Q&A | BIOSEC, exploring blurred lines between crime & conservation

BIOSEC (Biodiversity and Security: Understanding environmental crime, illegal wildlife trade and threat finance) is a four-year project investigating the deepening interlinkages between conservation and international security. Growing consumer demand for wildlife products like ivory and fur has seen an increase in illegal poaching and trade, and there are claims this activity is sometimes conducted by militant groups.

Sarah got some more background from the project’s Principal Investigator Rosaleen Duffy, who is also Professor of International Politics at the University of Sheffield.

What are you hoping to find out through the BIOSEC project?
We’re looking at the growing integration of biodiversity conservation with global security dynamics – concerns about trafficking networks generating finance for organised crime or for terrorist activities. The narrative, or the idea that wildlife trafficking develops through that finance, has meant that a whole lot of new actors have come into conservation. We see private military companies, or defence contractors, weapons manufacturers. And we also see a whole raft of new initiatives around the use of surveillance technology, informant networks, intelligence gathering approaches. We’re interested in looking at what kinds of conservation that is producing. What are the challenges it produces, what are the problems? But also, what are the opportunities?

“The narrative that wildlife trafficking develops through [crime] finance, has meant that a whole lot of new actors have come into conservation.”

How did the idea for the project arise?
Probably around four years ago, I started to notice that different kinds of people were turning up to the presentations I was giving on conservation. I was getting people who were dressed in military uniforms, which wasn’t really something that I’d encountered before. That made me curious – why are you here? Why are you interested? I started to ask them about it, and then also started to hear from conservation organisations that they were being increasingly approached by drone manufacturers, to purchase drones to do wildlife monitoring, or enforcement activities against anti-poaching.

Image courtesy of BIOSEC.

So I started to wonder whether there was actually a more general pattern happening here. And around a year into that, that was when the really big claims around Al Shabaab using ivory as a source of finance in Somalia and Kenya, that really hit the headlines. It struck me that that didn’t quite sound right. It didn’t quite sound like it added up. It was a nice story, I could see why it was taken up by various international security actors, but in terms of the realities of whether Al-Shabab was actually trafficking ivory, I thought, that doesn’t sound right. So I started to look into it, and in fact the organisation that made those claims has now started to retract them. That’s where the genesis of the project came from.

So your background’s more on the conservation side?
Definitely, I’ve always worked on wildlife conservation in one form or another. Prior to this I’d worked on eco-tourism as a potential initiative for bringing together wildlife conservation and economic development, and the problems that produced. I’d also worked on the growth of these new entities in the mid-1990s called peace parks, in Southern Africa and in Central America. I’m a politics and international relations person, but I’ve always worked on biodiversity conservation.

Is the ultimate aim of the BIOSEC project to be feeding into policy around related issues, and helping to shape it?
We would like to do that. The European Research Council (ERC), which funds the research, are primarily interested in the academic outputs, rather than policy engagement and impact in the wider arena. But the reality is, is if you’re doing new and interesting work, then potential stakeholders are interested in what you’re doing. For instance, last week I was at a meeting called Conservation 3.0, which had been called by various international organisations involved in conservation, and the purpose of that meeting was was to sketch out what a future conservation might look like. Do we need radically different models and ideas?

Image courtesy of BIOSEC.

I also sit on the UK Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, which is held by DAFRA. Through those sorts of avenues you do have impact or influence on policy, but our primary aim is the research. We differ as a team compared to many of the research hubs on illegal wildlife trading in that we take a full social science approach. And actually, that was one of the things that came out of the meeting on Conservation 3.0, was that there is a need to engage with a much wider range of arts, social sciences and humanities researchers, rather than being confined to the natural sciences. There was a feeling that conservation’s been too confined in conservation biology.

How do you think that will help the conversation?
What we want to do is place wildlife trafficking in its political, social and economic context. One of the frustrations that’s often expressed by policymakers and by NGO representatives over the years that I’ve interacted with them, is that they want to focus on one thing – like the population dynamics of a particular species of frog being trafficked from Madagascar – and that’s what they’re really good at, and that’s what they have a knowledge base to do. But the frustration they express is: it’s all about politics, and they don’t have the language and tools to really engage with that process. What we’re looking to do is excavate and think about, what’s the politics of this?

