Radio New Zealand "Kim Hill morning show"

Friday 8 June 2001

11.10 am

Kim Hill

Kim Hill

 Professor Ian Swingland

Professor Ian Swingland

Kim Hill: Professor Ian Swingland is an international adviser on conservation and biodiversity management. he's the founder of the Durrell.. or is it Durrell, Laurence Durrell and Gerald Durrell, anyway I shall ask Ian Swingland in a moment.. of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology or DICE, and he holds the emeritus chair in Conservation Biology at the University of Kent.

He says biodiversity has become the biggest business in the world with new ways of making it pay for itself. New Zealand has lost biodiversity at a high rate of course, and Professor Swingland has been working with the Professor of Environmental Management at the University of Auckland on achieving more efficient conservation and he joins me now.

Good morning Professor Swingland, how are you?

Professor Ian Swingland (international adviser on conservation and biodiversity management):

Good morning, fine.

Kim Hill: Durrell or Durrell?

Swingland: It's Durrell actually but if you're American it's Durrell.

Kim Hill: Oh, is that Laurence Durrell calls himself Laurence Durrell and Gerald Durrell calls himself Gerald Durrell? Right?

Swingland: They're brothers.

Kim Hill: I've never worked that out but yeah, brothers with different pronounced names, it's always confused me.

Swingland: Well, I wouldn't worry. one lived in France and was a misogynist and was a brilliant novelist and the other one had a jolly good time in England.

Kim Hill: That's right, and liked animals a whole lot.

Swingland: Yes!

Kim Hill: OK, what does DICE or the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology do?

Swingland: Well, what does it do? It trains people from around the world. although it's in Britain, it hardly works in Britain and it works in the tropics and it trains people who want to run the world basically, putting it bluntly, Kim.

Kim Hill: Caters for megalomania?

Swingland: Indeed but basically it takes people who can go back to their own countries and start making conservation and local people benefit and all the rest of it, and we're very successful at doing it, very successful indeed. None of our products end up as checkout girls in supermarkets.

Kim Hill: No. People are very suspicious of that kind of language used in connection with conservation and biodiversity, of course markets and products and profit and value. You do it unashamedly. why?

Swingland: I know. It's absolutely dreadful, isn't it?

Kim Hill: Well, you know, when you start putting dollar values on things, don't you get into a murky area?

Swingland: I think Kim you're right, Yeah. No, I don't go quite that far. I'm playing along with you just a little bit. Let's try and work it through. The difficulty is that conservation hasn't been a stunning success in the last 30 or 40 years and..

Kim Hill: How do you know? We might have been worse off?

Swingland: I'm sure we have achieved something and that we have achieved something which has got us further down the field, but we haven't achieved half as much, I believe, as we might have done.

One of the problems is that very often in conservation all over the world, we've actually cut people out of it.

I mean have a think about the park that I ran in Africa, the Kathui National Park in Zambia.

They put a ruler down on a map and created a park and then they said right, we're going to have a park here - this is 47 years ago. Right, everybody out, so all the villagers were kicked out. This is a fairly traditional picture world-wide, and of course the following day they said we want something to eat so they go after some elephant or whatever it might be, and that's suddenly that day, poaching, so they get disenfranchised from the situation.

So it's quite clear that people's involvement in conservation, their benefit is critical for success. That's the first thing.

The second thing is that very often the way we've done conservation Kim, is we've given money to WWF or some other organisation who have huge overheads and a very little amount of money actually lands on the ground on the project.

Now, the thing is that biodiversity has always been treated as a cinderella, we have to give money. Some of it gets stuck in the overheads in organisations, a little bit of it gets onto the ground and that, if you go to the Minister of Finance in a country, they often say "Oh God, conservation is constantly give, give, give. we never get anything back".

And so consequently you know, tourism for example, many of whom who.. tourists from around the world want to see beautiful places, they want to see kangaroos, they want to see a kiwi and so on.

Then there are pharmaceutical companies who say you know, all the drugs that you and I have taken over our lives, most of them came from plants. That is biodiversity being turned into something useful to human beings and puts a.. you know, gives biodiversity a real value.

But the bottom line is this, that unless increasingly biodiversity has a value to the man standing right on the border of a national park or wherever he is, who's got a machete in his hand and it's of value to him, he's going to chop it down.

Kim Hill: Well, Yeah, except that in order to make a beautiful place accessible to both tourists and pharmaceutical companies, you might have to build a motorway through it?

