NOVEMBER 18, 2012
ANDREW BALMFORD, A CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR and world-renowned conservation biologist, is both alarmed about the state of the environment and curiously hopeful. Not your typical doom-and-gloom talk about the loss of biodiversity and life-sustaining ecosystem processes, this book tells conservation success stories that offer valuable lessons to those who wish to avert full-scale ecological collapse.
In beautiful prose, Balmford takes us on an expedition to six continents where he interviews the people behind the successes and comes up their defining characteristics. People are ultimately responsible for destroying nature through overharvesting, direct destruction, and toxification, but people are also those who can, and must, reverse the decline.
In Assam, Balmford shares stories of dirt-poor agriculturists who, at a great personal cost, have decided to work together to save the critically endangered Indian rhino. They do so, in part, because they are proud of their state animal. Some of their methods may be questioned — over 100 poachers have been killed by forest guards recently — and innocent citizens suffer too; recovering wildlife populations sometimes cause crop damage. However, in the past century, in an area of dreadful poverty, the population of rhinos increased from 20 to about 2000.
In the American southeast, Balmford reviews the case of the red-cockaded woodpecker, protected by the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). Landowners discovering an endangered species often “shoot, shovel, and shut-up” to avoid the prying eyes of wildlife biologists and the invasive controls of the government. In this case, conservationists, by putting themselves in landowners’ shoes and recognizing the problems that they face, were able to create a fix to the ESA that encourages them to improve habitat while still permitting them to harvest their resources. Widely adopted now, the Safe Harbor program has reversed a perverse disincentive to conservation and created allies where adversaries once existed.
In South Africa, Balmford meets with the leaders of a scheme that created jobs among the chronically unemployed, saved precious water, and eliminated invasive plants from a biodiversity hotspot — the Cape region. In Holland, 17.5% of the land is being restored to its native state. In Central and South American tropics conservationists work with locals to conserve their forests.
In Western Australia Balmford visits Alcoa’s Huntly bauxite mine. Alcoa decided in the early 1970s to go beyond minimal regulatory standards when they rehabilitated the land following bauxite extraction. Why? Public pressure initially, but over time the company created a strong ethic of land stewardship. Thus, alongside the longest conveyor belt in the world (currently over 23 kilometers long), is a very intensive program to restore the native jarrah forest along with the animals that inhabit it. Workers are justifiably proud of their successes. Having been there and seeing the mine and the large-scale restoration, I can testify to both the scale and importance.
Finally, Balmford travels to the docks of Southern California. Fisheries, as most people know, are a wreck. For instance, the Nova Scotia cod fishery is 96% smaller than 150 years ago and after two decades of closure, the Grand Banks fishery has still not recovered. Fisherman work harder to catch less. Off San Diego, California, a small group of fisherman organized to increase the value of their albacore tuna fishery. By using sustainable methods and adopting the Marine Stewardship Council’s guidelines (an agency that certifies seafood as being produced from sustainable fisheries), they were able to sell their sustainably harvested albacore at a healthy price. Why, you may ask, are pole caught fish ‘sustainable’? Because there is zero bycatch. Bycatch is the euphemism for killing everything else around the fish you catch, which happens when you use seine or purse nets to catch tuna. And, while dolphin-safe tuna doesn’t kill dolphins, it does kill a variety of other fish that are unfortunate to be caught up in the tuna feeding frenzy.
One solution doesn’t fit all problems, but Balmford shows great leadership is essential. The successful efforts created win-win solutions, where people benefited directly from conservation. Viewing problems through the eyes of those who suffer generates the necessary lateral thinking, and successful efforts use pressure rather than prosecution, creating carrots as well as some sticks. Political engagement is essential, and consumer pressure very effective. We should strive for improvement; perfection is elusive; patience and persistence are essential.
While I may be personally more pessimistic about our future than Balmford is, I think his lessons are spot on and the stories inspirational. Constant work will be required to save humanity and the biodiversity that we all require, and this book shares some valuable lessons from the field.