Wolves masquerading as sheep: the fallout

29 10 2010


© New Zealand Films


Well, we’ve managed to stimulate quite a lively conversation after dropping the Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests regarding the questionable tactics employed by Alan Oxley and his industrial lobbyist organisations.

Mr. Oxley has responded with vitriol, hand-waving, red herrings and straw men, and failed to address even a single one of our accusations. I am particularly amused by his insinuation that we, the proven scientists, don’t know what science is – but that he does.

Below I reproduce Mr. Oxley’s reaction to our original letter, followed by our response.

I’ll let you, the reader, decide who is most reasonable.


There is too much pseudo-scientific hype today about environmentalism and forestry and not enough fact.

I put this double-barrelled question to the Group of 12 scientists who have rather laboriously wandered over the work of World Growth: What biodiversity is expressly protected by a global cessation of conversion of forest land to other purposes and how is that biodiversity scientifically measured? And let’s have some technical response, not political blather.

The group appears to reflect the position of WWF and Greenpeace that all deforestation must stop for the good of the environment. That is a political position. Those groups have never produced a scientific analysis which supports it. Signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at one point agreed that ten percent of the world´s forests needed to be set aside to protect biodiversity. That was another political statement.

But since we are in this territory, we should note that WWF reported a few years later that that target had been met. Now the mantra in the West is to cease all deforestation in poor countries and set it aside for conservation. What does this achieve? The FAO reports that 21 per cent of forest land in South and South-East Asia has been set aside for biodiversity conservation (considerably more than the CBD´s agreed 10 percent). UNEP has reported that 21 percent of tropical forests are in protected areas. In temperate forests the percentage is less than 13 per cent. Even then we cannot be too precise. For example the FAO recently revised its deforestation figures for 2000-2005 downwards by more than 12 million hectares – half the area of the United Kingdom.

There is no reliable global measure of forest cover and no-one has made it a priority to create one. Doesn´t that seem odd given how much heat and light has been devoted to the deforestation question?

The important question is what happens to the deforested land. Most of it is wasted. The FAO routinely states that worldwide around two thirds of forest land clearance is by the poor – to acquire fuel wood, to practice low-return agriculture or to acquire shelter.  The other third is converted to highly productive use – commercial agriculture (including palm oil) and forest plantations. These activities are important contributors to economic growth. A large share of it is undertaken by large companies.

The Group of 12 scientists reflects a commonly expressed attitude of environmental NGOs that the large companies are the main despoiler of the environment.  The foregoing shows that is not true. In Indonesia, where a nasty campaign is being waged against production of palm oil, only 7 percent of forest land converted to other purposes is for palm oil.

Most of the land clearing by the poor in most developing countries today already flaunts local land use rules. It’s hard to see how a ban on deforestation driven by Western campaigners is going to make any difference.

The answer to this problem, as we note, is the postulation by Wangari Maathai (our quoting of whom seems objectionable to the 12) to end poverty. It is the large corporations and the plantation industries which create the jobs which remove the incentive of the poor to clear land.

Stopping corporations converting forest land to more productive uses removes the best tool (employment — and therefore food security) to stop wasteful conversion.

The implication in the Group of 12´s letter — that the way to protect the poor is to protect the forest and thereby preserve the subsistence lifestyles of indigenous forest peoples — borders on the disingenuous.

Preserving this form of existence preserves high infant mortality, illiteracy and short life-spans. The forest dwellers might as well be in an open range zoo established for the pleasure of environmental campaigners.

Before closing, it is worth considering just how large is the rate of global deforestation, even accounting for the fact most is caused by the poor. The FAO reports it has declined from 0.2 percent of forest land per annum to around 0.14 per cent per annum over the past two decades.

Inaccuracies aside, this is a declining problem by anyone’s measure. It reflects historical and current empirical research on forests and economic development – that as societies become wealthier, deforestation slows, stops and eventually gives way to forest expansion.

Here, we arrive at the nub of World Growth’s position. Apart from the fact that deforestation rates have been overstated, and that the leading cause has been misrepresented, humanitarianism dictates that we devise solutions to protect the environment in ways that do not restrict our capacity to lift people out of poverty. No reasonable person would object to that.

A reasonable person would, however, object if solutions to environmental problems exacerbated rather than improved the condition of the world’s poor, unless they elected to subscribe to some of the morally objectionable means to reduce population as entertained by one of our critics, Professor Paul Ehrlich.”

Ehrlich has advocated compulsory birth control. In pages 130 to 137 of “The Population Bomb” (1968) he entertains means to reduce population by using taxes – higher costs, lower benefits as the number of children increase, the effect of which would be to penalize the poor. He also considers the idea of adding sterilents [sic] to water or food to reduce population, but sets it aside because no such agent existed and because it would be impracticable. He expresses no moral objection.


