By Jesús Rivas
biologists consider economics and politics as bad words, because we are not trained
in their use and implications, so we prefer to avoid any issue that can lead to
their discussion. For this reason when
we discuss the economics of conservation, we usually talk about economic
incentive for conservation and sustainable use of the natural resources but
often do not go any further. We identify the cost of the commodity involving
nature, what it represents for the environment and what economic incentive the
local people receive, but we often fail to place it in the bigger macroeconomic
frame work where it belongs. This is the reason that often the solutions we
offer fall short of the real economic needs of communities and thus turn-out
ineffective or at least vulnerable to other pressures. In this section I want
to reach a step further, I will discuss the macroeconomic situation of Latin
America and the impact that the politics and economic policies have had in
conservation, and how it affects anacondas and other conservation issues in
Those who have been out in the rural areas of Latin America have had the opportunity to enjoy great and beautiful landscapes and pristine natural ecosystems but more than likely we had the less pleasurable opportunity of seeing how the local people live, their economic situation, and their limitations and struggles. It becomes immediately obvious that there is no amount of education, policing or enforcement that can really prevent them from using the natural resources around them to survive (McSweeney, 2005). In fact, it would not even be humane to do so. It is also evident that these people that do not have many ways of obtaining money but are still subject to living in a money-driven system are very easily persuaded with little economic incentive to use nature in an unsustainable manner. The sale of wildlife as pets or for their parts are common examples of latter (Fitzgerald et al., 1991; Robinson and Redford, 1991; Vickers, 1991). Whether they use nature unsustainably of their own accord, out of lack of education and environmental awareness (e.i. over hunting), or whether they are encouraged to do so by external pressures (Camhi, 1995), it is clear that the abject poverty in the rural areas is the main conservation problem of the area; and no conservation program can succeed if it does not address it in a direct and bold manner.
Once established link between poverty and environmental degradation it is important that we also understand the link between extreme poverty and macroeconomics for us to be able to place thing within context. In the following paragraphs I will discuss the basic of macroeconimics and how it influence poverty in developing countries.
For the last fifty years International Economic Agencies (IEAs) such as World Bank (WB), International Monetary Funds (IMF), and US Agency for International Development (USAID) to mention a few, have been sponsoring development and giving grants or loans for developing countries to increase and aid their economies. The idea is that with the money injected into their economies, the developing countries create industries, factories and other source of employment that alleviate the poverty of the area. Once the economy has been activated, the countries can pay back the money received. The market will take care of everything, once the country starts doing some business with the aid received there will be jobs, cash flow and the poverty will go away so the countries can pay back their debts (World-Bank, 2001; Kütting, 2004; Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005). However, the results have not been quite as expected after 60 years. Instead, the countries that have received more economic help have experienced a dramatic increase in poverty. Countries that abide by the macroeconomic model proposed are every time deeper in debts and that often spend all their gross product in paying off the debt without solving their problems (Buhdoo, 1994; Rich, 1994; Jochnick, 2001; Navarro-Jimenez, 2004; Navarro-Jimenez, 2005). How can this happen in countries that are getting so much help? The truth is that this help does not come without some strings attached. Often the loans are conditioned to the countries giving up some of their sovereignty in decision making. International Economic Agencies often request that countries adopt a number of internal economic measures. Common measures are: decrease or elimination of internal subsidies to their agriculture and goods, drop trade barriers and allow international companies to operate in the country freely with little or no taxation, deregulation, privatization, exceptions in environmental regulations for businesses, elimination of social benefits such as social security, relaxation of labor laws, health care and education, to mention a few. These sets of measures are often called Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and are imposed on the people when the government accepts the loan, credit or other kind of economic aid (Buhdoo, 1994; Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005).
The money of loans is not given for the country's investment at its own sovereign will. It is often limited in how it can be used. Often times, the money must be used in hiring US companies or other transnational companies to do large development projects (roads, dams, etc) known as Export Credit Agencies (ECA). This are often companies associated to the government of a developed country (e.i. Comodity Credit Corporation, or the Export-Import Bank of the United States) whose job is to secure sales for the country of origin (Goldzimer, 2003). So a good part of the money (about 40%) is given without bidding to a pre-determined ECA and never reaches the country it is supposed to benefit. The money then is not injected into the economy. It is just moved from one bank account to another in some developed country (Goldzimer, 2003; Perkins, 2004; Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005). In exchange for accepting the SAP the IEAs give loans and credits (to the ECA), the companies that move in will bring jobs and capital. The rationale is that the money injected from the companies will activate the economy, the truth is that the factories and companies are built with the money of the loan so there is no much flow of money brought in by the company and the loan will have to be paid plus interests, so there is only net flow of capital out of the country. So the private debt is transformed into public debt and the tax payers must respond for it (Goldzimer, 2003). The ECAs hire employees at minimum wage, but since the SAPs imposed to lower wages, drop social assistance, and workers benefits the minimum wage does not really solve the problem of poverty in the area. People have jobs but the regular commodities (produce, water, housing) have gone up because they are now in a globalized marked, so their standard of living is even lower than what it used to be (Horta, 1991; Cheru, 1992; Yunus, 1994; Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005).
