Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Environment vs. Social Justice

Via Africa Unchained, Alex Perry's piece in Time on the horrible leadership of recently deceased Gabonese president Omar Bongo brings to mind one of the most difficult contradictions within environmentalism--sustainability versus social justice.

A lot of activists don't like to frame this discussion as oppositional. It doesn't have to be. But in the developing world, it usually is. From an environmentalist perspective, Bongo is arguably the best leader in African history. He has saved a massive amount of rain forest in his country which today is among the most biologically diverse and unexplored places on the planet. It's my dream to visit there. But Bongo did this only by ensuring that just enough oil money got to the people to prevent them from entering the region. Moreover, as discontent rose in later years of his regime, he began to back off from protecting the forest and started building dams and allowing other development.

On the other hand, you have any number of left of center leaders in Latin America, Africa, and Asia who promise land reform for the poor. It's hard to oppose this. Governments and the corporations who own them have ignored and exacerbated poverty, concentrated land in the hands of the few, and given no opportunities for the masses of poor to improve their lives. But land reform in practice rarely brings anyone out of poverty and is almost always an environmental disaster.

The reality is that land conservation has usually worked best when that land is held in large segments by wealthy people. Writing that makes me kind of sick because it goes against everything I feel about social justice. But it's true. For example, Zimbabwe was a real hot spot to visit in the 1980s and early 1990s because it's wildlife populations were so high. But that came at a cost--they were high because whites who controlled most of the land were still controlling it despite the fact that the white supremacist government they supported had fallen. Robert Mugabe started seizing that land in the early 2000s to redistribute it to the poor. Of course, Mugabe's nation is a disaster in many ways related to him, but in this particular case, it did little to help the poor out, it caused massive and rapid deforestation, and a significant decline in wildlife. To take a very different example, this weekend I visited the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in north central Oklahoma. This land is the largest remnant of tallgrass prairie left in the world. It's amazing and beautiful. It also survived because it was part of a large ranch owned by one family for generations. They never had to break it up for money and they never had to plow the land. Had that land been in small farms, it's extraordinarily unlikely that it would have survived.

So what do we do about the poor of Gabon who desperately need to improve their lives? Should the forest be opened to them on some level? And what about subsistence farmers in Central America invading national parks in order to continue their traditions of slash and burn agriculture? It's a very difficult question. In the end, I find myself falling on the side of forcible environmental protection combined with environmental education and big time anti-poverty and job creation programs. I don't like finding myself on this side of the fence, but when those species are gone, they are gone forever. Were there evidence that opening up these lands made any difference in the poverty of the people, I might well feel differently, but there's not. Perhaps ecotourism is the best answer, but that's fraught with all sorts of other problems.

So I have no good answer here. But I'm trying to work something out in my head that could provide for both environmental protection and making people's lives better. If the two are entirely separate, I have a hard time believing that either will win.