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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition 15th March 2006


Diaspora Edition

15th March 2006

In This Edition

The annual French Salon de l’Agriculture takes place amidst self-doubt and virally induced gloom; James Lovelock preaches climate apocalypse and nuclear salvation; and Simon Upton opines on a recently published report, Closing the Net, which brings to a close an interesting experiment in trying force the pace of international action on illegal high seas fishing.

But first something memorable from G R Elton

“The recognition that happiness is not a right nor its pursuit a suitable ambition for any human being marks the move from adolescence to full adulthood.”

A chook-less gala

This time last year, upton-on-line filed a report on the annual Salon d’Agriculture – the annual extravaganza which France’s men and women of the land to showcase their industry and lobby the politicians. As previously reported, it provides a week’s worth of photo opportunities for animals and politicians alike. This year, President Jacques Chirac’s media advisers chose two very pretty goats for him to pose with. His Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin went one step further and slung a young goat ever so elegantly around his shoulders (“a first”, gushed on-looking farmers). So goats are in. Ségolène Royale (the médiatique socialist aspirant) placed a soft hand on a very woolly looking ovine specimen while posing like a Coco Chanel advertisement. It remains to be seen whether the left’s other many and varied presidential hopefuls will go for rabbits or a more macho touch with one of the magnificent bulls that mooch around the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre.

But no-one has yet been photographed clutching a hen. Chooks and other two legged fowl are off the menu this year. The arrival of avian flu courtesy of thoughtless migratory birds has put more than a damper on the proceedings. Despite the President of the Republic urging French households not to stint on their chicken dinners and tucking ostentatiously into at least two chicken smackerels, there is a sense of beleagurement. Sales have, reportedly, taken a knock. That said, upton-on-line confesses that his own consumption and that of his neighbours who queue nightly for delicious rotisseried chickens in the Rue Poteau hasn’t wavered. The French have a long-inherited sense of bravery and national duty in the face of gastronomic challenges. But when only plastic chickens can be displayed at the Salon de l’Agriculture, you know times aren’t normal.

A deeper crisis

In upton-on-line’s estimation the French will be the last country on earth to panic in the face of a virus. But unleash sociologists on the case and it’s a very different matter. Here, the alarm bells are well and truly ringing. The results of a recent survey of French agriculturalists has just been released to coincide with the Salon, and it makes disturbing if not necessarily scientific reading (it’s results are based on 8000 replies to a questionnaire sent to 78,000 farmers). It has revealed a picture of angst and self-doubt that reminds upton-on-line of the worst years of subsidised farming in New Zealand – but much worse.

Faced with declining prices and falling farm incomes, any farming community would be feeling a bit morose. But the sociologists have pressed harder. More than one farmer in two regrets being a farmer and only 11.5% consider that French society accords farmers their true worth. Asked what word best summarised, in their view, the attitude their fellow citizens held towards them, nearly half the respondents replied “incomprehension”. The most frequently reported ‘positive’ word was “nostalgia”. Not surprisingly, French farmers feel a gulf has opened between a world of townies who greedily consume the produce of the land without the slightest idea of what is involved while busily labelling the people who produce it as environmentally insensitive.

The poison of subsidies

But the most revealing result of the survey is what it says about the way French farmers view the subsidies on which they overwhelmingly depend for their incomes. And overwhelming is the only word: on average, according to Le Monde (citing Agreste – Réseau d’information comptable agricole) subsidies total 90% of the before tax income of farmers. A whopping 72% support a reduction in subsidies accompanied by an increase in prices. Quite how the second part of that equation flies on day one is a little tricky to envisage. But it is clear that French farmers feel no happier with being wards of the State than their New Zealand counterparts did twenty years ago. And from an answer to another question, it’s clear that this is less to do with ideology than simple freedom to get on with what they want to do. The two most resented things about the lot of current farmers are paperwork (73%) and coping with bureaucracy (66%). Whatever the CAP has done, it doesn’t seem to have made its beneficiaries happy.
Climate iconoclasm

January’s media had quite a bit to say about James Lovelock’s latest book – The Revenge of Gaia. This is a no holds barred blast from someone who not only believes climate change is on the way, but that the only question now is whether civilisation as we know it can be salvaged. It is certainly not a careful, dispassionate piece; rather, it is highly passionate and takes no hostages. Upton-on-line hadn’t intended to read it but when a prominent New Zealand sceptic announced, rather unkindly, that it was a sad case of a once first rate scientist who was now suffering from ‘blenheimer’s condition’, he felt prompted to check it out.

