Monday, 8 March 2010

Cultural landscapes and cultural biases

Picture this image: 'a farmer is preparing for the coming season's labours. New crops have to be planted, and he must secure there will be proper areas for the cattle to graze. He examines the land, and his verdict is clear: it is not suitable as it is, the field is overgrown with vegetation. He knows what must be done. His father taught him this practice. This is how his family survived on this land, generation after generation. He lights a match and sets a bush on fire. The flames grow, the burning wood makes a cracking noise. Soon the fire has spread over the field, and the smoke makes it hard to breath and see. The animals run away. Many of the smaller ones will escape, while most of the larger ones left long ago. These farming practices aren't compatible with large native animals. Predators have been actively persecuted and killed.

This picture agrees with two forms of ancient farming practices taking place in very distant places. However, despite their resemblance, they are presented to the world in very different ways.
On the one hand, slash-and-burn agriculture in the tropical forests is a cause of global concern because of its contribution to climate change, loss of habitat for wildlife, and deforestation (e.g. Miller & Kauffman 1998; Tinkel et al. 1996). This worries have resulted in initiatives aiming to reduce this practice, or secure that it's done as sustainably as possible (e.g. The Alternatives for Slash and Burn Consortium), and they have also inspired films (e.g. The Burning Season). Despite widespread recognition that most of the people holding the match stick only do it because it is their only way of making an income to sustain themselves and their family, and that behind them there is usually a big industry paying them to produce goods that are then exported to developed countries (Koh & Wilcove 2008), some misleading campaigns, such as this video of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, still present a simplistic picture where locals are depicted as reckless and irresponsible murderers of nature. Still, in all circles, the message is clear that this type of agriculture has a negative connotation and, if human lives didn't depend on it, it would be desirable to completely suppress it.

On the other hand, there is the traditional European heathland farmer. Hea
thlands are a particular form of made-made environment resulting from forest clearance and subsequent cattle grazing. The nutrients are removed from the land by grazing animals, whose manure is transported to cultivated fields to serve as fertilizer. Heathlands are also regularly burnt to keep the vegetation in a pioneering stage. This farming practice is as old 4000 years, but technological changes in agriculture practices, and the increasing trade and externalization of food production lead to the abandonment of traditional practices (Webb 1998). In the absence of constant management, heathlands were recolonized by forests. As claimed above, slash-and-burn agriculture and heathland farming share some interesting features. They are both traditional, ancient farming practices (slash-and burn agriculture was practiced by the Mayas in America, Rue 1987) that use fire to stop the process of ecological succession and to return nutrients to nutrient-poor lands. Both practices eliminate habitat for forest wildlife, specially the large species (Van Weren 1995, Naughton-Treves et al. 2003). It is therefore striking how contrastingly these practices are presented to the world. While the former is a cause of global concern, and its practitioners are considered either innocent people in need of rescue or society’s pariah, the latter is presented as an endangered art, and its practitioners are in the cover of brochures, proudly surrounded by a curtain of smoke. Another paradoxical difference in these two practices is that one of them, heathland farming, no longer provides of critical livelihoods to humans. Nonetheless, its conservation and expansion is actively promoted by the EU, and are even referred to as ‘wilderness’. Restoring the habitat of woodland species is not even mentioned. In fact, natural woodland regeneration is listed as one of the threats to heathlands (HEATHCULT Project Booklet). A number of endangered species live in the heathlands (e.g. the dartfor warbler Sylvia undata and the sand lizard Lacerta agilis) and this is a recurrent argument pro the conservation of this habitat. However, it would be interesting to know where these species lived before, as 5,000 thousand years shouldn’t be enough for them to develop such a specialization on a new habitat type.

I don’t deny that the historical knowledge of heathland management has a value that should be recognized, studied and gathered. I also acknowledge that, being from South America, I’m not in the best place to understand such level of attachment to a human landscape. My culture is younger, and has only really shaped an own identity in the last decades.

