As an elitist and a conservationist, I was excited to learn that Stephen Colbert, in keeping with his record of interviewing some of the most interesting guests on late night talk TV had Alan Rabinowitz on last night. Rabinowitz, also known as the Indiana Jones of wildlife protection, is a hero to many conservationists (myself included) for his lifetime of fieldwork on conserving big cats, most notably in Burma - the basis of his new book: "Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed" which brought him to the Colbert Report. The interview hit a great high note with Colbert, most unusually, being almost completely disarmed and brought to tears by Alan's early life story (and I do know and have worked a bit with him, hence the first name...). Pretty rare to see Colbert's face get so emotional... but then, within minutes, Colbert found his composure and asked another question eliciting a different kind of elitist answer which makes me cry!
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
Did you guess what part of that makes me cry? Read on...
Why is it that dictatorships hold so much appeal to conservationists? Rabinowitz is by no means alone in expressing this preference for working with dictators to achieve conservation goals rather than messy democracies where "everybody's got an opinion"! And notice how earnest he was in expressing this, and apparently even missing Colbert's irony on this. To be fair to him, though, one mustn't make too much of a soundbite from a 5-min interview on a comedy show, so let me first offer another interview by Time:
Seems more nuanced, right? So I'll wait to read the book before saying anything further about Alan's views on this. And I definitely don't intend to belittle his considerable achievements in tiger conservation while working with the military junta in Burma.
That said, I do wonder about the larger question: must wildlife conservation be anti-democratic to be effective? Why do so many wildlife conservationists believe this is the case? As someone who deeply believes in both democracy and nature conservation, I find this very disturbing, if not downright dissonant to my cognition. And its a debate I often find myself getting sucked into (on both sides), especially whenever I'm back in India where the issues are somehow far more pressing and the passions stronger on the people-vs.-wildlife issues (check out the archives of Nathistory-India for a mild taste of this raging debate).
On the one hand, as someone driven by concern for endangered species, I can certainly see the appeal to having on my side someone who can strong-arm everybody else into enforcing some strong conservation measures (not just ones I think are best, but ones informed by a scientific consensus). I am not, however, prepared to go so far as to say I'll "do anything to save the animals" when there are clear human costs involved! Even Ullas Karanth, Alan's brother-in-arms for tiger conservation (in more ways than one) surprised me in his NYT interview about tiger conservation a couple of months ago where he placed considerably more emphasis on the quality of life of forest-dwelling people than I've heard him do in the past And in that Time interview above, Alan himself talked about the necessary shift in mindset from conservation in "hard boundary protected areas to large human landscapes". Yet, astonishingly, the appeal of a dictatorship remains strong as the best means to bring that vision, and that shift in mindset, about! Why? Can't we get past fantasies of benign dictatorships who heed our advice and do what's best for conservation, and engage with the real messy world with humans as part of nature along with all that biodiversity we want to save?
And why does this disturb me? Apart from the obvious human rights reasons, let me offer some thoughts on why I think relying on dictatorships is short-sighted:
- Most dictatorships are themselves short-lived; their policies even more so, being subject to the whims of individuals. How many auto-/pluto-cracies (however benign) have ever outlived ecological time-frames, let alone get into evolutionary ones?
- Dictatorships are far more efficient at destroying habitats and wildlife than democracies. John Terborgh, another stalwart among conservationists, in lamenting the state of nature, made an analogous point (if memory serves me right): he argued in favor of public-lands conservation rather than private-lands approaches at least in part because govt./public bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient in implementing anything; therefore it is easier to stall them if they set about trying to destroy habitats - not so if the land is owned privately! Cynical, perhaps, but I hope you see my point.
- Democracies have done better wildlife conservation than dictatorships even in the face of growing populations in the past century! In last night's interview, I was astonished to hear Alan claim that conservation is more effective in countries run by communists and dictators. He can't really be serious about that, can he? I haven't scoured the literature on this specific question, but I would be very surprised if this were borne out by data. The Soviet Union and China are hardly models for conservation, are they? Not to mention any of the many autocratic dictatorships people have had to endure elsewhere in the world.
- Further, while it is great that the Burmese junta were persuaded by Alan's arguments and tenacity to create a huge tiger reserve, which country still harbors most of the remaining tigers of the world? That's right - the messy democracy that is India! I know Ullas credits Indira Gandhi at the peak of her autocracy with creating tiger reserves and giving momentum to Project Tiger, and I'm not denying the enormous role such an individual can play. But haven't tigers outlasted her short-lived autocracy by several decades? Even in the wake of the recent political fragmentations of Indian democracy?
- And let me connect that last point back to the first thought above by suggesting that long-term conservation is only possible if an entire society agrees to it, and democracy with all its flaws is the best thing we've come up with thus far for collective governance of our societies!