Bruce Babbitt addresses ICFC gathering in Toronto

November 14, 2012 — At a November reception in Toronto, ICFC welcomed as speaker Bruce Babbitt, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton Administration and former governor of Arizona. Mr. Babbitt is an active conservationist and director of ICFC partner Amazon Conservation Association (ACA).

Synopsis of Bruce Babbitt's speech

Bruce began by noting that the US had just been through a "contentious election cycle" where the issues discussed such as health care, the banking system and fiscal restraint, seemed to have been solved by Canada "some time in the 16th Century". He went on to address the question of why someone who was governor of a "waterless desert expanse" got "mixed up in the tropics" — "why tropical conservation?"  It stemmed back to field work he did in the Amazon as a grad student in geophysics (researching continental drift and geomagnetism) before he made a career change to the "easier line of work" of law and then politics. Displaying maps, he pointed to the very high levels of biodiversity in tropical areas, tropical deforestation as a large source of CO2 emissions, and the fact that tropical conservation does not "get enough attention".

Once committed to the cause of tropical conservation, Bruce felt that "the most important thing was to find the last, best, most pristine, undisturbed biologically intact part of the Amazon", which he said turns out to be the Amazon headwaters in Peru. (Peru has been the primary focus of the Amazon Conservation Association.) There, about 3000 miles inland and only 200 metres above sea level, you can look up the crest of the Andes at 20,000 feet and view the bands of tropical ecosystems ranging from alpine habitats above tree level, through cloud forest to lowland forests. Conservation of a cross-section of zones is needed, he pointed out, because while nature can adapt to climate change by shifting latitude in temperate zones, it must make altitudinal adjustments in the tropics.

Bruce then recounted the origin of Peru's first conservation concession (and one of the world's first), which came about when ACA proposed to the government of Peru a 1,460-km2 private conservation reserve on public land with a plan that involved surveillance, biological monitoring and protection to keep out illegal loggers and miners. Peru's president accepted the idea but insisted that ACA create an endowment so that this conservation gain was made essentially permanent, giving it ten years to do so. This was finally and triumphantly accomplished by ICFC in partnership with ACA with the creation of ICFC's Los Amigos Conservation Concession Trust Fund, capitalized with one million dollars in 2011. Bruce remarked that Los Amigos is not only succeeding but provides "a model for elevating protection" of public and private protected areas.

It is as though "God went on vacation", Bruce remarked, when the Andes/Amazon region was created and fossil fuel reserves were placed underneath the most biodiverse place on the planet. The answer, he argues, is to adopt a roadless approach in developing these resources in remote areas. Roads bring settlers, loggers and miners and lead to forest fragmentation and widescale deforestation. There are two examples already of such roadless developments in the remote Amazon where pipelines were laid using helicopters and impacts from the whole development minimized. Another issue concerns the impacts of siting hydro dams in lowlands and flooding hundreds of thousands of hectares "with very low hydro head". A far better option is to place dams high in the Andes where those rivers originate, with a smaller reservoir and more "head". These matters are the great challenge, he told us, and oil companies, Wall Street bankers, the World Bank, the EU, NGOs and national governments are moving to "attempt to impose a new paradigm on oil and gas and hydro development". The benefits for tropical nature are enormous.

Bruce closed by asking his audience to do two things. The first was to "give consideration to supporting this extraordinary Canadian NGO" (ICFC). The second was to "go there!" To go and see the wealth of tropical nature first hand. He pointed out that there are non-stop daily flights from Toronto to Lima and that it's just one time zone away.

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