Eco-philanthrophy wilderness preservation
Around the globe, forward-thinking individuals are acting now to protect our plant and animal life against the ravages of economic development.
Nature is under threat as never before. Our globalised economy runs on an exponential growth basis but operates within a natural environment where growth is steady and cyclical; the two have long had a fraught relationship.
Old-growth forests in numerous countries are under threat from industries such as mining, oil extraction and industrial logging. In the lowlands of Malaysia and Indonesia, rainforest continues to be cleared for palm oil plantations while soya is replacing trees in the Brazilian Amazon.
Negative human impacts — exacerbated by overpopulation, poverty, desertification and war — sometimes run unchecked in developing countries. Meanwhile, road building opens up inaccessible forest to impoverished settlers who often practise unsustainable “slash-and-burn” agriculture.
A few years ago, Australia was placed fifth in a world league table of landclearing countries, behind Brazil, Zambia, Indonesia and Sudan. Since then, clearing practices have been significantly reined in following the introduction of controls in Queensland, the state where most of the destruction was taking place.
Today, the landclearing issue still hasn’t disappeared and environment groups such as The Wilderness Society are concerned the NSW government is failing to tackle illegal clearing activities in the west of the state.
Species extinctions are occurring as a result of these activities but nobody knows for certain how many are being wiped out. When rainforest habitats are disturbed, it’s inevitable and tragic that some species unknown to science are among those vanishing forever.
The Washington-based World Resources Institute estimates that, on average, tropical deforestation is responsible for a hundred extinctions every day.
Of all countries, Australia (since European settlement) has the worst record for pushing its native mammals over the brink. The primary causes are introduced predators, overgrazing and agricultural and forestry practices, especially clearfelling.
Although the future extent of climate change during the remainder of this century is difficult to predict, many fear that over the coming decades global warming will precipitate a further wave of Australian extinctions. It’s anticipated that wildlife populations will come under stress due to increased temperatures and some will have no suitable habitat to migrate to.
Lobbying governments to turn tracts of wilderness and other high conservation value areas into national parks is the favoured strategy of most environmentalists.
However, a number of philanthropic trusts, charities and wealthy individuals are skirting around the messy world of politics to protect such areas by buying them outright.
For poorer nations, nominal protection in a government reserve does not always translate into reality; pressure to meet debt repayments may push cash-strapped governments to open up protected areas to destructive industries. Private ownership provides stronger protection than many governments can offer.
Doug Tompkins’ Chilean vision
Although eco-philanthropy died down for a while in the US, in recent times it’s been revived by the efforts of visionary individuals such as Doug Tompkins who, together with his ex-wife Susie, launched the clothing company Esprit back in the 1960s.
By 1990, having reached middle age and with a newfound affinity towards ecology, he decided to sell his half-share in the corporation for an estimated US$125 million (about A$170 million) and turn his back on the world of consumerism in favour of Chile’s southern Patagonian region.
Near the small coastal city of Puerto Montt lies some of the world’s last remaining old-growth temperate rainforest. Concerned by its lack of protection, Tomkins, during the early- to mid-1990s, purchased several adjoining ranches, mostly from absentee European landholders. Today these holdings have been amalgamated into what’s now known as the Pumalin Preserve, named after the pumas that roam this vast area.
Pumalin is Chile’s largest park, declared a sanctuary last year following lengthy negotiations with the government. Overall control has been handed over to the Chilean people via a private foundation.
Similar to Tasmania’s Styx Valley, Pumalin contains stands of giant alerce trees that may be up to three thousand years old, magical environments hung with mosses, lichens and epiphytes. Other features in the park include fjords, wetlands and snow-capped volcanoes.
Tompkins has since established the Patagonia Land Trust, a body involved in the ongoing purchase of further sizeable areas in Chile and neighbouring Argentina.
Elsewhere in Latin America
In South America, rainforest groups have been scrambling to protect belts of high-biodiversity land in Ecuador from logging, mining and farming.
Launched in 1994, the Choco-Andean Rainforest Corridor Project aims to create a vital unbroken link between Andean cloud forest and the lowland rainforest of the Awa Ethnic Reserve. Participating groups include Rainforest Rescue (Australia), the Rainforest Information Centre (Australia) and Rainforest Concern (UK).