“We want to place wildlife trafficking in its political, social and economic context.”

That will also reveal what the capacities are for these kinds of security-related approaches – but also what their limitations are, and the kinds of problems that they might bring. We’re really hoping to do a critical interrogation of the new dynamics that we see in conservation, and I suppose the aim is to really bring home to conservationists that they need to understand the political context in order to tackle any of these issues effectively.

Drawing links between the different worlds.
Absolutely. One example is that several organisations in East Africa started to jump on the bandwagon that ivory was funding Al-Shabaab, and therefore tackling ivory poaching in Kenya would also help make the world a safer place, and would combat Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda and IS. And they jumped onboard that, and invited in a whole range of new actors to assist them as conservation, but then very quickly found that it was very difficult to control those actors – that their agendas and interests were not conservation, they were security. And then found that very problematic.

Now, if you’d asked somebody who had a training in politics, they would have immediately been able to tell you that it’s very difficult to control military agendas from a conservation point of view. That conservationists won’t necessarily stay in charge if they get the military involved.

Are there things so far that have been surprising to you in terms of how surveillance and the military are operating in these contexts?
Yes. On the surveillance side actually, when I was designing the project I approached it with an entirely critical eye, because the way that I’d been introduced to it as a topic was by complaints from wildlife managers and park managers in sub-Saharan Africa that they were feeling pressured to purchase drones, and to use their budgets to purchase drones, when their staff weren’t being paid, or didn’t have the right equipment. So I was very critical of it.

But actually, as the project has started to develop, we can see that there are different ways that local communities have managed to use these surveillance techniques, in order to expose wrongdoing by states, by companies, and by other powerful actors in their environments, and that also activist groups can use those surveillance technologies to draw attention to their stories, and their concerns around environmental justice and access to particular resources. That’s complicated the story a little bit, and I think that’s been good.

Image courtesy of BIOSEC.

Also, I’ve been quite surprised that actually sometimes – when I’ve engaged with a small number of private military companies that were involved in delivering anti-poaching, is that my assumption, wrongly, was that their approach was just about the operational side. That it was about identifying targets, and that there wasn’t any real attempt to engage with the social context or the political context – the drivers of why people were poaching in the first place. But actually several of the people in private military companies have got a very sophisticated grasp of why people poach – and are quite critical of their own role in anti-poaching, and don’t think that it offers a long-term solution. That’s complicated the story a little bit as well.

“People in private military companies have got a very sophisticated grasp of why people poach – and are quite critical of their own role in anti-poaching.”

I’m sure there’ll be more surprises as we go along, but that’s the nature of research. We want to be very open to different lines of questioning at the moment. We don’t want to close off any particular avenues, and we want to really fully explore particular aspects of the illegal wildlife trade, and really fully explore the challenges, and potentials, and problems and issues around the integration of security logics with biodiversity conservation. Because at the moment I can see that that approach is growing, and critical voices are starting to be heard, but there’s a definite expansion in that area.

We’ve also been surprised at how many people who have been demobilised from international interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are offering their services for free to anti-poaching companies in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa, because they want to reengage in a conflict. We need to look at, what are the implications of accepting free labour from people who have previously served in a conflict situation, and what are the issues around extending that kind of experience to protection of the non-human world. It’s been very interesting.

I guess technology adds another element – evolving technologies are, like you say, helpful in some ways and problematic in others.
Yes. I’m constantly reminded, for instance – when I’ve criticised the way that protected areas are militarily enforced in some places – that it reinforces that separation of humans and wildlife, and that that separation has often, particularly in the sub-Saharan African cases, been produced by colonisation and then embedded in post-independence regimes. The parks are created during the colonial period, and then are maintained post-independence.

I’ve been very critical of that approach, but then sometimes I’m reminded that actually sometimes – when enforcement of a park has been removed for various reasons – local communities have felt more insecure when the park enforcers have left. And they’ve been lobbying for them to come back, to provide greater degrees of security. It’s not all negative, it can actually be a positive. We do want to look at what it means to extend those security logics to protection of the non-human world.

Rosaleen Duffy is Principal Investigator at BIOSEC, and Professor of International Politics at the University of Sheffield. Visit biosecproject.org for regular project updates.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.