national companies are bought by international mega corporations since the
national companies cannot compete with the foreign investors once there are no
trade barriers. The small and local
companies have then to face competition with multibillion-dollar transnationals that leave them bankrupt (Blustein, 2005). Imagine a
small phone company in, say,
Increasing poverty linked to neoliberal agenda may lead the environmental degradation by forcing people to use the resources in an unsustainable manner. However this is not the only way in which neoliberalism hurts the environment. The companies now have liberty to dump their waste waters in the water sheds, due to the imposed lowering of environmental standards included in the SAPs (Clapp, 2001; Goldzimer, 2003), and their activities deteriorate the habitat where the local people live, bringing problems of diseases, and pollution that affects the whole ecosystems and kills the local wildlife (Horta, 1991; Cheru, 1992; Rich, 1994; Pearce et al., 1995; Horta et al., 2002). In general the new companies lower the quality of life of local people and jeopardize the possibilities to return to their former lives style. Many of these companies are temporary, like those involving mining, or timbering. When the company leaves the country, it leaves behind pollution, destroyed habitat, unemployment, and even more poverty than there was to begin with (Ellin, 2003; Forero, 2003; Goldzimer, 2003). The effect of these economic aids by EIAs has been compared to the use of anabolic steroids in sports. It can produce a temporary spike in performance but it is bound to produce lesions and results detrimental in the long term (Rogoff, 2004). The impoverished nation will then go back to exploit whatever is left of the environment in an even stronger manner.
These economic strategies described here is a coin of two sides. The side that faces the developed countries is called globalization while the one that faces the developing countries is called neoliberalism. Regardless the name used it is strongly linked to extreme poverty in developing countries as the evidence show in all the countries that have abided by it (Danaher, 1994; Kütting, 2004; Navarro-Jimenez, 2004). A good example of this sad situation is Argentina that embraced neoliberal agenda whole heartedly during the late 1990s to the point of being a success story to show to all developing countries for their temporary (and ephemeral) wealth. In 2002, the bubble burst in the Argentinean economy, leaving the country in great poverty and great economic toil (Blustein, 2005).
The crash of Argentinean economy was followed by political upheaval and more economic and social turmoil. The influence of IEAs producing extreme poverty through the application of SAPs can be seen in developing countries throughout the world; often leading to similar social unrest and political problems. This has been the cause of the recent popular up-rising in South America that ended up toppling presidents in the last decade in Argentina (2002), Bolivia (2003, 2005), and Ecuador (1997, 2000, 2005) just to mention a few. Needless to say, during times of economic toil and political upheaval, conservation takes the last seat.
Why is all this political and economic broohaha important for conservation? Well, when countries have these kinds of problems it negatively affects conservation in different manners. Poverty leads people to the unsustainable use of natural resources; when hunger strikes there is no amount of environmental education, or enforcement that can protect the environment, people will resort to the unsustainable use of the environment as a first resource (Cheru, 1992; McSweeney, 2005). Also, during times of political upheaval, countries tend to let aside conservation programs, environmental education campaigns or environmental policies and enforcement. All of which produces negative effects on the biodiversity of the areas.
The sustainable use of natural resources has been offered as one
potential solution to economic problems.
The rational use of wildlife has also been proposed as an alternative to
destruction and replacement of natural habitats with non-sustainable uses of
the land, such as timbering or agriculture.
The sustained harvest of wild populations has been implemented in
several countries for subsistence (Robinson and Redford, 1991; Shaw, 1991;
Silva and Strahl, 1991; Vickers, 1991; Balick and Mendelson, 1992; Bodmer et al., 1997) and for commercial uses such as
harvesting wildlife for hides, flesh, or live pets that give the local people
reasons to protect the habitat the provides their livelihood (Fitzgerald et al., 1991; Groom et al.,
1991; Beissinger and Bucher, 1992; Joanen et al., 1997).