This ambitious vision involves linking up three of the largest reserves in western Ecuador, home to jaguars and spectacled bears, via two sizeable wildlife corridors. One was successfully purchased in 2002 and funds are currently being raised for the second. A further priority is to encourage and educate local peasants to make the switch from slash-and-burn agriculture to sustainable agroforestry.
Further north, Mexico is home to 10 per cent of the world’s species; only Brazil and Indonesia have a greater biodiversity. On the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico lies the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, an enormous protected area remarkable for its numerous Mayan temples and for being the largest stretch of rainforest in Latin America north of the Amazon Basin.
From their Californian headquarters, the Friends of Calakmul are working to purchase a further significant chunk of uninhabited communal land that currently lies in the reserve’s buffer zone. In addition to the jaguar, other threatened species found in the reserve are the white-lipped peccary, howler and spider monkey.
In the 90s, through Earth Sanctuaries Limited (ESL), John Wamsley and his wife Proo Geddes made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to create a network of reserves. Following the 1969 acquisition of a rundown dairy farm in the Adelaide Hills, they later went on to create a network of 11 sanctuaries, each representing a different vegetation type.
ESL listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1997, attempting a high-wire act between capitalism and conservation. In an arena dominated by the government and non-profit sectors, it was trying a new approach. An out-of-the-square thinker, Wamsley saw wildlife tourism as more profitable and less environmentally damaging than traditional stock farming.
Shortly after listing, a change in Australian accounting standards prohibited the company from applying a dollar value to the wildlife in their reserves. Last year, after ESL’s share value had slowly sunk from $2.47 to as low as 13 cents and its sanctuaries had been drastically reduced to two, shareholders voted in favour of a merger with like-minded Melbourne company ES Link.
More successful have been the efforts of the Australian Bush Heritage Fund, Rainforest Rescue and Birds Australia. Properties targeted by these groups have frequently been exposed to limited human and animal impacts, leaving native biodiversity largely intact. Following the initial purchase process, further funds are then allocated for the challenging task of organising sustainable management practices. These commonly include fencing, fire management, feral animal removal and weed control.
Economic viability is greatly enhanced by opening up parts of a reserve to sensitive ecotourist facilities. To find the right balance between conservation and public access, the number of accessible vehicle and pedestrian tracks may be restricted. For the non-profit NGOs and charities that commonly engage in such programs, limited funds are stretched much further with the help of volunteer labour on extended working bees.
Saving bush heritage
One of Australia’s largest eco-philanthropic organisations is the Australian Bush Heritage Fund. Its origins date back to 1990 when Greens senator Bob Brown received a substantial US environmental prize and used the proceeds to buy a couple of Tasmanian properties that were destined for woodchipping. That small seed has since grown into a full-fledged operation that now controls a total of 21 reserves.
The Fund’s strategy is to protect as many vegetation communities as possible, especially those considered to be threatened. Earlier this year, the Fund launched the “Anchors in the Landscape” campaign with a view to concentrating acquisition efforts in the southwest of Western Australia, Tasmania’s Midlands, the Channel and Gulf Country in Queensland and the Northern Territory and Queensland’s Brigalow Belt and Uplands. In these areas, conservation efforts are believed likely to pay the greatest dividends.
As a consequence of its dealings with the Commonwealth’s Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), the Fund has received a request to work on behalf of the ILC in selecting, acquiring and managing high conservation value land.
The cassowary’s race against time
Back in the 1980s, the Daintree region in Far North Queensland was the setting for a major environmental protest after Douglas Shire Council decided to carve a road north through the rainforest from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield.
Although a blockade led to the creation of the Daintree National Park in 1988, about two thirds of coastal lowland rainforest was excluded from protection and some has been divided up into rural residential housing lots.
Under a council development moratorium for the 12 months up to last June, some of these blocks, most of which contain 100 per cent intact rainforest, are now being cleared; last year 20 were developed for housing. Daintree coastal rainforest is the last remaining Australian habitat of the endangered cassowary, our largest bird.
In response, the non-profit group Rainforest Rescue has been busy purchasing blocks to create a cassowary corridor between the Daintree National Park and a State Reserve. Through its Daintree Buy-Back program, to date eight blocks have been protected. For its part, the Queensland government has agreed to declare this belt, known as the Baralba Corridor Nature Reserve, a nature refuge. Under the management plan, the only permitted use will be seed gathering.
