True price of Mexico’s maize

Since the beginning of the 20th century drug trafficking has been a part of the Mexican economy. Mexico has become the largest marijuana producer and the third opium supplier for the international market. US-led interventions in South American drug producing countries like Peru, Bolivia and Colombia diminished their drug production but increased the presence of drug cartels and drug production in Mexico. As a result, illegal crops are being cultivated in a third of Mexico’s municipalities.

Policies that damage the Mexican agriculture sector, where maize cultivation has been the main economic activity since pre-colonial times, have been implemented for decades, benefiting large producers and having farmers lose the governmental subsidies, and thus, their livelihoods. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) removed customs tariff on maize, causing Mexico to be filled with cheaper American product and dropping the prices of the Mexican product about 20%, forcing farmers to substitute their production for illegal crops, or intercrop legal and illegal crops to make a profit.

Recent academic research has compared drugs with diamonds considering them ‘lootable’ natural resources, negatively affecting the environment as a consequence of farming, production, consumption and eradication. This damage can be seen in the form of deforestation, erosion of land, contamination of superficial water and destruction of flora and fauna, amongst others.

 Mexican aquifers and other natural resources are being exploited and forests are being destroyed. As a result of decreasing crop prices and increasing costs of supplies needed for farming, well-drilling for irrigation purposes and other technologies that further damage the environment are being used, while the use of agrochemicals and transgenic seeds is escalating to increase production.

Out of the 196 million hectares that make up Mexico, 64% have been degraded by wind and water erosion, with 10, 000 hectares of farming land lost each year due to salt accumulation with an overall 425, 000 hectares are no longer useful for farming purposes.

The illegal nature of drug cultivation forces farmers to move further into jungle and forest in order to hide the plantations from the authorities, bringing the negative ecological impact increasingly into the country’s jungles and drying water springs. As a result of decreasing crop prices and increasing costs of supplies needed for farming, well drilling for irrigation purposes and other technologies that further damage the environment are being used and agrochemicals are being abused.

 Mono cultivation favours plague, requiring high doses of chemical pesticides and of fertilizer chemicals which end up in land and rivers. Additional environmental problems come as a consequence of the disposal of manufacturing chemicals and of substances disposed by users after consumption, resulting in surface water pollution.

Negative ecological impact that results from the drug wars comes as a consequence of the activity of drug cartels and of lack of government care. The drug eradication strategy used during the current drug war in Latin America destroys not only the illegal crops but also the legal crops, which make up the farmers’ livelihood. Damaging governmental policies, weak rule of law, the agriculture sector, drug cartels and environmental destruction are linked.

By Ana Lorena Vigil Gomez Haro, Associate of Another Day, security consulting and advisory firm.



Posted in Drugs, Mexico, War and ecosytems | Leave a comment

The nature of militarization (3/final)

Does militarisation within conservation work?

Clausewitz’s famous dictum of war being an extension of politics by other means applies equally to the ‘militarization’ of counter-poaching.

Firstly, the increasing privatisation of counter-poaching inevitably means there is a loosening of controls by state authorities; this in turn sees the criminal model being gradually superseded by the counter-insurgency model, with its looser legal restraints.

Secondly, from the trend of wildlife conservation aligning itself with broader national and international security issues in the name of ‘securitization’ a dangerous unintended consequence could be to legitimize wildlife officers as ‘targets’ in the eyes of subversive elements.

Thirdly, while ‘shoot-to-kill’ sends an unambiguous message it also runs the risk of creating the perception that authorities care more about wildlife than humans. Connected to that, in a classic analysis of ‘social bandits’, the historian, Eric Hobsbawm, said that poachers were often seen as ‘men to be admired, helped and supported’. He pointed to the case of Mathias Klostermayr, an eighteenth-century ‘social bandit’ in Bavaria who terrorized hunters, game-keepers and anyone associated with game; for Hobsbawm, while Klostermayr’s poaching was ‘an activity peasants always regarded as legitimate, he was admired and helped’.

Fourthly, given the relative impotence of organisations tasked with halting IWT, in reality it is only an over-arching, universal body with real power that effect can changes, and that is the United Nations. Here, the Central African Republic (CAR) can – for once – provide a positive example: in March and June of 2015, troops of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) were used as partners by WWF-Dzanga Sangha to perform anti-poaching operations, contributing to patrols, seizures and arrests. Taking this further, bodies including the International Crisis Group have called on the UN, specialised organisations, regional states and the CAR government to create a cell within MINUSCA to fight against diamonds, gold, ivory trafficking – and ‘militarised’ poaching.  Jasper Humphreys

Posted in Africa, Central African Republic, Conservation, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Militarisation of Nature | Leave a comment

The nature of ‘militarization’ (2)

‘Shoot-to-kill’ is part of a general criticism of ‘militarization’ in wildlife protection terms that the use of force is synonymous with coercion and violence, and also that ‘militarized’ counter-poaching can be prioritized to the detriment of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) as well as creating a ‘war’ narrative: the implication here is that force is being applied within a militaristic dynamic of ‘weaponizing’ counter-poaching that works hand in hand with social exclusion.

