on local people end up doing the most harm.*
*Case in point: Haiti. After the earthquake in 2010, billions of dollars poured into government-sponsored relief efforts, but very little of it came to the Haitian people who needed it most (much of it never left the USA, and the rest propped up the corrupt government). Tons of rice were brought in, but that drove down prices for local rice growers, leaving them worse off. UN aid workers came in who accidentally started a cholera epidemic, adding to the death toll and grief. What has worked has been efforts to empower locals to make their own living. Some missionaries have taught them how to raise rabbits and chickens, or how to make beautiful beads they can sell, made out of cereal boxes and trash. Christian missionaries, bypassing government and UN funds, helped with muscle and sweat from volunteers in the US joining them for short-term missions, have erected churches and orphanages in refugee camps abandoned by the government. They have cared for the sick and orphans, created rabbit pens and chicken coops (bringing much-needed protein for malnourished children), and set up medical clinics. Most of all, they have brought the gospel of Jesus Christ, bringing salvation, hope, and moral foundations that can truly raise the standard of living of the forgotten poor. The smiles and songs of children in these church orphanages, who would have died of neglect and malnutrition, are testimony to the healing power of gospel-motivated care. (This information came by personal conversation with a Christian missionary involved in the rescue effort.)