DRC: ‘ecological intervention’?

The anarchy unfolding in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has reopened the debate about ‘ecological intervention’.

The ineffectiveness of international conventions is underlined by the fact that
while international law has been applied to environmental disputes, such as the Trail smelter case between Canada and the United States in 1938, and in spite of the existence of a panoply of declarations in favour of environmental protection, no action has been taken against any actor for wilful environmental destruction.

The DRC also provides a case-book study of how principles of sovereignity endorsed by the UN can have tragic results. Garamba National Park, in north eastern DRC, is one of five parks and reserves in the DRC that are designated World Heritage Sites: it once held significant populations of savannah animals and was the last bastion of the northern white rhino before being officially declared extirpated through poaching two years ago.

In 1994 the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) joined forces with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to administer Garamba, but two years later the DRC collapsed into full-scale civil war, with troops and guerrillas from all sides invading the park, forcing the rangers to leave, which in turn resulted in the further slaughter of wildlife.

By 1997 the WWF was faced with a difficult choice: Garamba was now taking up 60 % of its rhino budget: could it afford to carry on, or would the money be better used elsewhere?

After delaying any decision, in 2000 the WWF handed over full control of the park to the IRF. Five years later a well-rehearsed plan to transfer five rhinos to
Kenya was vetoed by Congolese politicians, who used the long-neglected rhino as a convenient nationalist vote-catcher, a decision that effectively signed the rhinos’ death warrants.

The idea of internationally coordinated ‘ecological intervention’ has gathered adherents. Renowned Australian moralist and university lecturer, Robyn Eckersley, has offered a theoretical rather than prescriptive approach, pulling together the philosophical and some practical strands regarding legitimacy and morality relating to the possibilities for ‘ecological intervention’.

She was unafraid to explore freighted words like ‘ecocide’ and ‘speciesism’ (prejudice against non-humans because they are not humans) through various philosophical prisms (Kantian, utilitarian, communitarian), and to consider the subtleties of animal rights advocacy (animal liberation, biocentric and ecocentric) as well as international law. Ultimately, Eckersley posed the question: ‘Might the wilful or reckless perpetration of mass extinctions and massive ecosystem destruction be regarded as “crimes against nature” such as to support a new form of ecological intervention and an international environmental court? If the international community condemns genocide, might it one day be ready to condemn ecocide?’ Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre

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