Management and forestry have the potential to be used as conservation
tools but they are not so unless they produce real solutions for the poverty of
the area, the main cause of undue anthropic pressure
on the environment. In this chapter I
revise the conservation status of anacondas, its potential for management and
how local as well as global economics can affect the conservation of anacondas
in the landscape of conservation in
any use of the green anaconda is forbidden by the government, they have been
harvested illegally. Between 1988 and
1990 international authorities confiscated 2,138 skins in
other countries of
The rational use of wildlife has been used as an alternative to its destruction. For example, several populations of crocodilians that have been seriously threatened are now recovering due to effective harvesting practices (Thorbjarnarson et al., 1992 for a review). However, there is a thin line between when the management is used as a conservation tool and when it is just another way to use nature to make money with little or no help for conservation. Is the intention of the management a way to conserve nature or is it business as usual? And if this is just another business is it at least a sustainable one? In the next section I revise management methods and how they can be applied for the genus Eunectes as well as the socio-economic implications for the management.
What is conservation management, and what is business enterprise that exploits the environment? These are two different that address wildlife management, but are often confused. When management is used for conservation the economic incentives are a tool to encourage the people to protect the environment. The purpose of assigning an economic value to the resource is to give the locals, the stewards of the land, a reason to protect it. The other possibility is just using the environment for business with the goal of making money and utilizing environmental resources for it. Now, this business scenario can be divided in the two categories, businesses that use the environment in a sustainable manner and are environmentally friendly and businesses that loot the environment for profit with a shortsighted vision. While the sustainable way of doing business with the environment is a legitimate practice, it is different than a conservation measure in that the priority of the business is to maximize the gains of capital of the owners and not the gains for conservation. Of course, the last option, of using the environment for profit in an unsustainable manner is, as you can imagine, unacceptable despite the capital gains that it might involve. With this in mind we now want to place the different possible ways of management where they belong and revise their feasibility in accordance to anaconda biology.
The most common methods of extractive wildlife management are farming, harvesting, or a combination of both. In a farming model, animals are kept in captivity, and all their needs are provided for by the keepers. This is a relatively expensive activity, preferable for those animals that have high growth rates, low maintenance expenses, and can be housed in large densities. Farming anacondas in a closed system is unlikely to be successful. The cost of facilities and maintenance would probably be prohibitively high. It is unlikely to be cost effective to maintain a species that takes several years to reach adulthood, and where females will not breed every year but every other year at best (Rivas, 2000).
However, the possibility of an open farm system exists. Large pregnant females can be found along the riverbanks (Rivas, 2000; Rivas et al., 2007b), caught and kept in captivity, and released after they deliver. Due to their high fertility (Rivas, 2000), a large number of individuals can be produced in short-term farming or in the pet trade. Neonates have a high natural mortality in the field (Rivas et al., 1999; Rivas, 2000; Rivas et al., 2001; Rivas et al., 2007b), and protecting them in captivity and releasing some later would result in the same proportion that would have survived to that age and should not affect the natural population. Neonates can have a relatively fast growth rate (Holmstrom, 1982; Rivas et al., 2007b), and, after a short time of farming, can provide excellent, scar-free, small-scaled skins that would have a high value on the legal market. In addition, young individuals have a sharper pattern and more attractive skin.
do not make good pets. They quickly
outgrow their cages, and become a risk to other pets and even people. The have an aggressive temperament and never become
an easy (or safe) animal to handle. They
also release an aversive, very fetid, musk when disturbed. However, due to the popularity of the animal,
anacondas are popular in the pet trade (approximately $250/neonate,
retail). The illegal import of live
reptiles for the pet trade is a growing market in the
Farming does not represent a threat to the wild population since only a few animals are originally collected from the wild, and if the project fails, only the animals that were in the farm are in jeopardy. Also, due to the localized nature of the activity, it is potentially easy to monitor and enforce the existing regulations. Close farming, however, is an activity that benefits the few people working on the farm, and does not require pristine habitat. Therefore, farming does not put any pressure on communities to protect nature, nor does it produce many jobs for local people. Consequently, farming has a rather modest impact on the economy (Thorbjarnarson, 1999). So, although sustainable, farming would not be a constructive conservation method, but rather, business as usual. This is simply one that uses a species of wildlife.
On the other end of the spectrum is harvesting or cropping. In a cropping system, animals are harvested from the wild; thus a direct link exists between the economic activity and the conservation of the species and its habitats. The economic incentives the locals receive is directly linked to the habitat, producing clear reasons for them to protect and take care of natural areas. Thus, cropping has real potential to be used as a conservation tool, but it must be used in conjunction with other methods (see below). This activity is better for animals that occur in high densities and are easy to find and catch. It requires a much lower overhead than farming since the only investment involves finding and catching the animals that are going to be harvested. However, due to the more extensive nature of the harvest, it has a much greater potential to have a detrimental effect on the natural population if it is overdone. Monitoring and controlling the harvesting activities are a great priority, but it can be very expensive and troublesome.
