|Transcript of Lecture|
|Discussion List (Howard Latin will participate from March 29 - April 2).|
EcoVitality is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization I founded last year to achieve ecosystem and wildlife conservation in the most remote regions of poor countries. These areas possess a majority of the world's most biologically prolific areas, they are the most vulnerable to calamities arising from ecological disruption, and yet they have the least technical, financial, and political capacities to implement effective conservation programs on a broad scale. It is going to be very, very hard to preserve a substantial level of ecological vitality in most developing nations, whatever definition of "substantial" is chosen, and it will be flatly impossible if environmentalists do not carefully assess whether conventional conservation approaches are working adequately and whether better alternatives can be devised.
Without doubt, humanity has caused more ecological degradation in the past couple of decades than in any comparable era in recorded history. Decade by decade, year by year, day by day, human actions are pushing irreplaceable ecosystems and wildlife toward destruction. UNEP predicts that one-quarter of the Earth's species will become extinct within 30 years. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has estimated a species is lost every 20 minutes, largely through habitat destruction. Mohamed El-Ashry, the Chief Executive Officer of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), has warned that the "current rate of species extinction is probably more than a thousand times faster than at any other time in history." Countless biologically productive and economically valuable ecosystems--tropical rainforests, temperate old-growth forests, mangrove forests and wetlands, coral reefs, grasslands and savannahs--have already been gravely damaged and still remain vulnerable to excessive exploitation or damage. Marine fisheries catches have fallen every year but one since 1989 and crop yields are decreasing in many regions, while human population levels are rising inexorably in poor nations. Individually and cumulatively, these trends reflect worldwide environmental problems of immense proportions and great urgency.
Listen, guys, this is serious! We are destroying countless unique natural
features at an appalling rate. Of course, it's not really "we," so
it must be "them." The causation issue can be debated intensely for
as long as you like, but every day more of nature will be destroyed progressively
unless we find a way to combat the pressures underlying global ecological
For about five years, I worked on a controversial book, "The Mirage of International Environmental Law," (IEL) arguing that international and national environmental law are clearly too frail to serve as primary mechanisms for global environmental protection. Then, one day, I asked myself: "Who cares? What is the audience I want to reach in this book? Why am I writing it?"
One audience could have been an extensive community of diplomats, international
lawyers, and scholars who dominate IEL processes. Yet, these people have
turned Public International Law and IEL into non-falsifiable convictions
of faith in the power of mutual engagement. The fact that the global
environment is suffering horrible, progressive degradation every year has
not prevented the PIL and IEL advocates from declaring that IEL has been
a resounding success, as measured by the creation of hundreds of treaties,
thousands of supporting national laws, and zillions of associated regulatory
provisions and managerial policies. And let's not even mention the
endless conferences, position papers, proposed amendments, lobbying efforts,
and scholarly essays and interpolations. Have the proponents of IEL
ever heard of the aphorism: "The operation was successful, but the patient
died?" Apparently not. There is no point in having a debate with
people who can't or won't hear what you say.
Another audience could have been environmental law professors and others who, like me, have great skepticism about the value of IEL in resolving global ecological degradation problems. These like-minded exponents of focussing on environmental outcomes, not idealized IEL exhortations, would doubtless have felt pleased to find their feelings of disgust confirmed by my sharp critique of IEL sophistry. But this book, my book, would not have brought even one tree or animal any closer to long-term protection. I would simply have been preaching to the converted and ignored by the true believers.
The third audience could have been environmental policymakers, natural resource managers, environmental activists, and others embroiled in the daily give-and-take-and-take-some-more of "real world" environmental disputes. These are mostly focused parties within the ambit of their conflicting goals, and they would want to know whether my book could HELP THEM in a tangible way. They might enjoy 10 pages of my lambasting IEL and its proponents; they might tolerate 30 pages; but I could not see them enjoying or even reading 300 pages of unrelenting IEL criticism, no matter how incisive and devastating my analysis may have been.
Finally, I acknowledged to myself that on the subject in which I was most interested--nature conservation in poor countries--I did not care about IEL. I did not care about national environmental law. I did not care about what environmental lawyers were doing, though some were undertaking heroic campaigns on an individual basis. I did not care about most conservation law because I had become convinced that law was only a sideshow, a triviality, a digression or diversion from where the major action had to be. I do not intend to debate whether environmental law is utterly useless or even counterproductive because it diverts attention and resources from more productive approaches. "Totally Useless" is not a meaningful question, at least to may. Rather, the issue is whether law, any law, can play a LEADING role in attaining conservation in poor countries, and I've concluded that the answer is clearly no, negative, nada, nyet.
