Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Do we need a Forth Force?

Sometimes in the early 70ties, NGO's and grass-root movements have become a power, the Third Force, with impact on governmental and industrial actions, and thus could bring change. Today, NGOs are often a force listened to (e.g. Human Rights Watch or Amazonia), or at least on paper, have to be listened to. In many cases, large NGOs have more brainpower than many of the parties (governments) in international meetings on the environment such as the follow up meetings of the Convention of Biological Diversity, a topic I am interested in.

It seems to me though, that the step from a small grass-roots movement to a large international NGO, such as highly successful Conservation International, comes at a cost: More and more money needed to maintain their business is from large philanthropic foundations with their own agenda. Thus the independence of the NGOs operation is at least partially lost, even if its just because an emerging area is not yet on any of the funding agencies palate. Increasing the size needs more specialists. People doing properly fieldwork are often hard to find. Collecting data in the field was never high on the agenda because one cand get away with reliance on "experts". Finally budgets are very tight for this sort of work. At the same time, getting larger means more administrative personal, including a expensive counselors to avoid the cliffs of expensive legal battles, thus overheads have to be used respectively.

An article in yesterdays Independent on the number of giant pandas shows the difficulties to even get the figures right on the abundance of one of the most emblematic species in the world, the Giant Panda. How can a number of living organisms just double - a similar fluctuation being known in measuring the Tiger populations in India? In the case of the Giant Panda, the reason for this correction are inadequate methodologies to study the animals. Only the reliance on DNA collected in feces helped to figure out, that there are as many as double the number of the hitherto assumed specimens in the wild.

If this happens to one of the best studied organism, how can other figures be trusted? How can we document, how many species are disappearing, or that we actually have a successful program to decrease the rate of loss of species, as we ought to do according the Target2010?

What about the quality of the few numbers of global surveys, such as the global amphibian assessment, delivering a widely cited dismal outlook on the state of amphibians and our environment? To run a proper monitoring program, ‘hard’ figures ought to be out there and accessible to anyone, so that the analysis could be done independently, and that changes could be detected by comparing existing with a more recently assembled data set. But this is not the case, because the entire set up for the amphibian assessment relies on expert opinions, drawing circles to define the range of a particular species, discarding the original observations. The one single most significant advance in the amphibian assessment is, that it is an effort including up to 600 scientists world wide.

Supposedly, the original data is on the Global Amphibian Web site, but it is not there. This actually demonstrates a couple of other crucial impediments in conservation. It is one thing, to mention that data is accessible - something which ought to be done because donors such as the US National Science Foundation demand it, and then actually do it. Being one the interim steering committee of the Conservation Commons initiative, I (and some others) ponder for a while now how to deal with this problem. There are all these institutions signing up on the principles of the Conservation Commons, but then who actually provides access? May be it is the wrong approach that institutions as such can sign up, which gives weight to the initiative and in return allows them to use the CC label. May be, one should only be allowed to sign up products, like in the Creative Commons. This way, the Global Amphibian Assessment would have to make their data accessible and we could get access to the data of Conservation International and other signatories.

If we are really concerned about our environment, then we ought to do our best to fight against its decline. Certainly sharing data is one element which is, in my view, the most powerful new asset given to us by the digital revolution. See for example google Earth’ impact on innovation, or for a bit a more professional use, what the Global Land Cover Facility has to offer.

Access to data, and ingenious users, would allow shifting power to a new, Forth Force of highly independent groups targeting environmental issues right on the spot with the most advanced tools, and at the same time allows assembling and addressing local issues within a global perspective, to mitigate the effects of the governments’ and increaslingly global industries’ action on the environment in places where they are listening, and in ways the now classical NGO can't do anymore.


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