A Case Study: The Bushmeat Crisis
ironies of "development policy" are nowhere seen more clearly than in the "bushmeat crisis" of Central Africa. The problem arose as overcutting wiped out old West African stands of "exotic hardwoods", and loggers began building roads into Central African rainforests so remote that the wildlife did not know to run from human hunters. The loggers, and the diners in the burgeoning cities of countries like Gabon and Cameroon, have created an industry whose volume is estimated at over $50 million US per year (which does not, of course, show up on any national accounts). Monkeys and other primates, including rare chimpanzees and gorillas, are especially prized, but all manner of wildlife are taken, including
antelopes, snakes and elephants.
The two countries just mentioned, Gabon and Cameroon, are as heavily indebted as any in Sub-Saharan Africa, and were strapped for cash because of declining demand for oil and cacao. Timber revenues gave them a way to meet their debt payments. Then, currency devaluations slashed the cost of building the logging roads to some of the most remote forests left anywhere in the world places even the Pygmies had never gone. Poor people, having flocked to cities in search of economic opportunities (that werent there), welcome bushmeat as a reminder of earlier days and anyway, it is cheaper than beef, pork or chicken.
This phenomenon is not new; when the forests of Western Africa were being logged out in the 50s and 60s, a similar process took place. The forests that are left west of Nigeria have lost the greatest part of the wildlife that they once supported. What is new and chilling in todays version is the utter primevality of the forests being invaded, and the utter lack of any effective management or regulation.
The crisis is portrayed as a classic problem of overpopulation and the sad but inescapable demands of modernization. A fact sheet from the "Bushmeat Crisis Task Force", for example, informs us that "Logging companies provide revenues and employment essential to the economies of West and Central Africa." This assumes, of course, that people in these nations have no way to make a living other than by growing cacao or felling ancient trees for export. And by and large, they do not because they do not have access to the land held by the large cocoa-planters. The planters, meanwhile, have no incentive to plant more profitable crops, because their cost for holding large tracts of farmland is, essentially, zero.
In the ultimate irony, Salopek writes, "Prodded by global conservation groups, the European Union and the World Bank... convened a meeting with Cameroonian officials to read them the riot act. Unless Cameroon got serious about cracking down on the devastating bushmeat trade, the foreigners warned, further development funds would be frozen." Regulations were dutifully imposed, which simply drove the bushmeat trade underground where it really had been all along, anyway. Large areas have been set aside as preserves or parks, but they lack budgets or staff to enforce any sort of policy.
The commitment to stopping the bushmeat trade seems thus far to have been completely theoretical. The failure to make a dent in an ecological tragedy that is so egregious and so photogenic shows the utter futility of trying to implement environmental policies in developing countries under present conditions. Such nations, although they are replete with valuable natural resources, seem incapable of providing for the basic needs of their people, or of enforcing the most basic regulations.
Ending the tragedy of the bushmeat trade the poster child for environmental devastation across the developing world can only be brought about by a rent-as-revenue policy that will create real incentives for conservation and sustainability, and give people access to their own land, to produce the things they need and by lifting the cruel yoke of foreign debt.