What is the basis for this dismissive rejection? Consider the
following list of factors I believe are generally necessary for effective
What about the first requirement. My judgment is that virtually all governments in poor countries place an overwhelming priority on increasing economic development. No matter what environmental treaties they may have ratified or what laws they have enacted, when there is a conflict between substantial economic gains and substantial environmental harms, development wins. I would not say this happens 100% of the time, maybe only 99% of the time or a little bit higher. Can environmental laws function adequately under this hierarchy of hostile priorities? This is what is known as a "rhetorical" question.
Environmental protection is ordinarily a knowledge-intensive, difficult, uncertain, expensive enterprise that must be conducted on a continuing basis forever. Do many developing countries have the scientific knowledge and ecological data, trained personnel, budgetary and administrative resources, active popular support, and long-term temporal horizons necessary to implement and maintain effective conservation programs on a consistent basis? The indisputable answer is no, they do not. Then how can anyone imagine that passing new laws will induce tangible conservation progress UNLESS they are instrumental in creating the necessary conditions for conservation success?
And what about the billions of people in poor countries who have no idea at all what the applicable environmental laws are, and who would regard those laws as personally irrelevant artifacts of a remote capital city or an exploitive class-structure if they did know about the legal mandates?
I could go through all of the criteria listed above, because I would not have included any of these factors if I doubted its importance. But the message should be staring you in the face by now. Law cannot be the primary vehicle for promoting meaningful conservation in most of the countries of the world, including most of the places that possess the most fertile ecosystems and diverse wildlife informed conservationists most want to preserve.
After this series of revelations, I threw my "Mirage of IEL" book in
the garbage can (I kept the computer files, though) and I set out to find
better approaches. I DID design a new conservation strategy that
is clearly superior, so much more realistic and sensible and potentially
effective that there is no comparison. However, free lunches are always
rare, and my approach, the EcoVitality strategy, will be extremely difficult
to implement, though not as impossible as implementation of truly effective
environmental law in developing countries. Now I consider it my goal
and responsibility to sell this better approach to people who often do
not want to recognize that they have devoted their professional lives to
relatively unproductive activities.
Through synergistic effects of modern communications, improved transportation, pervasive media dissemination, and widespread tourism, everyone in the world now knows about the material possessions and high degree of economic development enjoyed by "Western" developed nations. If people in the U.S. and Europe want more and more prosperity and are often willing to sacrifice environmental conditions to get it, how could anyone imagine that the people in poor nations will be content if only they manage to achieve minimal subsistence? Americans want more and more when no one else has as much: People in poor countries know now that other nations possess a great deal more material goods than they do, and many of these people believe that they are entitled to more economic prosperity than they have now. Anyone who believes that ratifying an environmental treaty or adopting a law is going to reverse or contain this intense pressure for further economic development is simply out of touch with the world. That may seem like a harsh judgment, but obtuse people who refuse to see what's happening "out there" often stand in the way of making meaningful conservation progress.
Now we come to the EcoVitality strategy: People around the world WANT greater economic development, so conservationists must find better ways to provide greater development closely integrated with the preservation of environmental systems and features. In short, we must learn to make people think they are BETTER OFF conserving ecosystems and wildlife than destroying the ecological resources in pursuit of higher incomes. These presumptions lead directly to an economic incentives approach in which we must learn to create better development opportunities for people in poor nations IN RETURN FOR improved conservation commitments. Simple to say, difficult to do, but not impossible.
In pursuit of this goal, EcoVitality will start new businesses in poor countries; teach people how to make the products we ask them to produce; arrange for assistance during the production phase as necessary; arrange transportation, provide exporting help, handle distribution in the wealthy consumer nations, provide intensive marketing, marketing, marketing, and marketing on both product utility and conservation themes; and send as much of the sales revenues as possible back to the producing groups in return for stronger conservation agreements we will negotiate with them.
This Introduction to EcoVitality is missing its heart and soul. These may be found in detailed descriptions of the EcoVitality organization and EcoVitality mission on our web site at:
The web site presents the central economic incentives strategy on which all our programs will be based, and the specific steps we must undertake to develop effective conservation programs. There are treatments of why environmental law, environmental education, and conventional sustainable development initiatives have been failing pervasively in developing countries. There are web pages listing our staff and other advisors, our addresses, and how to contribute your efforts, contacts, and money to our programs. You cannot really understand what EcoVitality is doing without reading the web pages and thinking about them in some depth.