There is absolutely nothing ‘blenheimers’ about it. Rather, it is the acerbic, often contraraian judgement of someone who is actually prepared to state his view unequivocally and take the risks of being pilloried rather than hiding behind qualifications. Lovelock believes the world is in a fix. Those looking for a careful scientific appraisal of why he paints an alarmist picture will be disappointed as was upton-on-line. There is no detailed account of why Lovelock considers that the alarmist end of the predicted range of outcomes is likely. But it is an analysis that will scarcely endear him to the Green community. Lovelock is a trenchant critic of wind energy and an unrepentant advocate of nuclear energy. He considers the risks of unconstrained greenhouse gas emissions far more serious than those posed by nuclear waste. And it’s not an armchair variety type of support: he has offered to accept all the high-level nuclear waste generated by a nuclear power station in a year and have it deposited on his small farm.

There are tough words for greens in rich societies who, in their fears about chemicals and pesticides, cancer and radioactivity, have in his opinion become obsessed with personal human problems. And there are loads of wise nuggets that simply make him impossible to categorize. While he is personally convinced that runaway greenhouse gas emissions are a grave worry, he continues to warn that “the real world is far more subtle and unpredictable than any of thus think.”

And Lovelock himself is refreshingly unpredictable. Here is a flavour of what you can expect if you tackle this very brief, readable book:

“Despite all these warnings we carry on destroying and seem to worry only about the nearly trivial, even imaginary, risk of cancer from mobile telephones, power lines, pesticide residues in food, or sunlight; topping them all is a fear of anything to do with nuclear energy. We are indeed straining at a gnat but swallowing a camel with ease. Perhaps we know in our hearts the true nature of our peril and would rather face these minor imaginary risks than confront the ineluctable consequences of destruction. For many years now, sensible young men and women with their lives ahead of them have come to me to ask if there is any hope or future for them. Such a question would never have occurred to me or my friends when we were young, even thought the Second World War loomed; we were confident of a rich and probably fulfilled life. Today it seems their intuitions, the unconscious summing up of the evidence coming into their sense about the world, give a gloomy message. In a similar way, perhaps, the stridency of the sceptics of global heating hides and reveals their fear that they may be wrong.”

It is hard to imagine anyone who would agree with all of that. And that is what is remarkable about a book that stakes out so many strong positions that are rarely if ever brought together within a single piece of advocacy. This is not a book for conventional or politically correct thinkers. It is maddening. And it is also admirably fearless.

The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back –and How We Can Still Save Humanity by James Lovelock is published by Allen Lane, London 2006.

Closing the net

For the past two and a half years, upton-on-line has been overseeing an effort to bring renewed pressure to bear on illegal, un-regulated and unreported fishing on the high seas. The process reached its conclusion last week in Paris when ministers from the six participating countries – Australia, Canada, Chile, Namibia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – along with their partners from WWF, IUCN and the Earth Institute, met in Paris to release their conclusions and action plan.

Anyone interested in the detail can read the Task Force’s final report – Closing the Net – at Within the limits that international-policy-report-writing gravitas imposes, it’s quite readable affair once you’ve negotiated the inevitable introductory messages, disclaimers, acknowledgments and so forth. Chapter headings like “How do they do it and how do they get away with it” underscore the attempt (not always successful) to break with the tedious, jargon-ridden, insider prose that usually suffocates reports written by consensus and committee.

Unusually, the report is not just another description of the problem. It discloses an action plan that its sponsors have committed themselves to implement. It remains to be seen just that will mean but as the Task Force that wrote the report goes out of existence it may be useful to say a few blunt things about whether the High Seas Task Force has been a useful experiment in international co-operation. In stepping out from behind his customary electronic persona, Simon Upton has these observations to offer.

