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Defusing the conservation impasse
Tarikh : 15 May 2013

by Joanna Yap. Posted on May 12, 2013, Sunday

MANY rural communities who live in resource-rich areas are often presented with conflicting choices of how to benefit socio-economically through the exploitation of natural resources.

Rural communities tend to be heavily reliant on their natural environment for all their needs, including food, water, shelter and transportation. Their traditional way of life has been shaped by centuries of learning through trial and error how to co-exist sustainably with their surroundings.

In natural resource-rich developing countries thirsty for modernisation through socio-economic development, the temptation to modify the natural environment using methods that will yield quick, profitable results, is great.

With few exceptions, man has always sought to change the environment for his benefit, such as through agriculture for sustenance and commerce. The advent of modern technology has introduced automation which makes it exponentially easier and more cost effective to carry out these activities on a broader scale, with relatively less resources and for greater returns.

This also means the potential for disruption to natural ecosystems and biodiversity is also exponentially increased, unless protective measures are legislated and fully enforced.

Unfortunately, how the issue of development and conservation has been shaped in the public eye by various lobby groups pits the proponents of rapid socio-economic development against conservationists, often forcing the rest of the population to make an “either-or” stand.

In the end, it is the local communities who stand to lose out the most, no matter which side wins.

Fresh perspective needed

In reality, development does not always have to be sacrificed for conservation and vice versa. There is a growing body of economic research and evidence that suggests protecting biodiversity can translate into significant monetary benefits, and not just for the eco-tourism sector.

In developed nations, general conservation debate and perspectives have shifted more towards treating the environment as natural capital to be used and nurtured like other forms of capital for socio-economic benefit.

Natural capital can be defined as the Earth’s land, water and the biodiversity contained within them while ecosystem services are simply the stream of vital services flowing from natural capital to the people.

The Natura 2000 network, initiated by the European Union (EU), represents one of the world’s first efforts to recognise the importance of preserving biodiversity and sustainable natural capital.

Among the grim figures cited is that cumulative declines in biodiversity and associated ecosystem services globally will affect global gross domestic product (GDP) by possibly up to seven per cent of world annual GDP by 2050 (Our Natural Capital: A Profitable Investment In Times of Crisis 2012).

The above report also cited a forthcoming study for the European Commission which is believed to be among the first of its kind to attempt to identify and quantify the links between biodiversity and overall economic well-being on such a large scale.

The said study conservatively estimates that the Natura 2000 network could economically generate 1.7 to 2.5 per cent of EU GDP – that is between EUR200 to 300 billion per year.

Another cited study suggests failure to enforce existing legislation and meet future biodiversity targets could cost the EU up to EUR50 billion a year.

Due to a lack of direct cost-benefit analysis, the impact of the network on other society is yet to be quantified but its benefits are expected to far outweigh the costs.

The Natura 2000 network has taken the traditionally narrow development-vs-conservation argument and expanded it to include species and habitat management, restoration, compensation, research support, and long-term, sustainable financing.

Local lessons

It may seem there is little for Sarawak to learn from the large-scale biodiversity conservation and management plans being formulated and implemented halfway across the world in Europe.

However, the state government has planned slew of ambitious projects as part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), including dams, heavy industries and industrial areas in its bid to propel the state into high-income status.

In addition to this, Sarawak now has 1.2 million hectares of oil palm cultivation – with plans to increase it to two million hectares by 2020 – to tap into current global trends of high crude palm oil prices.

Thus, the need to protect and manage the state’s natural capitals for future economic benefit as well as the challenge of doing so are only likely to intensify, given the increase in long-term large-scale and disruptive interaction with the environment.

Laws in place

Contrary to common public perception which tends to be heavily influenced by the views of foreign environmental groups, conservation in Sarawak follows a structured biodiversity conservation programme.

