Monday, 7 May 2012

Conservation: What's in a Word?

What does “conservation” mean? The word, of course, is just a collection of letters arranged in a particular way, and it has no meaning at all of itself, only whatever meaning each of us brings to it. Each of us probably has a slightly different “take” on that meaning, although we use the word as if we all understand and share its meaning.

My Oxford dictionary defines conservation as “preservation of the natural environment” as well as “preservation of works of art, documents, etc.” The word is related to conserve: “keep from harm or damage” and conservative: “adverse to change”.

I grew up in America where the worldwide conservation movement is generally traced back to Thoreau’s seminal book Walden, published in 1854, which documents the two years the author spent living in a small cabin on the shore of a woodland lake, Walden Pond. It is his journal of what it’s like to maintain a self-sufficient life in a semi-wilderness setting (Te Radar style), his observations of nature, and his thoughts on the relationship of man to the natural world.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." (Thoreau, 1854)

Muir and Roosevelt at Yosemite, California
The other pioneer of the conservation movement in America was John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt regarding the setting aside of forest reserves as wilderness places of peace and renewal to be preserved for all people:

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." (Muir, 1912)

Both of these men saw conservation as a way to preserve wilderness spaces for future generations to observe and enjoy, tracts of land allowed to evolve naturally without the interference, pruning and shaping of human foresters and harvesters. Muir wrote:

"God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild." (1869)

"There is not a "fragment" in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself." (1916)

The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) support and moderate “the protection of New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage”[i] through a different philosophy: active management—they advocate the interference, pruning and shaping of New Zealand’s wild places for what they perceive is in the forests' best interest. As a part of this government mandate, they argue that “control programmes to manage and remove animal pests are essential for the survival of New Zealand’s special native plants and animals.”[ii] Included on DOC’s list of animal pests in need of control in New Zealand are possums, rats, stoats, ferrets, hedgehogs, deer, ferel goats, Kaimanawa horses, lorikeets, tahr, weasles, rainbow skinks, wasps, dogs and cats[iii].

It is a fragmented rather than harmonious approach to conservation. Obviously, it would be political suicide to target dogs and cats in a pet-loving nation such as New Zealand, but the other animals on this list appear to be “fair game”. The primary methods of animal pest control advocated by DOC are ground traps in more accessible areas, and the aerial broadcast of 1080[iv] poison in more remote areas, to kill off as many of these animals as possible.

Plants, too, are categorized—fragmented—into “wanted” and “weeds” camps. DOC is actively engaged in weed management on around 17% of conservation land.[v] Some of the weeds that DOC actively target are banana passionfruit, heather, ivy, lupin, sweet pea shrubs, yellow and kahili ginger, pampas grass, and marram grass[vi]. Herbicides such as Round Up, Gallant, Zero, Escort, and Touchdown are sprayed to control the growth and spread of these plants in conservation areas, resulting in eradication where possible.

Maori hunting moa (now extinct)
New Zealand was, at one time, a quite unique place on this planet. There were no mammals on these islands save two or three species of small bats. The aim of DOC seems to be to return New Zealand’s “wild” and “wild-ish” lands to approximate a pre-European colonization state. It's important to note they do not advocate a pre-Maori colonization state, which would be impossible since much of this land was then browsed by moa, flightless birds that, although apparently resident in abundance in pre-human times, were rendered extinct by hunting Maori before the white man sailed to these shores. 

In short, DOC do not aim to “conserve” New Zealand’s “natural” lands as they are now, nor allow the current forest eco-system to self-manage (let’s not trust Mother Nature here—she’s too unreliable!) but to change and manage our wild spaces to create something that isn’t now and never really was. Which is not really “conservation” as the dictionary would define it at all. 

Of course it doesn't matter whether DOC follow your definition of conservation, my definition, the dictionary definition, or their own definition, because its only a word, and word meanings change all the time. What does matter is that we understand the meaning of the word "conservation" within the context of any given discussion in a particular place and time, and that all parties at the table are talking about the same thing.

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