From these various perspectives a ‘militarization matrix’ emerges that factors in wildlife conservation with land ownership and socio-economic issues as well as intangible cultural and historical elements; alongside these are the market forces that have turned a handful of high value species into ‘commodities’ driven either by their importance to tourism, body parts or both: here it is important to remember that a sizeable proportion of the wildlife in prime safari fee-paying South Africa and Kenya live on private land, in effect making the struggle between poachers and land-owners at heart a ‘commodity conflict’.

These landowners are Africa’s ‘landed gentry’ who in the past relied on agriculture, especially cattle ranching, as the main revenue stream; however, with globalised competition for their products and climate change eroding the soil, income streams have been increasingly repositioned to focus on tourism based on the luxury safari ‘experience’. For this ‘militarization’ acts not only as protection against poachers but just as importantly, against rising levels of crime: robbery in a safari camp is not only bad for business but it also inevitably carries a generalised message of ineffective policing and insecurity.

‘Militarization’ is a ‘hard power’ strategy to protect these valuable commodities but it is expensive; this means in general wildlife protection terms that the greater the price-tag on an animal then the more protection it is likely to receive: for example, $330million was earmarked for the Global Tiger Initiative following a summit in St Petersburg hosted by Vladimir Putin in 2010 and the rhino is a key player in the safari tourist industry of sub Sahara Africa; at the other end of the scale, the Brazilian Three-Toed Sloth which lives in the forests of eastern Brazil, is all but ignored as its numbers and habitat disappears, with various species such as the pangolin and turtle in the mid-range of getting some protection but certainly not enough.

In a non-scientific definitional sense there is a difference between poaching and trafficking, even though both form a distinct part of a distributive chain and rely on stealth and evasion as opposed to confrontation (unless under attack). Trafficking is the loose generic term for the illegal transportation and distribution of wildlife, while poaching refers to the action of taking wildlife that is under the custodianship either of state bodies or private ownership. In the case of creatures from the Earth’s oceans, legally regarded as ‘mare nostrum’ (everyone’s sea) – apart from territorial waters – protection is in theory provided by United Nations World Charter for Nature and forms the legal justifications for the actions of Sea Shepherd.

The assessment of ‘militarization’ and ‘securitisation’ of the illegal wildlife trade is sometimes referred to as a ‘war’ on behalf of wildlife; here, Nick Steele, a legendary former South African conservationist and pioneer of the modern ‘conservancy’ model of farms/ranches that combine husbandry of wildlife and cattle, developed the ‘Farm Patrol Plan’ during Apartheid, in which he persuaded the (white) ranchers to join forces in para-military style to protect their farms from poaching and political turmoil, thereby entwining ‘militarized’ conservation with broader national security, which is echoed in today’s rhino and ivory ‘wars’ in South Africa and Kenya respectively.

Today, conflict and crime are increasingly drawing in wildlife conservation as poachers and traffickers exploit ‘ungoverned spaces’, especially in Africa: for example, the heavy infiltration of Kenya’s numerous ‘badlands’ border areas has led to a surge of ‘weaponisation’ in the country’s wildlife protection, a trend replicated in South Africa. Additionally, these conflicts have been fuelled by the circulation of vast numbers of small arms in Africa that have been part of the reason why US Africom has stealthily assembled a chain of small and low-visibility ‘lily-pad’ bases to prosecute a ‘shadow’ war and the British Army to use Kenyan ‘conservancies’ for training purposes.   Jasper Humphreys

Posted in Africa, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Kenya, South Africa | Leave a comment

The nature of ‘militarization’ (1)

There is a unique strategic conundrum at the heart of the protection of wildlife and the interdiction of illegal wildlife trafficking (IWT): to survive wildlife needs the altruistic engagement of humans to combat the actions of other human beings for its ultimate defence and part of this protection includes the controversial use of force, sometimes referred to as ‘militarization’.