“The state’s national parks are established and expanded based on needs where it is deemed most critical to conserve species across a wide range of natural habitats,” said Oswald Braken Tisen, acting deputy general manager of Sarawak Forestry, the agency tasked with managing and conserving forests within Sarawak.

He said conservation efforts had to be focused on where it could make the most impact as it would not be practical to effectively conserve all of Sarawak.

“We cannot conserve everything, otherwise where would people live,” he noted.

“For land area, the government has pledged to allocate at least 10 per cent to be put aside for this through our masterplan which was established in 1987.

“Whatever people may say about the government not conserving the environment, I would say they are wrong. The state government does listen to what we have to say.

“Of course, the process can be slow – some areas may take 20 years – but we’re getting there.”

He pointed out that more often than not, areas identified for conservation already had people living there and it would be impractical to just expect them to adjust overnight.

“We cannot forget there are people living there. We work to ensure the communities are engaged and their responses and needs should be well-documented and taken into consideration.”

In terms of biodiversity conservation policies, Sarawak is ahead of many other states in Malaysia – and even some countries globally, Oswald said.

The first environmental legislation gazetted by the state was the Forests Ordinance in 1958. It was followed by the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1990, established based on the findings of a special select committee which included state lawmakers.

In the mid-1990s, the state government engaged Sarawak Forestry and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, USA, to come up with a wildlife masterplan. Their findings were subsequently translated into the Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998.

Reflect reality

Oswald highlighted that the state government was not adverse to implementing new legislation or amending existing ones to reflect current realities and needs.

He also supported the view that it was important to review environmental legislation from time to time.

“Yes, there is a need to take another look at the legislation because times change and today’s generation may look at things differently. The change must reflect current needs and also the views of society.

He also agrees with the suggestion that the existing legislation would benefit from taking into account more recent scientific research studies, bearing in mind how much our knowledge of the natural environment has increased over the past few decades.

“We use world conservation opinion to guide what we do, so I think we’re not too far wrong. We subscribe to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standards and guidelines, which are international guidelines based on government and non-government conservation stakeholders,” he added.

There are now 800,000 hectares of protected areas in the state, including national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Sarawak Forestry is targetting 1.2 million hectares but if it is successful in gazetting all the areas which it has identified, it would exceed this 10 per cent mark.

COMMERCIAL BIODIVERSITY: A frog sits on a tree leaf in Mentawai, Gunung Mulu National Park. Recent studies in the European Union suggest that investing in biodiversity management and sustainability can translate into significant economic benefits, compared to losses resulting from non-investment. However, the commercial potential of investing in biodiversity outside the tourism sector is mostly underdeveloped and underexplored within the state.

Monetising biodiversity

Oswald pointed out that the ecosystems in Europe and Sarawak are very different, and how people use biodiversity to benefit socio-economically is different, and thus, the legislation must also reflect this.

“In terms of the economics of biodiversity, we need scientists and conservationists who have the knowledge and are passionate about it to engage with the decision-makers.”

He singled out increased environmental awareness among the general public as well as among legislative decision-makers as the most crucial component of moving Sarawak closer to better managed, more sustainable and ultimately, more commercially profitable models of biodiversity and conservation.

However, he agreed with the suggestion the state has some way to go to building a strong set of laws, systems and practices that would enable it to harness its biodiversity and natural capital to fully participate in international commerce.

“Using the example of wild crocodiles – is it wrong to use crocodiles to make money? It is not wrong as long as it is sustainable.

“But because we are living in a connected world, we are always under scrutiny. We cannot trade our wild crocodiles because other countries are saying, hey, you are not managing your crocodile populations. That’s because way back in 1985, our crocodiles were mostly extinct in most rivers.

“The situation has reversed now and our wild crocodile populations are increasing but we still need to demonstrate to the international community we can manage them properly before we can trade wild crocodiles internationally.”

That’s why local conservation legislation and practices should always reflect local needs as what works overseas may not be as effective or practical here, he concluded.

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