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No man's lands

"Sustainable development" has become an environmental mantra across the Third World. But critics increasingly ask if people and wildlife belong together at all.

ONE OF THE RAREST MONKEYS in the world lives on a jagged scramble of limestone peaks and tropical forest called Cat Ba Island, off the northern coast of Vietnam. It is known as the golden-headed or Cat Ba langur. At the beginning of the 1990s there were several hundred Cat Ba langurs. Over the next decade local hunters killed most of them for use in traditional medicine. Today, there are 65 left.

There are, however, more Cat Ba langurs now than there were two years ago, thanks to the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project. Funded by international conservation organizations, the project is based in Cat Ba National Park, which covers much of the island, and includes educational programs, support for forest rangers, and research to monitor langur populations. Nearly 800 villagers living within the park have signed symbolic "contracts," promising to protect the langurs and other natural resources. Since the program began in 2000, langur hunting has dropped from several dozen kills per year to just three in the past three years.

By third-world standards, Vietnam's national conservation policies are quite progressive. The government has applied to have the Cat Ba area declared a UN Biosphere Reserve, under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere program. But there's a catch: UN Biosphere Reserve guidelines call explicitly for promoting human economic activities, albeit eco-friendly ones.

Such economic activities are supposed to be "sustainable": that is, they shouldn't do irreparable damage to the ecosystem. Yet Vietnam's Biosphere Reserve application relies heavily on tourism -- and it is precisely Cat Ba's ballooning tourism industry that threatens the local environment.The number of visitors has increased by a factor of 10 since the mid-'90s.

Cat Ba Harbor's waterfront is now lined with dozens of pink and blue concrete hotels. Restaurants catering to Vietnamese and Chinese tourists serve illegal game from the island's forests, including macaques and the serow, an endangered species of deer. Plans call for shrinking the park by one-third to cut out several villages now located inside it -- potentially allowing the villagers to build yet more hotels and restaurants.

One can hardly fault the island's impoverished natives for wanting a piece of the action. "Everyone wants to develop. Everyone wants a nice house, a TV," says Rosie Stenke, a German biologist who heads up the conservation project. But it seems hard to imagine that such development can truly be "sustainable" -- if sustainability includes protecting the langurs.

. . .

Cat Ba is an example of a worldwide dilemma, one that goes to the heart of how the conservation movement defines itself. For the past two decades, environmentalists have embraced the philosophy of sustainable development. Although a rich and relatively sparsely settled country like the United States can set aside vast areas of protected wilderness, environmentalists acknowledge that poorer countries cannot simply declare natural resources off-limits to humans. To do so is both unjust, because it denies the world's poorest people the right to economic advancement, and self-defeating, since locals will destroy conservation programs they have no stake in. So conservationists have tried to combine the protection of wildlife with the promotion of eco-friendly agriculture and industry, collaborating with development agencies like the World Bank as well as with indigenous peoples' movements. Rather than pitting humans against the environment, conservationists have sought a balance between the two.

But in the past few years, some scientists and environmentalists have begun to challenge the very idea of sustainable development. In practice, they argue, development interests can always slap a couple of green-sounding initiatives onto a project and claim it as "sustainable." In the end, say these critics, the mantra of sustainable development serves mainly to neutralize opposition to environmentally damaging projects. Indigenous peoples asserting their traditional rights, development agencies trying to alleviate poverty, third-world governments seeking to grow their economies -- these all may be worthy causes. But sometimes, argue the sustainability critics, it comes down to a simple formula: people vs. wildlife. And if conservationists don't fight for the langur, who will?

Among the more voluble critics of the slogan of sustainable development are the writer Dale Peterson and the photographer and activist Karl Ammann. Their recent book "Eating Apes" (California) documents the rapid extinction of Africa's great apes at the hands of local "bushmeat" hunters, who over the past decade have penetrated once inaccessible reaches of forest thanks to newly built logging roads.

Peterson and Ammann charge the world's major conservation organizations with betraying the apes in the name of sustainable development. As an example, they cite a collaboration between the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the German timber company CIB, launched in December 1995. In 1994-5, Ammann documented CIB's negligence in allowing employees and their families in northern Congo-Brazzaville to hunt gorillas and other apes, and to use company trucks to transport the meat to market. In response, CIB struck a deal with the WCS, which administers the adjacent Nouabal-Ndoki National Park. With WCS's assistance, CIB pledged to help its employees raise domestic meat, educate them to stop hunting endangered species, and forbid the transport of bushmeat on its trucks.

According to Peterson and Ammann, the company didn't do much to follow through; but in the meantime, it had obtained a seal of approval from one of the world's most respected conservation organizations. By "hopping onto the collaboration-with-loggers bandwagon," writes Peterson, conservation organizations "threaten to become voluntary cheerleaders for a billion-dollar industry of exploitation."Peterson and Amman echo the views of primatologist John Oates of New York's Hunter College, whose 1999 book "Myth and Reality in the Rain Forest" drew on his 30 years of experience in West African conservation projects to argue that sustainable-development efforts often do more harm than good. "I've come to the view that although sustainable development is very good in theory, trying to promote development alongside the conservation of ecosystems is impossible," says Oates today.

In his book, Oates recounts his experience helping set up the Okomu Wildlife Sanctuary in Nigeria in the early `90s. Following standard practice, a number of aid initiatives were set up in the "buffer zone" around the Okomu reserve -- small-scale loans, agriculture programs -- to compensate residents for the loss of forest resources. Perversely, these aid initiatives wound up attracting new residents to the area, who, thanks to weak law enforcement, began poaching the reserve's wildlife.