The most important part of the web site is the discussion of the eight demonstration projects we have devised: five are underway, the coral reef farming project is awaiting our appointment of a technical director, and we're assembling information and contacts on the other two but have not yet committed ourselves to do them. It is one thing to discuss a comprehensive, multi-step strategy in somewhat abstract terms. It is far more illuminating to apply this strategy in the context of a number of actual projects that we are currently implementing.
Readers should remember that we are a very new organization, only one year old, we have limited financial resources and must depend entirely on volunteers, and we are still novices at international conservation who are gaining experience through mistakes as well as correct decisions. We nevertheless believe that a careful reading of the web pages describing EcoVitality's demonstration projects will show that we are adopting a fundamentally innovative approach. When we have explained this approach to villagers and local NGOs in the developing countries where our projects are located, they have not had any difficulty understanding it: We will make them rich(er) in their view, but they must preserve their environment to make us happy.
I have extracted from our web site a description of the key steps in our economics incentive strategy and a summary of why our ICAD approach is clearly superior to traditional ICAD and Sustainable Development programs. I am repeating this comparison here only to give you more motivation to read the detailed material on the EcoVitality web site pages:
OVERVIEW OF ECOVITALITY'S CONSERVATION STRATEGY
Under global economic conditions distorted by numerous market imperfections, there are now few opportunities for making conservation profitable in developing nations. However, conservationists cannot afford to accept this condition as inevitable and must change the underlying circumstances. Accomplishing this difficult task may require EcoVitality to be involved in every facet of creating and supporting conservation- oriented markets, including:
(1) Identifying or creating new business opportunities in areas of developing nations that are especially worth conserving from an ecological perspective.
(2) Teaching people in developing countries how to produce conservation-compatible products or services. A "conservation- compatible" good may be anything that can be produced in an ecologically sustainable manner: this good need not be derived directly from natural resources exploitation.
(3) Importing and distributing the resulting goods in developed consumer nations, and marketing, marketing, marketing these products or services to consumers while emphasizing their desirable conservation implications as well as their intrinsic utility.
(4) Negotiating environmental agreements or "conservation compacts" in the developing states describing the protections each beneficiary group or community must maintain for ecosystems and wildlife in their area.
(5) Sending as much of the sales revenues as feasible to producer groups in poor countries to create strong economic incentives for them to comply with the terms of applicable conservation compacts.
(6) Periodically monitoring local ecological conditions to ensure compliance with the terms of the conservation compact, and, if necessary, threatening to withdraw our exporting and marketing assistance when the beneficiary groups fail to comply with conservation commitments they have undertaken.
(7) Using litigation, legally-mandated information disclosure requirements, media publicity, and other means to make ecologically destructive goods less profitable in developed nations, and thereby to improve the competitive position of the conservation-compatible goods EcoVitality will be marketing. Our "cyanide-free aquarium fish" project provides an example of this kind of approach.
(8) Soliciting supplemental funding through foundation grants and public contributions to pay some of the overhead costs of conducting business in a conservation-compatible manner. In effect, we intend to obtain financial support to cover the incremental costs of producing and marketing environmentally safe goods in contrast with the typically much lower costs of making ecologically harmful competing goods.
Every step in this Integrated Conservation and Development (ICAD) process will doubtless be difficult to implement, and we know our economic incentives strategy cannot succeed everywhere. Yet, we believe this comprehensive EcoVitality approach has a much better chance to work in poor countries than conventional conservation programs have been able to offer. We are giving the people of poor states what they most want, better economic opportunities, tied directly to accomplishment of what conservation proponents want, better ecological protection.
WHY IS ECOVITALITY'S STRATEGY BETTER
In comparison with conventional Sustainable Development and ICAD programs (CNVTL), EcoVitality's economic incentives strategy (ECOV) offers many advantages that increase the effectiveness of our ICAD projects.
Our ICAD strategy is far more comprehensive, involving every step from identification of suitable areas and products, to marketing goods and services directly in wealthy consumer nations, to using sales revenues to benefit the producers while ensuring compliance with conservation compacts. In contrast, CNVTL programs try to teach people how to produce goods or services in an environmentally benign manner, but CNVTL program assistance stops at the local or national border, requiring producers to sell their output in international markets while competing against comparable goods produced in the developed countries or produced in poor states allowing cheaper, ecologically destructive methods.
II. INCREASED ECONOMIC RETURNS AND CORRESPONDING CONSERVATION LEVERAGE:
EcoVitality will be selling goods or services from poor states in wealthy consumer nations, and we have an strong incentive to raise the economic returns for the producers as much as possible in order to increase our leverage in requiring compliance with conservation compacts we will negotiate with them. In contrast, CNVTL programs ordinarily make producing groups in developing countries deal with for-profit businesses that have incentives to minimize producer returns and increase their own profits. Thus, we expect to provide significantly higher economic returns than CNVTL programs, and to create commensurately more powerful conservation incentives.