Conservation is based on values, and values are subjective, from a moral perspective, there is practically room to conserve whatever a human believes worthy of conservation. However, we live in a globalized world, and are very much aware that what we do in our local environment affects the greater global society. I have a serious problem with the encouragement of a practice that implies regular burning of vegetation and release of an unassessed amount of CO2 to the atmosphere in the context of human-made climate change, and both ignores and perpetuates the deforestation and destruction of wildlife habitat that took taken place in Europe. I also have a problem with any kind of conservation that implies constant and costly management and therefore financial resources. In the natural landscapes, I believe they should be managed towards becoming self-sustaining, requiring the least intervention possible, both because of practical and financial constraints. In natural landscapes, I think that maintaining the landscape when the real farmers are long gone does not really conserve the cultural landscape, but more of a museum remembrance. Perhaps a small site should be conserved, for people to remember the past times, but thinking of maintaining thousands of hectares of a non-functional ecosystem in a resource-scarce world seems nonsense. We humans get attached to almost everything, but I think we have to learn to let go of some things, otherwise evolution is not possible.

Finally, I believe that no country has the right to complaint about deforestation loss of wildlife in other countries if it doesn’t at least aim to repair what these same practices caused on its own land.

Claudia Silva


HEATHCULT Project Booklet. Heathlands of Europe. 5,000 thousand years with flames.

Miller PM and Kauffman JB. 1998. Effects of slash and burn agriculture on species abundance and composition of a tropical deciduous forest. Forest Ecology and Management 103, 191–201.

Naughton-Treves L, JL Mena, A Treves, N. Alvarez and V Radeloff. 2003. Wildlife survival beyond park boundaries: The impact of slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting on mammals in Tambopata, Peru. Conservation Biology 17, 1106-1117.

Rue DJ. 1987. Early agriculture and early Postclassic Maya occupation in western Honduras. Nature, 326, 285-286.

Tinker PB, JSI Ingram and S Struwe. 1996. Effects of slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation on climate change. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 58, 13–22.

Van Weren SE. 1995. The potential role of large herbivores in nature conservation and extensive land use in Europe. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 56(Suppl.), 11-23.

Webb NB. 1998. The traditional management of European heathlands. Journal of Applied Ecology, 35, 987-990.

Friday, 5 March 2010

What Tao Te Ching Says to Conservationists

Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text on philosophy written around 6th century BC. I enjoy reading it over and over again and attempting to apply its lines to various aspects of the modern world, such as biodiversity conservation.

[from Chapter 1]
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."
"Tao" means "way," or the process of the universe.
The real way cannot be put into words.
This is like how an ecosystem works. Human has been observing nature for millenia, and we still don't know how an ecosystem operates. So many times has it ended in disaster when technology tries to usurp nature's job. Take out the grazers and then maintain grassland by mowing--you then have the soil nutrient depleted and fossil fuel-driven machines inducing climate change. Introduce an exotic species to control another exotic species, and the new one becomes uncontrollable as well. Every solution with an engineering mindset brings more problems. On contrast, nature functions perfectly and we can't quite put our finger on why it does.

[from Chapter 3]
"Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place."
When conservationists in China argue for the hands-off approach, this is what they often cite. Look at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and see how 60 years of human absence has healed the land. I feel that Oxford, or the UK in general, is quite pro-extensive management. But even today, in the face of massive land use conversions and climate change, I still hold that nature knows better about maintaining itself than we do. I'm not suggesting abandonning all conservation efforts; instead I call for preparing the condition for healing and letting nature do the rest.

[from Chapter 5]
"The universe does not take sides; everything is as good as a grass or a dog."
Nature does not "value" anything; everything's treated equally. But we apparently can't do it. In Otmoor we want lapwings, not foxes. In Arne we want heathers, not pines.

[from Chapter 23]
"A violent wind does not last all morning; a sudden rain does not last all day. Who does these things? The universe. The universe does not remain the same, much less man."
How long can Otmoor continue with its mowing, draining, water-edge sculpturing, predator control, feeding, and all that? What would happen when they stop? Would its target wading birds be able to take care of themselves after all these years of being babied? Or would they have lost the ability to adjust to a dynamic landscape, to protect themselves against predators, and to look for other habitats when food becomes scarce?

