Blocking development opportunities for the world’s poor won’t do anything for environmental conservation.
For the past few years a range of activist groups have been rallying against primary industry imports from Malaysia and Indonesia into Australia and other developed countries.
The basis has been that forest conversion for agriculture and allied industries leads to environmental degradation and habitat loss for wildlife. The key target has been Malaysia and Indonesia’s growing palm oil industries. Timber has also been targeted.
But the campaigns have been largely evidence-free and focused on pulling at heart strings and emotion.
The taxpayer-funded Zoos Victoria has claimed 50 orangutans die a week. Perth Zoo claims its more than double that at 116. Both cannot be right. And when asked about it they reference green group reports.
Limited reliable data has fanned the debate, though it is improving.
A recent study published by the New York Academy of Sciences concluded the population of orangutan in key parts of Indonesia and Malaysia is now at around sixty thousand.
To anyone who cares about orangutan conservation, that population level will not be enough.
Which is why it’s important to make sure the right conservation efforts are taken now, not measures that keep activists happy but do little to stem the loss.
The study, not by science alone: why orangutan conservationists must think outside the box, analyses meticulously the problems of achieving practical outcomes in conservation.
At least when data is collected proper assessments can be made about what threatens the populations, and where.
Sadly, once again, emotion appears to be trumping rational analysis about the cause and therefore the solution.
Opportunity to grandstand
In the past activists in Australia and elsewhere have targeted imports from Indonesia and Malaysia through restrictions designed to cut trade to advance their cause.
The logic is that if an industry is a problem then they should lobby governments to introduce thinly disguised trade restrictions to shut the trade down.
In Australia that reached its halcyon under a Bill considered by the Parliament last year designed to promote consumer boycotts of palm oil.
The Bill ultimately failed.
During the debate there was little consideration that Australia is a small market for the oil seed which is heavily in demand in developing countries precisely because it rich with certain vitamins in scarce supply, particularly Vitamin A.
Instead the Bill was designed to make activists feel good about themselves, and provide a few politicians with an opportunity to grandstand.
But there was also no consideration about whether the Bill would be effective, and that there are many dangers faced by orangutan populations.
In fact one of the key threats is from local populations who are less concerned about the environmental impacts of their farming practices because they are still trapped in poverty.
Sadly orangutans suffer from the consequences of hunting.
The study by the New York Academy of Science identifies that ‘singling out a particular industry as the main culprit in this process ignores the contribution from others and is unlikely to lead to lasting solutions’.
Understanding the causes
For a complex problem understanding the causes helps inform the solutions.
If local people are impacting on orangutan populations as part of a subsistence lifestyle the solution isn’t to keep them trapped in poverty. Yet many policy proposals to drive down Malaysian and Indonesian industry are designed to do precisely that.
We know from the experience of the economic development of wealthy countries that as they grow public sensitivities to environmental degradation also rises.
The appropriate response to environmental degradation is not to hinder growth. It is to promote sustainable economic development.
A key part of that is for governments to be expected to enhance and enforce the law.
It’s already illegal to kill orangutans in both Malaysia and Indonesia. They’re an endangered species. But so long as the law is only loosely enforced its influence is limited.
But to enforce the law governments need resources that comes from having viable, taxable industries.
The good news is that with economic development standards appear to be improving.
Recently UK group, NatureAlert, claimed that 300 orangutans were killed recently caused by the expansion of the palm oil industry. Interestingly local authorities are increasingly refuting such claims.
The local Wildlife Department spokespeople are now arguing such events are a “rarity”. Instead NatureAlert was accused by the Wildlife Department as making ‘baseless allegations’.
Only time will tell.
Boycotting not the solution
But academics are also identifying more localised causes for population loss such as “high fragmentation and isolation” between populations that makes it harder for them to survive.
With economic development governments and industry can do more to help protect the environment. While there is still work to do, industries that have proximity to orangutan populations are now investing in conservations to protect species.
The response from activists and consumers in developed countries should reflect a similar level of sophistication. Unsurprisingly, it is not.
Imposing trade regulations to promote consumer boycotts and wildly attacking companies that use products sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia, as Subway fast food restaurants recently experienced, aren’t the solution.
