In the pursuit of conservation, Southern Africa is witnessing platoons of soldiers and paramilitary-trained rangers. New technologies including drones and military-grade helicopters along with partnerships with military firms are all entering the region’s parklands, ostensibly to save them. Though many poachers are armed and dangerous, green militarisation is short-sighted and has long-term implications.
A potentially momentous summit of environmental officials takes place in Johannesburg starting this weekend, through October 4: the 17th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES. Based on an agreement between 182 countries, CITES’ aim is to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.”
With climate change increasingly evident, so too is the world suffering large-scale habitat loss and unprecedented species extinctions. The booming black and gray markets in already-threatened animals, including the rhino, elephant, and pangolin, worsen the situation.
Even though the cross-border trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory will probably remain technically banned when CITES ends, its delegates are at risk of being distracted from saving threatened species thanks to two dubious developments:
- new proposals to allow trade in elephant ivory have been made by South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe (although lifting that ban is opposed by Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania), and there is an even more controversial proposal by Swaziland’s King Mswati to sell $10 million of his feudal monarchy’s rhino horn stock (plus $600 000 worth annually from rhinos that die naturally), and
- the militarisation of conservation through an anti-poaching arms race within the game parks.
Shooting the problem
The Southern African region has such a chequered history of militarism, what with 366 years of armed conflict between white settlers and indigenous people (including slavery); what with (white-backed) black rightwing guerillas in Renamo (Mozambique) and Unita (Angola) having attacked liberation governments resulting in more than 1.5 million civilian casualties during the 1970s-90s; what with mercenaries still thick on the ground; and what with the militaries of Zimbabwe and South Africa recently involved in, respectively, extreme malgovernance (e.g. looting diamond operations) and controversial skirmishes in central Africa.
Southern Africa is no place to start a new arms race over nature. Yet in the pursuit of conservation, the region is witnessing new platoons of soldiers and paramilitary-trained rangers. New technologies including drones and military-grade helicopters along with new partnerships with military firms are all entering the region’s parklands, ostensibly to save them.
There is little public discussion about the merits of militarisation within CITES or mainstream conservation. This is despite the fact that NGOs such as Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund were exposed by WorldWatch researcher Mac Chapin a dozen years ago for disastrous adventures in military conservation. This included what he described as “a disturbing neglect of the indigenous peoples whose land they are in business to protect.”
Though many poachers are indeed armed, dangerous and participants in global organised crime, we disagree that more firepower is needed to beat them. Green militarisation is a short-sighted response with severe long-term implications.
In recent years several hundred suspected poaches have been killed in South Africa and dozens in Botswana. Many of these deaths result from controversial shoot-on-site policies and practices (whether official or unofficial), where suspected poachers are killed without the opportunity to surrender.
This not only violates human rights but generates hostility to conservation in economically-marginalised border communities. These are the very areas from which conservation needs local ownership if it is to be effective.
Worse, green militarisation has opened the doors of conservation services to private defence corporations. The most caricatured must be Ivor Ichikovitz’s Paramount Group, thanks in part to his celebrated Mbombe Parabot, the CGI African ‘superhero’ cyborg-robot.
These firms seek to create new markets for their hardware and services, markets they actively work to enlarge by exploiting conservation to showcase their hardware at military tradeshows.
This also amounts to a perverse form of ‘greenwashing.’ As the firms bedazzle us with their well-advertised commitment to environmental protection, we are left blind to the destruction they leave in their wake in conflict zones around the world.
Putting a price on conservation
There are similarly devastating impacts of markets, including not only worsening economic meltdowns (e.g. 1998, 2000-01, 2008) but also the ideology now known as the ‘financialisation of nature,’ which is based on the view that a market problem, like the threat of extinction posed by poachers, can be treated best with a market solution.