What was the rationale for setting up a Task Force?

The genesis of the Task Force can be traced to a sense of frustration with the sprawling and verbose outcome of the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002. Over 160 paragraphs of text were devoted to recalling previous resolutions, declarations, and treaties. Countries urged one another at some length to do things they had all previously urged one another to do but had failed to do so. The failure to act could be traced in many cases to the sheer ponderousness of large-number interactions and the inevitability that anything truly binding will only be allowed to move at the pace of the slowest and most reluctant party.

The Round Table on Sustainable Development at the OECD decided to see if it would be possible to choose a single issue from this lengthy list and move at the pace of the most motivated countries (which, by definition would be few in number). Illegal fishing on the high seas was chosen because it was genuinely global (it relates to the global ocean commons which is beyond the control of any single party) and, to be frank, because it avoided getting entangled with domestic political sensitivities.

The result was the decision by a small number of countries who did not claim to be representative in any way, declaring their determination to tackle the issue to the extent they were able to even if others didn’t share their sense of urgency.

How did Task Force members decide to go about their task?

From the outset, the Task Force was – as stated in its long title – ministerially led. In other words, Task force membership was initiated by Ministers themselves, not their bureaucracies. It was Ministers who had to front up. This proved to be both a strength and a weakness (of which more below).

The five original participants (Canada joined later) decided to invite some other stakeholders to join them on the basis that governments aren’t the sole source of wisdom on an issue as complex and multi-faceted as this. They were successful in attracting NGO support in the form of IUCN and WWF International. Both organisations had to contribute their chief executives to the Task Force to match the ministerial-level representation by countries. They also attracted the active support of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Attempts to engage the private sector were almost wholly unsuccessful. Companies like Unilever that have had a lot to say about sustainably sourced product declined to engage. This was one of the most significant defects in the Task Force’s composition.

Every Task Force member had to contribute money (or push someone else to do so). The most generous country contributor was Australia by far. Notwithstanding that, in the end about half the necessary funds had to be raised from philanthropic sources, most notably the Packard Foundation and the Oak Foundation. That money funded a secretariat of just three people for a little over two years. It was agreed at the outset that the secretariat would have a short shelf-life. There would be no empire building and the staff would work towards the disbandment of the secretariat within a month of their final report (a process currently underway).

Task Force members agreed that the analysis the secretariat undertook should lead to a series of practical measures that could be undertaken immediately by the membership regardless of whether the wider global community wanted to act. They didn’t want those measures to undermine on-going multilateral processes in places like the FAO, the IMO and the UN. Rather, they wanted to lead the way in the hope that others might follow thereby giving some impetus to otherwise slow processes.

Most importantly, the members wanted to put themselves in a very clear advocacy position at the end of the process. They wanted to be able to ask non-member countries two simple questions: (1) do you agree with our analysis? If you don’t, specify what’s wrong with it. (2) If you can’t fault our analysis, what stops you from joining us in taking the action we are committed to taking?

The Task Force secretariat was required to see its entire analysis in the light of those demands. The aim was to avoid yet another lengthy, learned analysis of the problem with no discernible impact on its resolution.

Did the Task Force deliver on its stated ambitions?

In terms of generating a first class, multi-dimensional analysis of the problem, the Task Force certainly delivered. Closing the Net is, for the time being, the most comprehensive analysis of the illegal fishing phenomenon. It brings together in one place a complete analysis of the economic, trade, environmental, developmental, criminal, legal and enforcement aspects of the problem. Under the current global architecture, these aspects are dealt with to a greater – and, sadly, all-too-often lesser –extent by a myriad of international and regional agencies. In theory they work together closely. The practice is another matter.