Swingland: Well, you might but I mean, that's an assumption. most of the places I know, increasingly tourists are much more intrepid than you think and are much more like New Zealanders. They're a fairly intrepid group of people and they're happy to go to a place that's kept its wildness if they have to walk there.

Kim Hill: But of course we have this dilemma in new zealand and presumably there are other places in the world which may echo it. In order to allow people to see our beautiful places, we run the risk of environmental degradation. They tromp all the way through it and they want to go to the toilet?

Swingland: Absolutely, absolutely. Let me go to the extreme example, Galapagos. It creates more foreign income for the republic of Ecuador than the oil that they've got but you can't allow any more people to go there.. it's up to about 70,000 now.. because it simply cannot cope with the number of people and literally it's wearing out. The paths are now something like 18 inches below the surface of the island.

Kim Hill: All right. Now, who's in charge of setting that limit?

Swingland: The government through the National Parks Service.

Kim Hill: But the government is making a nice living out of it. the government is making money, so what provokes a government to say no, no more people?

Swingland: Because of the international pressure that comes on the government if they opened the floodgates because it's quite clear five times as many people could go there and five times as many people want to go there.

Kim Hill: And what's to stop the Galapagos government saying you have to give us a whole lot of money to make up for us closing the doors because we're reliant on the income from here?

Swingland: Right. so what they do, exactly that. What they do is they've increased it now so that when you land with a group of other people you have to produce dollars from your pocket; U.S. dollars, and it's about $200 per person to get in, even if you're on a tour, to get in and they're going to raise that to $300. But still at the end of the day it's not the money, it's the number of feet.

Kim Hill: No, no, no, but that's what I mean.

So what's to stop the Galapagos government saying look the rest of the world, you seem to care so deeply about the Galapagos islands, and we've seen this happening all over the world, the rest of the world or the rest of the country..

Us for example, say to the West Coast of the South Island, "Stop cutting those trees down", and they all go you know, "To hell with you, we need to make a living". So someone has got to come up with a compensatory cash.

Swingland: Well but.. whoa, whoa, hang on. If you start talking subsidy and compensation, my blood runs cold.

Kim Hill: Oh, does it?

Swingland: Terribly. I like a free market solution, I don't like artificial handing out of money for giving somebody some warmth or succour which in fact to a large degree might be artificial. Take the Galapagos.. let's go back to the Galapagos.. The governments have said "Let's stop", so they've capped it and they've said "That's the number of people and we're just going to increase the price and increase the price".

Which is the way tourism goes because basically it's only the high-rollers, high-margin individuals who are paying for very expensive tours that ultimately are going to get to see some of the best places in the world because they can't cope with the volume of the low-rollers, low-margin, real package tour stuff

Kim Hill: Is that all right with you?

Swingland: No. I mean obviously from a.. I mean I'm not political, very apolitical person but I mean I'm a great believer that people should have the opportunity to go and do the sorts of things they want without regard to their financial wealth, rather like access to the law. I don't like law only being accessible by those who have got billions of bucks to..

Kim Hill: But if you're going with the market, that's a very efficient form of rationing?

Swingland: It is but now we're doing something else. I have, with the President of Ecuador, set up a surrogate or ersatz Galapagos in the city of Guayaquil which is the city from which you fly to get to Galapagos. This has two points.

One is, it's going to be a hotel built in a very, very rustic way and so on, like a termite mound, so that we have passive air conditioning in the system,

but then we're going to put parts of the populations of the most important animals from the Galapagos there, managed by the people from the Galapagos, so that people can..

Kim Hill: Galapagos is Chile, isn't it? Or is it Ecuador?

Swingland: No, no it's Ecuador.

Kim Hill: Ecuador, ok.

Swingland: It's Ecuador, Yep.

Kim Hill: So they're just shifting animals from one place to another?

Swingland: Well hang on, no, they're putting them into compounds. Many of these species of populations exist in compounds in the Galapagos I hasten to add. There's one of tortoises, there's only 13 individuals left. They're all in a rock enclosure in the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Kim Hill: Oh.

Swingland: So they're really keen on having their key animals and their different land.. forms of land iguana, in a different place, you know, eggs in another basket if you understand me, and the hotel will subsidise all of that and it's going to be done between the state and the private sector and with the local people's involvement as a sort of tripartite partnership.

Kim Hill: This is very interesting. Has this kind of thing been done anywhere else?