Before attempting the management of any species, it is important to understand its basic life history. Even modest success at wildlife management depends upon some knowledge of the population parameters, demography, and the maximum sustainable yield a population can support. The main population parameters are: abundance, rate of increase, fecundity, mortality, recruitment, and dispersal. First, population size followed by the intrinsic rate of increase of the population should be determined. These statistics should enable us to calculate the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) which is the maximum amount of individuals that can be removed from the population while keeping the population essentially constant. This not being practical, it is possible to develop indices to estimate the abundance in order to evaluate the impact of a harvest (Caughley, 1977; Caughley and Sinclair, 1994).
The first problem encountered when attempting to harvest anacondas is their secretive nature. To harvest a population rationally, we must be able to count how many animals there are in order to propose a sustainable harvest rate. Not having a total number of animals available, the alternative is to have some estimate of the population size in the form of an index of relative abundance (e. g. number of snake seen per km of road). This way we can make an educated guess about the MSY, and refine it by monitoring its impact on the population by changes in the index of abundance. In this way we can detect any problem and fix it in a timely fashion (Caughley, 1977; Caughley and Sinclair, 1994). And genetic estimates of population size are unreasonable methods for it to be profitable.
To date, we do not have any of these surveying tools with respect to anacondas. To estimate the abundance of the population necessitates long term mark and recapture studies that are too time consuming to apply to the large scale management of the species. We do not have any index of relative abundance either. Due to their secretive nature, none of the traditional methods of counting by transects can be applied in a simple manner for anacondas. A possible method for developing an index of relative abundance for the population of anacondas may be by using the sighting of pregnant females at the river banks or edges of roads. Because pregnant females bask frequently along river banks and near the roads, it might be possible to use the frequency of sightings related to distance and duration of surveying to develop an index of relative abundance. Since we cannot field-based method to monitor the impact of the program, harvesting of anacondas would be exceptionally dangerous to implement due to the risk of over harvesting.
Capturing the animals for harvest offers another challenge: the number of hours needed to find only a few animals. Paying a crew to look for anacondas might not be cost effective considering the low frequency of capture that I encountered (Rivas et al., 2007b). One alternative strategy to overcome the low encounter rate with anacondas is to put together a crew that harvests other species as well; such as caimans (Caiman crocodilus), turtles (Podocnemis spp), iguanas (Iguana iguana), and tegus (Tupinambis teguixin) (Thorbjarnarson and Velasco, 1999). All of these reptiles occur in relatively high density and are potentially manageable. However, in order to implement sustainable management there is much that has to be learned about the species, as well as improvement in the organizational skills of governmental agencies in their attempts to manage all of these species correctly.
Other problems possibly encountered with anaconda harvesting are related to Sexual Size Dimorphism (SSD) and the enforcement of the harvest. Hunters involved in wildlife harvest typically tend to target the largest individuals first, which are usually males in many game species, because they provide more skin or meat. In polygynous species this is potentially sustainable since most of the matings are performed by a few males, and there is a theoretic surplus of males that are not breeding at a given time. In anacondas, however, since they are polyandrous (Rivas, 2000; Rivas and Burghardt, 2001; Rivas et al., 2007b) it would be devastating. Furthermore it is certain that harvesting larger animals will involve harvesting females due to the female biased SSD (Rivas and Burghardt, 2001; Rivas et al., 2007a). Also larger females make the largest contribution to the population. Females larger than 340 cm are responsible for 59.5% of the new offspring every year, and females larger than 300 cm contribute to 74.8% of the total number of newborns in every generation (Rivas, 2000). In other words, any harvesting of large females would dramatically impact the population numbers, making cropping extremely risky to implement.
It could be argued that harvesting males is a more feasible alternative as they are easier to find (Rivas et al., 2007b) and can be gathered in greater numbers in the breeding aggregations (Rivas, 2000; Rivas and Burghardt, 2001; Rivas et al., 2007b). Having smaller size and feeding on less dangerous prey, males tend to have better skins with fewer scars (Rivas et al., 2007b) thus increasing the quality of the product. If the program is created in a manner to encourage the collection of smaller animals, the odds of success are better, since they are more likely to be males and thus will have skins with less wounds and smaller scales (Rivas, 2000; Rivas et al., 2007b).(Rivas, 2000; Rivas et al., 2007b). However, even this alternative might be unfeasible given the practical problems mentioned earlier. Furthermore, since females that are courted by several males have higher reproductive success (Rivas, 2000), the quota of males for the harvest would have to be assessed very carefully.
