Uneven extinction: the vexing histories and geographies of the biodiversity crisis – Fellows’ seminar by Bram Büscher

3 November 2021

“News about biological diversity in the era of the Anthropocene – the age of humans – is anything but cheerful reading,” said Bram Büscher, of the Sociology of Development and Change Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands. “According to scientists, we have now entered the ‘sixth mass extinction’ event in the history of the earth, with potentially dire consequences not just for many animals and plant species but also for humans given its potential effects on food systems, ecosystems, health and more. But how to interpret this event in relation to the highly uneven patterns of species life and death across the planet and how these patterns have developed historically?”

STIAS fellow Bram Büsher during his seminar on 28 October 2021

STIAS fellow Büscher presented a seminar on his latest book project which proposes the concept of uneven extinction to develop and empirically illustrate a theoretical framework that accounts for the rise of the sixth extinction crisis in relation to highly uneven biodiversity dynamics across space and time.

“There are no straightforward or linear biodiversity dynamics,” he said. “They are positive and negative, and highly dynamic. Biodiversity dynamics have always been uneven due to natural and human factors. My core assumption, however, is that political economic dynamics greatly influence uneven declines and increases in species numbers and their survival chances. I’m looking at how and why, and with what effects.”

Bϋscher believes that the historical development of capitalism has increasingly, though unevenly, influenced the life-chances of many species and will do so even more in the future. This makes it critical to understand the relation between uneven biodiversity and extinction dynamics and changing forms of capitalist development.

The book will cover four aspects – historical, geographical, political and theoretical. For his presentation, Bϋscher highlighted the first two of these dimensions, with a specific focus on the political economy of biodiversity in Africa and South Africa.

He pointed out that extinction as an idea was only ‘discovered’ about two centuries ago – “before that most people didn’t understand that extinction was possible”. Life was seen as static, divinely ordered in the Great Chain of Being. God had created the Earth and all life forms, including humans, and all were thought to be present from the beginning of time.

“The idea that earth had an older, more dynamic history only emerged from the 1750s,” he said. The search for a way to order nature to suit emerging forms of political economy was manifest in developments like Linnaean taxonomy. The search for the origins of life on earth also had great implications on core political economic developments in the 19th century. Darwin’s ideas of evolution by natural selection, especially, need to be understood in relation to the political economy of the times. “In many ways, Origin of the Species was seen as an argument against slavery, though misunderstandings of the concept of survival of the fittest were also used as arguments for slavery” explained Bϋscher. “The battle over the origins of the diversity of life was thus directly – though not straightforwardly – relevant to changing forms of political economy and its dependence on slavery and racial inequality.”

During the late 19th century, ideas changed from acceptance of the destruction of biodiversity to decrying and countering biodiversity loss. This led to increased anxiety over endings and accelerated growth of the conservation movement – which in itself also needs to be seen as part of broader colonial dynamics to control land use and animal populations.

The early conservation movement did not halt most activities causing biodiversity destruction, however. “In fact, from the 1950s there was rapid acceleration in global economic activity and impacts leading to greater extinction risks at exactly the same time as the rise of the mainstream conservation movement. This movement was quite successful in growing the amount of land under formal protection, so increased extinction risks and conservation were happening at the same time –– how?”

Bϋscher explained that although there is now an increasing willingness in the conservation sector to question the consumption and production patterns of 21st century lifestyles, “mainstream conservation has never been and still is no bulwark against capitalist growth and destruction. This contributes to the strange conundrum that we are currently facing, that of catastrophism amidst intensification of business as usual”.

He also pointed out that these ideas have mostly come from the Western world and there is an urgent need to decolonise, and understand that different world regions have reacted differently to this generic picture.

Between extinction and overstocking

Turning to Africa he argued that the political economy of biodiversity in Africa is increasingly caught between ‘extinction and overstocking’.

“On the one hand, we have over the last decades witnessed the visible decline of charismatic species such as the rhino, elephant, cheetah, lion, giraffe and others, coupled with an ongoing defaunation of many forested areas,’ he said. “On the other hand, though much less visible, is a countertrend in certain areas where we see a strong growth of wildlife species, most notably through the stocking of private lands and initiatives to develop broader wildlife economies.”

“So we have declines in charismatic mega species and privatisation of nature and wilderness, alongside phenomenal species growth in selected pockets of the continent. It’s important to situate this in the global picture.”

According to scientific reports, in Africa as a whole there have been declines in large mammal populations within protected areas of up to 59% over the last decades. At the same time, more recently we have seen another rapid rise of wildlife crime, particularly around species like elephant, rhino and pangolin. But there have also been declines in other populations, like giraffes and cheetahs, which cannot be attributed to poaching but to the loss of available land.

Alongside this there has been growth of some species in some areas. Pointing to the example of giraffes – Bϋscher explained that South Africa is claiming huge success in their conservation with a 54% population increase since 1985. “Even rhinos, which were often predicted to be extinct in 5 to 10 years due to the poaching crisis, experienced a population rise in private protected areas in South Africa from 4000 to 5000 between 2008 and 2015, according to the South African Private Rhino Owners’ Association,” he added.

If it pays, it stays in the new scramble for Africa?

Bϋscher indicated that South Africa plays an important and unique role in this continental picture. The privatisation of nature is a major growth sector in the economy and promises to provide employment in poverty-stricken rural areas. The government has jumped on this idea and in its 2016 National Biodiversity Economy Strategy placed a target for a 10% per annum growth of the sector until 2030.

“There is a large economy of expectations around wildlife,” said Bϋscher. “An economy built on tradeable, visible, exploitable wildlife. This increases incentives to ensure their survival and management.”

Ironically, however, the private possession, commodified management of conservation spaces and (over)stocking of species actually benefits from a decline in charismatic species, he explained. “As the number of charismatic species declines across the continent, it increases the value of well-stocked, privately conserved lands, providing their owners with unique sources of profit and revenue. The result is an intensification of uneven wildlife geographies across Africa.”

“To some extent extinction has been exaggerated but it plays a crucial role in rendering value.”

He focused on the Greater Kruger area, especially the town of Hoedspruit, which calls itself a ‘Wildlife Haven’ and is “rapidly becoming the capital of the wildlife economy in South Africa”.

“Hoedspruit comprises a number of wildlife estates and private reserves with a rich and abundant biodiversity situated alongside massive poverty and spatial injustices,” he explained. “It’s basically what colleagues and I call ‘Green Apartheid’ – the biodiversity is only for those who can afford it – but built on the presence of a large, surplus population of marginalised people. The Hoedspruit inhabitants are mostly white, and in general discussions and interviews there has been an emphasis on keeping Hoedspruit ‘unique and safe’. There are no official townships, no space for low-cost housing projects and so a large, often invisible black labour force is bussed in every day. But there are also environmental contradictions, namely that many estates and reserves are about game stocking rather than conservation.”

Bϋscher believes these trends are important in understanding conservation in sub-Saharan Africa and its rapidly changing political economy. He believes we have to look carefully at how and why conservation is becoming a new profit source and what that does to humans and their relationships with the rest of nature.

The wildlife economy is an important basis on which the continent builds its place in the global capitalist economy – but the way it is working out is an intensification of the already highly uneven development of Africa. “It is important to monitor these developments closely and place them in broader, global contexts of biodiversity decline and extinction risks in the 21st century. My broader projects aims to do so, and thus also to understand what the uneven histories and geographies of the political economy of biodiversity and extinction say about the current moment.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu




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