Such posturing might help activists feel good about themselves, but they don’t address the numerous root causes of wildlife population loss in Malaysia and Indonesia
If a movie director was going to invent a name for the “ship of doom” they’d probably come up with “supertrawler”.
Let’s face it, supertrawler sounds bad. It’s super (and not in the good way) and it “trawls” the ocean rapaciously consuming fish into its vast nets and freezers of doom. When the word “supertrawler” is said out loud it almost deserves its own soundtrack.
But it’s politics that led the Gillard government to turn its trawl of duty from the Netherlands to Australia a wasted journey. Now the government’s legislative response means the same quota of fish can be taken out of Australian waters by smaller, less efficient boats. Their net sizes can be the same. And they can waste fuel and emit greenhouse gases by returning to shore to dump the fish before going out to get extra catch.
Unsurprisingly some scientists are arguing the government’s moves smack of “populism before science”.
Congratulations Environment Minister, Tony Burke. You’ve really chalked up another victory for the environment.
Sadly the government’s reaction fits into a much broader pattern of behavior by our nation’s politicians and their indifference to how legislative action can deliver environmental outcomes.
Take the Federal government’s current progressing of its Illegal Logging Bill.
The point of the Bill is to stop timber illegally felled in other countries from making its way into Australia and being sold as the desk that your computer sits on top of.
The objectives sound admirable on environmental grounds. Illegally logged timber “bad”. Legally logged timber “good”. And in many ways the government’s motivations are right.
But good motivations don’t ensure the policy response attracts the same qualities. Especially when the government’s own advisers concluded an Illegal Logging Bill wouldn’t work.
The Centre for International Economics was commissioned by the Federal government to investigate what any illegal logging law would do.
Their study concluded “0.034 per cent of global timber production, and 0.34 of products incorporating illegally logged timber … [so the Bill] could reduce the global costs of illegal logging by 0.34 per cent … and may not be fully effective in eliminating illegal logging”.
Put more bluntly, a new law won’t stop the small problem but we’ll all feel a warm inner glow.
The problem is it that the Australian timber industry will pay for our good intentions by carrying more cost to prove they’re not illegally logged impacting on their international competitiveness.
Not that illegal logging is alone.
Taxpayer-funded organisations are similarly lobbying the government to make consumer boycotts against palm oil easier.
You know the drill – forests are being converted into agriculture land to grow palm oil in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. And those palm oil plantations threaten orangutan populations.
So if we legislate to label palm oil on products, consumers can haze products that use it as an ingredient and save the orangutans.
Except, it isn’t that simple.
A recent study published by the New York Academy of Sciences found that there are a range of measures causing orangutan population loss, including farming practices and hunting by those on a subsistence living.
The study identified that ‘singling out a particular industry as the main culprit in this process ignores the contribution from others and is unlikely to lead to lasting solutions’.
Using simplistic measures like consumer boycotts might make ourselves feel better, but it only have a modest impact on addressing the root problem.
Worse, it could have the reverse effect and make it harder for subsistence farmers to survive meaning they convert more forest land for agriculture, not less.
That hasn’t stopped local retailers, like Subway, being targeted to change behavior in the false expectation that it will actually save orangutans.
That outcome wouldn’t be a victory for the environment. Unless a problem that is out of sight, is also out of mind.
Despite the reality of these simplistic campaigns their consequences were largely ignored in Parliamentary hearings into a Bill designed to drive consumer boycotts. Again, the passage of the Bill would have allowed us all to feel good about ourselves, even if it did nothing for the environment.
Businesses are rarely perfect. But in all three cases working with the companies involved seem like a more logical solution to achieving good environmental outcomes.
But as political responses to the supertrawler, palm oil and logging show, facts and evidence only play a small part behind grandstanding politicians who want to be seen to be in favour of the environment – even when there is no environmental benefit at all.
NGOs have seen their share of dedicated aid funding more than double from at least $40 million to $112m, and are now responsible for delivering more than 10 per cent of Australia’s aid program.
According to NGO annual reports, some have received nearly $40m in one year alone across multiple aid programs.
But once taxpayers’ money is given to such organisations they cease being non-government and become semi-government organisations.
For transparency reasons there should be close tabs kept on how taxpayers’ money is spent through them.
