Like many throughout the world, I have been fascinated to watch the recent protests demanding greater civil liberties in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world. While the ultimate outcome of these protests is far from certain, I remain hopeful that many of these nations will move toward more democratic forms of government.

After all, the last 100 years of world history has been marked by a global movement towards democracy — particularly over the last 30 years. In 1980, there were 42 countries (with populations amounting to around 36% of humanity) that are classed as “Free” by the NGO Freedom House, which aims to objectively track such things over time. Today, there are 89 “Free” countries (containing around 46% of humanity).

But as a professional conservationist, I find myself also wondering why many in conservation don’t see the long-term connections and overlaps between human rights advocacy and our work. Of course, NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy or WWF have little useful to add to the immediate international discussion about democracy in the Arab world. But there are three deep links between our vision for the future and that of the human rights advocate. Conservationists are too often silent on these links, and that silence is hurting conservation.

1. Functioning civil society — including basic human rights — is an enabling condition for long-term, durable conservation within a country.

While effective conservation has occurred in places without a functioning civil society, conservation gains in these places have been harder to come by and have in many cases proven less stable over time. The right of citizens to peacefully organize and advocate for political causes is at the heart of modern environmentalism.

Similarly, conservation actions are hard to implement without the rule of law and controls on corruption. There are many NGOs who work to build up civil society and protect the rule of law. Conservationists should make clear that we need those other groups to success to achieve our own mission.

2. A world full of autocracies misallocates resources that could be used for protecting the environment or human health.

I have always hoped that the spread of democracy, the flourishing of civil society, and the mutual ties of trade would in the long run reduce the need for large armies. I am not naively suggesting that wars or armies will disappear, but there does seem to be truth to the maxim that democracies rarely go to war with one another. The United States, after all, does not particularly fear war with Canada, and it is hard to imagine Germany and France now going to war, as they did twice in the 20th century.

Given the fragile state of international security, the nations of the world feel compelled to spend around 2.7% of global GDP to stockpile armaments and train soldiers. To understand why this resource allocation is bad for conservation, look at the United States. The annual budget of the U.S. Defense Department is $715 billion. To put this number in context, consider these alternative health and environmental expenditures:

  • The estimated costs of compliance with cap-and-trade legislation that would reduce U.S. emissions and helps mitigate climate change: around 0.3% of GDP, or $50 billion per year in 2020 (according to the US Energy Information Administration).
  • The World Health organization estimates that around $6 billion annually is needed for full prevention and treatment of malaria, which could save 4.2 million lives by 2015.
  • The cost of partially cleaning up the Mississippi River — by reducing agricultural runoff of excess nitrogen by 20% — was put in 1999 by NOAA at around $2.1 billion per year (that’s around $2.7 billion today).

One could pay for all these priorities and many others and still fund the Defense Department at $656 billion, a military budget that is still more than 6 times greater than that of any other country.

3. The visions of conservationists and those dedicated to human rights and poverty alleviation overlap when you step back to look at both.

To understand why, consider the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s definition of development as freedom. Money or material goods do not matter to people, Sen argues, except to the extent that they provide freedom from different sorts of deprivation, a “capability” for people to improve their life. Freedom from hunger, insecurity, and powerlessness are all the purview of development.

Conservationists have traditionally stressed the term “sustainable development,” which was famously defined by Gro Brundtland as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Well, treating sustainable development as a set of freedoms implies achieving that it’s about people — and not just those alive today, but future generations. Conservation supports sustainable development by promoting wise stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources for today and tomorrow.

Moreover, conservationists can speak up for freedoms that, while perhaps less basic, than others are still a part of a complete life: my freedom, for example, to my son to a wild forest and see its complete majesty, from humble mosses to meandering bears. But we obviously can’t achieve our goals without working with human rights and development NGOs to achieve theirs.

I believe that the major conservation organizations — including the Conservancy — need to clearly articulate that dependency…and act on it. We need to make clear our vision of an environmentally sustainable, democratic and peaceful world, and speak more openly about the convergence of the human rights, development and conservation agendas. Where targeted partnerships with NGOs in these other two spheres make strategic sense and build off our skills at conservation, we must pursue them.

There’s nothing radical about this idea that sustainable development requires thinking about the triple bottom line, and indeed I can think of folks in The Conservancy who have been patiently working at this intersection. But in our public pronouncements, I fear the conservation movement has been relatively silent — and silence is in a sense complicity with those opposed to the freedom for which much of the world is still fighting.

(Image: Egyptian protesters with face paint, Tahrir Square, February 1, 2011. Image credit: Ahmad Hammoud/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I work as a development director for an environmental complex in south Florida. Previously, I had done the same work for a gay and lesbian organization and Planned Parenthood. i have been advocating this position on both sides for years and continue to do so with a lot of resistance (why?). Nice to hear someone else articulate it so well.

  2. This great ecosystem we all depend on for our very life and breath,with all it’s wondrous interwoven cycles, parts, systems…..I call it all of God’s creation…perfect from the molecular level of protons,neutrons, electrons spinning around together and the delicate matrix of DNA strands combining in infinite patterns to the planets,solar system, galaxies, and great cosmos itself. All from the great universal creator…a truly wondrous thing.

  3. Why has it become so difficult for The Nature Conservancy to stay focused on its original mission to protect biodiversity and fully-functioning ecosystems? There are already countless organizations that work on human rights issues. I think you are now losing your base of support at an accelerating rate.

  4. Thankyou Mr. MacDonald for bringing up this particularly important issue. The way I see it, it lies ALMOST at the core of all problems regarding our living world – human and otherwise. At the very core, though, lie human emotions and their manifestations as the cause of the destructiveness that some individuals inflict on life, either human life in particular, or biodiversity in general (comprising humans). As a biologist and a humanist, I distinguish no more between the violence of some humans upon other human beings and the anthropogenic destruction of all the other living organisms. Their roots are common, both phenomena arise from one unique place in the depths of our own emotional heart. People who have been damaged will themselves damage others if they are left alone, abandoned to their despair and hopelessness. This (emotional) damage may take various forms and intensities but the fact remains and it is something that I witness everyday, either in my personal life and in my professional life (if there can be such a thing as a separation between the two). Thankyou again for adressing this matter.

  5. I wanted to thank you for commenting on this issue Mr. McDonald. I am a current graduate student studying environmental leadership. One of the issues that have me fired up is environmental justice. It isn’t so much that there is a need to stick to the Core Mission of The Nature Conservancy so much as it is our natural response as people to help our fellow human being. I wonder what you think would be a good organization to join that is conerned with both the environment and the well-being/human rights of people. As a low-income, half African-American/Half Panamanian, gay man I know full well the effects of not linking human rights to environemntal issues. We simply lose out on bringing all people to the table to share the responsibility of environmental conservation.

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