As the volume of IWT, both dead or alive, has risen to be the fourth highest illegal trade classification and worth between $10-20billion per annum, the phrase ‘militarization’ is increasingly applied to describe counter-measures: while ‘militarization’ generally implies the use of force, it crosses a wide terrain from the actual use of violence through the use of guns to conceptual critiques of counter-poaching, such as ‘green militarization’ and ‘green violence’, which carry a negative connotation.

Here the suspicion is that militarized responses to IWT might have a negative impact on communities because there is a failure to distinguish between poaching for profit and poaching for subsistence: even though IWT also includes luxury products such as crocodile-skin boots, pashminas, shark-fins and turtle eggs, as well as the ‘grey’ area of wildlife traded for ‘canned’ hunting, the taking of wildlife is also a source of food, clothing or medicine for millions of people, the majority from the poorest communities in the world. Furthermore, for some communities IWT constitutes a key source of income, either to just make ends meet or as a business that pays handsomely.

Conversely, with the global proliferation of small arms, poachers can easily get hold of rifles and AK 47’s for hunting and self-protection: one account of the overlap between the drugs trade and turtle egg raiding in Mexico describes how hundreds of hueveros (egg snatchers) arrived on the beach with machetes and guns blazing.

Though there are a number of IWT source countries in which the rangers either do not carry weapons, such as in Colombia, or where the rangers are virtually non-existant, such as in Central America, taking an overview of today’s ‘militarised’ counter-poaching it is clear that inexorably the main focus is on central and sub-Saharan Africa, which is hardly surprising given that Africa hosts the largest proportion of the world’s megafauna which attracts the most aggressive poaching and ‘militarized’ counter-measures. Though IWT takes in a wide range of species, the main focus of ‘militarized’ counter-poaching is clearly on high-profile species such as elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers and snow leopards.

The dynamics of poaching and ‘lootable’ wildlife resources have become entwined with the ever-growing ‘shadow’ economy of transnational criminal networks, especially in countries and areas that have been ‘wasted’. These ‘wastelands’ can either occur through conflict, such as in central Africa, or severe deprivation, as in parts of Mexico and much of Central America; in these ‘wastelands’ the absence of an effective and centralized authority makes them in the view of political geographer, Derek Gregory, ‘pre-constituted as fallen, violated and damaged, always and everywhere potential targets for a colonising capitalist modernity’. Furthermore, the state’s monopoly of violence may have collapsed, leading to a position where ‘non state actors (warlords, local and ethnic militia) are able to establish alternative, territorially restricted forms of centralised violence’.

The area where ‘militarised’ counter-poaching and militant conservation mingle, such as with the Sea Shepherd marine conservation organisation and its opposition to whaling, also throws up thorny issues of moral and legal ambiguity surrounding the use of force that includes ‘eco-terrorism’. Furthermore, ‘militarised’ counter-poaching broadly follows trends in late-modern warfare that conform to ‘man-hunting’ that target individuals or groups, typically demonstrated in the rise of drone usage, which have been labelled by Derek Gregory, as ‘the individuation of warfare’, along with his suggestion that ‘man-hunting’ is ‘a new form of networked (para) military violence’. Thus, in various ways the essential ‘hunting’ element within counter-poaching has been in a sense ‘legitimized’ by developments in modern military tactics as well as relentless media coverage.  Jasper Humphreys

Posted in Africa, Colombia, Conservation, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Mexico, Militarisation of Nature, poaching | Leave a comment

Russia in Africa: old habits die hard

Wildlife crime and Russia’s African connections: old links leading to new problems?

Except they aren’t exactly new problems at all, but the continuation of old ones in new formats.

The UK awareness of the significance of the continuing large scale and very highly organised smuggling of African wildlife products to, typically, China via south east Asia and African hubs such as Nairobi will – hopefully – have been raised by the seizure of 110 kg. of ivory at Heathrow airport in October 2015, as reported by the BBC.

Let us also hope that the wider and deeper aspects are also taken into account. The BBC reports that the ivory was abandoned in baggage from a BA flight from Angola, with final destination being Hannover. That may well not be a coincidence.

German law enforcement has been aware since the 1990s of the significant presence in the Hannover area of German passport-holding Russian speakers: for many, their ancestry was German but subsequent generations had spread across the Soviet Union, with many from Central Asia to where their ancestors had been deported by Stalin. Russian criminal groups have exploited this connection for smuggling cigarettes, drugs and more recently people, as well as prostitution.

Flights are watched – but not all flights, so there is a large and well-organised distribution network, which also has links with Vietnamese groups who lived in East Germany from the 1980s.