Swingland: Its' increasingly being done because there's no doubt about it, with Kyoto Protocol or whatever Bush comes up with before the next Kyoto meetings which are in July as I understand it, there's no doubt that there is going to be a totally new approach to conservation world-wide which I'm sure New Zealand will get increasingly involved in and there's going to be a lot of money coming into the system from commercial and other industrial places which will bypass all the societies and so on and so forth and go directly to the project.

Kim Hill: Make me.. what's the link with whatever Bush does on the Kyoto Protocol?

Swingland: Ok, I'll link you into that. The big argument, and I'm putting it as simply as I can, on the Kyoto thing, why Bush turned it down, was two things.

One is that while they were prepared to agree to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the rest of the world, particularly European ministers, China and India, were resistant to carbon sinks being triggered in the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, the ability to not just reduce emissions but to absorb carbon as well, carbon dioxide, these Ministers were agin it. America said it wanted sinks as well which was quite sensible. Their view was this was just a trick on the Americans' part to get round reducing their emissions.

And the second thing the Americans wanted, the last thing, was that they wanted to ensure that developing countries as well as developed countries cleaned up their act because there's a lot of pollution in those countries too.

Kim Hill: Right.

Swingland: And so where we've got to now is this, that if Bush comes forward with what I know he's going to come forward with, which is a Kyoto Protocol sort of mark two with sinks and developing countries in from day one, then it was going to release an enormous amount of commercial money into the system for the defragmentation of forests in particular.

I am very keen, having spent 30 years, 35 years of my life in all the different parts of the world, to put back these messed up forests with indigenous and endemic species of trees and doing it in such a way that it's done in a businesslike way which gives the local people a benefit and does the whole thing properly.

Kim Hill: Oh, are you saying that George Bush has been much maligned?

Swingland: I think Bush was wise to stop the process when he came into the White House, on the Kyoto Protocol.

Kim Hill: Why wise to stop?

Swingland: Because it had become a matter of politics rather than a matter of common sense.

Kim Hill: How interesting that you should say that?

Swingland: And they were.. the French made it quite plain to me in their conversations, that they were pressuring the situation by objecting to carbon sinks being triggered because they wanted to ensure the Americans' petrol and diesel prices in their forecourts went up and made them less competitive with Europe. I mean it was politics, politics, politics and there was the sciences probe. We know that trees absorb carbon as they grow.

Kim Hill: But then they've got to be done something with, those trees, haven't they?

Swingland: Well yes, absolutely. It is perfectly done in many parts of the world where a forest grows and big trees fall down. This happens quite normally and quite naturally, and young trees grow up from that and the old tree breaks down and helps to provide nutrients back into the often very poor soils of tropical rain forests. So the idea that we have is, we're going to put everything back. We have a means using fungi where we can make mahogany trees grow 10 to 15 times faster so we can put a tropical rain forest back, instead of 300 years we can put it back in something like 80 years.

Kim Hill: Using fungi?

Swingland: Yes, well 92% of all living plants around their roots have a fungus, a fungal group or family if you like, a certain kind of fungus called mycorrhiza, and mycorrhiza grow around the roots and they do three things.

Firstly, they increase the nutrient uptake by the plant they're associated with so it grows faster.

Secondly, it provides the plant with virtual drought resistance, very useful for planting plants back into deserts which have been denuded by feral camels.

And it can also help in relation to trees growing in soils that are perhaps not the most favoured soils, certainly these really red iron-filled soils for example, many trees don't like but we can make them grow in there by adjusting the mycorrhiza which we can do from a helicopter or we can do it with a seedling as we plant it and it costs absolutely nothing, literally it's a pail-full of mycorrhizal spores.

Kim Hill: And if the mycorrhiza is quite happy down there, why doesn't get it onto the case itself instead of having to be introduced?

Swingland: Because the wrong ones are there. The one that's normally associated with mahogany trees in rain forests is a particular species and that's that.

Kim Hill: It seems a bit of a shortcoming on the part of nature, doesn't it?

Swingland: It does. Nature's not perfect.

Kim Hill: No, well it's interesting you should say that, that one view of conservation is of course, that nature should be left to get on with it itself as soon as we tamper with it in any way, it becomes unnatural and this harks back to a point you were making before, of what I took to be a criticism of a misanthropic view of the conservation movement.

You want to accept that people that may be part of the system as well and not exclude them but include them. Is that the basis of your philosophy?

