Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

20 Oct 2011

The Tree of Life: in Space and Time

Terrence Malick’s latest film “The Tree of Life” struck me to the core. I could see myself in the characters, the dialogue was understated but touching (“We have forsaken the trees and animals in ignoring their splendour”) and most of all, the director’s trademark cinematography of wide pans on stunning images of nature lures you out of your seat and into the screen. Here, he undertakes an existential exploration of life and its meaning, of nature and human nature.

Once before, the tree of life was conjured up to explain our place in the cosmos, when in 1859, Darwin tentatively published “The Origin of the Species”. Unlike Malick, who relies on images of beauty to communicate the scale of biodiversity, Darwin achieved this and so much more with a spindly drawing of the first phylogenetic tree. This eureka moment is displayed so clearly in the note pages of his journal; the page is headed with the unfinished phrase “I think” before the tree is drawn below.

This tree encapsulates the idea of biodiversity not as a static assemblage of species who need “conserving”, but of a dynamic process honed by evolutionary forces. Darwin’s Tree of Life displays the morpho-ecological divergence on its horizontal axis, with the infinite diversity of species displayed from left to right. But it is its vertical axis, of time which defines the process of evolution as variation in this diversity over time which sets it apart from others.  

The arrangement of life as a tree begs the question as to where one species begins and another ends; the leaves, the twigs, the branch, or the trunk? Darwin struggled with the species concept, and in a letter to a friend wrote: "I am often in despair in making the generality of naturalists even comprehend me. Intelligent men who are not naturalists and have not a bigoted idea of the term species, show more clearness of mind." The idea of a species was culturally tarred by the biblical ideas of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, where a species is distinctly separate from others as deemed by Natural Order. But to Darwin, a deeper transitory connection existed, based on ancestry, variation and selection. 

Finally with the arrival of genetic technologies we were able to clearly illustrate the links between closely or distantly related individuals. We can classify an individual as having a certain genetic makeup, shared by its relatives and expressed in its physiology. A species can then be classed as a group expressing these shared genes. The borders of a species will always be an arbitrary box, but at least biodiversity as a whole can clearly be defined as the dynamic process which creates this diverse assemblage of life.

The eye-catching display of amphibians, plants, dogs, fish used by Malick illustrate the diversity of life, but by including the imagery of dinosaurs, he points to the temporal nature of the branches and leaves on a tree. In this sense he captures the importance of both space and time in characterising life in all its manifestations. The scope of the film and its method of touching on a range of qualities essential to undestanding life greatly impressed me, so much so that I am planning my third trip to the cinema.

18 Oct 2011

Perceptions of the Paleolithics

Horse at Lascaux

On the walls of caves across the globe, from the steppes of Eurasia, and the tundra of Siberia, to the Saharan desert, testimonies up to 1.4 million years old reveal the perceptions of our ancestors. But rather than depict an accurate image of the world around them, these first manifestations of an artistic culture display a scenography of spiritual power. Moreover, a fixation on certain elements is unusually consistent across the distribution of all of our ancestors geographic range. It is the herbivoires which captivated the facination of those early hunter gathers, with figural representations of buffalo, deer and equid species far out weighing images of carnivores, or other assemblages such as fish and bird species. According to paleontological records, the abundance of these representations does not match the local abundance of species.

Most surprising is a complete absence of pictoral representations of landscapes, hills, rivers, vegetation, nor the moon and the starts. Whatever reason for this is lost in the sands of time, but these images allow paleontologists to make certain estimations about the ancient hominin attitudes to nature, but also to determine the ecology of a landscape which will have long since experienced numerous climatic changes. Under a rocky overhang on the upper escarpment of Tassili n'Ajjer in southern Algeria, depictions of herds of antilope and giraffe illustrate the lush pastures which existed before the expansion of the current desert during the last ice age. Whilst only permitting a glimpse, this rock art leaves a deep impression on our understanding of the blossoming of human kind in an environment and frame of mind where nature played a central role.