Many insiders in the governing elites in the ex-Soviet states, especially Russia, have close links with the KGB’s successors and the still existing GRU, and some were members of the secret services. An example is Igor Sechin of Rosneft, who served as an “interpreter” in Mozambique in the 1980s, his study of Portugese not being an accident and heavily supplemented by his French.

The Soviet and Russian presence in Angola was for longer and on a larger scale than is often believed in the West – this writer has met such persons. The links between national elites in Africa and these persons remain: Mark Galeotti of New York University (NYU), a long-time watcher of the ex-Soviet military, highlights how military groups are not normally subject to border control checks in these countries, nor are their financial operations audited in the normal way (1).

All this makes the recent warnings by Kristopher Carlson and others in a Small Arms Survey report last year (2015) about the means by which military small arms leak to poachers or are used by the militaries themselves very relevant (2).

When combined with the recent increase of ex-Soviet state military personnel  in Africa with their large-scale recruitment by South African PMCs for the Nigerian offensive against Boko Haram in Spring 2015, it is certainly time to keep a close watch on the physical and corporate presence of appropriate Russian-speaking groups in the EU where there are plausible links with wildlife looting areas of Africa. They are certainly embedded in Spain and Portugal and in conjunction with Chinese in English-speaking southern and east Africa as well as in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in particular and the greater Congo basin, building on extensive UN reliance on their air transport fleets and helicopters for peace-keeping missions. On the corporate side in the EU, Greece, Cyprus, Austria and the Baltic states appear regularly, with payments often through the UK.

Law enforcers need to look at these people first, and only then for the likely crimes. They will find a lot.

Euan Grant; former HM Customs & Excise’s Strategic Intelligence Analyst investigating the ex – Soviet states between 1998- 2002; he has since worked extensively in those states.

1 : Mark Galeotti’s ‘blog’:

2 : ‘In the Line of Fire: Elephant and Rhino Poaching in Africa’.


Posted in Africa, Conservation, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Russia | 1 Comment

‘Green-shoots’ of data: war and biodiversity (1)

Once there was war and there was peace – but not any longer.

For the last decade celebrated Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, has gathered annual data on war and violence, extensively using the highly respected Uppsala Conflict Data Programme which demarcates 1000 conflict deaths as a rule-of-thumb definition of ‘war’.

Pinker would seem to have left no stone unturned: from civil wars (admittedly a slight uptick in 2014 due to the Syrian crisis but the trend is down), to war between nations and killings of unarmed civilians, across to murder (homicides), violence against women and even the popularity of hunting in the United States – for all these forms of violence the figures are down.

‘Despite the headlines, and with circumscribed headlines, the world has continued its retreat from violence. We need invoke no mysterious arc of justice or end of history to explain it. As modernity widens our circle of co-operation, we come to recognise the futility of violence and apply our collective ingenuity to reducing it’, wrote Pinker recently (1).

But there is one category that he has overlooked and which stands in stark contrast to Pinker’s punditry– deaths of environmentalists and conservationists have increased, which suggests a different perspective on definitions of violence as well as questions about whether Pinker risks being too glib and taking an overly narrow perspective.

Gilberto Torres from Colombia is a typical victim of the environmental-conflict nexus: a trade unionist, Torres led protests in 2002 against plans to drill for oil in his country for which he was abducted by paramilitaries for nearly two months. Now Torres lives in exile (2).

Torres is part of a trend that has been highlighted by Global Witness who released a report that showed that between 2002-2013 908 citizens were killed protecting rights to their land and environment: to give some perspective, that is broadly compatible with British armed forces deaths in Afghanistan during the same period as well as journalists across the world (3).

Furthermore, three times as many environmentalists were killed in 2012 than 10 years before; however, Global Witness says that while the figures are probably an underestimate given the difficulties of getting data ‘the death-rate also points to a much greater level of non-lethal violence and intimidation’.

On the subjects of non-lethal violence and intimidation there is a surprising dearth of broad research, even if there are a number of organisations looking at differing aspects. However, this month (December 2015) the Small Arms Survey released a report Voicing Concern: Surveying People’s Priorities in Violent Settings based on 43 recently completed population-based surveys carried out by well regarded organisations such as the Afrobarometer, the
Americas Barometer, the Asia Foundation, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, during which respondents were asked to either identify or rank the general issues about which they felt most concerned. Although not fully representative of all recent conflicts and insecure environments, the data spans three regions: Africa (8 countries), Asia (2 countries), and Latin America and the Caribbean (16 countries) (4).

