Recognising differing viewpoints in a rapidly changing world

18 08 2011

Is oil palm bad? Is protecting tropical forests more important than converting them for economic development? Should we spike trees to make sure no one cuts them down?

Answers to these questions depend on which side of the argument you’re on. But often people on either side of debates hardly know what their opponents are thinking.

A recent paper by us in the journal Biotropica, of which parts were published on this blog, points out that the inability to recognise differing viewpoints undermines progress in environmental policy and practice.

The paper in Biotropica takes an unusual approach to get its message across, one rarely applied in science, but nevertheless dating back to 1729. In that year, Jonathan Swift, the first satirist, wrote an essay suggesting the English should eat Irish children, “whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled”, to reduce the growing population of Irish poor.

We similarly use satire to highlight the viewpoint problem. Our paper uses a spoof press release by the Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees, aka “CoFCCLoT”. CoFCCLoT proposes that in return for nor cutting down their tropical rainforests, wealthy countries should reforest at least half their land. This would provide the world with a level playing field, restore the ecological health of wealthy countries, provide job opportunities for their citizens, and even allow lions to thrive in Greece and gorillas in Spain.

Our tongue-in-cheek text has a serious undertone, which we hope the satire helps clarify.

We wrote this paper because, like many, we are frustrated by the ongoing environmental degradation in tropical forest countries. But we recognise that our concerns and perspectives are different from those of local actors which causes huge obstacles when it comes to seeking and agreeing solutions.

Take oil palm. To environmentalists, it is an evil crop destroying vast areas of tropical rainforest and killing endangered wildlife such as orangutans in the process. To others it is an important source of economic development. These others do not just include oil palm companies and governments, but also many local farmers who see oil palm as a means to improve their livelihoods.

We emphasize that ignoring other viewpoints is a real obstacle in environmental conservation. We even think that some organisations are actually quite happy to keep things as they are.

Both parties in an argument may benefit from the polarised debate as it helps to maintain support from their respective constituents. In the case of oil palm, conservation agencies value their purist image, while palm growers find it easy to dismiss unrealistic demands.

We have both worked in tropical conservation for over two decades, and have seen many examples where people on each side of an argument take their own viewpoints as the only one worth considering. Hard-line approaches sometimes help, but most lasting solutions are based on some form of compromise.

In the paper entitled ‘A modest proposal for wealthy countries to reforest their land for the common good‘, we argue that there is an urgent need to be more aware of different viewpoints, trying to understand, qualify and quantify them and finding ways to incorporate them into conservation solutions. This might feel like diluting the conservation agenda, but the authors believe that the costs of not doing this outweigh the benefits.

With the economic balance in the world shifting east and south, but the conservation agenda being dominated by the north and west, more clashes are waiting to happen.

We need to listen more to the arguments in China, Indonesia, Congo, and Brazil. How can their motives for economic development over the back of natural resources be reconciled with the wish of wealthy countries to retain the wild species and ecosystems of these countries? And what can we do ourselves to ensure that these countries are offered a more level playing field?

Unless conservation can overcome this Babylonian confusion and find general guiding principles that we can all agree on, further environmental degradation is there to stay.

The paper is available freely online at least for the next 3 months — take it will stocks last.

Erik Meijaard & Douglas Sheil



5 responses

7 09 2011
Conservation and Compromise « Bottom Up Thinking

[…] Some conservation scientists have imagined how businessmen in developing countries may view conserva… […]


20 08 2011
Dejan Tesic

From the countries mentioned at the end of the blog, probably the only one that can be classified as ‘poor’ is Congo. The others have recently amassed an aspirational class… it’s important to point out that we’re not exactly dealing with hungry masses.


18 08 2011

Excellent to witness increasing efforts to understand multiple sides of the equation: conservation problems are complex, and nowhere is this more apparent than in poor countries! We discuss various related ideas on how to foster transdisciplinary sustainability research in our blog, for example here:


18 08 2011
Poverty versus biodiversity loss, again | Ideas for Sustainability

[…] at Conservation Bytes, there’s an interesting blog entry on the role of conservation developing countries. Specifically, the entry points to a recent paper […]


18 08 2011
Mark Schultz

Time is running out on this one (“Belo Monte Dam Marks a Troubling New Era in Brazil’s Attitude to Its Rainforest”) – the bulldozers are apparently already in place!


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