Swingland: Yeah, I mean my basis of my philosophy basically is that instead of it being seen as something which is preservationist, it has to be subsidised, it has to be paid for by people's taxes and people aren't involved and don't get a direct benefit, I want to do the opposite.

I want conservation.

I mean maybe DOC should be called DOP because as I understand it, the law in this country, it's been charged with the Preservation of living things but not the Conservation. Kim Hill: Ah, and the difference is?

Swingland: Enormous. It's the difference between day and night.

Preservation is, you put an invisible wall around to keep people out, subsidise its existence and make sure you don't touch it, don't fiddle with it and certainly don't extract anything from it, whether it's called sustainable or not.

Conservation is the knowledgeable interference in the management of a particular place where you involve the local people and basically it's a holistic way of doing it, it's a recognition that ecosystems are dynamic.

They change all the time.

It's a recognition that conservation is a way in which you can sustainably get benefits where people can then turn around say "God, this National Park I live next to is a great thing for me, or you know, my income has gone up because" - blah, blah, blah and they suddenly value the place that they're attached to, or the animal that heretofore they've been poaching.

Kim Hill: But then there are always arguments about purity. I mean for example, if you have a forest in New Zealand that you wish to conserve, do you put valuable species in it so that they make that forest more economically valuable to the society?

Swingland: No, no, no.

Kim Hill: No?

Swingland: No Kim, you don't do that. That really is sort of messing around and making things artificial.

You take a forest. you may find that bits of it have been chopped down before tens of years ago, cut the whole thing back.

You get the local people involved and you have a proper discussion with them about what they think should happen and so on.

There's no reason why you can't extract various trees from time to time which.. income from which goes back into the coffers to reinvest in the place and make it move forward. The local people may have a lodge or hotel nearby and people who stay there you know, go through the forest and enjoy it and they come back again.

In other words it becomes a living thing, it becomes something which the free market has a great handle in. There's no reason on earth why any government in this world needs to subsidise biodiversity conservation, none whatsoever. biodiversity.. and you were quite right in the introduction, is the biggest business in the world and it's worth more than any other industry.

Kim Hill: How do you value it though? I mean I know that there has been a study done in New Zealand that values I think, our environment, our biodiversity, at $230 billion a year. The annual value of native species, $230 billion a year and I'm going, OK.

Swingland: ..(indistinct).

Kim Hill: I mean how notional is that?

Swingland: Well I.. it's a bit of a number taken from the air I suspect and I expect I'll get now lots of letters and telephone calls in the next few days while I'm here when I've said that.

Kim Hill: Spreadsheets!

Swingland: Yes, absolutely, dear oh dear. No, I mean let's just through a few things. There is a protein that we have just put into an apple. I happen to be chairman of the Apple and Pear Research Council in Britain, another one of my many hats, and we put this protein in and it stops dental caries. so, if you've got rotten teeth it stops it and if you haven't, it stops you getting rotten teeth, ok.

It really is the apple a day that keeps the dentist away. where did we get that protein?

The answer, we got the protein from a tropical rain forest because we discovered it was an anathema to the principle organism that causes dental caries in humans.

Kim Hill: Good Lord.

Swingland: Now, there is a forest.. there is a forest that's worth a fortune.

Kim Hill: Yeah, an apple forest?

Swingland: An absolute.. and now we've got a problem. Because of the GM pressure groups who really are unfortunate people, we can't..

Kim Hill: Oh now, that's unfair.

Swingland: Well, I'll come back to that.

Kim Hill: Unfortunate?

Swingland: Oh, absolutely. We can't put it on the supermarket shelves so it's likely to become something that you get through a doctor's prescription and thus will end up with the people who invariably don't go to dentists and who get prescriptions free if they are on welfare or any other support programme of the government which is a good thing.

Kim Hill: Surely you can argue that there is a big philosophical and scientific debate surrounding genetically modified produce without being accused of being, you know, a luddite, anti-scientific elitist?

Swingland: Well, I'm glad you used the word, not me.

Kim Hill: Well, I was pre-empting you I think.

Swingland: Yeah, OK! Yeah, I sort of do think that. I'll tell you why I think that. There is no safe difference.. er, distance between a GM crop and conventional crop or even crop grown by those in an organic way. I mean they can travel vast distances, first point. second point is that genes that have been created by human beings, have been loose in the environment for ages.

The first one was called ice-minus for strawberries in California and it was released into the open environment 23 years ago.