The report’s overwhelming conclusion is: ‘security issues stand out as the most pressing concern for people in a variety of settings affected by recent or ongoing conflict and armed violence. At the height of a conflict, when prospects for peace are low, people are understandably primarily concerned with security-related issues’.

So, even if we know war is on the decline thanks to the research of Professor Pinker, there would seem to be other ways of gauging violence, with less comforting results – or put another way, if war is on the decline does that automatically mean the world is more peaceful ?       Jasper Humphreys

(1): The Guardian:

(2): The Observer:–kidnapped-chained-and-blindfolded-i-cant-go-bac-gilberto-torres

(3): Global Witness:

(4): Small Arms Survey:

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The sword at your side

The blowing apart of the Belgian Shepherd dog, ‘Diesel’, in the Paris siege last month prompted a Twitter-storm of sorrow and remembrance under the hash-tag ‘JeSuisChien’; it also shone a spotlight on the role of the ‘sniffer-dog’ in both modern policing and combat.

During the siege Diesel’ was sent ahead by the French anti-terror unit, RAID, into an apartment complex to check for booby-traps; in the aftermath nobody has commented whether ‘Diesel’s modus operandi had included risking self-destruction, which indeed happened when a suicide-bomber emerged to blow herself up, killing ‘Diesel’ as well: the dog has since been feted as a French hero and President Putin has sent a replacement as a sign of solidarity.

In ancient times dogs were actually used as battle weapons, let loose to attack and break down the opposition. Mastiffs and other large breeds were used extensively by Spanish conquistadors against native Americans; and when Sir Piers Legh was wounded at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, his mastiff stood over his master until the end of the battle and protected him for many hours after, both returning home to Lyme Hall in Cheshire.

In World War II a particularly curious tale followed from a suggestion by a Swiss citizen living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. William A. Prestre proposed using large dogs as a major fighting-force against Japanese soldiers: Prestre convinced the military to lease an entire island in the Mississippi to house the training facilities where the army hoped to train up two million dogs. The idea was to begin island invasions with landing-craft that released thousands of dogs against the Japanese defenders, then followed up by troops as the Japanese defenders scattered in confusion.

One of the biggest problems encountered was getting Japanese soldiers to train the dogs with, as few Japanese soldiers were being captured. Eventually, Japanese-American soldiers volunteered for the training, but the biggest problem was with the dogs; either they were too docile, did not properly respond to their beach-crossing training, or were terrified by shell-fire. After millions of dollars spent and inconclusive results, the program was abandoned.

Other more recent examples include the guard dogs used in Nazi concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps the world over; there was the important role played by snarling police-dogs enforcing apartheid in South Africa as well as other politically turbulent events.

Most recently, the torture archive of the Abu Gharib prison documented pictures of dogs being used to terrorise Iraqi detainees; indeed interest in the evolving use of torture in the politics of state violence has prompted critiques of Foucault’s argument about the gradual disappearance of spectacular torture being supplanted by differing disciplinary techniques such as the use of dogs.

Today, social scientists point to the difference between the ‘sniffer-dog’, which might be a spaniel or other non-shepherd dog, trained purely to ‘sniff’, and the ‘policing dog’, trained to patrol and if required to ‘take down’ a suspect, in many cases coming from the shepherd breed: the first is the ‘smell of power’ and the other ‘the teeth of power’ but taken together they are referred to as ‘K9 (canine) protection’, even having its own publication, the US-based K9 Cop which refers to the police-dog asthe sword at your side’. Here it is worth bearing in mind that a common way of describing the power of law is to equate the law with ‘teeth’ or a ‘bite’ or similarly how ‘the law doesn’t have a bite’, due to having ‘no teeth’.

‘In the endless warfare of contemporary political order in which the complicated cultural practices surrounding drugs, the social dynamics surrounding crime and the political tactics surrounding terrorism are reduced to an amorphous and ubiquitous ‘enemy’ of good order, police discretion becomes a key to victory. And in this war, the sniffer-dog is in the front-line’: words by Mark Neocleous, professor of the critique of political economy, Brunel University, in a seminal article, The Smell of Power: a contribution to the critique of the Sniffer Dog.

Neocleous pointed out that while there has been a significant increase in the use of dogs around public transport terminals over the last decade, often said to be about the ‘war on drugs’, it is also clear that the increased presence of police-dogs in public spaces is part of more generalized security measures: dogs are becoming the public face of the ‘war on terror’, and thus the sniffer-dog is both an emblematic and a symptomatic figure in the universal warfare.

