Uncertainty, Mutualism and Capacity Development – The Case of the Malaysian National Conservation Strategy (part two)
This is the second post on Uncertainty, Mutualism and Capacity Development – The Case of the Malaysian National Conservation Strategy written by Jose I. dos R. Furtado.
Our initiative perhaps occurred at an opportune moment: There were few research and development centres and only one university (the University of Malaya) engaged in general biodiversity and ecological research. WWF-M, our sponsors, had supported work on conserving spectacular species and protected areas, and viewed formulation of a national conservation strategy a useful challenge to raise its financing from the private sector and its political profile. As a country endowed with mega-biodiversity at least as rich as that of the Amazon (due to its location at the tropics at the southern lip of the Sea of Tethys), natural capital was being liquidated rapidly in Malaysia to expand export-oriented primary industries (especially rubber, and palm oil) initially developed under colonial administration, without fully understanding environmental externalities or risks of rainforest conversion from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ canopy systems. Humid tropical ecosystems functioned somewhat differently from temperate ones. Comparative studies of them under the International Biological Programme (IBP) undertaken by the University of Malaya with Royal Society and Japan Science Council funding had demonstrated the productive efficiency and effectiveness of perennial tree plantations mimicking ‘closed’ forests in using high insolation and intercepting precipitation on weathered shallow and nutrient-poor soils. Furthermore, U.S. medical ecologists were finding the emergence of new pathogens (e.g. arboreal viruses) and agricultural entomologists were discovering the emergence of new pests (e.g. defoliators) from unstable remnant forest patches as land was being transformed for large-scale agriculture and human settlement. Field ecologists were casually observing biodiversity loss of one to two orders of magnitude when tropical forests and associated waters were being manipulated, depending on the intensity and extent of conversion or transformation. The ‘coalitions’ formed to gather expert information and opinion, and to review alternatives for integrating nature and natural resources conservation into socio-economic development plans, were useful in exploring safeguards for river basins especially in coping with monsoonal spates under changing conditions, and hence on States based mainly on river basins.
The elder statesmen who advised us generously through WWF-M helped open ‘doors’ whenever asked, pointed us towards some exploratory paths, and helped secure partial financing for an enterprise that took an unexpectedly long-duration. Their support helped offset overseas criticisms about the M-NCS enterprise being not a ‘national’ conservation strategy, presumably since it was being undertaken through sub-national consultations, since most natural resource conservation experiences were with central and not federal government systems, since the confidentiality required by the States made media publicity difficult, and since the long-term approach of the enterprise did not easily reconcile with short-term reporting systems used by international donors and agencies.
Although Malaysian policy and decision-makers were keen to modernize the country within a globalized economy, they were sensitive to nature conservation because of their nature-centric cultural base. Thus, in the absence of full scientific knowledge a priori, we could at best allude to potential environmental risks, such as scarce water or floods, landslides on steep slopes and siltation, and pest and pathogen hazards, in an environment where political and economic cycles are relatively short compared to tropical rainforest regeneration cycles (ca. 600-900 years). We failed to consult all civil society organizations, due to the confidentiality desired by State governments to explore potential development alternatives, and our recommendations fell short of outlining market-based mechanisms for implementation. Implementation of the M-NCS recommendations at the State level necessarily required a consensus between different competing development stakeholders including the sultan, and was a separate exercise outside our remit.
Freedom to explore integrated development alternatives as in the M-NCS is a rare privilege, and is often made difficult by short-term results-based management imperatives; and yet, it seems critical for individual enlightenment and social freedom when seeking new insights to solving problems or addressing emergent phenomena especially in different cultural settings, as recognized by the ancient Vedas [cf. Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra, IV: 11]. The challenge for integrated or sustainable development seems fraught with real difficulties without some empathy for the sacredness of nature and the universe, its intrinsic value for co-existence, mutualism and welfare of all life forms, and a moderate approach to its use addressing material recycling and distributional equity, as recognized by ancient philosophical systems such as the Vedas [cf. ‘Tat vam asi’ – Thou art that, or Nature reflects you and vice versa – Chandogya Upanishad].
Written by Jose I. dos R. Furtado