9 Oct 2011

Arcadia Jardinium

This morning, I got out my green fingers and did a bit of gardening. Now considering that my garden is four pot plants on the tiny balcony of my flat, I wholly accept that the term may be a bit loosely applied. I should also add that this consisted of hacking dead branches off brown plants with some scissors. And yet, the soil under my fingernails, the snipping and the crunching of dry leaves gave me immense satisfaction. Subconsciously, I imagine that this shaping of a natural corner harkens to a need to master and control the elements, not hard when dealing with a decaying gerranium.
L/ Bibliotheque National de France, R/ Musée du quai Branly
City central living makes any contact with greenery all the more enjoyable, and given that studies have revealed the important role of biodiversity in mental wellbeing, it is encouraging that cities such have Paris are increasing the green spaces in their concrete jungles. Along with the grand jardins conceived during Haussman's restructuring of the city in the 19th century, I am impressed by the latest attemps which juxtapose vegetation with glass and steel. The national library has a thick pine forest springing up amongst the glass walls, whilst a carpet of lush succulents and ferns cascade down the sides of the Quai Branly Museum.

The creation of the first gardens stems back to rich land owners wishing to create a place of dominion, where a manicured and arranged box hedge could line the driveway up to the manor. Cultural trends have since lead the way in garden design. Baroque painting with a view towards classical Greece and Rome resulted in the addition of statues and folleys in gardens in the 1600s, whilst the focus of British landscape artists such as Constable in the 1800s meant that geometric designs previously favored such as at Versailles, were now replaced with sweeping vistas on rural inspired lawns. William Kent was famous for his reinterpretation of gardens as Arcadian set pieces, sometimes planting dead trees to create a melancholic mood. Simon Schama points out how these constant references within gardens has resulted in landscapes tarnished with human cultural perceptions.

L/ Lorrain 1682, Ascanius shooting the stag of sylvia, R/ Friedrich 1824, Man and woman contemplating the moon.
Is it possible to consider these gardens as true pieces of nature? Like the proponents of the concept of wilderness (discussed here), certain authors view these "cultural artefacts" as one of the reasons that we are so blasé about the destruction of natural spaces which were uncreated by the hand of man. These artificial recreations of natural spaces have according to them, clouded our vision as to what truly is nature, and devalued the role of evolution of thousands of years to create a equilibrium of organisms.  If we are able to create a forest in the middle of a concrete landscape, what is to stop us from destroying a part of the Amazon and building in its place a concrete towerblock. The problem as always, lies in our narrow perception of what is nature.

A fair point, but I am not so sure. It is true that we are detached, but these green spaces allow us to reconnect if only temporarily with the rest of the natural world. Furthermore, whilst not arranged by the selective hand of evolutionary forces, but by a gloved hand and a pair of secateurs, these gardens provide homes to an array of transitory species. The end result of this mornings gardening is 4 pots of bare soil. I have no doubt that left to their own devices, they will fill with air-borne plants, insects and microorganisms without me touching them. Im not sure whether I can still call this gardening, or whether I can claim any credit, but i can at least be sure that it is free of "cultural artefacts".

1 Oct 2011

Voices: 3. Conflicts in Development and Conservation in East Africa

Todays post is by David Adam, a good friend of mine who for the past five years has worked with Maasai communities in Tanzania in development of basic education, healthcare and water provision, in addition to helping to coordinate research on mammal and bird populations. This article is a digestion of a years research on the issue of land rights and problems of aquired knowledge by international conservation organisations.

Life is all about context. Perceptions and narratives create and define paradigms that come to be replicated at all levels of society. In some cases these start with large international organisations, such as the World Bank, building a hegemonic control of knowledge. Others operate at local and regional levels, manifesting themselves as inter and intra community politics. These serve to define and represent power relations and control that can be imposed not only over natural resource use but also through the management of other actors’ ability to access resources. International Development efforts are increasingly recognizing the important interactions between the environment and issues of poverty and vulnerability while at the same time seeking to create solutions that acknowledge the complexity of local situations. Land and property rights are at the centre of these debates.

Maasai Rangelands

In the Maasai Rangelands of Northern Tanzania and Kenya the interactions between pastoral communities and ecological systems are subject to a variety of factors such as climatic variability and social and political pressures. This takes place within an historical background of oppression and western interference that has left an indelible legacy on many African societies. Conservation areas and protected resources that have in many cases been created at the expense of local communities are often built on western ideals of a ‘wilderness’. In reality the broad savannahs and wonderfully diverse ecosystems glorified by writers such as Hemmingway are as in large part a product of centuries of processes and interactions in which humans and pastoral land use have played an integral part.

