Doriano Solinas Illustration Essay

How is the global economic meltdown changing conservation? Which do you want first–the good news or the bad news?

It’s no coincidence that the words “economy” and “ecosystem” both originate from the same Greek word, oikos, for “home” or “household.” But rarely have the links between the complex financial and biological structures that sustain us been on greater display, or under greater stress, than during the global financial pandemic that began in 2007. From Asia to Antarctica, a sick economy is wiping out millions of jobs and pushing tens of millions of people into poverty—and also leaving its mark on forests, seas, and even the atmosphere.

The diagnosis, however, isn’t always terrible. In places, miserable markets are producing substantial—and sometimes counterintuitive—benefits for the environment and even creating once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to pull ecosystems from the jaws of development. Other outcomes, however, are less encouraging.

No two places have experienced the trauma in quite the same way—and it’s not over, as the financial shivers still rattle capitals from Brussels to Beijing. To offer a glimpse of both the good news and the bad, Conservation offers the following dispatches from near and far.

Image ©Doriano Solinas/SIS


Slumping Land Prices Create Opportunity
Gold Rush Drives Deforestation, Pollution
Past Crisis Offers Sobering Prognosis for Present
Drivers Take the Off-ramp
No Recession for Illegal Ivory Trade
Hard Times Are Soft on Water Use
Brief Dip in Emissions, Then Record Rise


Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey

Slumping Land Prices Create Opportunity

Source: Land and Property Values in the U.S., Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (

Not that long ago, a 46-acre tract of prime marsh and pine forest here was slated to become a 73-home development called “The Landing.” Earlier this year, however, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a conservation group, bought the property—valued at $6.2 million in 2008—for just $3.5 million. Now, The Landing will live up to its name in a new way, as part of the adjacent Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

“We have acquired over a dozen properties as a result of the recession,” says Chris Kay, TPL’s chief operating officer. And the list is growing. TPL is in the process of acquiring the Orenco Woods Golf Course, another steeply discounted property near Portland, Oregon. The 40-acre course was slated to become a 250-home development. Now the tract—which sold for roughly $15 million in 2007 but was appraised at just around $7 million earlier this year—will become a park in the city of Hillsboro, which will pay TPL about $4 million for the land.

Although plummeting land prices have given TPL and other land-conservation organizations tremendous opportunities, the recession has also presented challenges. Donations have declined, and governments have less money to purchase properties from the group. As a result, says TPL senior vice president Roger Hoesterey, “we have to be very creative in how we work out the deal.” ❧

—Michael Bawaya



The Peruvian Amazon

Gold Rush Drives Deforestation, Pollution

Source: Swenson, J.J. et al. 2011.

Fans of the Humphrey Bogart filmTreasure of the Sierra Madre know that the greed for gold can turn friend against friend with deadly consequences. Turns out, it’s not good for forests, either. In southeastern Peru, a satellite-based analysis of land-use trends has found that skyrocketing gold prices are driving drastic, mining-related deforestation.

The Peruvian gold rush embodies “what we’re seeing in a lot of places—that deforestation is so interconnected with the global economy,” says Ruth DeFries, a geographer at New York’s Columbia University. In this case, investors looking for a safe place to stow their cash have been making a mad dash for gold, causing prices to leap from about $300 per ounce in 2002 to more than $1500 per ounce today.

To feed the lust for luster, the poorest of the poor in Peru have trickled down from the highlands and elsewhere to pan for gold in streams in the southeastern state of Madre de Dios, a prominent biodiversity hotspot, says ecologist Jennifer Swenson of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who led the study. The boom, she says, harks back to the nineteenth-century California gold rush: operations tend to be small-scale, run by a handful of individuals living in nearly inaccessible tent camps and working without permits. And as the artisanal miners travel up and down streams, they leave behind mounds of dirt and “eerie” blue and yellow iridescent tailing ponds. “It’s like a moonscape with water,” Swenson says. “And it goes on and on.”