We wrote a serious critique of Alan Oxley and his affiliated organizations, World Growth International and ITS Global. In his reply, Mr Oxley has countered virtually none of our specific, documented assertions. Instead, he has muddied the waters–focusing not on our assertions but on the views of environmental groups such as WWF and Greenpeace.

Mr Oxley’s reply contains some important inaccuracies or misperceptions. Most notably, he understates the environmental impacts of oil palm expansion while ignoring its close linkages with the timber and wood-pulp industries and their collective roles in promoting tropical deforestation and frontier-road expansion. And he ignores entirely a vast body of scientific literature revealing the serious impacts of these industries on tropical biodiversity and greenhouse-gas emissions.

We stand by our original assertions. Alan Oxley, WGI, and ITS rely on the direct financial support of major timber, oil palm, and wood-pulp corporations. Over the past two decades, some of these corporations, such as Rimbunan Hijau and Asian Pulp & Paper, have been among the most chronic environmental offenders in the tropical world.

We assert that Mr Oxley, WGI, and ITS should be regarded as paid lobbyists, not as independent think thanks or NGOs. Mr Oxley refuses to disclose the funders of WGI—a striking lack of transparency. Two environmental groups that Mr Oxley frequently criticizes, WWF and Greenpeace, are open about their funders. Why not do the same?

The twelve scientists who drafted our letter did so without communicating with any environmental organization. Each of us is regarded as a leader in our respective field, and as such we felt a responsibility to take a stand. Alan Oxley, WGI, and ITS seemingly attempt to cast all who disagree with them, no matter their professional background or the seriousness of their arguments, as extremists. In the realm of public discourse, this is not ‘fair play’.

William F. Laurance, PhD, Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, James Cook University, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Thomas E. Lovejoy, PhD, Biodiversity Chair, The Heinz Center, Washington, D.C., USA; University Professor, George Mason University, Virginia, USA

Sir Ghillean Prance, FRS, VMH, Professor and Director Emeritus of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK

Paul R. Ehrlich, PhD, Bing Professor of Population Studies, President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University, California, USA

Georgina Mace, PhD, FRS, CBE, Professor and Director of the NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London, Ascot, UK

Peter H. Raven, PhD, President Emeritus Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Susan M. Cheyne, PhD, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, UK; Orang-utan Tropical Peatland Project, Director of Gibbon and Felid Research

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, PhD, Professor and Director of Ecological Modelling, The Environment Institute and School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide; South Australian Research and Development Institute, Adelaide, Australia

Omar R. Masera, PhD, Professor and Director, Bioenergy Lab, National University of Mexico (UNAM); President, Mexican Network on Bioenergy, Morelia, Mexico; Nobel Laureate on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Gabriella Fredriksson, PhD, Research Fellow, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Studies; Knighted in the Order of the Golden Ark University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Barry W. Brook, PhD, Professor and Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, Director of Climate Science, The Environment Institute and School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia

Lian Pin Koh, PhD, Senior Research Fellow ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), Zurich, Switzerland



7 responses

12 09 2011
When you have no idea, you should shut up « ConservationBytes.com

[…] the development and anti-poverty drum like Oxley, albeit with much less panache and linguistic flourish, Mr. Lawrence boldly claims, without a shred of evidence, that “There is ample peer-reviewed […]


30 10 2010
Robert Lawrence

Oxley considers speaks of “converting forest land to more productive uses.” Clearly he sees remnant vegetation and its biodiversity as a resource to be exploited. There is no question about the need to help people out of poverty. However, economic and population growth at the expense of natural resources is a recipe for disaster. We need to work out how to manage without relying on natural resources before they are destroyed in the rush for development. Otherwise, how will the world cope with a much larger population when these resources become increasing depleted? The western world should pay to preserve our forests rather than to exploit them and the poor to support a greedy lifestyle for only a short time.

Oxley completely underestimates the productivity of forests in terms of oxygen and preventing run-away climate change as tipping points are reached.


30 10 2010

It need not be stated, really – but Oxley is (of course) a climate change denialist. The inconvenient truth is bad for business.


29 10 2010
Tweets that mention Wolves masquerading as sheep: the fallout « ConservationBytes.com -- Topsy.com

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ConservationBytes, ConservationBytes. ConservationBytes said: Wolves masquerading as sheep: the fallout: http://wp.me/phhT4-1eQ […]


29 10 2010
Tom Keen

Very interesting. Quite right, it is very “Monckton-esque”. I wonder if he’ll threaten to sue you guys next, as Monckton recently did Professors John Abraham and Scott Mandia. Unbelievable.


29 10 2010

Go Corey!
You clearly touched a raw nerve- reading Oxley’s spittle-sprayed rant is almost fun!


29 10 2010

Yes, very Monckton-esque. The green spin is analogous to the climate change denialist diversion tactic.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: