by Tim Wilson, September 18, 2012
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