Oates now sees sustainable development as an "impossible dream." "I don't want to come across as being against people," he says. "But my interest is in preserving wildlife."

. . .

Probably the best-known of the sustainability critics is Duke University biologist John Terborgh, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1992 for his research in tropical biology. Terborgh notes that he is not against the idea of sustainable development per se; no one is. "Sustainable development is a necessity," Terborgh says. "But it's a fuzzy concept. Corporations define it one way, conservationists in a different way." In "Requiem for Nature" (1999), Terborgh argued that environmentalists should stop kidding themselves that conservation could be profitable. "Whether we like it or not, tropical forests are worth more dead than alive," he wrote. The hope that conservation and development can be reconciled is futile.

Terborgh is particularly hostile to one of the central aspects of much sustainable-development practice: involving residents of protected areas in conservation management -- making them, in current parlance, "stakeholders." Beginning in the 1980s, conservationists stopped clearing indigenous residents out of new wildlife-protection areas, and instead tried to train them in sustainable agriculture and win them over to conservation. Terborgh thinks this has been a huge mistake. "My feeling is that a park should be a park, and it shouldn't have any resident people in it," he says today.

Terborgh's critique is based on his work over the past three decades in the Amazonian rainforests of Peru's Manu National Park. The park's native Machiguenga Indians eat its fish and hunt its animals. While this was once sustainable, the Machiguenga are undergoing a population explosion. To protect wildlife, Machiguenga living inside the park are prohibited from using firearms or chainsaws, while fellow tribesmen outside the park enjoy all the technological benefits of civilization. Terborgh finds it both immoral and impossible to preserve the Machiguenga inside the park as exhibits in a sort of Amazonian Renaissance fair; they want outboard motors, shotguns, and television sets, and that spells doom for the park's wildlife. He thinks the Machiguenga should be resettled -- with generous compensation, of course.

Here, however, Terborgh and like-minded critics run up against the worldwide movement for indigenous peoples' rights. Since the 1980s, Native Americans, some African tribes, ethnic minorities in South and East Asia, and others have grown increasingly sophisticated at defending themselves in the political arena, using treaties like the 1989 Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the UN's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. One of their main concerns is territory, and increasingly, they view conservationists as competitors.

The Cambridge-based indigenous-issues organization Cultural Survival devotes the current issue of its magazine (available at entirely to conflicts between indigenous peoples and conservationists. "Indigenous peoples are . . . calling for the restitution of lands that have been incorporated into protected areas without their consent," write Fergus MacKay and Emily Caruso in the introduction. "They demand recognition that indigenous peoples have been protecting and managing their own territories for thousands of years."

At the World Congress on Parks in Durban, South Africa last September, the indigenous peoples' advocates seized center stage. Organizations like the World Rainforests Movement and the Forest Peoples Programme argued that indigenous peoples were the best stewards of threatened natural resources. Sometimes their rhetoric conflated environmentalism with colonialism. "First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors," read the statement put out by the Indigenous Peoples' Forum after the conference, "later in the name of state development and now in the name of conservation.

"To some extent, the argument came down to money. "Funds would be better spent protecting our rights and involving us directly rather than relying on outside agencies often from overseas," the statement declared. When Richard Leakey, the renowned anthropologist and former Kenyan minister of parks, gave a speech arguing that the global interest in biodiversity might sometimes trump the rights of local peoples, he provoked a political firestorm.

. . .

Still, there remains a consensus that sustainable development programs that treat local populations as "stakeholders" are a political necessity in the Third World. This is partly because conservationists have no one else to work with."

In the vast majority of third-world countries, governments are weak," explains Sheelagh O'Reilly of Flora and Fauna International, who manages a landscape conservation program in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam. Governments often pay lip service to conservation, but lack either the political will or the resources to enforce it. Where governments won't or can't stop locals from hunting and logging, conservationists have to win them over through persuasion.

O'Reilly manages a project involving the collaboration of local ethnic minorities like the Hmong, the Dao, and the Tay. They receive training in eco-friendly business practices, such as harvesting renewable forest products. Other wildlife-reserve projects in Vietnam do involve resettlement programs for indigenous peoples, but they are voluntary and include generous compensation.

In Cat Tien National Park, home to the last surviving Javan rhinoceroses on mainland Asia, the Worldwide Fund for Nature is helping resettle several hundred ethnic Giarai cashew farmers. The project follows exacting World Bank sustainable-development guidelines: All available alternatives to resettlement must first be exhausted, and the affected population's living standards must be maintained or improved.

For O'Reilly, Terborgh's vision of parks without people reflects a narrow American perspective that isn't even valid for conservation in Europe, let alone the crowded Third World. In poor countries, when one removes the indigenous people from an area, "all it accomplishes is to remove the only people who have an integral interest in that area as a landscape," she says. "You're opening it up to all the people who are only interested in it for resource extraction."

Conservation, like any political undertaking, needs a constituency. And it's telling that the critics of sustainable-development practice are largely biologists, not political or social scientists. They often seem uncertain of how to expand political support for conservation. In "Requiem for Nature," Terborgh envisions a vast reawakening of environmental consciousness among first-world youth, and multibillion-dollar commitments from wealthy governments. To today's cash-strapped, politically marginal environmental movement, this is fantasy.

Still, Terborgh isn't convinced by O'Reilly's argument. "I'm not suggesting that it's insincere," he says. "It's just ignorant of the biological conditions that are required to conserve biodiversity. People and wildlife don't go together. If there are people in a park, they'll be eating the animals."

Fair enough, his opponents might say. But given that the parks are home to both people and animals, how do you propose to get the people out?

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