In the 1960’s Hardin outlined a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ scenario where common pool resources are routinely abused, arguing that only private property rights endow a level of corporate responsibility. He proposed a focus on individual landowners who would understand and act on the need to protect their own property, protecting the environment as a whole. A simplistic and poorly informed idea, this model has been repeatedly invoked over decades in relation to African conservation areas, with pastoralist practices often the target of criticism. This received wisdom suggests that not only is there little productivity for the wider community but that growing populations and herd sizes irredeemably degrade soil that is otherwise conducive to agriculture, while decimating local biodiversity.

The creation of National Parks such as Amboseli in Kenya and Manyara in Tanzania resulted in local pastoral communities being forcibly evicted from lands in order to create what western environmentalists saw as natural environments. The impact of such measures on the rural poor can be devastating as the coping strategies used by the most vulnerable are removed. Those reliant on newly alienated resources are often treated indiscriminately, categorized with poachers as criminals while they seek to maintain access to previously held resources, or removed from discussion of how best to conserve local ecosystems. The Tanzanian Government’s Land Policy actively advocates a need to educate pastoralists on land use yet actively ignores the political economy of land degradation and the social process that underlie resource use, many of which spring from state laws.

A Question of Identity

These issues raise the question of who are we conserving the environment and its resources for- the locals who directly rely upon them, maybe a nation and its population, or the wider international community? Countries harbour differing ideals of what constitutes a natural landscape or what should be conserved and this reflects not on a natural history but a cultural or spiritual one. For instance, in Latvia the national idea of a conservation area is that of an ethnoscape that represents both an ecological and social history. The creation of national parks during Soviet era occupation created a focal point for Latvians to maintain a sense of identity. Attempts by the E.U. to reclassify Guaja national park as a U.S. style zone with no inhabitants were firmly and successfully rejected by local Latvians, for whom the very notion made little sense. 

In the same way there is little understanding among Maasai communities as to why they should not be considered suitable stewards of an environment they have maintained so well in the past. Crucially the difference in outcomes between the two cases lies in the external interests involved. Conservation is an industry and  in most cases a reflection of private and state interests. The revenues brought in by tourism outstrip many other sectors and it is fair to say that were these removed then pillars central to the economies of both Tanzania and Kenya would be removed. At the heart of these are the conservation areas located in the Maasai steppe such as Amboseli and the Maasai Mara in Kenya, and Ngorongoro or the Serengetti in Tanzania.

While internationally propagated narratives of the way in which nature should be managed affect attitudes to pastoralism, it should also be recognized that communities themselves are not homogenous entities; conflicts and power relations work at an intra-community level. The response to exclusionary conservation has often been to build an idealised picture of harmonious interactions between traditional (non-western) communities and ecological systems but of course this is not the case. As a counter-narrative to the discourse of pastoral degradation there is some value to this, yet it remains a misrepresentation that obscures local politics and power struggles over resources that should not be ignored when seeking to create viable conservation and development solutions.

Participatory Conservation

If it is accepted that the tourism generated by conservation areas plays a vital role in supporting these countries, could it not be argued that the exclusion of these communities should be taken in the wider context of conserving the environment for a far wider group of citizens? In my opinion, no. Morally and ethically there can be no support for ignoring the rights of locals and putting livelihoods at risk. The ability of large conservation organizations and state bodies to ride roughshod over local rights represents an abuse of power and there are many examples where the creation of national parks also reflects governmental desire for increased control over natural resources. In one example, Nancy Lee Peluso outlines the role of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) on providing money for weapons and even helicopter gun-ships to the Kenyan anti-poaching units and parks authorities in the 1980’s.

Much has been made of the calls for participatory involvement by local communities through the creation of buffer zones, or community areas, around national parks that contrast with the ‘fortress conservation’ approach taken in the past. Yet in many cases these have served only to increase governmental control over wider areas of land outside. Neumann (1997) cites the buffer zones created in Tanzania around the Selous National Park, Manyara National Park and the Serengetti Regional Conservation Strategy as examples of areas designed to involve communities that in reality put greater swathes of community land under game reserve and parks authorities control. In the case of the Serengetti the mandate was to remove land use types that were ‘incompatible’ with conservation aims. Igoe (2009) looks at the more recent creation of ‘wildlife corridors’ such as that between Manyara and Tarangire national parks and finds a great deal of evidence of coercion and violence used to actively remove whole villages from AWF bought land. Following its eventual creation, the wildlife corridor is now used as exclusive luxury safari land and billed as a ‘sustainable model’. Not so sustainable for the families who lost their livelihoods and remain uncompensated.

