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Endangered Species: Developing Countries

Volume 678: debated on Monday 20 July 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to bring forward this debate. You will know that there has been a lot of talk about the positive environmental impact of lockdowns around the world and how wildlife in some areas has flourished. It is true that some species have benefited from the absence of humans in many places, but the opposite is also true; many of our most engendered species and precious habitats now face real crisis because of the economic impact of the virus. As tourists disappear, the financial position of local communities deteriorates in areas that are vital for our biodiversity, so the door is opened for poachers and land grabbers, giving them the opportunity to act illegally with little resistance.

Areas of special scientific and environmental interest in poorer countries such as Madagascar rely on tourism to fund conservation. To take one example, the Ranomafana national park, home to 12 rare species of lemur, currently generates no income at all for those who work there to keep its work going. The consequence has been an upsurge in deforestation and poaching. Security and patrols of parks have had to be scaled back due to the lockdown and the costs. There are fewer tourists and guides around on routine tours around national parks, which provide a deterrent to poachers. None of that is happening right now, so of course the opportunity is there for people who want to break the law and to commit acts that we would all regard as barbaric. Local people who benefited from the income that tourism brought them now have to turn to other sources of income as well. There is a strong correlation between the rise in poaching rates and local poverty.

The international wildlife trade was already the fifth most lucrative transnational trade before this, worth around £17 billion internationally every year. Of course, the support services, the international tourism, the travellers who arrive and the money that flows into those local economies have been decimated by the pandemic, leaving so many important areas with no income, with no warning at all. For example, the annual income of the not-for-profit African Parks, which manages 17 parks, has been reduced by $7.5 million, with an expectation that it will take several years to get back to pre-pandemic levels.

The consequence is heartbreaking. Botswana has seen at least six endangered rhinos killed during the pandemic, with at least nine killed in South Africa and dozens deliberately de-horned to try to prevent further poaching. However, it is not only the highest-profile species in Africa. In Cambodia, three of the roughly 300 giant ibis left in the wild were poached in April. In Colombia, between March and April, five jaguars, one puma and one ocelot were killed in its north-western region alone.

Along with increased poaching has come an upsurge in illegal forest clearance. Nepal has seen logging more than double in five of its most important national parks, which is really important terrain for the Bengal tiger. Compared with April 2019, April 2020 saw 64% more land cleared in Brazil, and 2019 was already the highest year for deforestation. The World Wide Fund for Nature reports a 150% increase in deforestation in March in 18 at-risk countries, equating to an area of around 6,500 sq km, seven times the size of Berlin. Indonesia has been the worst affected, followed by the Congo and Brazil. Between January and March alone, Amazon deforestation was up 51% compared with last year— roughly the size of New York City—and in April, it was up 71%.

It is not just the places that we hear most about. To give just one example, in May in Thailand, eight men were arrested for removing a rosewood tree from a wildlife sanctuary. That tree alone was worth $70,000. As with poaching, a pause on patrols of nature reserves in indigenous territories, combined with mass job losses, are seen as driving the increase in illegal logging.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The press and the media are full of these stories. I noticed over the weekend one story that said that non-governmental organisations do not have the finances anymore to pay for rangers to protect the wild animals. Does he intend to ask the Minister perhaps to look at helping and financing the NGOs, so that they can pay the rangers to police the parks and thereby preserve and protect the animals?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I will come on to, but that is indeed one of the things that I would like this country to do.

We have a significant aid budget in this country. Although we have financial pressures at home and although there are particular challenges, even with the level of our aid budget, which is linked to our national income, the fact is that we need to act on these threats both for the short term and the long term. In the short term, improving the support that we provide for conservation projects, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, can help communities affected by job losses from coronavirus. It can help to prevent local people from turning to poaching and illegal trafficking to make up for lost income. We need to prevent those crimes from being, frankly, the only way that someone can keep their family on the straight and narrow and keep them alive and fed. Of course, this matters for the long term as well, because biodiversity gains and sustainable development projects will contribute to global efforts to reduce carbon emissions to keep global temperatures down, so we also have to make sure that we look after conservation for all our futures.

That is why my message to the Minister tonight is this: I want the Government to ensure that the support that we provide for conservation projects and—in particular, right now, when ecotourism is non-existent—for habitat restoration is sustained and increased in the coming years. Habitat restoration is one of the things we can do now that has those short and long-term impacts. I want us to step up the support that we provide to projects that restore the rainforest and other forest areas. I know that it can be done—I have seen it done. Helping poorer countries to restore not just forest areas, but, for example, mangrove swamps, can have direct economic benefits for the surrounding communities through poverty alleviation, improving food security and, of course, providing opportunities for recreation and tourism, and in some places the moderation of extreme events.