It was to prevent strawberries suffering from frostbite first thing in the morning, and that's been free for a long time, and there are lots of others. So, it's almost past the post, the horse has firmly got out of the stable a long time ago. The third thing is, that many people on the GM front are also people who are keen on organic food, and I am keen on clean food too, but not organic. organic apples and pears are sprayed with vast quantities of copper and sulphur and other things and frankly, I don't want to eat them. I want clean food so, while people interested in organic have grabbed this GM thing and said this is terrible, this is Frankenstein food, this needs to be put down, it is in fact the fastest way that we can create apples and pears to take but two examples, which don't need to be sprayed, never need anything put on them at all.

Kim Hill: So, just a footnote on that, you're saying that copper and sulphur, while they may be strictly organic and natural, are not necessarily safe?

Swingland: No, certainly not, and they are agreed by the Organics Standards Organisations both in Britain and here in New Zealand.

Kim Hill: All right. so do you think it's inevitable that in 50 years' time say, or even sooner, I don't know, even later, I don't know, that the argument about genetic modification will become a quaint blip on the screen..

Swingland: Yes.

Kim Hill: And people will look back and go why was anyone so excited about that?

Swingland: They will, because what will happen is that we will make certain that from now on with new food agencies being created in various countries, let alone my own, that we are going to make damn certain.. I mean after BSE and Foot and Mouth disease, in Britain we're absolutely determined that from now on anything that's in the supermarket, we know exactly what's in it.

Kim Hill: Well, better late than never I suppose.

Swingland: Absolutely, but didn't it take a lot of things to happen before we got there?

Kim Hill: It took a lot of things to happen but more to the point, it took a lot of apparently intelligent people denying that things were happening..

Swingland: Yes, I agree with that.

Kim Hill: So, you can understand if the organic movement for example, or the anti-genetically modified food movement for example, is under-written by what now appears to be a very sensible suspicion of big business and big government?

Swingland: I think even without that pressure group, someone like you and someone like me always ask questions about what we're putting in our mouths or whether or not that's the right mortgage to take out or whatever else.

I think they've helped to raise the temperature.

I worry whether they just become self perpetuating after a bit. they've raised the temperature, everyone has got the message now, and I think it's going to be far less than 50 years.

Kim Hill: You've been working in a rain forest, Kumulu, in Borneo, did I read that?

Swingland: Yeah.

Kim Hill: What are you doing there?

Swingland: Well, I went there 21 years ago and then again last year, when I made a film of 20 years has passed, what's happened. and, when I first went there, it was the biggest untouched tropical rain forest in the world and I got very emotionally involved with the head- hunters there who were literally dying because their home was being chopped down and they had no means of surviving in anything other than the forest. they were hunter-gatherers. I went back there last year and the forest is now chopped right up to the very, very border of the rain forest. most of the Penan have died. there's only a few thousand of them left now. When I was there, there were 43,000, and Molu is something where we're hoping that.. it's in Sarawak, in Borneo.. we're hoping that things are going to change.

Two things have happened.

It's a permanent world heritage site, which is good, in the last six months. That means the European Union has by.. obligatorily to pay attention to it, to help it financially.

The second thing that's happened, this is the first time it's happened in South Asia, is that a judge called Ian Chin in the Sarawak High Court in Kuching has just allowed an appeal by native people that they own the land they have been living on for as many thousand years as people can think, and that no way does a forestry company, even if it's got a managing director who's a Minister, have any right to push them off it or take the trees. now, that's something.

Kim Hill: And will it now be restored or will the shrinkage merely be stopped?

Swingland: Yes.. well, I think the shrinkage will be stopped but one of the reasons I'm in New Zealand is that I have a lot of people around me and people have given me a lot of funds with a view to working out how we can defragment forests and use carbon sequestration in trading and all the rest of it.

Kim Hill: When you say defragment, defragment means exactly what?

Swingland: Well, if you fly around on an aeroplane and you look down, you look at a forest, you can see where there's been incursion or a bit's been chopped out there or a bit's been chopped out there.

Kim Hill: So you want to join up the bits?

Swingland: You've got it, and put the missing bits back, but with the right species.

Kim Hill: All right. what do you do in your spare time?

Swingland: What spare time?

Kim Hill: Nice to talk to you, Professor Swingland, Professor Ian Swingland who is here as guest of the British Council for the Ignite 2001 festival which is taking place this week in Auckland.

He's also giving a public talk at Victoria University on Wednesday the 18th at 6pm which is organised by the Victoria University Science faculty.