III. MARKETING FOCUS AND EXPERTISE:
CNVTL programs focus on what producers in developing countries can MAKE in an environmentally safe way, while we focus on what we can SELL in wealthy consumer states that we can teach people in poor areas to make. Because we are continually searching for the highest valued/priced goods we believe rural villagers can produce, and then eco-marketing these goods intensively in the developed states, we expect the economic returns per day of effort to exceed by far the typical returns from CNVTL programs.
This distinction explains why many CNVTL programs recommend production of the SAME rainforest product, sawn timber planks cut by local saw mills, while we sponsor the manufacture of fairly simple wood products including bed serving-trays, wine racks, end tables, and coffee tables that can be made from a single tree and sold for premium prices up to 10-times or higher in earnings per tree. CNVTL programs in tropical areas recommend production of bulk agricultural commodities, such as cocoa, copra, and palm oil, despite already high competition and low market prices, while we intend to market higher-priced crops such as exotic chilies and specialty foods including unfamiliar nuts and fruits. Most CNVTL programs put little time, effort, or expertise into marketing--their staff would rather be working in the bush-- and this is frequently a fatal weakness of their approach.
IV. BETTER MARKETING THROUGH BRAND-NAME IDENTIFICATION AND ECONOMIES OF SCALE:
We will put EcoVitality explanatory labels on every product we sell, and we will sell every product and service under the EcoVitality trademark name and logo. We will maintain mailing lists of contributors, newsletter readers, and product buyers who supply sufficient information. We will create on-going relationships with wholesale and retail businesses in different product lines, and we will repeatedly ask them for suggestions about what new products can be manufactured in developing nations. We will appear at trade shows and marketing conferences seeking new orders, ideas, and contributions. This is part of our commitment to be professional marketing specialists emphasizing eco-marketing.
We will be identifying, importing, shipping, distributing, and selling similar products from a variety of developing countries. Because we will be performing these functions many times, we should benefit from numerous economies of scale and from increasing expertise in these areas. In contrast, CNVTL programs normally make each producer group do their own exporting and marketing or else deal with international agents and companies that normally try to reduce producer returns and autonomy. No environmental NGO or CNVTL program even comes close to our emphasis on marketing expertise.
V. CONTINUING INTER-DEPENDENCE:
A goal of CNVTL programs is to promote self-sufficiency and independence among producers. When people in poor countries have been taught desirable production practices and a little about how to run a business, they are supposed to assume responsibility for the whole business enterprise while their development trainers move on to new projects in new areas. In contrast, EcoVitality presumes it will often take decades for the neophyte producers to overcome many impediments preventing them from competing effectively in diverse world markets or from dealing with the international trade bureaucracies in dozens of countries.
Moreover, we want to promote INTER-DEPENDENCE in which the producers recognize they cannot maintain their improved incomes without our continuing assistance, just as our conservation program requires their continuing cooperation to function in the area. Mutual inter-dependence is precisely what provides our greatest leverage in inducing producers in poor nations to meet their conservation obligations.
VI. BETTER COMPLIANCE STRATEGY:
Enforcement has long been considered the "Achilles heel" of environmental protection efforts: Legal mandates are very rarely implemented or enforced in developing nations; environmental education is voluntary and seldom leads to enforceable commitments; environmental stipulations in grant or loan contracts lose their value when the money runs out; few ICAD or Sustainable Development programs have enforcement mechanisms of any kind. If a CNVTL project is successful, there is no way to prevent local people from expanding production levels through exploiting environmental resources in a nonsustainable manner. And if the CNVTL project is failing, environmental protections are the first thing to be jettisoned in an attempt to reduce costs and increase profits.
In contrast, EcoVitality insists on ecologically safe production limits as a condition of our compacts and we will threaten to terminate our assistance if producers expand their output to the point where significant environmental damage occurs. EcoVitality will control how much of each product we will agree to sell and we can withdraw our assistance if producers try to sell extra goods behind our back, causing ecological degradation. The cost of "cheating" or excessive expansion by producers will be the risk that we may withdraw our on-going marketing assistance in wealthy consumer nations. We believe the producers will almost never be able to do as effective a job as we can in selling their goods in developed states, and they will consequently regard this potential risk as a prohibitively high one. CNVTL programs clearly create no equivalent compliance incentives.
