When a tiger has no value

The quest for profit is transforming the natural world. Can it be halted?

Margi Prideaux
7 November 2016

Bengal tiger, Rajasthan India. Photographer: Dibyendu Ash, Wikimedia Commons, CC by-SA 3.0

A few weeks ago the World Wide Fund for Nature released their latest Living Planet Report. Its findings have reverberated around the world, with the bleak news that the 3,706 wildlife populations that are actively monitored by scientists have declined by an average of 58 per cent since 1970 because of agriculture, fisheries, mining and other human activities. The report’s authors predict that this figure will reach 67 per cent by the end of the decade. How on earth has this happened?

The answer that’s often put forward is that wildlife protection laws in the ‘lawless’ regions of the world are woefully inadequate (meaning large swathes of Africa and Asia), but the true root of the problem is that nature is being monetized in order to generate profits for investors and corporations in a process that’s facilitated by changes in the structure of global governance—and it’s about to get much worse. Unless we get to grips with the real issues at stake, the destruction of nature is all-but guaranteed, except in those few parts of the world that are set aside as reserves for the enjoyment of wealthy visitors.

Since European countries first reached out and colonized distant lands, Africa, Asia and Latin America have been a ‘resource hinterland’ for global capitalism—an economic system that has transferred wealth from poor to rich countries through the extraction of mineral and biological resources. Large areas of forest have been cleared to make way for the mono-culture of crops like palm oil, soya bean, biofuels and timber on a massive scale. Mining carves ruinous scars across whole landscapes, poisoning the water for both people and wildlife downstream. And large factory ships are plundering fisheries for the tables of the world’s elite.

This system robs the world of the biodiversity we collectively need to survive. More poignantly, it robs communities in Africa, Asia, South America and the Arctic of their rights, resources and connections with their environments and the wildlife they contain. These are the very communities who still retain the wisdom and experience to protect the world’s wild places.

Many people who have stood against this tide have been evicted from their ancestral lands. Some have been murdered. Global Witness has documented the fact that that more than three people were killed each week during 2015 defending their lands, forests and rivers against destructive industries. Yet the profits that are made from these industries are more than enough to maintain the forward momentum of the system. More money flows from these hinterland economies each year than they receive in foreign direct investment and foreign aid combined. In 2011, for example, oil, gas and mineral exports from Africa were worth US$382 billion—more than eight times the value of development aid received by African countries in that year.

This money streams through mechanisms for cross-border accounting, tax evasion and the repatriation of profits that are designed and maintained by wealthy countries; facilitated by the institutional secrecy that is built into the global financial system; and controlled by corporate elites. In a shadow economy that flows alongside the economy we see, commercial tax dodgers and criminals shift vast amounts of money across international borders quickly, easily and largely undetected. Hundreds of billions of dollars pour into western coffers each year, from both streams, leaving little behind for those whose lands and wildlife have been plundered.

The only way to reverse this process is to institute a system of global governance that actually does what it says—govern the extraction of natural resources, the destruction of wildlife, and the flows of money that are fed by these things across national borders. But international rules and regulations in this field are evolving in ways that are far too soft to have much impact. How so?

In 2008, the world economy stood at the edge of an abyss, confronted by the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In response, a powerful new forum called the G20 was born, representing the 20 largest economies. The United Nations (UN) tentatively embraced the emergence of this new group and offered its New York headquarters as the site of the G20 summit meetings, but their overtures were declined and the UN was gradually marginalised from the process—something that should have set the alarm bells ringing. With hindsight it appears as though the G20’s founders wanted to explore new relationships in international economics unhindered by the democracy and transparency of the UN.

Shortly afterwards the World Economic Forum (or Davos for short) started to frame its own path forward which fits squarely into the philosophy of the G20 and other groups like it. Called the ‘Global Redesign Initiative,’ its aim is to marginalize intergovernmental decision-making and install ‘multi-stakeholder governance’ in its place. “In the world of Davos,” as commentator Nick Buxton wrote in 2014, “the tired old slow world of democratic demands channelled through states is replaced by a slicker, fast moving, corporate-led governance” which places tremendous power in the hands of the very few. Buxton’s report for the Transnational Institute reveals that the world’s wealth is even more concentrated than is often understood—not in the one per cent of the world’s population but in the 0.001 per cent. A mere 111,000 people control a fifth of the world’s gross national product (GNP), worth US$16.3 trillion.

The Davos proposal is that key sectors of the economy, and whole regions of countries, should be governed by corporations with the support of other stakeholders who they invite to the table. The most attractive parts of the world from this point of view are those that are resource rich but governance poor, where the large-scale extraction of mineral and biological resources is still possible, in part because local structures for oversight and accountability are weak. Extractive economies are much more difficult to operate in places where these structures are strong and democratic, and where the probability of a public outcry is therefore high.

There’s another problem here: communities whose traditional lands sit on top of gold, oil or timber are obvious targets for attack. But what happens to wildlife that offers no obvious source of profit? If a tiger has no value, why would it be saved? This is where the monetization of nature is so important.

In 2014, the writer Charles Eisenstein published a piece on openDemocracy that expanded on this phenomenon. We must recognise that “some things are beyond measure and price” as he put it, warning of the dangers of relying on numbers and financial data for decision-making. There are many things we don’t measure, either by choice (because they interfere with established power relationships); because our understanding is incomplete; or because some things are simply un-measurable—like beauty, connectedness, spiritual fulfilment or the sight of reindeer, wolves and golden eagles living with the Dukha in Mongolia.

When I wake up in the morning the sound I hear is of a magpie’s warble. These birds and their unique and haunting song, as well as the kangaroos that stand on the ridge at dusk close to my home, are part of the culture in which I live and the community I belong to. People elsewhere, in South Africa, Pakistan, Russia or Peru will wake up to different sounds and vistas, but our landscapes are never empty places; nor are they commodities to sell. They are filled with a different kind of richness which we value in other ways. They are filled with wildlife with which we commune.

That’s why we can’t let the monetary value of nature be used as the sole criterion for governance. A tiger has value because it is a tiger, because it is priceless in and of itself. That’s why it should be saved, but under the rule of ‘Davos man’ this is most unlikely. In fact monetizing wildlife leads to over exploitation wherever money can be made and under protection where it can’t. The only real solution is to reject the underlying philosophy of nature as a profit centre. Everything else follows from that shift.

The World Economic Forum will meet again in Davos in January 2017, under the now-familiar umbrella of “improving global governance through public-private cooperation.” However, power can only be ceded to the Global Redesign Initiative and similar efforts if we as citizens allow it. Instead, we should demand that our governments actually govern in the interests of the vast majority of their populations, and of the wild species among whom we want to live. We can demand that global conservation is democratized to protect what we see as precious, sacred, special and important, not what makes most money for corporations. Wherever we have democracy, we must assert our control.

Tigers, elephants, forests, wetlands and rivers are not commodities whose value can be siphoned off into the pockets of investors and ignored when they don’t make a profit. They are our collective inheritance.


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