Aside from the moral objections to the exclusion of local communities, the evidence shows clearly that these methods do not work. Despite having long standing national parks with well funded anti poaching units, Kenya’s wildlife numbers have consistently declined over recent decades. Market led arguments proposed that the resulting revenue from tourism around parks should offset the loss of resources traditionally used but again the research shows otherwise. Maasai villagers around Amboseli National Park believe they are worse off finically and in terms of resources from their proximity to the conservation area. They receive little or no income from tourism or benefits, while conservation organizations have promised a variety of incentives to maintain the Park including schools and water holes but these have been either poorly targeted and benefited only a few, or have simply not been built. On top of this they bear the costs of conservation such as increased competition with wildlife for fewer resources, risks to personal safety, damage to crops and livelihoods and the management costs required to maintain fencing.

Communities are often used as pawns in political power relations, while development efforts often fail in the process of scaling up. During the recent drive to develop a road through the Serengetti both the Government of Tanzania and conservation organistions argued respectively that the project would benefit and destroy local villages. Much development work remains clouded by woolly terms that lose all relevance when appropriated by various actors for various purposes. Terms such as participation, sustainability or governance cease to have currency at a local level when applied indiscriminately. The challenge is to create bespoke solutions that can work both locally and regionally.

PES, Partnerships and Property Rights

So how can conservation and development work in tandem? One of the ideas currently in vogue centres on the concept of paying local communities to maintain certain ecosystems services (such as timber and forests, biodiversity and agricultural areas) while compensating them for the loss of others. As with all market driven solutions there are serious questions over how this works in practise. The size and relative value of ecosystems services are subject to variations in time and scale. Thus the value of bee pollination services to coffee growers in India changes when production switches to crops that do not require bee pollination. Communities around gorilla and chimpanzee reserves in Rwanda are compensated for looking after forest resources, but this is dependant on tourism continuing in the area. In Tanzania and Kenya there are programmes to assist the Maasai in maintaining conservation areas such as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the growth of game controlled areas across the region. For these to work however greater attention needs to be paid to what is meant by participation and a focus on the ability to the Maasai to not only assist in the conservation of resources to in deciding what is valued and how this is achieved.

Tourism and private partnerships offer another area that can benefit communities. If markets are to be followed then allowing greater security to communities over land ownership means they are able to negotiate partnerships from a position of grater strength. This should be coupled with a drive to increase the awareness of legal rights to counteract the resources and positions of power controlled by external parties with vested interests. Shared land and rangeland management changes in conjunction with climatic variations and it is instead the restrictions placed on herd movements and access to resources that leads to diversification and land degradation. Similarly more sophisticated models are needed that accurately reflect how the land is managed in differing circumstances. The very concept of land degradation is a contentious issue, and accurate measurements of soil and biodiversity changes are not readily available or indeed accurate. Calls to incorporate local perceptions of land and soil types should be heeded as these can help provide a better range of data.

Land rights and property ownership become central to these issues. Both the Tanzanian and Kenyan Governments are seeking to develop an economic market for land that is not in sync with traditional beliefs of what gives a land value. Around conservation areas this leads to conflict over resources and land grabs from private organizations to the detriment of those unable to take advantage of this market. It is lazy to invoke Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ concept and assume that pastoral practices rely solely on communal land. Over centuries the Maasai have developed sharing practices that incorporate both communal and private ownership. Private grazing areas are maintained by families while villages simultaneously develop shared land for larger herd movements; studies have shown that in these areas biodiversity is often richer and more abundant. If the state were to adopt a role as a mediator between these communities rather than creating conflict by imposing artificial boundaries then the coping mechanisms available to the vulnerable could also increase.

It is always easy to demand a holistic approach that embraces local knowledge but practical examples are available that demonstrate how strengthening traditional land claims and introducing PES, such as in Kimana Group Ranch near Amboseli NP in Kenya, can be successful. If funding is to be used to support conservation then in the first instance it should be used to develop local land rights, both communal and individual, by supporting the necessary state and community systems (in many cases decimated by structural adjustments and decentralization policies forced on them by the World Bank and IMF). This way local communities who are distrustful of conservation areas and state politics after years of being exploited and coerced may begin to see some of the considerable benefits being generated, while providing protection for those most at risk.