Commercial use of large snakes is practiced in
A similar method is used in British Guyana with green anacondas. Fishermen gather snakes opportunistically and keep them in bags to take to the tanners where the snakes are killed for skins. If the tanner considers an individual snake to be inappropriate for the market (too small, too many scars, too large), the animal may be turned loose (Quero personal communication). Although this has the potential to disrupt local genetic structures, this risk might not be very high since the tanneries are generally near the places where the animals are caught. Similar to the python harvest, this method seems to be sustainable since this low rate of cropping is not expected to threaten the population and the fact that people do not go out purposefully to look for the animals. However, any harvest based on encounter rate with people must still be regulated by a quota. With increases in human density or increases in the prices of the skin, the fluctuation on the skins price can affect dramatically the level of harvest rate could dramatically increase and eventually reach a level which might not be sustainable. Alternatively if the country hits a moment of great economic need, the local people might feel compelled to engage in hunting the animals beyond what is expected in the regular scenario.
Anacondas and other boids are in appendix II of CITES. This means that they cannot be the subject of commercial trade unless local permits are obtained. In Venezuela, anacondas are still relatively abundant due to the large expanses of wetland habitat that lack human development that are relatively undisturbed (Rivas et al., 2002). There is no legal commercial trade of anacondas in the country; however, there is an illegal local market for the skins. Due to the low profile of this activity, the pressure on the population is not too high and, at the moment, does not constitute a threat to the population.
The flesh of the anaconda, although edible, is not preferred by the local people and the anacondas are not killed for it. Other than the skin, the only product of the anaconda that people seek (and more so than the skin) is the fat. Anaconda fat, melted under the sun in a closed container or in a fire, is considered a medicine for throat problems, asthma and other respiratory problems. It also has been suggested that other derivates of anaconda are used in homeopathy homeopathic medicine to heal asthma and respiratory affections. However, at present the demand for these kinds of medicine is not very high.
degradation in the llanos has not yet been a serious problem, since much of the
land management for the cattle involves increasing the surface of land that
contains water for a longer time (Rivas et al., 2002). The impact of
this extensive cattle ranching on wildlife is much lower than the impact found
use of management as a method to incorporate anacondas into economic
development is not easy, and much more research is needed. Harvesting males, as well as farming of
neonates, are possible alternatives that can be explored. However, both of these possibilities involve
many practical problems as well as ethical issues that cannot be ignored. Killing animals for human comfort and leisure
is a theme of heated debate on several levels between those concerned with
animal welfare and those who manage wildlife for profit (Robinson, 1993; Joanen et
al., 1997; Struhsaker, 1998; McLarney,
1999; Medellin, 1999). Changes in fashion around the
world can dramatically affect the demand, and prices paid for the animal
products along with the faith in conservation measures based on it (Thorbjarnarson, 1999). New
regulations adopted by the international community regarding import of exotic
wildlife, either in the name of conservation or in the name of animal welfare,
can further limit the market and put all the investment made by the producers
in jeopardy. Importing live animals
leads to very conflicting ethical issues regarding the welfare of the animals
as pets that might end up in the hands of novice pet owners who will not keep
the animals in optimal conditions. In
the case of larger reptiles, the problem will always be raised of what to do
with the animal after it reaches a size where it cannot be kept in the
facilities where it used to live. And
many adult snakes exceed legal size limits dictated by urban areas. What do you
do with illegal pets? Frequently the
animal is turned loose in an exotic environment where it will, at best, die in
a short time from exposure or starvation; although sometimes it survives and
reproduces causing further problems as an exotic invader in a foreign ecosystem
(Atkinson, 1989). For instance,
I believe that yellow anacondas may easily become established in the Ever
countries may try to resort to their wildlife to solve economic crisis. In
In my opinion, the most clear and least controversial benefit that local communities can gain from anacondas is the lure that anacondas, as “charismatic mega-fauna,” present for ecotourism. The llanos has a tremendous and unrealized potential for ecotourism due to the large abundance and diversity of wildlife comparable to the diversity of the rain forest (Rodríguez and Rojas-Suarez, 1996). Unlike the rain forest, in vast savannas of the llanos the animals can be readily spotted and appreciated due to the lack of trees and the forest’s naturally patchy distribution. Recycling of the profit produced by ecotourism in the local community in terms of jobs, education and welfare are vital for ecotourism to succeed as a conservation tool.
