The Oil Palm

Reasons to make a mockery of conservation science

Britain should reintroduce wolves and bears, Greece should allow lions to roam the Pindos mountains and gorillas might be suited for Spain, a group of some of the world’s poorest countries is demanding. In addition, says the Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees (Cofcclot), the G8 countries should plant up to 75% of their land with trees to stabilise the global climate.

A spokesman for Cofcclot said:

“Most forest cover in the developed world is planted with stands of alien trees turning them into deserts for biodiversity. Remaining forests are often highly fragmented and have few native species. For all the forests we in Indonesia or central Africa do not cut down, G8 countries should reforest similar-sized areas.”

Remind you of anything? Like Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan’s Swift’s “modest” proposal in 1729 that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich English gentlemen and ladies? “I have been assured by a very knowing American that a young healthy child well-nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted or boiled,” Dean Swift wrote – outraging the English and Irish governments as well as everyone else.

As just about every English literature student knows, Dean Swift’s proposal was intended to mock the heartless attitudes of the rich towards the poor and to pillory the British government’s policies. In the same way, Cofcclot does not exist but was invented by two academics as a way of challenging views about conservation.

The point is, say Erik Maijard and Douglas Shiel in a recent paper in the scientific journal Biotropica, satire can be a source of serious insight into other people’s perspectives, helping to reveal the flaws in the way people impose their views on different situations. They argue that scientists may be expert at providing objective information but they haven’t a clue how to handle the slippery subjective values which underlie most attitudes to the natural world.

They say:

Mockery is seldom an element in the scientific approach, [but] it may be especially effective in the context of ethics where the underlying logic and data are harder to assess and emotional content plays a major role. Conservation science is especially vulnerable as it is about values as much as facts. We need to re-think our judgments and roles in conservation, opening our eyes to inequity and double standards. With the economic balance in the world shifting east and south, conservation power and ethical thought will similarly change.


And they give a few examples of the broad conservation opinion which the rich west holds about tropical forest countries, comparing it with the opinions the west holds about itself (in brackets).

• Cutting trees for timber is evil. It should be stopped. (We need timber. Cutting trees supports communities.)

• Plantations are not forests. They destroy wildlife (Plantations play a key role in our forest strategy. They have significant conservation value.)

• Large animals need to be protected from people. Hunting is intolerable. (People need to be protected from large animals. Hunting is popular.)

• Your development is something we support but do not harm the environment (We can’t slow down our development because we are in an economic crisis.)

• Tropical deforestation creates 10% of carbon emissions. It needs to be stopped. (Our deforestation has happened. Reforesting temperate areas is not cost-effective way to reduce emissions.)

Maijard and Shiel give the example of “tree spiking” – banging large nails into trees – an eco defence tactic widely used by radical groups like Earth First! in the US in the 1990s to stop loggers cutting down old growth forests.

The idea was picked up by local authorities in Kalimantan in Indonesia who “spiked” 1,000 high-value trees in Gunung Palung national park to stop illegal loggers devastating the park. The tactic scared off the loggers who were frightened that they would wreck their chainsaws and machinery but it was vehemently opposed by the US government whose judgment, say the academics, was “clouded by images of eco warrior anarchists”. The result, they say, was that no western conservation organisation was ever again willing to condone or support spiking, let alone to replicate it anywhere. “So tree spiking was not pursued in Indonesia despite its potential value”.

Our biases can blind us to alternative perspectives, say the authors.

If we hear that local people strongly support local palm oil development, we ignore it as an aberration or we insist that they do not fully understand the ecological costs. Many people in the tropics express feelings of injustice regarding how conservation is judged. To us that is a real concern. We need to be aware of different viewpoints and find ways to incorporate them into conservation solutions. This might feel like diluting our agenda but the costs outweigh the benefits. Opening our eyes to inequity and double standards helps level the playing field and clarifies the debate.