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Wed. February 01, 2023
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Trees vs. Tusks
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By George A. Pieler and Jens F. Laurson Keeping the planet green takes shades of grey, not black-and-white. In Ghana, one shade of grey to be reckoned with is the African Elephant, that noble beast protected by international treaties from hunting, harvesting, or poaching. The problem is that protecting the Kakum National Park also means extending elephant habitat to the very borders of farming areas.. In such close proximity, the pachyderm’s proclivity is to break out of the park and graze on local farms, devouring whatever is within trunk’s reach. This is called ‘collateral damage’ by the eco-planners, and ‘destruction of livelihood’ by the farmers. Ghana’s forest-protection scheme bans further tree-harvesting and agricultural development from at the expense of existing forest, and relies on it to generate income from tourists. Some of that income goes back to the locals to compensate them for their lost economic opportunities, as do some of the proceeds from the tightly-controlled logging that is still allowed. But the planners didn’t plan for errant elephants. According to Reuters, the elephant population has grown 10% in six years in the Kakum forest, and their crop destruction has undermined the basic idea of giving Ghana’s people a financial stake in forest protection. That touch of deference to the power of markets just shows the difficulty of trying to ‘harness’ market forces for social purposes when giving them too small a supporting role to really do any good. Namely: if the purpose is to protect forest (both for habitat, and for the alleged benefit of sequestering carbon via photosynthesis) and protect elephants as well, why give folks an economic share in the forest, but none in the elephant? As the experience with the CITES treaty on endangered species seems to demonstrate, simply banning the exploitation of protected species for economic gain has no meaningful effect on elephant numbers. Ivory is an age-old commodity in human commerce, and elephants have survived – so far – even while being harvested for it. Concerns about the potential for a large black-market for ivory products, particular with demand rapidly growing in Asia, have led CITES to allow limited ivory trade (from existing stock) for Japan (1997) and China (now) on a one-time basis. Curiously, that very demand could be put to work for the benefit of Ghanaians living near Kuma. Just as they are given a stake in the tourist trade, they could be given a stake in a controlled-harvest of elephants from Kuma. A form of population control that can enable farmers’ livelihoods while protecting the forest, and give all concerned parties a genuine stake in the well-being of Kuma’s elephants. What about poachers, you say? Since poaching is illegal, it will go on with or without a limited license to hunt elephants. Except with hunting illegal, all locals and hunters will have an interest in keeping poachers from stealing from them. Poachers won’t likely get away with paying small bribes to locals to ‘close their eyes’. There is also reason to believe that legalization makes it easier to track the ivory trade (which CITES does in excruciating detail) and pinpoint the lawbreakers. It’s not just about Ghana, or Kuma: the UN is rethinking its entire game plan for limiting deforestation. The realization is dawning that it may not be possible (or desirable) to preserve every endangered forest in its eco-status quo. Nor may that be the best answer for the locals or the planet: Each case is different, and as to forest-cover, Re-forestation elsewhere may be as good a solution or better. Allowing market values to come to the fore, for elephants or trees or agriculture allows the productive reconciliation of what might otherwise seem opposing interests. Indeed, the reconciliation of interests through economic exchange is what markets are all about, and the reason why markets always trump global planners and eco-bureaucrats if given half a chance. We can have our tusks, and our trees, too: and without taking away the promise of greater wealth and abundance for impoverished communities. George A. Pieler is Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation. Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum.

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