In terms of developing a suite of practical measures that can be implemented without waiting for the rest of the world, the Task Force managed to settle on a short list of activities that could provide the basis for immediate action. While some were, in effect, simply common positions to advocate in global forums, at least two were ‘concrete’ in the sense that they were designed to deal directly to illegal operations. These were:

• A proposal to resource properly the International Monitoring and Control Surveillance Network currently hosted by NOAA in the United States. This network is supposed to be a hub for enforcement agencies in more than 40 member countries. Up until now only the USA has ever contributed any real resources and there have been no dedicated full-time staff. If there is ever to be a ‘fishing Interpol’ it will require more than voluntary part time efforts. The Task Force agreed that real resources should be found to give the network wings.
• A proposal to establish an inventory of fishing vessels on the high seas drawing on the large number of publicly available data-bases that are currently completely fragmented and difficult to access for forensic purposes.

In addition, the Task Force decided to force the pace on debating how Regional Fisheries Management Organisations should perform. It plans to establish an expert panel to develop a ‘model’ for such a organisation which could then become a standard against which regional organisations could benchmark themselves.

It is one thing to settle on a short list – another to execute it. Here, the outcome is more equivocal. When it came to wrapping up its work, the Task Force members managed to subscribe about half the resources needed to actually implement their important (but nonetheless modest) proposals. As the details of implementation become clearer over the next few months, we will start to get an idea of whether the glass is half full or half empty; or whether the advocacy of Task Force members manages to shake free the additional resources that are in any case needed to give these proposals real teeth. Encouragingly, the USA – a non-member – has already offered additional resources to the MCS Network.

Is this a model for international co-operation?

Possibly. But there are many caveats. There are several headings here:

Travelling light – country membership

Having just a small group of countries was designed to avoid the dead weight negotiating mindset that can drag down multi-lateral processes. The advantage of small numbers was certainly proved. But inevitably it raised questions about mandate and representativeness. There was no Asian country (though not for want of trying: South Korea was initially on board but the swift departure of two Ministers put paid to that). Canada joined later making the Task Force – which already numbered the UK, Australia and New Zealand – start to look like the old British Commonwealth, something that was never intended with Namibia and Chile as founding members. The small club-style membership inevitably ruffled a few feathers. That was no bad thing given the silo-like mentality that can afflict international and regional organisations. But it did mean a lot of explaining and re-explaining on the part of the secretariat.

Travelling light – a pocket handkerchief-sized secretariat

This was without doubt a success. The secretariat that did the job couldn’t have been smaller. Just three people – two policy analysts and an administrative assistant did the whole job. Michael Lodge and Frank Meere brought with them an almost ideal skill mix. Michael is a top international law of the sea expert; Frank is a very senior fisheries management expert having come to the Task Force direct from having run the Australian Fisheries Management Agency. Both effectively took two years out of their professional lives (at some risk) to do a one-off job and they did it very well. The Task Force was from the very outset always well-informed by experts who had the contacts to pry open otherwise closed doors. First class analytical staff are always a pre-requisite for success. The whole initiative would have been a disaster without them.

Ministerial Leadership

The idea of having the Task Force led by Ministers was rooted in the observation that Ministers can, at least in theory, push further than their officials. That was broadly borne out. The fact that officials knew their ministers had signed up to deliver something forced them to respond. But it remained a problematic relationship. Because the idea hadn’t come from officials, they didn’t feel as though they had anything at stake which they ‘owned’. This was of course the whole point of the exercise. The reality is that there is a certain comfortable complacency about multi-lateral processes. One is never quite sure to what extent the national level officials who direct multi-lateral negotiations are promoting national agendas or have in fact migrated to the promotion of a wider agenda for which there is questionable national ownership. Failure at the multi-lateral level is always someone else’s fault – it is hard to hold any one group of officials to account.

On the other hand, it meant that officials were difficult – in some cases exceedingly difficult – to engage until quite late in the process. While his gave the secretariat a relatively free hand, it meant huge loss of time at the eleventh hour as officials suddenly had to get their minds around something that had scarcely been at the centre of their respective agendas. Inevitably, the Task Force created risks for their engagement in multi-lateral negotiations.