Police forces work on the assumption that police-dogs can detect a whole range of substances on a person: this means that for the most part the dogs are used not to identify individuals, along the lines of a fingerprint or retinal scan, but to identify (or, more correctly, to appear to identify) specific substances.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s agency for military research, has developed a ‘Unique Signature Detection Project’, formerly known as the ‘Odortype Detection Program’; since 2007 it has been working on a system of Identification Based on Scent (IBIS), trying to estimate the amount of odour that a human body might produce and over what distance a dog can smell a person.

‘DARPA wants to be able to detect, track, and even positively identify them [criminals and terrorists] from a distance … using nothing more than the heat and sweat that emanate from a person’s pores’, notes the Information Awareness Office report, Detecting Sweaty, Smelly Security Threats.

Both the Department of Homeland Security in the USA and the Ministry of Defence in the UK fund research into smell, in the form of Remote Air Sampling Canine Olfaction (RASCO). In the early 1960s the CIA produced a report called ‘Human Scent and Its Detection’, which considers in great detail the science of sweat production, including several paragraphs discussing the different functions of the eccrine, apocrine and sebaceous glands, and noting the different ways in which they produce smells.

RASCO is said to be more accurate than a retinal scan because a person’s smell is thought to be less controllable than their eyes, and dogs are trained to smell past the attempts to camouflage real smells with false ones: such projects have been assisted by the chemical industries aiming to get in on the security bandwagon: the European Network of Excellence in Artificial Olfaction and the International Society for Olfaction and Chemical Sensing now list security politics as a major research interest.                       Jasper Humphreys

Posted in Dogs, Terror | 1 Comment

Fighting Nature in ‘Nam (2)

For a moment imagine that you are an American general infantryman – or GI – in the Vietnam War preparing for a combat mission. In addition to your standard M16 rifle (weighing about 7lbs/3kilos even unloaded) you would be putting together a load which usually included the following: between 2 to 8 quarter-litre canteens of water; canned combat C-rations; multiple clips of ammunition, plus flares, smoke and fragmentation grenades, and a Claymore anti-personnel mine with its own carrying bandolier.

There would also be bandages, water-purification tablets and insect repellent; an entrenching tool; a machete or knife; plus a poncho and liner or a half-shelter which doubled as a stretcher or a shroud if you were ‘hit’. All this strength-sapping load weighed between 60 and 80 pounds (between 27 and 36 kilos).

On top of that, radio operators had to carry a PRC-25 field-radio, which weighed 23 pounds (about 9 kilos) with its battery-pack, together with spare batteries (one would only last a day of routine listening and transmission), while mortar crews hauled a firing-tube and base-plate weighing around 40 pounds along with four mortar rounds, which added another 32 pounds to their load.

It is also worth remembering that a good portion of these soldiers were not highly trained professionals, but were conscripts from civilian life with a bit of ‘boot camp’ training lasting no more than 6 months before arriving in Vietnam.

On top of that were the forces of Nature as former Marine John Delezen, painfully recalled in his memoir Eye of the Tiger:
‘The rain comes in sheets all through the night and when I am relieved from sentry-duty I remain standing with the Marine that has relieved me. Soon we realize that nearly the entire team is standing up to escape the flooded ground. As the rain intensifies, I surrender to the cold deluge; wrapping myself into the wet, muddy plastic, I try to sleep. Before daylight, I wake shivering and half submerged in a deep puddle of cold rainwater, the edges of my poncho floating beside me.

I pray that I am dreaming. Leeches cover my legs, their bodies filled to the point of bursting, gorged with type “O” Positive. The crotch of my jungle trousers is caked with blood; a leech has fed on my groin.
My wrinkled fingers struggle with the bottle of insect-repellent and as I squirt it on their membrane-like skin, I vent my rage on them with frantic curses that are filled with disgust. As I watch them fall off in agony, I scratch at the wounds to maintain the flow of rich, clean blood that will hopefully prevent infection; the repellent burns deep into each wound.’

John Delezen also noted how the weather impacted on military activity: ‘There were many days when aircraft could not fly in such all-consuming cloudy conditions. Hence we were not always assured that we would be resupplied, or that we could get choppers in to take out our wounded or dead, and on one occasion we were compelled to sleep with our dead, and then awake in the morning and carry our dead along with us, while waiting for an opportunity to clear an LZ (landing zone) so that choppers could come in and lift our comrades out of the jungle for their final journey home.’

