Saving Tigers, Killing Christians?

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Over at The New Republic, Joel Whitney argues that conservationists are propping up Myanmar's military regime:

Based in New York, [The Wildlife Conservation Society] has been working in Burma since 1993 as part of its overall mission to save wildlife and wild lands around the globe. In that time, [Director Alan] Rabinowitz has posted a number of conservation successes–establishing the world's largest tiger reserve, for example, and discovering a new, rare species of deer. The splashy headlines, however, have come at a price. WCS's work in Burma has provided the regime with money, information, and political cover for its abuse of ethnic groups, all while downplaying its human right violations. WCS has stood not against the regime but with it.

I interviewed Rabinowitz three or four times for the Myanmar Times, and it's true that he tends, in conversation, to apologize for the regime. It's easy not to see the brutality in Burma, and he faults incompetence rather than cruelty for the military's behavior. And when you're working in conservation, it's a hell of a lot easier to deal with a dictatorship than a democracy.

But propping up the regime? Please. Whitney accuses Rabinowitz of helping the regime to "gain some measure of acceptance from the international community"–what some activists call "conferring legitimacy" through engagement. "Conferring legitimacy" is a bullshit accusation thrown at anyone who visits a country led by a rogue government. The Red Cross "confers legitimacy." So does the German embassy, Medecins Sans Frontieres, UNICEF, and USAID. They're not doing a very good job of it, apparently, as mention of Myanmar generally does not generally convey impressions of stellar medical care and progressive conservation practices. You can't atone for ethnic cleansing by saving a tiger.

Whitney's more serious charge is that Rabinowitz, by setting up a string of huge reserves, has "given the regime strategic advantage over Burma's battered ethnic groups." Um, wow. That might be true, but it'd be extremely difficult to verify–these aren't areas where foreigners are allowed to travel. You'd have to find either someone Kachin or someone in the military to corroborate that cordoning off wildlife was actually helping to control the Kachin (a Christian minority group), and, well, good luck with that. My impression, after speaking to staff from the Ministry of Forestry, is that there are virtually no staff to police the reserves anyway—it's as if no one had ever established them. It may be that the Ministry, which clearly wanted the reserves, sold them to the generals as a way to gain greater control over the country. But I don't see any evidence that the reserves have exacerbated the conflict.

A more likely explanation is that Alan Rabinowitz is a naive American who wants to save some animals, and he has little to do with a longstanding, bloody conflict between a loathsome government and a Christian minority. The regime has never been less concerned about its international reputation as it is right now, so there's little reason to believe it would bother to hide behind an NGO. The whole scenario Whitney sets up is possible but not plausible, and a few quotes from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) and other sanctions-boosters do not make it so.

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  1. when you’re working in conservation, it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with a dictatorship than a democracy.

    Funny because it’s true.

  2. or
    Not funny, because it’s true.

  3. “when you’re working in conservation, it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with a dictatorship than a democracy.”

    Or maybe, funny but not true.

    It’s always easier to screw people over and destroy what they value if you don’t have to worry about them holding you accountable.

    Ever wonder why the Irish landscape doesn’t have many trees? Hint: think Britain.

  4. Ever wonder why the Irish landscape doesn’t have many trees? Hint: think Britain.

    No trees? Ye gods, how are they surviving over there?

    No, seriously though, I have never heard anything about a lack of trees on Ireland…a cursory read of articles on Ireland don’t mention this either. Can I get a link of some kind?

    And: if Ireland has a severe lack of trees and is still a prosperous civilization, what does that say about the caterwauling that we need “sustainable” growth?

  5. Randian,

    The landscape was denuded of trees to build the English navy, and turned into pastureland and cultivated fields.

    Ever hear of the potato famine? When the whole landscape is devoted to monoculture, that sort of thing becomes inevitable.

    And today, the average selling price of a home is over $470,000, in a country with a lower per capita income than the United States. You think construction might be a little expensive?

  6. And today, the average selling price of a home is over $470,000, in a country with a lower per capita income than the United States. You think construction might be a little expensive?

    But apparently the highest per capita GDP in Western Europe. The Irish aren’t doing too badly. 😉

    http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZDNjZjMyNTJjNjRmODY2YzZlNjkzZGRiOWQ0Y2IxNjk=

  7. “But propping up the regime? Please.”

    *You’re with us or against us*- what don’t you understand?

  8. what some activists call “conferring legitimacy” through engagement. “Conferring legitimacy” is a bullshit accusation thrown at anyone who visits a country led by a rogue government. The Red Cross “confers legitimacy.” So does the German embassy, Medecins Sans Frontieres, UNICEF, and USAID.

    wait not so fast there…are we so sure that aid orginizations providing services that are normally the responisibilty of the government do not in fact enable rogue governments?

  9. It’s always easier to screw people over and destroy what they value if you don’t have to worry about them holding you accountable.

    seems to fit the description of the EPA, the clean water act, smart growth, the endangered species act…by joe, joe i think you are getting it…centralized planning is bad for the enviornment!!

  10. Joshua,

    I’d distinguish between enabling and legitimizing. The latter typically refers to the way a country is seen by outsiders, especially international organizations.

  11. Bill G:

    Ireland’s prosperity is a fairly recent development. The RoI was at or near the bottom of the non-communist European economic league tables for most of the 20th century. As for the monoculture leading up to the famine times, Ireland grew many crops, but, except for the praties grown by the tenants, most of the grain grown and livestock raised on the sasanach estates was for export: sheep’s wool, lamb, mutton, flax made into linen, and beef cattle all were sold into the English market. The Irish peasant lived on a diet of potatoes, supplemented by milk, butter, and the occasional serving of pork, if they kept a dairy cow and some pigs. Not everyone was that well off. Remittances from emigrants helped, and only recently has net emigration halted. Indeed, it has reversed.

    Google up “Celtic Tiger” at your leisure.

    Kevin

  12. joshua,

    “…seems to fit the description of the EPA, the clean water act, smart growth, the endangered species act…”

    Each of which was pcreated by a democratically elected legislature, and carried out by a democratically elected executive, with extensive public debate before, during, and after its adoption. Should the people oppose those policies, those who created and continued them can be voted out of office and replaced by representatives who oppose them. That’s the “hold them accountable” part.

    You don’t seem to get this whole “democracy” thing, joshua. Would you mind not agitating for other people to die violent deaths on the other side of the planet in its name until you get a better grip on what it is?

  13. This kind of reminds me of the quote attributed to the bank robber Willie Horton when he was asked why he robs banks; “Because that’s where the money is”. Why would you try to save tigers in a country where the government oppresses it’s people? Because that’s where the tigers are.

  14. Ratboy-

    It was Willie Sutton, not Horton; and your point is an excellent one.

  15. “Each of which was pcreated by a democratically elected legislature, and carried out by a democratically elected executive, with extensive public debate before, during, and after its adoption. Should the people oppose those policies, those who created and continued them can be voted out of office and replaced by representatives who oppose them. That’s the “hold them accountable” part.”

    George Bush is joe’s president. 😀

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