For example, politicians negotiating the United Nations climate treaty were persuaded as early as 1997 (in Kyoto) that ‘carbon trading’ – selling the right to pollute instead of regulating the steady reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – meant ‘solving a market problem with a market solution.’ In reality, the European and US experiences were humiliating – with a 90% price crash in the former from 2008-14, and bankruptcy of the latter’s Chicago exchange in 2010 – but the practice continues.
In the same spirit, Swaziland’s proposed international rhino horn market strategy is, fortunately, still firmly opposed by leading environmental experts. However, National Geographic recently warned that Mswati’s move may serve as a stalking horse for a future South African bid – one that it would lose at CITES (in a humiliating context, as host) if it were to be put on the table in Johannesburg next week.
Confusingly, flip-flopping Pretoria officials say they still support the rhino horn ban, but have come under intense pressure to drop it by rhino-horn factory-farming ranchers like John Hume, who owns 1400 of the beasts, more than live in Kenya. If Swaziland is allowed an exemption, watch Hume and his allies move animals across the border for horn harvesting and lucrative sales.
One of the world experts on wildlife trade, El Colegio de Mexico economist Alejandro Nadal, Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. that pro-trade advocates make numerous methodological errors and harbor a variety of false assumptions about both supply and demand.
Both the legalisation of rhino horn and ivory and green militarisation are neither just nor sustainable responses to the extra-legal trade in wildlife. We must do better than this, and we can do better in several ways.
The only surefire way to stop commercial poaching is ending demand, or at least drastically reducing it. Wildlife fetches staggering prices. A kilogram of rhino horn, for example, fetches US$60,000 - more than gold, diamonds and cocaine – so there will never be a shortage of people willing to procure it, even risking their lives to do so. Until buyers lose interest or shift to a new fad (as happened a century ago to South African ostrich feathers), there will never be a shortage of people willing to procure wildlife, even risking their lives to do so.
CITES, to its credit, has done much to place the issue of demand reduction front and centre in convention deliberations. Namibian and South African authorities are finally naming and shaming smugglers they catch, many with Vietnamese and North Korean connections. But while even proponents of green militarisation often agree that demand reduction is the single most important response in the main East Asian consumption sites, it is vital to do so with cultural sensitivity so as to avoid the appearance of yet another western imposition.
Rethinking the species-survival strategy
We have an historic opportunity to rethink conservation. There is an opportunity to make it less exploitative and more inclusive of the needs and perspectives of communities that often suffered injustice when parks were carved from indigenous lands. More broadly, because poverty is routinely a driver of poaching on the supply side, we are reminded of the need to address global inequality.
There are precedents. One is the ongoing South African struggle against coal mining waged by low-income rural Zulu women, climate activists and conservationists (including progressive lawyers) against two Johannesburg corporations on the borders of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park, Africa’s oldest. This was also the site where white rhinos are generally considered to have been saved from extinction. The ‘Save our iMfolozi Wilderness’ campaign represents a version of eco-feminist climate strategy, with demands that capital and the state ‘leave the coal in the hole!,’ so as to
- save local women from displacement, and their land and water from being poisoned by strip mining;
- save the world from increased climate change resulting from that mining and subsequent burning of coal; and
- save nearby rhinos from the increased poaching threat that mining represents.
South Africa has other successful precedents for fighting militarism and markets, including campaigning by local social movements and their global allies – using sanctions against corporations profiteering from racism – to end apartheid 25 years ago. A decade ago, non-violent protests by civil society ended the patent control by big pharmaceutical companies over AIDS medicines, resulting in a subsequent rise in life expectancy from 52 to 62 in South Africa alone.
Saving the rhino and elephant could be just as feasible, if popular movements are quickly built in the spirit of the Fuleni women – movements that avoid militarised and market paths and rely on deeper socio-ecological values.
* Libby Lunstrum is Associate Professor of Geography at York University, Toronto; Patrick Bond is Professor of Political Economy at Wits University School of Governance, Johannesburg.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHORS AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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