Down on the plains the peaceful-looking paddy-fields were certainly not peaceful, with GI’s constantly exposed to attack, sniper-fire, booby-traps, and of course the power of Nature, as vividly remembered by Robert Tonsetic in his Warriors: an infantryman’s memoir of Vietnam: ‘ We struggled through the sucking mud of the paddies. The banks of the streams were especially treacherous. Each step through the soft muck was torture, and every few steps a man would sink in mud up to his crotch. The gnarled roots of the mangroves could twist an ankle or a knee in a second. The putrid stench of rotting vegetation permeated the stifling humid air, and canteens were emptied quickly’.                Jasper Humphreys

Posted in Historical, United States, Vietnam War | Leave a comment

Fighting Nature in ‘Nam (1)

Very shortly it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Ia Drang between the United States army and the People’s Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese Army) in a war in which arguably the climate, terrain and environment were more life-threatening for the Americans than the enemy.

Political geographer, Derek Gregory, neatly refers to the relationship between Nature and combat as ‘The Natures of War’: ‘it is a way of thinking of ‘nature’ (in all its complexity) as a modality that is intrinsic to the execution of military and paramilitary violence. In much the same way that ‘space’ is not only a terrain over which wars are waged – the fixation on territory that remains at the heart of modern geopolitics – but also a medium through which military and para-military violence is conducted, so ‘nature’ is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations: the problematic of resource wars and conflict commodities’.

Four months after the battle of Ia Drang President Lyndon Johnson was urging that he metaphorically (?) wanted the ‘coonskins nailed to the wall’: the battle saw heavy casualties on both sides, being the first time they had met head-on in a major engagement, but it highlighted for both high commands that the war would be won by a ‘grinding’ process; this would also conform to what Gregory terms ‘the spoils of war’, which ‘include the short-term bludgeoning of landscapes and the long-term toxicity of contamination (what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’), but it is also important to trace the bio-physical formations – the conditions, provided the term is understood in the most active of senses – that are centrally involved in the militarisation of ‘nature’.

The obvious answer to save American infantry lives was intense aerial bombardment, but the impact on nature of this bombardment had unforeseen consequences, as Frederick Downs wrote in his memoir The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War: ‘the jungle had been torn to smithereens by the big bombs. Trees had been ripped from the ground forming an abatis of twisted, inter-attached splintered branches, vines, and roots that was more impenetrable than the worst the natural jungle had to offer.’

Another obvious answer to the problem of American casualties was to destroy the forest protection of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong; this was the rationale behind ‘Operation Hades’, quickly re-named by the less frightening code-name ‘Operation Ranch Hand’, as the plan to spray forests with herbicides, ‘Agent Orange’ being the best known.

Again there were unforeseen natural consequences for the infantry, as John Delezen observed the after-effects of Phantom jets delivering ‘snake and nape’ – slang for a bombing mix of 250 lb ‘Snakeye’ bombs and 500 lb napalm canisters – in his memoir Eye of the Tiger:
‘ the splintered, tortured tree trunks are black and charred from the napalm and the oily gel that did not ignite has mixed with the red mud, turning it into a texture similar to axle grease. My pack and ammo belt are waterlogged and have picked up extra weight from the greasy mud. The mud has clogged the lug-soles of our jungle boots and it is difficult not to slip; we know that if we lose our footing we will end up at the bottom of the mountain. I use my weapon to climb, digging the stock into the mud as a brace while I grab the next bomb-blasted tree trunk. The oily napalm has lubricated the entire mountain, it has soaked into the burned trees; we have to grasp each splintered trunk in a hug. The black M-16 no longer resembles a rifle; it is encased within a shapeless red blob of sticky mud’.                        Jasper Humphreys

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Al Shabaab and ivory (2)

By Dr Rosaleen Duffy, Professor of Political Ecology of Development, Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London.

The Elephant Action League report (which claimed that Al Shabaab was heavily involved in ivory trading – please see previous blog-post) was ignored when it was initially posted on their website in 2012, but seems to have been seized upon in the wake of the Westgate Mall killings in Nairobi in September 2013.

After the attacks some conservation NGOs started to spread the message that ivory was funding terrorist networks, notably Al Shabaab. It was an effective strategy to gain attention from policy makers and from the public. As criticisms grew, many conservation NGOs have started to soften their phrasing, and some have even distanced themselves from the claims. And, of course there were people on the inside of those organisations who were trying to voice their concerns all along. Even EAL have started to rephrase their statements – see the recent arguments with Stephen Corry (Survival International) [4]- clarifying that ivory is not as significant for Al Shabaab now as it was in 2012, and agreeing that charcoal is the main source of ‘threat finance’.