The problems of conservation and use of wildlife are not detached from other economic and political issues and we would be mistaken to try to address the former without considering the latter. Common tendencies are to use the natural resources for profit without a real environmental agenda by benefiting from the opportunities and even funds that conservation activities may have. Such operations are often not even sustainable but simply use the natural resources in a seemingly green manner. Those operations are even more harmful for conservation than other activities for two reasons. First, they use and deplete the natural resources just like others. Second, because they are done in the name of conservation, they create bad PR for conservation causes, drain funds from conservation activities, and distract attention for the real solutions of conservation problems.
In the next section I illustrate this problem with two examples of the use of reptilian representatives of wildlife to solve economic crises and how the concept was used in the wrong direction. First, I use the example of management of spectacled caimans (Thorbjarnarson and Velasco, 1999) in Venezuela that I am very familiar with as I worked on part of the process. I also revisit the management of yellow anacondas in Argentina (Micucci et al., this volume) that I had the opportunity to visit in 2002. I discus them briefly and frame them in the macroeconomic context where they belong which allows us understand further elements considered in the decision making.
Since 1986 the Venezuelan government started a program harvesting spectacled caimans (Caiman crocodilus). This program operates on private lands, where the owners hire a biologist to survey the population size, and, based on the population size estimate (or other surveys of the area), Profauna gives a license for a given quota. The owner then hires people to harvest and process the animals. The skins are bought by tanners that prepare the skin to crosta (one of the step of the tanning process) and sell them to overseas companies that make the final product. This program provides some benefit to the land owner, to the local worker that performs the harvest and works in the transportation of supplies, to the biologist that does the survey, and to the tanners that commercialize and export the skins. This program is based on a very prolific species that had a very high commercial value, it is very easy to count and harvest, and belongs to a group that has proven to be fairly resilient (Thorbjarnarson and Velasco, 1999). In short, a “perfect” species for conservation management.
Regardless of the well intended efforts of Profauna in running a biologically sound program, from the beginning Profauna was involved in a battle of wits with the poachers and other sectors that took advantage of the loopholes in the regulations. After the word got out that every square foot of caiman skin was worth $40, there was no safe haven for the animals. Every improvement in the legislation was matched and overmatched immediately by new ways to circumvent the law. To illustrate this fact I will relate one of the problems that the program had. Landowners would kill and market the caimans from other lands to keep their own populations high for future surveys. Profauna then decided to count the skulls and carcasses of the caimans that were harvested and match it with the number of skins as a way to ensure that the caimans were actually killed on the lands of the producer (carcasses are too heavy to carry in burro's backs, which is the reason poachers only retrieve the skins they poached). This regulation immediately spawned a new breed of small entrepreneurs in the llanos. Their business consisted of carrying a truck loaded with rotting caiman carcasses that were then rented out to crooked landowners who had hunted caimans illegally and needed the carcasses to match the skins they had poached. This is only one example of the many tricks that Profauna had to uncover in their effort to implement the program. Most of the people that were supposed to get involved in management and start protecting the resource for sustainability never perceived it as something different than an ephemeral source of wealth that was there to take advantage of while it lasted. Of course, this uncontrolled rate of harvest resulted the population declining dramatically in many places (Thorbjarnarson and Velasco, 1999 personal observations). This decline along with a drop in the international prices of the skin brought the program to the “the brink of extinction” reinforcing the idea that the caiman harvesting was indeed ephemeral!
This program was unsuccessful not only because if failed to convince the locals that it was a long term program and that by abiding to it they could obtained sustained revenues. It also failed in giving enough economic incentives to the local people to really protect the resource and to make the harvest of caimans something really valuable to them. The tanners and land owners were the great beneficiaries and the locals got only temporarily poorly paid employment, and hence there was not a grassroots pressure to protect the resource and the program.
In a quick visit to Argentina in 2002 I had the opportunity to learn about an experimental harvest program of yellow anacondas (Enunectes notaeus) or curiyú that was implemented in the province of Formosa (Micucci et al., this volume). The program encouraged indigenous people of the ethnic Pilaga and rural mestizos to catch curiyús above 2.3 meters that were found opportunistically in the swamp while the animals were basking between the months of August and October, the beginning of the warm season. The locals were paid 15 to 20 pesos ($ 1= 3.7 pesos) depending on the size of the animals. There was no quota or restriction on the place where the animals were caught so long as it was of the right size in the right season. The economic benefit of the sales of anaconda skins can represent an important part of the locals’ yearly budget in an area where a farmer regularly lives on an income of $150 a year. However the people who took the lion's share of the program were higher up in the economic chain. The skin of anacondas was sold to shoe and purse making factories at $50 per meter. So a snake that was, for example, 3 meters in length was bought for 15 pesos ($4.05) by the tanner and sold for $150 to purse makers that make purses worth several hundred dollars a piece (Micucci et al., this volume for more details). It is clear who the great beneficiaries of this activity are and what economic sector was in the mind of the people that setup the program. If it had been the local people that are the guardians and active stewards of the land the system would have been designed to maximize their benefit and income. It was, therefore, not a program of conservation of the anacondas but an economic enterprise that uses anacondas as a commodity for the accumulation of capital that, at best, may be sustainable on the long term.