Tao Te Ching is a fertile text that can be interpreted many different ways, definitely worth a read. Here are two different translations (Advice: always read multiple translations at the same time)--

Kai Zhang

Monday, 22 February 2010

Parallels in Art and Conservation

Different evolutionary stages and regional movements of environmentalism have often been paired with, or at least have found their reflections in some form of contemporaneous art. We all know the striking terror and dualism manifested in the works of romantic artists, and the picturesque natural scenes of the transcendental movement that provide with the wrap of their leafy green quilt a comfort and refuge for contemplation. I recognize the bias and relative rarity of my personal views with respect to environmentalism as a master’s student studying biodiversity conservation, but I find striking parallels between an environmental ideology centered around biodiversity conservation and the works of many artists working under a genre variously titled landscape art, earth art, land art, or earthworks. Beginning in the late 1960’s, a handful of artists abandoned the confines of classical gallery exhibition space and ventured into the open air. With no walls or ceilings to limit their gaze, new works spilled out over and into the landscape, blending earth, man-made structures, sky, and water.

It was upon the suggestion of a friend who is an art student that I first came across Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Attention-fixing if only for their sheer size and audacity, the works of this couple swallow monuments and buildings, carve grasslands, and chromatically insolate islands. As the wow wore off, I was able to see not only the beauty, but also to interpret the poignancy and statement of these constructions. The artists themselves have stated that they pursue no concrete agenda with their art, rather, they only seek novelty and joy. No theme is ever repeated, nor does it make any political or social statement. My best understanding is that they wish to create out of that which is extant with very modest inputs, something new, a new perspective or space. It is here that the lines running parallel between conservation and art deviate from their respective courses, and if they do not ultimately merge, they certainly become more acquainted. From what is there, something new is made. A space is delineated and a place is created. Sheets of white nylon bisect an entire countryside and even the nearby coastal shelf in “Running Fence”. A ‘here’ and a ‘there’ is created from that which was once whole. Similarly, natural spatial delineations are emphasized in “Surrounded Islands”, where islets in Biscayne Bay, Miami, Florida were enveloped in floating swatches of bright pink polypropolene fabric punctuating the inherent separation of the terrestrial islands from the water and nearby mainland, insolating them further.

Here the analogous relationship between conservation and art is physically made manifest on the same template. Conservationists seek to delineate and establish spaces and places on Earth to save or protect something that is held within in which they place some value. Christo and Jeanne-Claude manipulate environmental spaces in very much the same way, but their motivation springs from a different set of values, namely aesthetics and pleasure. In each case, a set of values is projected onto the landscape. This sort of act is not novel, for much of human history man has either reflected his conception of his relationship with nature through culture and its productions, or as his perspective on the natural environment has changed, he has sought to imprint his ideals and values upon the landscape. It is possible to track an evolution of spatial conception in western thought from the topographic to the chorographic to the geographic. In the topographic period societies with limited mobility were necessitated by this circumstance to be intimately familiar with their immediate surroundings, their topography, and had no need to conceive of what existed beyond their sphere of existence. In the chorographic stage, communication and reach expanded, causing people to use astrological reference points to situate themselves both physically in their environment and cosmologically in their world. In the geographic, impediments to mobility disappeared and speed of travel accelerated. Man was finally able to conceive of his earth objectively which led to the notion that he may control it and its constituent parts completely. Consequently, humans have been mapping, partitioning, and generating novel spaces and places to suit their own wants and needs. Our capabilities as a species have allowed us the freedom to believe we can control our world. One expression of this power is in the creation of landscape art or protected areas for conservation. The only thing differentiating the two is what values motivate their genesis.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, along with other fellow earth artists such as Walter Smith, Walter de Maria, Richard Long, Michael Heizer, Andy Goldsworthy, Joseph Bueys, and Bruce Naumann are topical examples of the will of man to create a place or a space out of an environment. Within the field of conservation, WWF’s Ecoregions, Conservation International’s Biodiversity Hotspots, Birdlife International’s Important Bird Areas, IUCN’s Biogeographical Provinces, as well as a broad array of municipal, state, and national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and marine reserves worldwide similarly create a new space out of an existing environment. By creating these spaces, what was once only an intangible, abstract ideal becomes a reality, physically bounded and governed by the laws prescribed by nature and man, and having influence and exchange with living things and natural processes. An environment given spatial boundaries and injected with meaning brings with it altered conceptions and prescriptions of acceptable behaviour. It is therefore crucial that adequate forethought be given to the implications that will accompany founding a place on a distinct set of values. While art occasionally dabbles with the natural environment as a template, conservation works solely with the media of biological diversity.