But the ‘terrorism’ genie is now out of the bottle and it still features strongly in campaigning – President Obama has even referred to it and issued Executive Order 13648 on Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Some conservation organisations are now more careful not to refer directly to Al Shabaab, and instead refer to Boko Haram, Janjaweed and Lord’s Resistance Army, or they refer to a vague notion of ‘ivory funded terrorism’.

For example, a central pillar of the current 96 Elephants campaign of the Wildlife Conservation Society is ‘Terror and Ivory’ and directly refers to ivory as the white gold of jihad [5] (the phrase in the EAL report); Save the Elephants has also repeated the message that ivory funds terrorism.[6] Ian Saunders of Tsavo Trust has repeated the claim and it is a centre-piece of their ‘Stabilcon’ initiative in Kenya.[7] John Scanlon, Head of CITES has also drawn attention to the idea that ivory is used to fund terrorism.[8] It has even been the subject of a short animated film ‘Last Days of Ivory’ by Hollywood director Katherine Bigelow – the accompanying slogan is ‘End Ivory Funded Terrorism’.[9] At the initial screening at the New York Film Festival, Peter Knight of WildAid said ‘it’s not about the facts it’s about the emotion’.[10] As recently as last month National Geographic carried a major story by Brian Christy entitled ‘How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa.’[11]

Put simply, arguing that there is a link between ivory poaching and terrorism is a sure way to make people sit up and take notice, especially those in powerful positions in governments, international organisations and philanthropic foundations.

This brings me to the second reason (for more background of the report, please see previous blog-post): money, and terrorism certainly sells. If NGOs are expected to exist in a competitive environment in which they have to bid for funding, arguing the terrorism link had the potential to be very lucrative indeed. I think we can understand this in the context of disappointing revenues from the much celebrated ‘win-win’ solutions of Payments for Ecosystem Services and REDD+. NGOs were looking for new ways to get funding, and much greater resources are available in the international system for security initiatives (especially tackling terrorism) when compared with those available for biodiversity conservation.

A raft of new funding initiatives for tackling poaching and wildlife trafficking were announced in 2014-15. Two illustrative examples: USAID committed US$40 million for tackling wildlife crime and the Clinton Foundation linked up with Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund-US, vowing to raise US$80 million. [12]

And now to the third reason (please see previous blog-post): strategic interests. On the national level, the alleged link between terrorism and ivory can suit the interests of national governments seeking to gain greater levels of control in areas that are slipping from their grip. This is a key issue in national politics in Kenya: talking up the terrorism link has the capacity to attract attention from very powerful global actors, including The United States Africa Command (Africom).[13]

At a global level, the United States has been less inclined to engage in interventions that involve deployment of personnel on the ground in the wake of their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet, tackling networks like Al Shabaab remain an important driving-force of US foreign policy. Being able to hook any US support (training, finance etc) to saving elephants provides a more acceptable rationale to a US public.

Why does any of this really matter? Talking up the link between ivory and terrorism distracted from a focus on the possible drivers of increased poaching and from designing effective policies to tackle them. Some, though not all, conservation organisations have (either knowingly or unknowingly) been spreading a message about ivory and Al Shabaab that is not accurate, which has the capacity to undermine confidence in the sector as a whole. Those who did not try to make the link, or even argued against it, might also feel the effects of the ‘taint’ in the longer term.

Promoting the link with terrorism also intersected with wider calls for a more forceful approach to conservation, including ‘shoot to kill’: such approaches can (and do) implicate conservation NGOs in human rights abuses and can alienate the very communities that live with wildlife.[14]

The greatest danger is that conservation organisations run the risk of producing ‘war by conservation’: that they willingly implement counter-terrorism strategies including greater surveillance, development of intelligence networks and use of deadly force against people they identify as both poachers and as terrorists on the basis of very flimsy evidence.

This blog-post first appeared in ‘Just Conservation’ on September 25:

[8] John Scanlon, expert witness testimonial to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing ‘Ivory and Insecurity: The Global Implications of Poaching in Africa, 22.05. 12,
[12] ‘Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action: Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants’, (accessed 30.04.14).

Further information:
– Possible links between wildlife trafficking, terrorism and militias are debated in a forthcoming themed issue of Geoforum on Security and Conservation, edited by Dr Alice Kelly (University of California, Berkeley) and Dr Megan Ybarra (University of Washington).

– See Duffy, R., St John, F.A.V., Büscher, B. and Brockington, D. (2015) ‘Towards a new understanding of the links between poverty and illegal wildlife hunting.’ Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12622 for discussion of the how they ways we understand poaching ultimately determine the policy response, for better or worse.

Posted in Africa, Conservation, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Ivory, Kenya, poaching, Tiger | 1 Comment