Most EcoVitality advantages flow directly from our economic incentives
strategy, which emphasizes comprehensiveness, inter- dependence, creation
of marketing expertise and economies of scale, and using economic development
gains that people in poor nations desperately want as the primary lever
to enforce the conservation commitments that we want. Our way
is not the easy way, not a way that can be implemented exclusively in poor
countries, not a cost-free or controversy-free way, not a way in which
program staff can walk away from supporting commitments after two or three
years. But our approach is a better, more realistic way to promote
nature conservation and economic development, to attain BOTH conservation
and development on a long-term basis, and that is the asserted objective
of all ICAD programs. The primary goal of EcoVitality at the moment is
to show under varying conditions that this kind of comprehensive ICAD program
is feasible, can succeed where other approaches have failed, and is succeeding
now in promoting conservation progress. In this regard, I must stress
again that general descriptions of our goals and methods cannot show what
we are really doing as well as our eight specific project descriptions
can. I will just list the projects and associated products here,
but you will have to read about them on our web site if you are interested:
|Cyanide Use in the Philippines||Cyanide-free Aquarium Fish|
|Forest Protection in Pakistan||Wood Products and Eco-Trekking|
|Foods from the Managalas Plateau in Papua New Guinea||Chiles, Okari Nuts, coffee and Butterfly Eco-tourism|
|Marine Conservation in Jamaica||Wood Products and Chiles|
|Forest Protection in PNG||Manufactured Wood Products|
|Coral Farming in the Indo-Pacific||Commercially Valuable corals|
|Conservation Funding in Namibia||Ornamental desert plants|
|Lion Protection in Namibia||Eco-Tourism Protecting the Healthiest Lion Sub-pop.|
We have designed every project to embody our economic incentives approach, and in some cases (see the cyanide web page) to use law to reduce the profitability of ecologically destructive activities at the same time as we are increasing the returns from desirable conservation practices. When people in developing countries understand that our plan is to improve their incomes in return for conservation that most of them would prefer anyway, every group we have approached has agreed to our conditions. Not every group, however, has then acted as they have promised. We believe we could easily attract hundreds of applicants for participation in our projects if we advertised them broadly in poor countries, though we do not yet have the people or resources to implement 8 projects concurrently.
And who are our main opponents and detractors: The international environmental
law, environmental education, and ICAD "experts" who cannot evaluate new
ideas with an open mind because they are so committed to old ideas that
have demonstrably failed to preserve nature. If you take from this
"speech" and subsequent comments only one message, it is that CONSERVATIONISTS
CAN DO BETTER AND WILL DO BETTER if we abandon the false notion that conventional
conservation approaches, including environmental law, are the only way
things can or must be done because that is the way things have been done
in the past. You must keep an open mind and look critically at past
and present failures.
Let's assume that, after careful consideration of the material on our web site, some of you have been converted to the EcoVitality perspective. Can you help us? You bet, through intelligent and imaginative analysis in which YOU decide how You can be of real assistance.
PLEASE do NOT write and ask me how you can help us if you cannot think of any way yourself, despite the innumerable needs we have. Figure out a way yourself--develop contacts with some businesses and stores that might be interested in marketing some of the products described on our web pages. Try to raise funds for use generally or for application to any specific project--maybe you know a wealthy person who loves lions or rainforests or tropical fish. If you work for a company or law firm that sometimes makes charitable contributions, show them our web pages and ask them to help us. Try to recruit clients for the eco-tourism/trekking projects we plan to operate. Write to me or one of our project directors and tell us you want to volunteer to tend aquarium fish (if you live in the Bay Area) or assemble wood products shipped here in pieces (if you live in the New York City area) or offer to help process chile shipments if you feel like a vacation in Jamaica or Papua New Guinea.
What I am saying is that I'm a very busy person, saving the world really does take a lot of my time. So I would appreciate it if you would use initiative and creativity, and try to come up with a way to help us rather than asking me to find such a way. I'm always happy to explain what EcoVitality is doing, and why our approach can work better than conventional programs, and what we could do if we had more financial and personnel resources--only now I'm doing most of this talking and explaining on the other side of the world. Try to imagine you are running one of our projects, or the whole organization, and then ask what needs you would have in that context--AND THEN TRY TO MEET THOSE NEEDS before asking for my approval or advice. I don't mean to impose too high a threshold for your participation, but anyone who is serious about a desire to help conserve part of nature should know that is not going to be easy and you will have to work at it.
Incidentally, my answer to the question posed in the title of this "speech" is AFFIRMATIVE, DEFINITELY, YES. Just watch me! Or, better yet, participate in saving your own slice of nature.