Let us retreat momentarily from our geographic conceptual seat and recognize another thread which weaves its way through landscape art and protected areas in respectively different patterns. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s pieces are by their design temporally fleeting. Each one is only left fully constructed for a period of fourteen days, long enough only to be felt by a limited number of individuals. When the exhibition’s term has expired, all materials are removed and the landscape is restored exactly as it was found. Richard Long’s Walking a Line in Peru consists of a single path emblazoned across a landscape by the repetitive footfalls of the artist. Within a day of completing the piece and capturing it on film, the line had disappeared and the art had vanished, wiped clean from the canvas by the canvas itself. Partially Buried Woodshed is a sufficiently self-descriptive title for this piece by Robert Smithson who did as the title suggests and then recorded synchronically nature’s reclamation of the place. In each example, temporality is highlighted, and thus dynamism. These works imply the agency of natural forces in shaping and ultimately destroying the constructions themselves. In a similar sense, creating a protected area of any kind is also a fleeting, sometime inconsequential act. Efforts, implementation, policies or funding can prove ineffectual in terms of honouring the values upon which the institution was built, resulting in only a temporary period of protection for whatever the conservation subject may be. In another sense, natural processes have shown they have a way of supplanting anthropogenic efforts to change an environment, although clearly, given the current climate-change scenario and wave of human-driven extinctions, they aren’t immune to human action. On a broader perspective, environments have a way of absorbing and adjusting to disturbance, whatever the magnitude and duration, and achieving a state of dynamic equilibrium. Where it is incontrovertible that humans have had serious deleterious impacts on the earth, in the long term it will rebound, into some state, historic or novel. That is not to say conservation efforts are useless, they have a powerful role in stopping or mitigating the effects of human actions in the short-term, which then resonate in the long-term. But ample respect and credit must be given to the resilience of nature to find its own path.

Using art as a mirror can allow conservationists a different perspective on how they think about their motivation and their work. As every academic and scientific discipline increasingly swaps in sights and bleeds back and forth in present times, maybe art should be given granted a bit more influence. It could help us reconsider what values motivate us and clarify our visions, then maybe find ways to better translate these motivating factors into tangible, long-lasting results.

-Chris Joseph


Saturday, 6 February 2010

Place myths and imagined histories: the restoration of the Scottish Highlands

We all know what nature is, don’t we? Panoramic wilderness, lush green forests, roaring rivers, the dawn chorus and the rest? However, when we start to think about how to use, conserve or change a natural landscape, it becomes apparent that the way we understand and value nature is highly individualistic, and influenced by our personal histories and contexts. William Cronon (1995) is a key author in describing this social construction of nature. Of course, the basic elements and interactions in nature would occur without humans, but the way we understand, value and use this “other” nature is highly influenced by our social context. This means that conservationists work in a landscape defined not only by natural processes, but one also influenced by value-driven outlooks of numerous land-users.

The nature of rural Scotland has in the public focus recently in a manner rarely seen before. There is increasing support for “rewilding” the Scottish landscape through restoring pre-human flora and fauna, seen most controversially in the reintroduction of large mammals such as beaver, wolf, lynx and even bears. However, the social, cultural and political context which underlies this debate is not always properly explained. Conservation of the Scottish landscape is not as simple as saving an external, “othered” nature. Instead, it results from a tempestuous history, which has left several groups with competing concerns over who should define and manage the natural landscape.