Equally importantly, however, spending money restoring natural habitats provides a refuge for endangered species and reduces the risk to biodiversity. Again, take the example of Madagascar: around 80% to 90% of Madagascar’s animal and plant species are exclusive to the island. It is a real garden of Eden still, but it has lost over a fifth of its tree cover since 2001, driven primarily by agricultural expansion. That process of habitat loss needs to be reversed. If we invest in land restoration and helping the local population to diversify what they do, everyone benefits. That is where our aid budgets can play a dual role in helping to alleviate poverty and creating economic opportunity, but also—crucially—looking after biodiversity and natural terrain.

As the Minister knows, we have a good track record as a country. It is not as though we are doing nothing in this area; we are actually doing plenty. The UK has contributed to the creation of nature protection zones across the world equivalent to the size of Brazil. Partnership work in Indonesia to protect the Sumatran tigers has helped to create 16,000 jobs. To counter deforestation and boost forest and biodiversity conservation, the Department for International Development’s Partnerships for Forests is supporting the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and local conservation partners in Liberia to develop a market for forest-friendly Gola cocoa.

However, I think that now is still the time for us to step up to the plate even more. I know that this year, the drop in GDP will affect our aid budgets, but they have also been rising steadily in recent years, so we have the scope to focus more effort on conservation projects. It is in our national interest to do so.

I commend my right hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is extremely relevant and vital at this time. Does he agree that the aid budget should be used around the world but particularly in some of our British overseas territories, which have a huge amount of biodiversity and many endangered species that need our support? Perhaps that should be one of our Government’s first priorities.

Absolutely, because we have a political and national duty to help our overseas territories. Of course, there are important ties between the overseas territories and some of the conservation organisations in this country, with which my hon. Friend does so much important work and which face significant challenges right now.

We need to do two things. First, we need to step up our support for projects that specifically support endangered species and provide support against poaching. The reality in many of the national parks is that the disappearance of tourists means there are fewer people around to deter poaching and more people who are under severe economic pressures. Whether it is in respect of the projects that support orangutans in Borneo or those that look after the rhino and other endangered species in Africa, now is our moment to demonstrate our real commitment to protecting the world’s most endangered animals.

Secondly, we need to put extra support into protecting and restoring forest areas and other natural habitats. I have personally seen in Borneo how an area that 20 years ago was a palm oil plantation can be turned into a forest teeming with wildlife. It can be done and we can play a big part in that. We are doing great work in places such as the Congo basin, but now is the time to build on and expand that work.

Let me address the Minister with his Foreign Office hat on as well as his DFID one. We know from the current crisis, and from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS in the past few years, just how vulnerable we are to zoonotic diseases making the jump to humans. We already know the risks of disease from endangered species such as pangolins—the most trafficked animals in the world—and far too many other animals that are taken into the illegal wildlife trade and that pose a real risk to all of us on this planet. We have to use all our diplomatic skills and resources to encourage change around the world after this pandemic.

Humanity cannot go on treating wildlife in the way in which it does today. People in this country—all of us in this Chamber—have a part to play. For example, we should seek always to buy products from sustainable sources. Right now, though, the most important thing is for the Minister and his Department to make sure that they put all the support they can into projects that will help endangered species today and, in doing so, contribute to helping not just to secure short-term benefit and to tackle a short-term crisis, but to ensure, over the longer term, that we secure a better future for our planet.

I am very conscious of the time, so I will be extremely brief and say that I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said.

First, I took part in the efforts to push through the domestic Ivory Bill, which the House passed in 2018, so I agree entirely on the need to protect flora and fauna around the world and the example that the United Kingdom can set. I ask the Minister politely when we might be able to implement the Ivory Act 2018. I know that it has recently been caught up in some legal wranglings, but it would be very effective and send a clear message on the UK’s determination to tackle this issue.

Secondly, it is also relevant to expand on what we did with that Act to take on the walrus, narwhal and hippo trades, which are blighting black markets around the world.

Thirdly, my right hon. Friend talked about poaching. We have the opportunity, with our official development assistance budget and our troops who serve overseas, to help those communities and those tourist economies and to help to protect the wildlife that we hold so dear.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing this debate, particularly at this crucial time. I will work closely with the noble Lord Hague of Richmond of the other place, who was until recently known to this neighbourhood. I am grateful for the other contributions, in particular that of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), whom I shall look to update on the situation in relation to the Ivory Act 2018.