Bird protection in the outback
While Australia’s peak ornithology body, Birds Australia, isn’t involved in environmental philanthropy on an ongoing basis, in recent years it has engaged in the purchase of two properties that were carefully selected for their pivotal importance in protecting rare and endangered bird species.
In a remote corner of the Northern Territory, about four kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, the huge spread of Newhaven Station lies close to the geographic centre of Australia. Bordering the Great Sandy Desert, it contains plains, salt lakes and open woodland and has benefited from careful management and low stock densities.
Newhaven was acquired by Birds Australia in 2000 with funding help from the National Heritage Trust. Last year, management was handed over to the charity Australian Wildlife Conservancy and public access is permitted during the winter months.
Of the five nationally threatened bird species at Newhaven, undoubtedly the most significant is the night parrot. This bird was considered extinct for a long time until one was found dead by a Queensland roadside in 1990. The most recent sighting was in 1996 when a couple of night parrots were sighted at Newhaven as they landed close to trained observers.
Across the border in South Australia, the Bookmark Biosphere Reserve stretches north from the Murray River near Renmark, protecting one of Australia’s last remaining intact remnants of mallee. Unlike most other reserves, Bookmark takes in a number of working farms where sustainable practices are employed to preserve the remaining mallee vegetation.
During the mid-90s it came to the attention of Birds Australia that Gluepot, a station backing onto the reserve, was due to be burnt, a practice that would have endangered both the mallee fowl and black-eared miner populations. The last fire, about 50 years ago, bypassed some areas of the station, leaving intact trees that are hundreds of years old and contain important nesting hollows.
Following negotiations with the owner, the burning plans were called off and the station was later purchased. Today it is an important birdwatchers’ Mecca.
Sustainable use reserves
During the last decade, a paradigm shift has been underway in some NGO attitudes to rainforest protection in developing countries. Whereas it was once believed forests were most effectively conserved by locking everyone out, experience indicates that better outcomes may be achieved when local people are allowed to enter for the sustainable harvesting of forest products. This has the effect of creating a community-level vested interest in an ecologically beneficial outcome.
Under such a model, a community also chooses economic development on its own terms rather than being on the receiving end of unsustainable practices that provide minimal local benefits. Community reserves are found scattered across the tropical belt of South America and Africa, in countries that include Peru, Ecuador, Congo and Malawi.
One inspiring example is the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Community Reserve in the Amazon Basin near the Peruvian city of Iquitos. During the last Ice Age, when most of the Amazon turned to savannah, this western part remained forested. As a result, many species are present that are found nowhere else in the world.
Over the last few years, Western NGOs such as the US-based Rainforest Conservation Fund have been working with villagers to establish agroforestry in the reserve’s buffer zones. Such a strategy presents a major obstacle to any outsider interested in entering the reserve to fell timber illegally.
A major area of focus has been the native aguaje palm, whose red fruits are used in the manufacture of cold drinks and ice cream in Iquitos. Traditionally, these palms, which cannot be climbed, are unsustainably harvested by being chopped down. In the local subsistence economy, if the finder of a tree does not fell it, another person soon will.
To escape from this lose/lose cycle, and to save the palm from eventual extinction, it’s now grown in agroforestry programs where fortuitously it remains short, and fruit branches can be cut off while leaving the palm intact.
Several non-profit organisations encourage their website visitors to sponsor an acre towards nature protection projects. Visitors to The Rainforest Site (details below) are encouraged to click a button daily to save around one square metre of endangered rainforest in Brazil, Peru, Paraguay or Mexico. Land purchases are donated by a variety of commercial sponsors.
Rainforest Rescue has taken the further step of launching a range of gift cards starting at $20 that can be sent as presents. It’s worth remembering that, while donations above $2 to eligible Australian bodies are tax-deductible, this does not apply to similar organisations overseas.
Alternatively, when drawing up a will, a further option to consider is making a legacy towards a tangible piece of the planet that will hopefully be protected forever.
INFORMATION AND DONATION RESOURCES
Friends of Calakmul www.calakmul.org
Pumalin Park www.parquepumalin.cl/content/eng/index.htm
The Rainforest Site www.therainforestsite.com
Rainforest Conservation Fund www.rainforestconservation.org
World Land Trust www.worldlandtrust.org
Australian Bush Heritage Fund www.bushheritage.org
Birds Australia www.birdsaustralia.com.au
Rainforest Rescue www.rainforestrescue.org.au
Australian Wildlife Conservancy www.australianwildlife.org
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (northern NSW)