It’s not always immediately obvious, but the Scottish Highlands are an artificial “wilderness”. Forced, and often brutal, evictions of crofting families throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in order to clear land for sheep farming caused huge social upheaval and resentment. The parallel expansion of aristocracy-based shooting estates (with accompanying explosion in deer numbers, and resulting ecological damage), and Victorian “Balmoralisation” (which valued an empty, wild Scottish landscape for the sporting and artistic use of the upper-classes), changed the natural and social face of the Highlands dramatically.

Rewilding is often framed as a purely ecological argument, restoring ecosystem function through the reintroduction of species which play important ecological functions, such as predation (e.g. lynx) or habitat creation (e.g. beaver), but have been lost due to human actions. As a result of the history of the Scottish countryside, rewilding may also be manifestation of the struggles over redefining and reappropriating land rights, through community forestry (e.g. Abernethy) and community land ownership (for an excellent discussion, see Mark Toogood’s 2003 chapter in Decolonising Nature).

Scottish conservation discourse reflects this tension about how to manage the land, and for whom. Forestry literature distributed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish National Heritage is littered with value-laden words like “sublime” and “wilderness”, which evoke a pre-human “blanket forest” in the Highlands (the extent of which is debated – see Brown 1997 and Rackham 1976). Forests have always had a deep cultural resonance as wild, spiritual and mythical places. In the English language the words “wild” and “wood” both grew out of the root wald, which split into “weald” and “wold”, meaning both a wooded place, and a place inhabited by wild creatures like wolves and bears. Similarly, the Latin word silva is the root for both “forest” and “savage” (Both these etymological facts come from Robert MacFarlane’s brilliant 2007 book The Wild Places). It is clear, therefore, how forest restoration can become a powerful discourse in reappropriation of natural and cultural histories.

At the moment, I’m interested in how this discourse of reappropriation – through what Mark Toogood labels “an imagined history” – influences Scottish conservation, in particular ecological restoration. Is ecological restoration influenced by attempts to return to an idealised pre-English, pre-aristocracy “nature”? How do conceptions of historical landscapes (Toogood’s “place-myths”) correspond to the findings of long-term ecology? Will the influence of imagined histories lead to compositionalist restoration attempts which may be left unsuited and unable to adapt to future climate change? Are we as academics being too idealistic in what people want from their landscape? Is the cultural importance of reappropriation as important as being able to make a living from the land?

All of these questions are a work in progress for me at the moment (and will hopefully underpin my dissertation). I’d hope that working at this intersection between long-term ecology and cultural history could yield interesting results for conservation management.

Rob St.John

A few good references:

Brown N (1995) Re-defining native woodland. Forestry 70(3): 191

Cronon W (1995) The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Cronon W, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90

Macfarlane R (2007) The Wild Places. Granta, London.

Rackham O (1976) Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. Orion, London

Toogood M (2003) Decolonising Highland conservation. In Decolonising Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial era. Adams WM and Mulligan M eds. 152-172. Earthscan, London

