Successful conservation efforts should save and improve the lives of both animals and people, according to a lead scientist from The Nature Conservancy who spoke during Thursday’s inaugural Environmental Ethics lecture.
M. Sanjayan, whose work has been featured on the Discovery Channel and CNN, told students of an epiphany he experienced while in one of the poorest countries in the world. After witnessing the irony of a boy fanning a flame he was using to cook a monkey–his dinner– with an advertisement by the World Food Program, Sanjayan had a “light bulb moment” and realized the important role nature continues to play in human lives.
Traditional conservationists, according to Sanjayan, view their work through a biodiversity lens, one that sees conservation as “lots of strange and wonderful creatures that must be saved at all costs.” To put humans back into the conservation picture, Sanjayan said, conservationists need to rethink their work and the way they operate.
Sanjayan held up the “fish banks” in place near Indonesia as an example of such thinking. Instead of creating preserves to save the remaining reefs in Asian seas, The Nature Conservancy encouraged surrounding communities to create fish banks, which would act as nurseries for young fish, and then to live off the interest. Years later, the reefs are recovering, and the average household income in these communities has doubled.
But when conservation becomes less of a priority, a nation’s quality of life decreases, Sanjayan said, citing the current state of the Dene First Nation in Canada. One group of the Dene continue to live on the edge of the Thelon Game Sanctuary, where they track and hunt caribou. The rest, however, have moved to surrounding cities, where they ward off starvation by eating at KFC, the only food they can afford because a gallon of milk costs $8 and a three-bedroom home $800,000.
“All of that spirit, all of that love for the land, was beaten out of them,” Sanjayan said. “We’ve taken caribou hunters and made them chicken eaters, and we call that progress.”
Students should become interested in remedying such situations, Sanjayan said, because their generation will feel the consequences if conservation fails, even if those consequences are not immediately apparent.
“Right now, people are doing great,” he said. “But it has come at a cost, and that cost isn’t going to be paid by my generation.”