No Lost Cause

We see so many troubling stories about the environment that the occasional bit of good news usually comes as a surprise. But there’s more to be hopeful about than many people realize.

Opinion by William Laurance

A good friend of mine, Steve Blake, who led a major study of poaching of African forest elephants, often used to end his emails with the phrase, “We’re all so screwed.” 

Steve is a dedicated conservationist and was deeply alarmed by the epic slaughter of elephants he was witnessing, but I don’t think for a second he was suggesting we give up the fight. Nor are many of the rest of us who have devoted our lives and careers to conservation. Yet in the pages of science and nature publications and in communications put out by conservation organizations—including ALERT, a scientific organisation I founded and lead—we often hear depressing, even devastating, stories about the rapid destruction of wildlife and their habitats. So where is the hope for nature conservation?

I would argue that, in fact, there’s a great deal of hope and plenty of good news to celebrate and expand upon. While it’s true that we’re losing more nature every day, we are also making some important gains. Here is a quick synopsis of some of the good news.


Zero-Deforestation Agreements Signed

Who would have believed four years ago that many of the world’s leading corporations—including many large palm-oil, wood-pulp, and food-manufacturing firms—would announce plans to avoid destroying native forests? Yet many large palm-oil firms have done just that, pledging to develop new plantations only on previously deforested lands and, in a few cases, to restore native forests in areas that were formerly cleared. Even tire manufacturer Michelin, which sources much of its rubber from the tropics, has jumped on the bandwagon. 

That’s not to suggest that these pledges are perfect and that are all working well: It’s a mixed bag. For example, a recent assessment by Greenpeace of corporations that use palm-oil in their products praised Ferrero and Nestlé, but slammed PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive, and Johnson & Johnson. Despite such mixed progress, however, these recent developments illustrate that corporate behavior can be influenced by public attitudes and pressures. For big corporations, the fear of damage to their brand reputation and loss of market share is a very big stick that conservationists can wield with great effect.

We’ve Stopped Some Really Bad Projects

A number of other organizations, including ALERT, Greenomics Indonesia, and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, have played a leading role in convincing the government of Aceh Province in northern Sumatra, Indonesia to avoid further degradation of the precious Leuser Ecosystem—the last place on Earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans still coexist.

The government had planned to criss-cross this region with a massive network of roads, and destroy large expanses of forest for palm-oil, rice, and timber—and in doing so would have opened up the forests to a wave of illegal poaching and mining.

But that’s now been stopped, and the latest news (see here and here) suggests that the Aceh and Indonesian federal governments are serious about this commitment. We need to applaud their vision and efforts, and ideally convince other national and regional governments of the benefits of taking similar stands where dwindling natural resources and imperiled species are concerned.

There’s a number of other examples, too. Certain Amazon dams have been halted, as has the ill-advised Serengeti Highway in Tanzania, and planned roads that would have sliced through the heart of Seima Protected Area in Cambodia and TIPNIS National Park in Bolivia.

Despite such good news, we still have our work cut out for us. By mid-century we could have another 25 million kilometers of paved roads, several thousand new hydroelectric dams, and a total of 2 billion cars driving around the planet. In Africa alone, our research suggests that a large series of planned “development corridors” could bisect more than 400 protected areas and degrade another 1,800 of these valuable habitats. We just have to roll up our sleeves and keep fighting the good fight.

Falling Commodity Prices Have Bought Us Time

The global economic slowdown, as challenging as it’s been for some, has come with a brilliant silver lining with regard to the environment. Before the slowdown, rising global powers such as China and Brazil were extracting natural resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels, and timber, at alarming rates. The precipitous drop in commodity prices has since reduced demand for these resources, slowing the exploitation, and effectively protecting areas that might otherwise have been lost.

The slowdown has given us some desperately needed “breathing space” that we can now use to improve land-use and infrastructure planning in the developing world. In 2014, I was lead author on a paper published in Nature called “A global strategy for road building,” which highlighted where on Earth we should, and should not, build roads—the objective being to maximize the economic and social benefits of new roads, while avoiding serious environmental degradation.

Our 2014 paper looked at broad-scale efforts. What we need to do now is work rapidly—especially in environmentally critical regions of the world—to implement such strategies at national and regional levels. We need to partner with governments and key stakeholders to do everything we can to help them make wise land-use decisions. The survival of the natural world depends on it.

We Can Influence Government Policies

Almost everywhere we look, there is evidence that government policies are being shaped, at least in part, by environmental priorities. It is often a tug-of-war between those who wish to protect land and natural resources and those who seek to exploit them—but still, great progress has been made.

For example, in the battle to reduce illegal logging, three major timber consumers—the United States, the European Union, and Australia—have enacted tough laws that put the burden of responsibility on timber-purchasing corporations to ensure that they are buying only legally harvested wood and wood products (ALERT and Greenpeace Australia Pacific were active in pushing through the Australian legislation, whereas WWF, Transparency International, and various other groups lobbied for laws to combat illegal logging in Europe and the U.S.). 

These laws are having a real impact. A report by the respected UK think tank Chatham House estimated that illegal logging has fallen by 22 percent globally since 2002. Particularly impressive gains have been made in nations such as Indonesia and Cameroon, where illegal logging was rampant, and where it has now dropped by 50 to 75 percent. 

And there’s another promising example from one of the world’s most important and sought-after ecosystems: the Amazon. In 2001, an international research team that I led published a paper in Science that painted a bleak picture for the future of the Brazilian Amazon. The paper described how the region would look 20 years into the future, assuming the Brazilian government proceeded with its scheme to build $40 billion in new roads, dams, power lines, gas lines, and other infrastructure that would criss-cross the basin.

The paper went viral, and was featured in news stories around the world. Brazil came under tremendous international pressure, and there was also a huge outcry among many Brazilians worried about the future of their Amazon. The media storm lasted for many months, and I did literally hundreds of interviews, and testified before Brazil’s Congress and the U.S. Embassy about the proposed projects.

As a result of the hue and cry, the Brazilian Government eventually conducted a thorough review of the projects, involving eleven different ministries, and concluded that a number of them should be cancelled. Although many the projects did proceed, they did so only after important mitigation measures—such as the establishment of new protected areas along planned road routes—were in place. These measures have helped to reduce the waves of deforestation and land speculation that often follow road-building in remote wilderness areas.

The Bottom Line

These examples suggest that there is a variety of strategies we can pursue to effectively advance nature conservation. There is no silver bullet—no “one-size-fits-all” approach that can be employed everywhere. But examples such as these illustrate that the status quo can be changed. The loss of nature is not inevitable—even in poorer nations where there is an urgent need for economic and social development.

The bottom line: For those worried about our environment, we can influence public policies, governments, corporations, and public attitudes—and we can achieve some very meaningful victories along the way. We will never win every conservation battle, but we can prevail sometimes. The world will be a far poorer place if we fail to try.

William Laurance

William Laurance is a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. He is the director of the JCU Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, and founder and director of ALERT—the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers.

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