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Novel Ecosystems

“It's the end of the world as we know it.....
….. and I feel fine”
The Long Term Ecology module is having a strange effect on me.
When we start looking beyond ourselves – beyond a lifetime, beyond the century, beyond the millennium and beyond the time human beings have on earth – everything seems fine. We as a species have been on this planet for a negligible part of its life time, and so although we may leave some permanent scars, whatever we do on this earth is likely to be relatively insignificant. And what one individual does in his life time is sure to be completely insignificant.
I had an uneasy feeling after the first session, but it really got to me with a paper by James Harris and his friends, titled 'ecological restoration and global climate change', which we had to read for the class on 'determination of baselines and natural system variability'.
Whenever we try to undo the damage and destruction we have caused in the natural world – 'restoration', the first question that comes up is what do we want to restore to? The general idea is to take it back to 'the ecosystem present before human influence became pronounced on the landscape' (the definition of a baseline). But how far back do we go to define this baseline? Twenty years? To a point before industrialisation? But what about the fires and other manipulation by indigenous people, possibly thousands of years ago? I would tend to go with ‘before industrialisation’, and would modify the baseline definition to 'the ecosystem present before fossil-fuel aided human influence became pronounced on the landscape'.
And I thought I was OK with that. Indigenous people and their rubbing sticks for fire in slash and burn agriculture was acceptable. They were a part of the ecosystem, and interacted with it on a somewhat equal footing. Us modern lot, with JCBs and selective herbicides are not. We’ve had an unfair advantage, and the ability to destroy it completely. So as far as I’m concerned, in our efforts to save the planet we should try not to meddle with the natural world too much – only try to take things back to the way they were a few 100 years ago. Not try to play God and intensively 'manage' forests under the arrogant assumption that we understand how it all works.
But then along came the Harris paper (and the lecture) and disturbed my peace. The global climate is changing at an unprecedented rate – rainfall is becoming erratic, sea levels are rising, the temperature is going up and everything is altogether more unpredictable. Our first reaction is to try to stop it all and possibly slow down climate change. But are we really going to be able to stop the gas guzzlers? We can perhaps slow them down a bit, but with the whole world now aspiring to the very lifestyle and values (of greed and accumulating wealth) that is destroying the world there seems little hope. From any angle climate change looks inevitable.
Animal and plant species are also going to have to adapt very rapidly if they want to survive. Population ranges are going to have to move away from the equator and towards the poles to find suitable cooler habitats. Or perhaps up mountain slopes to higher altitudes. Unfortunately though, they can't really do that any more. We've got all the land around them, and have fenced them into 'protected areas'. So species are going to die out, and ecosystems are going to stop functioning. Unless we are able to find and introduce other species that can survive in the new conditions to replace the roles played by the locally extinct ones. We can’t just try to restore things back to the way there were, because we can’t reverse climate change. We need to experiment at a massive scale – a mix and match between a host of species to create 'novel ecosystems'.
Our iconic Nilgiri tahr will go up and up the mountains, but they won't be able to evolve wings fast enough, so our best bet would be to catch them all and throw them in with their Himalayan cousins.
Perhaps stop trying to fight lantana. Just modify its genes slightly so that the herbivores can eat it.
When it gets too hot for the cerana and dorsata bees we transport their African relatives over to see how they can cope.
We don't have a choice - even with our limited understanding we have to try and play God.
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.


Thursday, 28 January 2010


I was just reading my newly acquired book titled 'Conservation Psychology: understanding and promoting human care for nature', which will hopefully inspire a more serious (or at least more informed) post in this blog later on... but so far, it got my mind going and I might not be able to go to sleep before I scribble some words here.
I'm not sure I can determine what it is about biological diversity that I deem so valuable, intriguing and worth keeping. Very logically, it's hard for me to understand that other people just don't give a dam about it. But then, there are also things other people value, that I just don't give a dam about...
A few months ago I read a paper by William Sutherland (Nature, 273-279, 15 May 2003) where he paralleled the extinction risk of birds and mammals to the one of human languages. Using the same criteria we use to determine the risk of extinction of living organisms, he found that human languages are a far more a threatened 'group' than either birds or mammals. But (I thought then)...who cares about human languages going extinct??
Also a few months ago I moved to Oxford to read for a Master's degree, and I was lucky enough to end up in a class with people from very far distant places of the world. I've been enriched and surprised by listening to their perspectives (new for me) on environmental problems and, at the same time, by how similar we all are. It has opened a whole new world for me. So maybe that's what I find so valuable about diversity (of butterflies, languages, cultures): all that we DON'T know...and then we know it. That makes the world a richer and somehow infinite place.

Claudia S.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Story of Stuff: teaser video

Just having words is boring.

One value that impedes conservation is our love for stuff, so here you go: