Monday, 8 November 2010

Biodiversity - Social & Ecological Perspectives - Book Review

Biodiversity
Social & Ecological Perspectives – five articles
World Rainforest Movement, Penang, Malaysia
Copyright, 1991, 123 pages

I highly recommend this excellent book for anyone, like me, just catching up. Below are some notes from each article, which will give the reader an idea of the content.

1. Voices Unheard and Unheeded, by Heffa Schücking and Patrick Anderson

I reproduce this quote from page 20 because it summarises the situation well. Harrison Ngau (1989) from Sahabat Alam Malysia, noted:
The roots of the problem of deforestation and the waste of resources are located in the industrialized countries, where most of our resources, such as tropical timber, oil, natural gas and fish end up. The rich nations with one quarter of the world’s population consume four-fifths of the world’s resources. It is the throw-away culture of the industrialized countries now advertised in and forced on to Third World countries that is leading to the throwing away of the world. Such so-called ‘progress’ has simply led to destruction and despair.
The authors discuss commercial value as the only international consideration being taken with the observation that it is narrowly defined and does not take account the extractive economy. They call for priority to be given to preservation of ecological functions over the commercialisation of biological diversity.

Another good point was that ‘sustainable use’ often is nothing more than outright ecological destruction (from Colchester, M., 1990. The International Tropical Timber Organisation: Kill or Cure for the Rainforests? in The Ecologist 20(5).)

The authors point out that the assumption that by adding value to man-made resources, biodiversity loss can be controlled is seriously flawed.

Further, a call is made to preserve existing livelihoods over creating new ones. Where our wasteful lifestyles have contributed to displacement of indigenous peoples, they call for technical and financial support to help them change back to sustainable patterns of livelihood and economy. The old adage, ‘prevention is better than a cure’ is what came to my mind. But I agree that the structural conditions set by a world economic order governed by the priorities of the North limit the space for biological diversity.

2. Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Profits, by Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva makes many pertinent points in this article. She refers to the relationship between production, which is based on uniformity, and conservation as schizophrenic. She calls for diversity to be the basis and foundation of production and economic activity rather than a so-called ‘input’. She points out that corporations cannot compete with nature. “Corporate strategies and products can lead to diversification of commodities, they cannot enrich nature’s diversity.” (p45)

“Though the capacity to move genetic material between species is a means for introducing additional variation, it is also a means for engineering genetic unifiormity across species”. (Kloppenbury, J., 1988. First the Seed, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.

Furthermore, Shiva points out that “[d]iversity goes against the standardisation of scientific research. She says that if reductionist blinkers that veil the social construction of ‘growth and productivity’ were removed, plants and parts of plants would no longer be excluded as ‘unwanted’ and ‘waste’. (p.53)

In conclusion, Shiva says that plant scientists are not superior to farmers in developing seeds. It is only because of a deficiency in the logic of the market that limits the value placed on the status of the seed and breeding that has been carried out by farmers over the millennia.

3. The Impact of Biodiversity on Conservation on Indigenous Peoples, 
     by Andrew Gray

Gray points out that indigenous peoples are not opposed to sharing plants from their regions. They are only opposed to the commoditisation and commercialisation of the plants and information. He gives an example where Monsanto used a plant known as “tiki uba” with anti-coagulant properties and then sought to patent the genetic make-up of the plant.

And here is a quote that supports my Borg theory:
"Integration sucks indigenous peoples into the vortex of the national state society – it is nothing less than controlled assimilation.” (p.71)

4. Who Defends Biological Diversity? Conservation Strategies and the Case of Thailand, by Larry Lohmann

Lohmann’s discussion about diversity being connected with security and peace of mind was inspiring. In Thailand, this may lead to a return to Buddhist values and comparative independence from the market. In this context, it is the causal connection between the state of the human mind and resulting actions that explains biodiversity loss. He further explains that conscious and creative attempts to disengage from the wider market economy can be used “to put it in a subordinate place in social and cultural life.” (p.93)

Another point raised by Lohman was that it was the rural village groups rather than governments, corporations and international agencies who are the defenders of biological diversity. This is partly due to attitudes that prevail in large organisations that policies and laws can promote conservation as a form of economic development. (p. 97) In a discussion about Conserving the World’s Biological Diversity, this organisational approach is what Lohman refers to as a Sisyphean exercise of implementing scattered, top-down projects in addition to token corporate-funded programs to ‘mitigate’ diversity-depleting development projects, foreign ecotourism, debt swaps, capital investment in biological resources, set-asides and private/NGO management programs.

In conclusion, Lohman points out that Villagers are motivated to defend biodiversity by subsistence, long-term safety, security or to preserve independence rather than market or development benefits. And finally, Lohman mentions assimilation too. But he claims that industrial society could neither assimilate nor preserve within itself the conservation practices of a vernacular society such as those in Thailand. In other words, these peoples with their knowledge and culture will simply be destroyed by industrial society along with biodiversity.

5. Genes for Sustainable Development, Overcoming the obstacles to a global agreement on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity,
by David Cooper

Much in this chapter centres on the North-South divide with the South causing the 'obstacles'. Cooper says that protection and remuneration could be provided for genetic resources in addition to sharing relevant technologies so that Third World countries could profit directly. The debate revolves around the rules governing access to genetic resources and technology.

One thing Cooper believes should be kept in mind is that communities need to be involved in strategies for conservation and sustainable development. Among other things, he also calls for common property management institutions and improved land tenure systems.

I found this chapter the least inspiring because he works his analysis from the premise that Third World countries have to share genetic resources and become more like the North rather than the North desisting from its conquests and scientific exploits and learning to live more like the South.