To measure the toll on forests, she and her colleagues took satellite snapshots recording the replacement of wooded areas with bare earth at two mining-rich sites in southeast Peru. There, mining-related deforestation jumped from 300 hectares of trees chopped down per year from 2003 to 2006 to about 1900 hectares per year from 2006 to 2009, the group reports in PLoS ONE. At the start, one mine “was just a tiny little dot,” she says. “Within a few years, they had just plowed through eight kilometers of untouched rainforest.”

That helter-skelter scramble isn’t confined to Peru, says Marcello Veiga, an engineer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a former adviser to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). According to UNIDO estimates, nearly 30 million artisanal miners pan for gold or dig for copper and gems in nations from Ecuador to Tanzania. Governments by and large have failed to regulate this massive and often clandestine industry: “The problem everywhere is called government,” Veiga says. “The government is not interested. They are not prepared.”

The biggest threats from the small-scale gold mining don’t revolve around felled trees, he adds, but mercury. Artisanal miners often employ the toxic metal to leach gold dust from dirt and rocks, dumping the slurry into waterways. The solution is education, Veiga argues. He’s worked with off-the-grid miners in Ecuador to teach them how to strip gold from river sediments using less mercury—with “some success.” ❧

—Daniel Strain

Swenson, J.J. et al. 2011. Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon: Global prices, deforestation, and mercury imports. PLoS One doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018875.



East Asia

Past Crisis Offers Sobering Prognosis for Present

Can the past predict the future? If so, then in East Asia the environmental consequences of the economic downturn are likely to be “on the whole negative,” concludes a recent study that looks back at a 1997 financial panic to understand the current situation. That’s because, although hard times can reduce demand for natural resources such as timber, such circumstances can also scramble efforts to alleviate poverty—forcing people to take desperate and often destructive action to survive.

After the 1997 crisis, “positive impacts were short-lived and negative impacts were little affected in the longer term,” Lorraine Elliott of the Australian National University concluded earlier this year in the journal Contemporary Politics. Among the worrisome outcomes then that are now at risk of being repeated:

Green budget cuts. “Not only did governments cut or defer spending on environmental programs . . . but those cuts were disproportionately tougher than in other sectors of the economy,” Elliott notes. Thailand slashed its green spending by one-third, for instance, while Korea’s dropped 12 percent in one year. One result: less money for investment in habitat protection and sustainable energy systems; another: more pollution. A study of 350 Asian factories—including paper, textiles, palm oil, and plywood—found that their waste streams got dirtier during the crisis. “There are two possible explanations,” she writes, “[either] enforcement of waste and pollution regulations was relaxed . . . or companies simply chose to spend less on waste management.”

Urban outmigration. “Economic downturns in Asia have been marked by urban-rural migration impelled by loss of jobs and a fall in income,” Elliot notes. Many rural returnees start farming to survive, putting increased pressure on land and water supplies. And there is evidence from Indonesia that, during the 1997 crisis, some turned to “illegal logging, mining, and fishing” to survive. “Similar migrations have been a feature” of the current crisis too, she notes—with a reported 20 million laborers leaving Chinese cities alone. Such trends suggest the current recession won’t give South Asian ecosystems much “breathing space” from exploitation, Elliott concludes. Instead, it may create “pressure for further deforestation, agricultural expansion at the expense of water and soil quality, and lax enforcement of pollution regulations.” ❧

Elliott, L. 2011. Shades of green in East Asia: The impact of financial crises on the environment. Contemporary Politics doi:10.1080/13569775.2011.565985.



On The Road

Drivers Take the Off-ramp

Looking for a hint of green in the grim economic news? Here’s one you might not have heard: people are driving less—billions of miles less. In the first half of 2011 alone, Americans drove 4.6 billion miles less than they did during the same period the year before. And when you adjust for population growth, Americans are now driving about the same number of miles they did back in 1997, according to an analysis by financial consultant Doug Short of A combination of declining incomes and relatively high gas prices has helped slam the brakes on driving, analysts say. And although the statistics are sketchier, it appears European drivers have been taking the same route. The question now is whether the downturn will create a permanent change in habits or fade once the economy improves. ❧

Source: Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives, Inc. ( Original data from U.S. Federal Highway Administration Traffic Volume Trends



Samburu, Kenya

No Recession for Illegal Ivory Trade

The illegal trade in elephant ivory, it seems, is recession-proof. One of the world’s most-studied elephant populations, in Kenya’s Samburu reserve, is experiencing an upsurge in poaching as demand for ivory rises in China and other Asian nations—and poachers face fewer options for making a good living.

Samburu had been a “success story,” with elephants “recovering from the excessive poaching of the 1970s and 1980s right up until 2008,” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton of the nonprofit group Save the Elephants in Nairobi. During the recession, however, the killing has “reached new record levels,” he says. Monitoring has revealed that more elephants “have been poached in the past 2.5 years than in the previous 11 years,” he and two colleagues reported earlier this year in Nature.

The killing is being driven by an upswing in ivory prices, which have more than doubled in recent years. Many of the customers appear to be in China, where ivory is a prized symbol of newly won affluence.

The trade’s impact on Samburu’s some 5,400 elephants, however, has been severe. The number of mature males is plummeting, a recent Save the Elephants study found, and more than half the family units have felt the poacher’s touch. Nearly 15 percent of the social groups no longer have a breeding female over the age of 25 and have multiple orphan calves. “With many of the large bulls poached, the elephant population is now so skewed that 70 percent of the population is female,” the study notes. “These social impacts are serious,” it concludes, “and are a grave concern for the long-term future of the population.” ❧

Wittemyer, G., D. Daballen and I. Douglas-Hamilton. 2011. Poaching policy: Rising ivory prices threaten elephants. Nature doi:10.1038/476282c.



Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Hard Times Are Soft on Water Use

The economic slump is helping accelerate a quiet water-conservation trend that is creating less pressure to drain water from lakes, streams, and groundwater. For example, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city famous for its beer and its spectacular views of Lake Michigan, overall water use is down 40 percent since 1975, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). In part, that’s due to the installation of more efficient plumbing, but the loss of major factories is also having an impact. And it’s a story being repeated across the U.S., with many utilities reporting one-percent to two-percent annual declines in water sales. In Seattle, for instance, water use has declined 30 percent since 1990, despite a growing population.

“Recession-related influences—for example, reduced water use resulting from the construction slowdown—have contributed to declining demand,” Jan Beecher of Michigan State University’s Institute of Public Utilities told the AWWA newsletter Streamlines. But from an environmental perspective, “declining demand is a good ‘problem’ for society to have,” she adds, echoing ecologists who have warned for years that urban water demand can pose a threat to aquatic ecosystems. The drop, however, poses “a challenging but manageable problem for water systems,” which may face declining revenues. ❧



The Atmosphere

Brief Dip in Emissions, Then Record Rise

Source: Olivier, J.G.J. et al. 2011. Long-term trend in global CO2 emissions. 2011 report, The Hague: PBL/JRC.

“Burning money” has taken on a whole new meaning during the Great Recession. That’s because, as global demand for consumer goods cooled, so did the furnaces of industry: in many nations, demand for coal, oil, and other fossil fuels fell steeply as credit dried up. As a result, global emissions of carbon dioxide slowed to just a one-percent increase in 2008 and then dropped by one percent in 2009, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. In 2010, however, emissions jumped a record five percent to an all-time high of 33 billion metric tons.

This reversal reflects the contrary emissions trends in the industrialized and developing worlds. Thanks in part to the recession, industrialized nations have been trimming emissions and are even likely to meet a collective goal (set by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) of cutting emissions by 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by next year. In China and other major developing nations, however, emissions are growing rapidly—spurred in part by massive recent stimulus-driven spending packages designed to make sure their economies didn’t get derailed by the worldwide downturn.

When all is said and done, the push-me-pull-you trends mean that the recession has done little to bump global emissions off their decade-long trend of rising about two percent per year. ❧

Tags: economics, Winter 2012


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