Yellow anacondas are smaller than green anacondas and maintain
a similar sexual size dimorphism in which the females are much larger than
males. It so happens that 2.3 meters in
length is about the limit to the size for male curiyús (Micucci et al.,
this volume ?? Rivas unpulished). In other words, this harvesting plan of
collecting animals above 2.3 is a system that pretty much guarantees almost
exclusive harvesting of females!!
Furthermore, the way the animals are found is by seeing them basking on
top of the vegetation. In my data with E murinus in
In discussion with colleagues that managed the program, they agreed that the system may produce some over harvesting of the anacondas around the populated areas. However, since it was an experimental program, they could improve upon it in the following years. Furthermore, the hunters do not have means to access most of the Bañado (the natural swamp lands) due to the abundant vegetation, water coverage and remoteness, which guarantees that there will always be some anacondas that will repopulate the areas if they are extinct locally. The estimated area of harvesting was 1000 ha and the Bañado has more than 300,000 ha so even if the anacondas went locally extinct for over hunting, the areas would quickly be repopulated by the surroundings(Micucci et al., this volume)??. Be this as it may, even if the harvesting does not drive the population extinct, so long as the local people do not make significant sustained revenues from the program, it does not address the real conservation needs which is: provide a meaningful and reliable source of income to the local people so they will protect the land.
What is conservation management, and what is business enterprise that exploits the environment? These are two different activities that address wildlife management, but are often confused. When management is used for conservation the economic incentives are a tool to encourage the people to protect the environment. The purpose of assigning an economic value to the resource is to give the locals, the stewards of the land, a reason to protect it. The other possibility is just using the environment for business with the goal of making money and utilizing environmental resources for it. Now, this business scenario can be divided in the two categories, businesses that use the environment in a sustainable manner and are environmentally friendly and businesses that loot the environment for profit with a shortsighted vision. While the sustainable way of doing business with the environment is a legitimate practice, it is different than a conservation measure in that the priority of the business is to maximize the gains of capital of the owners and not the gains for conservation. Of course, the last option, of using the environment for profit in an unsustainable manner is, as you can imagine, unacceptable despite the capital gains that it might involve.
If we try to place these practices in the context of
conservation or business we see that unfortunately neither the harvesting of
These are two of the many examples of economic enterprises that are set up under the flag of conservation when they are not so. I am not opposed to some economic activity that may use the environment in a sustainable manner even if it not used as a conservation tool but they should not be presented as conservation. What I need to draw attention to is to the fact that often times these economic activities may receive conservation funds or other benefits for being considered conservation. This drains the ever smaller resource for conservation into other activities, erodes the trust in conservation activities to protect diversity when these end up failing, and distracts from working on real solutions.
The impact of Neoliberalism in Conservation
far we have discussed economics of the management plans that were implemented
but we need to put them in a larger world-wide context for them to make more
sense and for us to understand the real spirit behind the programs. The decline
of caiman populations was evident from the first few years of the program (Thorbjarnarson and Velasco, 1999);
however, Profauna chose to ignore repeated warnings
from the scientific community that the caimans were being over exploited. The likely reason for this is that Profauna depended economically on the revenues that caimans
skins were producing. If the project was
halted to let the populations recover, the administrators of Profauna would have pretty much ruled themselves out of a
job since their salaries depended on the revenues of the caimans skins. There is something essentially faulty when
the people who are to
decide over the administration of a resource, are depending on the decisions
they make. How can they be expected to
make objective decisions for the environment when their own interest and
paycheck are directly linked to the decision they make? This is more than just a simple problem in
the way the system was set up in
find a similar problem in the program to harvest yellow anacondas in
We cannot even blame the government of the
we talk about the conservation problems in
More than likely I have exceeded the quota of interest that
the reader had in politics and issues like magnicide
and coups d'état since they are way
beyond what biologist want to read about.