On the effect of the international pandemic on the tourism sector more generally and on development issues, it is still early on, but I share my right hon. Friend’s analysis that covid has had a detrimental impact on those areas, both directly and indirectly. Tourism is a major source of employment, Government revenue and foreign exchange earnings. Clearly, this will be a loss to local community, local non-governmental organisations, anti-poaching schemes. It will also be a loss to individuals within that community, who may turn to more short-term revenue-generating activities, particularly around deforestation. We should be very alert to those issues.

I have been asked to look at how NGOs can assist in tackling poaching. I am certainly more than willing to do that, but I would also highlight the role the Ministry of Defence has played in anti-poaching matters. I am meeting the MOD this week on broader African issues and I will be more than happy to raise that broader concept. However, the underlying economics are the key to making sure that local communities understand the role of biodiversity, but still have a sustainable economic route to tackling their poverty.

Covid is still evolving. We do not know what the full situation and implications will be, but we do know there is an opportunity to build back a more resilient, healthy and greener world as we emerge from this terrible situation. The pandemic has been a stark reminder of what we have known for a long time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell refers to it as the relationship between humanity and nature. Where it breaks down it has a profound effect. We have been very much reminded of that during this crisis. Coming out of the crisis, we need to be very careful to bear that in mind.

Biodiversity is clearly essential for all life on earth, including our own. It is also vital for our economies. It underpins global efforts for broader and sustainable development. Protecting endangered species and restoring habitats, which my right hon. Friend talked about in particular, matters not only to us but to developing countries. Over 1 billion people depend on forests for their daily living, both for fuel in a sustainable way and food. Over 1 billion people depend on fish as their main source of protein, so these issues are directly important to them.

The science and evidence are clear that global biodiversity is in catastrophic decline. My right hon. Friend mentioned a number of very clear examples of that. Unfortunately, the figures paint a very concerning picture. Three-quarters of land-based environments and two-thirds of marine environments have been significantly altered by human activity, such as the exploitation of nature directly through pollution and through changes in land and sea use. One million animals and plant species are now at risk of extinction. My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the orangutan. There is the maritime example of the Antarctic blue whale and he also mentioned lemur. A third of lemur species are at threat of extinction.

My own bailiwick at the Foreign Office and Department for International Development is Africa, but my right hon. Friend rightly points out that this is not just an African issue, but a global issue, mentioning countries such as Cambodia and Colombia. Really, there is either a problem in the country or the country should be stepping up to the issue, so it is a global issue. The Government feel that the UK should be a force for good. It is in the national interest to sort out these issues, as well as it being altruistic and the right thing to do.

The Minister mentions being a force for good. Britain is always a force for good, but we are particularly a force for good when it comes to conservation in the work of British zoos and aquariums. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government continue to support their work, as part of the global conservation effort.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. His campaigning activity, I think, led directly to changes in Government policy. I have not yet been back to Colchester zoo—I think that is our nearest shared zoo, if we go towards my end of the patch—but I look forward to doing so again. They are also an important part of educating our children on the importance of biodiversity. Not all of us can go to Madagascar and see the beauty of that country. In fact, if we all did go it would be somewhat counterproductive in terms of air miles.

I have listened to all the contributions to the debate with great interest. Earlier, the situation in the overseas territories was adverted to. For the UK, 95% of our biodiversity is in the overseas territories, yet 95% of the funding we give for biodiversity goes domestically, within this country. The Foreign Office has always maintained a good relationship with the authorities in the overseas territories, but they have said that although it is their responsibility to act, they do not have the funding. Will the Minister look at that relationship of responsibility and funding? Ultimately, the responsibility under the convention on biological diversity is the UK’s, even though we try to work closely with the governing authorities in the overseas territories.

The two hon. Members make two important interlocking points, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on the absolute importance of the area, and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on our absolute responsibility to assist the overseas territories. Having previously had ministerial responsibility for the overseas territories, I am apprised of that and of the issue of marine diversity in particular, although not exclusively. We have done a lot on that, but I am happy to pass on the hon. Members’ observations to Baroness Sugg, who is examining the relationship with the overseas territories in that regard. We would be open to doing more within our extended family, which is an obvious place to start, rather than in other areas outside that close family.