There was also the loss of continuity caused by a revolving door membership which saw, over the two and a half year life of the initiative, every minister replaced except Chile’s Felipe Sandoval and Namibia’s Abraham Iyambo. New Zealand went through three ministers during the life of the Task Force! None of this was avoidable – elections happen and so do cabinet re-shuffles. But it did mean the loss of two particularly well-informed and committed ministers who deserve special mention – the United Kingdom’s Elliot Morley and Australia’s Ian Macdonald. Both knew what they were talking about having been long-term incumbents of the portfolio. While all the replacement ministers made significant efforts to bring themselves up to speed, there was inevitably a loss of institutional memory.

This admission will be music to the ears of officials who, it has to be said, were at best sceptical about the idea of their ministers running off on their own. And in fairness to officials, they are charged with over-seeing the defence of national interests over the long term as politicians come and go. The idea of ministerial leadership is worth repeating but the limitations have to be clearly understood. In the secretariat’s view, if the exercise were ever repeated, ministers should nominate a well-informed senior adviser to take responsibility for ensuring national-level responsiveness. Relying on the standing bureaucracy is insufficient.

NGO and private membership

There was no difficulty in accommodating non-government members. In fact, their contributions were in many cases more sophisticated than those of the standing bureaucracies. But the absence of private sector interests was a serious gap. The reluctance of some very big enterprises that have had a lot to say about something called ‘sustainability’ to engage was a big surprise to Ministers and NGOs alike.

Engagement by international and regional bodies

Inevitably, the establishment of the Task Force raised suspicions on the part of many of the international and regional organisations who make up the fragmented architecture of governance for the high seas. At the Round Table meeting in 2003 which set the whole process in motion, the inter-agency tensions were apparent. It was a battle to get the relevant organisations to turn up. The presence of 19 ministers was, for some, less significant than routine consultations with officials. Much cajoling finally persuaded reasonably senior officers from FAO, IMO and DOALOS to attend. They swore black and blue that inter-agency co-operation was the very essence of their existence.

But over the Task Force’s life, gaining the committed engagement of many of the relevant organisations was a struggle. Some seemed almost affronted that a group of countries and organisations should have dared to think the issues through from scratch. The honourable exception was the FAO. Once it had ascertained the commitment and good faith represented by the initiative, it was an engaged and reflective interlocutor. By contrast, neither the IMO nor the UN could be bothered turning up to meet with the ministers when they launched their findings. There must have been much more important internal meetings to worry about!

A special fact situation

Inevitably, IUU fishing on the high seas has some very special characteristics. Many elements of the problem lie beyond national jurisdiction. And keeping the focus beyond the 200 mile zone meant avoiding direct entanglement with some sensitive domestic issues. There aren’t too many similar issues. Illegal logging, for instance, while similar in many respects cannot be separated from domestic policy: trees grow on sovereign territory that is fairly and squarely under the control (or should be) of sovereign governments. In short, while assembling a coalition of the eager has good possibilities, fundamental issues like membership and goals would have to be re-thought from scratch.

Will it make a difference?

This is the only question that really matters. The answer is that time will tell. A report like Closing the Net probably has a shelf life of 12 months – 18 months at most. It will be up to the Ministers who participated (and, let’s hope, their predecessors) to use their offices to promote their conclusions and encourage wider participation. They will also need to find more resources if their initiatives are to bear fruit. Countries spend, collectively, billions on patrolling their own watery domains. But fish – and fishermen – aren’t confined by boundaries on ocean maps. Being prepared to spend a couple of million per annum on what happens beyond those magic lines is essential if there is to be a genuinely global response to a global problem. Yes, that expenditure is providing a global public good that in theory should be paid for by all countries. But it isn’t – and it won’t be any time soon. Countries that want to take the lead will have to put their money where their good intentions are. If they do, they stand a fair chance of influencing he future shape of global high seas management. If they don’t, it will have been just another report.

Perhaps someone should take a leaf out of the Task Force’s own recommendations and set up an independent panel to review the Task Force’s effectiveness in bringing to fruition the excellent work it has started! To their credit, Task Force members are already talking about gathering again in 2007 to assess progress.


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