For example, in 2008 and 2009 the Australian Conservation Foundation received a total of $200,000 from Australia’s program.
In the 2010 and 2011 financial years the World Wildlife Fund Australia collected $400,000 from AusAID.
To its credit, the environmentally militant Greenpeace does not take funding from government, recognising it taints its agenda.
But for those who do there are increasing grounds for concern that public money is being inappropriately spent.
As Greg Sheridan recently wrote in The Australian, as a recipient of aid funding, World Vision was working with a group that has “deep links” with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine group, a proscribed terrorist agency.
Not that the World Vision’s example is in isolation. Recently the World Wildlife Fund was suspended as a Norwegian aid provider after staff were caught embezzling money from a funded program in Tanzania.
But scrutinisable activities need not be illegal. They are increasingly political.
A large number of NGOs that are recipients of aid funding have been actively lobbying against the federal government’s decision to prioritise a budget surplus ahead of increasing aid funding.
NGOs are within their rights to lobby for the government to increase government aid spending. But that right is diminished when they are also recipients.
Similarly, the Australian Conservation Foundation receives taxpayer aid funding to run programs to promote grassroots engagement on climate change-based policy.
As a recipient of aid funding the ACF was also involved in the Say Yes! Coalition with Greenpeace and GetUp! to provide political support for the Gillard government’s introduction of the carbon tax.
Worse, in some cases aid-funded NGOs are engaged in political activity that undermines the objectives of Australia’s aid program to promote sustainable economic development.
At earlier stages of economic development, countries are required to exploit their natural resources as they make the leap from a subsistence economy to manufacturing and eventually a service-based economy.
There are constant efforts by aid-funded NGOs against the development of export-focused primary industries in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
Targets have included their forestry and mining and agriculture sectors.
These efforts have been coupled with campaigns by the same groups targeting consumers and businesses to stop using developing world exports, as well as the erection of trade barriers.
A recent example includes efforts to target KFC to stop using Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil in their frying and forestry products in their packaging.
Again, NGOs have every right to engage in political activity if they feel it advances their organisational objectives.
But that capacity is compromised when they start taking public money.
Currently NGOs are restricted from being accredited organisations to access NGO-specific AusAID funding programs if they are engaged in political activity that is primarily isolated to partisan activities.
But that relatively narrow definition of political activity means they can be engaged in political campaigns so long as they don’t involve directly endorsing parties in Australia or abroad.
Before either side of politics increases the aid budget further, a proper audit needs to be completed so the public can be confident aid funding isn’t being used for political activity.
And the definition of political activity should be broadened to recognise that political activity that undermines the sustainable development objectives of Australia’s aid program is not acceptable.
Today SD has released a new report looking at the influence of the greens movement over the Australian economy. Importantly, the green movement are successfully influencing Australian government policy and restructuring, and restricting, the operations of the Australian economy based on their values. Their influence is making the Australian economy economically unsustainable.
There are numerous examples of the greens movement influencing the Australian economy. The carbon tax is an obvious case where the greens movement has succeeded in creating unsustainable false foundations of the back of a tax for their favoured industries. The new clean energy fund is equally as problematic.
But the influence of certification schemes is also becoming a problem. Voluntarily these schemes are designed to increase consumer choice and awareness about non-price value propositions. But as the greens movement is achieving, if they are legislated they are handing control of supply chains for primary industries to opaque and questionable certification bodies that green groups have significant influence over.
The long term outcome is that the Australian economy will become strangled by their influence harming sustainable economic, social and environmental development. And we will establish a poor precedent for other countries to follow.
An interesting video is doing the rounds attacking Greenpeace directly. As regularly SD readers will know we’ve raised serious concerns about Greenpeace’s behaviour and the impact on the world’s poor.This video seems to reinforce these messages.
On a local level the attacks against the CSIRO’s Canberra GM research facility were concerning. The anti-GM movement has had anti-science dimensions. But the video argues Greenpeace’s behaviour on this matter is not in isolation. Certainly attacking opportunities for developing countries to lift themselves out of poverty so they can improve their environment is of deep concern. The question is why so many people take Greenpeace seriously considering their past behaviour?