However, whether we like it or not they are present all over
The fallacy of Tylenol conservation
Choosing to ignore, or deny the impact of macroeconomics in
conservation will not help us understand or contribute to a solution. We cannot really understand the problems of conservation
unless we address the root cause. We
might feel inclined to ignore the big problems and try to address the ones that
are easier, cheaper, or simpler to solve; the ones that are in our reach, but
that is the fallacy of Tylenol
Conservation. Imagine a person with
a cavity in a tooth; the person could go to a dentist and solve the problem
early on, or could take a pain killer and solve
the problem for the time being. While
the first approach would be a permanent solution the second one is simpler,
cheaper, less painful, within reach of the person and
his or her resources but does not really solve the problem. In fact, taking a pain-killer guaranties that
the person will have to take more pain-killers later with the inevitable result
that the tooth will get worse, higher doses of pain killer will be needed as
the time passes. It may develop and abscess and eventually may have to be
extracted. This is a very common trend
among biologists when we attack big conservation problems we may chose to apply
the simpler, cheaper solution that is at hand, that seems like a help for the
conservation problem. The revised
examples of wildlife management in
Another example of this Tylenol conservation is the widespread tendency of the scientist to determine areas of high diversity that need to be protected for conservation and try to pass legislation to protect them; when the real solution is not the protection of the land but removing the pressures that threaten the land. To determine the need for protection or to protect the land will only work, like a pain killer, to delay the problem but it is not a real solution so long as the pressure on the land, the real conservation problem, persists. Consider the Alaskan Wilderness, in the year 2000 after a lot of research documenting its uniqueness and a lot of lobbing by environmental activists, it finally acquired legal protected status. Five years later the legislation was abrogated and now it is again available for exploitation and we are back where we began. The campaign to protect it lasted longer than it lasted under protection!! I am not saying that the protection of the Alaskan wilderness was not a great, and well deserved, triumph of the environmental movement but as the facts have shown it did not solve the problem so long as there was a huge thirst for oil in the world and no other energetic alternative. Continuing with the metaphor of the pain killer, anybody who ever had a head splitting headache or tooth ache can relate to how wonderful a good pain killer is applied on the right time. The legislation was, like a pain-killer, a handy tool to buy some time for the solution of the problem but it in itself did not solve it. We have the same problem in the tropics whether we are fighting gold mining, poaching, timbering, or any of the other environmental threats. The problem is not any one I just mentioned. The main problem throughout the tropics is no other than the extreme poverty of the people in the area. We may obtain partial victories in protecting a piece of land, with education, demonstrating that a given mining company is not good or providing some economic relief for the locals through wildlife management or tourism. However, those victories only are temporary relief for the crisis and are bound to fail eventually if we do not solve the poverty problems that consume the region. They are, therefore, measure of Tylenol Conservation.
Well, if you did not feel like throwing up your hands about conservation before, you probably do by now, since most of us feel very impotent about solving the problems of poverty (or energy) around the world. The point I want to convey is that achieving a temporary solution for the problems, like a pain-killer or harvesting some wild species, is not a bad thing to do, so long as we keep in mind that the problem is still there and no amount of biology or management by themselves will account for a real solution. Knowing what the problem is for real would allow us to keep our eyes on the ball and propose more effective and influential solutions.
The main point I want to leave the reader with is that we most stop viewing politics and economics as if they were
four-letter words unrelated to our field where we have nothing to do and start
learning about them and thinking how they relate to our conservation work. I want to create a point of equivalence (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001), or commonality, between people concerned
with environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, movements for
sustainable economies, (and perhaps, anti-globalization movements) and get my
fellow conservationists to realize that macroeconomics is simply another
discipline in which we need to get involved with and include in our
environmental actions. Most conservationist
do not hesitate to write to a state representative, sign a petition, or join a
demonstration regarding issues such as conservation of roadless
areas, joining the Kyoto protocol, or searching for alternative ways to produce
green energy. However, the same people
are a lot more hesitant in supporting, in the same way, actions against Plan
Table 1 Latin American countries that had nationalist leaders that opposed international neoliberal agendas. Those regimes were toppled and replaced by more compliant regimes. The table also presents the Official Development Assistance (ODA) in millions of US dollars received by those countries from EIAs in the two years prior to the regime change and the two years following it. The data come from the World Bank and were compiled by Earth Trends (www.earthtrends.org).
Deposed president or prime minister
Year of regimen change
* Jean-Bertrand Aristide opposed neoliberalims and was overthrowed in 2004 but the data since his overthrow are not available yet. This table presents the data before his regime (pro neoliberalism) and the data after he took office
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