We have doubled our international climate finance to £11.6 billion over the next five years. We are helping more generally with reform in broader areas such as land use, agriculture and forest governance to help farmers in developing countries, so that they can develop sustainably without damaging the environment. One of the figures I was briefed on, which I had to check several times because it seemed too enormous to be true, is that we lose the equivalent of 30 football pitches of forested area every single minute. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell talked about Berlin and other geographical areas; I am not desperately familiar with the size of Berlin, but I know the size of a football pitch, so that figure really brought home to me the importance of this subject. It is easy to talk about the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Congo basin, but they are a long way away and the DRC is a damn big country, bigger than many of us can conceive, but we can understand the more discrete area of a football field.

We are not just stopping bad things happening, but trying to reverse the changes. We are working to conserve and restore mangrove forests, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. That work, covering 180,000 hectares of biodiverse forest, will improve the livelihoods of 80,000 people in coastal areas and avoid the production of nearly 8 million tonnes of carbon emissions. It is not about merely stopping a trajectory, but about undoing some of the harm.

It is important that we do not operate independently. This is a global issue. We are supporting the global environment facility, which was specifically set up on the eve of the 1992 Rio Earth summit to tackle some of the most pressing problems. We led the last replenishment, contributing £250 million, making us the third largest donor. We should be proud that we do that. We can always do more and we press to do more, but when we do some good, we should celebrate it. Since its inception, the facility has supported the management of over 3,300 protected areas covering 860 million hectares, and in totality the projects have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 27 billion tonnes.[Official Report, 22 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 14MC]

We are committed to doing even more, investing more of our aid programme in protecting biodiversity and using our own expertise to help in this crucial work. My right hon. Friend rightly presses me on the financial side. We are reviewing the whole Government portfolio in the light of covid and working closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury and other ODA Departments to make sure that all we do is done in a coherent and strategic way. Although I cannot make commitments tonight on the Floor of the House, I can point to the UK’s commitment to double international climate finance to at least £11.6 billion for the period 2021-26. That should reassure him as to our direction of travel.

Mention was made of endangered species and what we are doing to protect them. We are fully committed to the convention on international trade in endangered species and the convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals—the only global convention specialising in the conservation of migratory species, their habitats and their migration routes. We are funding conservation activities in the Kavango–Zambezi transfrontier conservation area in southern Africa, which I know slightly better than the other parts of the world mentioned by my right hon. Friend. That is helping to unlock green corridors and benefiting wildlife and communities, and we will do more.

In the coming months we will use every opportunity to advocate and leverage our impact and influence at a global level on the issue of biodiversity. As co-hosts of COP, we want to amplify the linkages between biodiversity and tackling climate change. We are establishing a joint dialogue between consumers and producer countries, to enable a transition regarding deforestation-free commodity production, driving UK action and green supply chains. We are advocating to secure the protection of our planet’s ocean and land resources by 2030, to help curb climate change, support livelihoods, and safeguard a planet for all. In 2021 we have the convention on biological diversity—COP15—alongside COP26. Having had to delay COP26, in the next 18 months we have an opportunity to deal with some of these issues.

The Ivory Act received Royal Assent in 2018, and there was an appeal to the Court of Appeal which, quite rightly, upheld the Government’s position. There is now a challenge to the Supreme Court—my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes rightly raised that issue, and although we very much want to move ahead, we will be delayed slightly by that challenge. I would be more than happy to discuss the issue with him.

One story in the media over the weekend that I was aware of is that across the whole of Africa some criminal gangs have been involved in wildlife crime. Those gangs are mostly constituted of those of Chinese origin. Can the Minister offer any help to assist countries legally to make those involved in wildlife crime be held accountable?

The hon. Gentleman is right, and the problems of organised crime are deep. These are not disorganised or opportunistic cases, and as well as anti-poaching measures, this is about fundamental policing and community-based activities. This is not necessarily just through NGOs and the MOD; it is about good old-fashioned policing and community engagement.

It is important that all communities benefit from biodiversity, and that benefit is most obvious through preservation and caring for the community. That is where the loss of tourism that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referred to is so important, because a direct contribution was made by people going to those areas to enjoy the beauty of biodiversity. Those communities then received money, both directly through employment for people and their families, and funding for anti-poaching work, but also through a broader contribution from greater sustainability, and ensuring local buying in the communities. As with a lot of development and diplomacy, this is not something that the UK does unto others; this is something that we do with global partners, in partnership with those countries.

We have a stark choice for our shared future. This is not just about nature; this is about humanity. Covid has demonstrated that link, and my right hon. Friend has directly pointed to that shared interest between biodiversity and humanity. We must seize the opportunity to reshape our economies, build back better, and reset our relationship with nature. Let us not waste it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.