Today SD released a new report, Trading away competitiveness, on the influence of green groups that are targeting imports from developing countries and undermining Australia’s fragile free trade consensus.
A picture is now emerging that green groups are targeting politicians to impose non-tariff barriers against primary industry imports from developing countries. This is having a real impact on Australia’s already strained free trade consensus. The most concerning dimension is the success they are having.
The government has already adopted absurd non-tariff barriers against wood imports that are set to come into law. And the Opposition working with independents and the Greens have previously backed non-tariff barriers on palm oil imports. Thankfully they came to their senses before the Bill passed into law.
DEEPLY questionable tactics by environmental activists are taking away choices for consumers and business. The coupled collapse of trade barriers in developed countries and the globalisation of supply chains, creating export opportunities for developing countries, has understandably driven consumer awareness of the impact their purchasing has had on the world’s poor during the past 20 years.
SD released a new report this morning, Naked Extortion? Environmental NGOs imposing [in]voluntary regulations on business and consumers, looking at the role that environmental NGOs are playing in forcing businesses to adopt ‘voluntary’ certification standards.
There’s nothing wrong with certification schemes like the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil if adopted voluntarily. SD may have differences with the schemes and whether the actually achieve their objectives environmentally, socially or economically. But that is a difference of opinion.
It is entirely different when business and consumers are forced to adopt them. And that appears to be what is occurring. Suspicions that environmental groups collude in a game of ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ to push business and consumers into adopting ‘voluntary’ certification standards has traditionally been speculative. The report shows they’re now gloating about it:
‘Greenpeace is willing to play the role of good cop or bad cop in partnership with organisations. Its reputation for radical actions positions it particularly well to play the bad cop that can drive organisations to partner with groups that seem more middle-of-the-road in orientation’ (Greenpeace head of research, Kert Davies).
Basically in response to Greenpeace’s ‘Bad Cop’ routine, ‘Good Cop’ groups, like the World Wildlife Fund, offer adoption of ‘voluntary’ certification schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to get the ‘Bad Cops’ off their back.
Advocates of these ‘voluntary’ standards are now arguing they should be regulated for, through:
‘… governments and international organisations in consumer and producer countries should establish complementary mechanisms to create an enabling environment … [such as] national legislation [and] public procurement policies … [as well as] regulatory waivers in exchange for certification’ (WWF review).
We are already seeing this strategy employed in Australia through the Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling – Palm Oil) Bill and the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill.
These are not encouraging signs if you support market-based poverty alleviation.
Open foreign investment is good for all. In Australia’s case it makes sense for developing country businesses to invest in an economy capable of delivering stable returns and property rights. For Australia it makes sense because with a large land mass and small population it has always been a capital importer.
That’s why any calls to restrict foreign investment are dangerous and counter productive. But political realities always make foreign investment a touchy issue. Which is why the idea of at least steering, rather than blocking, Chinese investment into Australia’s agriculture sector is welcome.
Unfortunately the idea is receiving a cold reception from the National Party. But hopefully sense will prevail.
Last night on ABC1’s Foreign Correspondent there was a program on allegations of forest clearing in Sumatra by the company APRIL. SD was surprised at the story not because of its relevance, which is high, but at the nearly uncontested acceptance of WWF, Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace allegations against the company, and the near dismissal of how much support economic development had in the area.
In short the story recognised in the most meaningless way that there’s actually quite a large amount of support for economic development amongst local owners.
But there were concerning dimensions to the story, particularly around the protection and preservation of property rights by local owners who claimed to have leases. According to one sago farmer he had a lease on some land which has basically been expunged because the government has given forestry rights to APRIL. SD has no way of verifying who is correct, but it is of deep concern that property rights would be waived without compensation.
Similarly, the ABC’s ongoing acceptance of allegations against industry without scrutiny raises equal concern. The ABC is supposed to be a balanced broadcaster that scrutinises all allegations. During this program that seemed lacking. Especially considering the lack of evidence that is continually found around allegations by these groups in the past by SD and others.
About Us Sustainable Development is a blog to promote environmentally, socially and economically sustainable evidence-based public policy for the developing world. SD supports a market-based approach to achieve sustainable development that improves the living standards of the world’s poor, environmental standards and social cohesion. Read More