Private conservation

Mapa antiguo de Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

There’s something missing from this otherwise very interesting and well-reported story from the Guardian about the impact of conservation efforts that see wealthy people from the First World buying up vast tracts in the Third.

[I]n the US, where the government is selling off public land, conservation is increasingly geared towards private ownership. “It is a genuine new model of conservation,” says Kim Vacariu, who works with the Wildland project in the US, which wants to secure millions of acres of land running from Atlantic to Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. “It is too much to rely on governments to protect the land. The only way to make [conservation] happen in time is to buy it from willing sellers.”

Conservationists with deep pockets are mostly welcomed in rich countries, such as Britain and the US, because they maintain or increase the market price of land. But in poor countries they are often met with fear and hostility.

This is hardly surprising. Foreign conservationists have a dreadful record in developing countries. First colonialists took control of countries and communities in order to expropriate their resources, then the conservationists came and did exactly the same thing – this time, in the name of saving the environment. Tens of thousands of people have been evicted in order to establish wildlife parks and other protected areas throughout the developing world. Many people have been forbidden to hunt, cut trees, quarry stone, introduce new plants or in any way threaten the animals or the ecosystem. The land they have lived on for centuries is suddenly recast as an idyllic wildlife sanctuary, with no regard for the realities of the lives of those who live there.

What’s missing is an answer to the question of who is selling the land the rich people are buying. John Vidal talks about the reasonable concerns about traditional land uses being displaced, but it’s not at all clear from the story whose land it is the locals are currently using.

It’s also, I think, a bit disingenuous to wrap in the problems with governments’ converting private land into inviolate national parks with the problems of willing sellers turning property over to willing buyers. The only thing they have in common is that large amounts of land are generally involved, and that’s not enough to tie them together.

As you might expect, I don’t share Vidal’s apparent concerns over First Worlders buying up all this land, at least not in itself. If it works here, and it demonstrably does, it should work there. But I do worry about some of the online-shopping operations he points out, some of which are probably about as legitimate as the outfits that’ll sell you the rights to name a star, or some of the cockamamier carbon-offset vendors. Private ownership in a working market system is good, but chiefly because it brings with it a sense of proprietorship. If you own your own house, you take care of it, improve it, defend it from external threats.

Absentee landlordism, though, is almost invariably a bad thing, and all the more so in this case. If you aren’t there, if you don’t know which square metre of rain forest is your square metre of rain forest, you can’t defend it, and your property will inevitably fall victim to whoever is most eager to break the rules and take advantage.

(Via Planetizen.)

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