The Economics of Bushmeat: Solving Hunger and Preserving the Environment Through Private Property

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In
recent years, environmentalists and United Nations bureaucrats have
become increasingly alarmed by the practice of hunting and selling
wild animal meat, or bushmeat, in central and western Africa. The
market for bushmeat has been booming, ranging from $20 million to
$200 million in African nations, but critics claim that it is decimating
endangered species — including gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, hyenas,
hippopotamuses, and many others — and depleting the food supplies
of some of the poorest people in the world.

Recent
studies have shown that between one and five million tons of bushmeat
is taken from the Congo Basin each year and that the bushmeat trade
is threatening the long-term survival of 60 percent of the mammal
species hunted there. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) released
its own study last week warning of the "bushmeat crisis"
and the potential extinction of the great apes. According to ZSL
research fellow Dr. Guy Cowlishaw, "It would be a crisis if
the bushmeat resource disappeared. We have a duty to make sure it
remains for local people and is sustainable for the future of the
species affected by it."

The
typical environmentalist solutions to the problem are to call on
governments to establish parks and conservation areas, to outlaw
the hunting of endangered species, and to increase policing activities
to prevent illegal hunting on the "protected" government
lands. Indeed, Nigeria and Cameroon are planning to create such
a park across their joint border to protect endangered birds and
a type of chimpanzee jeopardized by the bushmeat trade. From a practical
perspective, however, it is virtually impossible to effectively
police such large areas of land, the costs of which would be crippling
to the already poor nations. Furthermore, since the bushmeat trade
is very profitable (even more so than the coffee and cocoa industries),
the emergence of a black market is inevitable. Since wild game hunting
is often illegal, the costs of engaging in the trade are high (i.e.,
imprisonment). Consequently, the result of this government intervention
is to make the price of bushmeat artificially high and even more
profitable for those willing to risk breaking the law. Thus, establishing
wildlife parks to tackle the bushmeat problem creates conditions
no different from those of the illegal drug trade.

The
risk and costs of violating wild game hunting laws are much lower,
however, for perpetrators within the government. (Recall the words
of Orwell: "All are equal, but some are more equal than others.")
In civil-war ravaged Burundi, for example, locals are blaming the
army's soldiers for decimating the hippo population. This despite
the fact that, according to Burundian law, a hippo can only be killed
if it has killed a person or destroyed crops, and then only with
the approval of the nation's Ministry of Environment. According
to resident and conservationist Patrice Faye, quoted in a Reuters
article, "Hippo meat can be sold between 1,500 and 2,000 Burundian
francs per kg (2.2 lb). And when you have one ton of hippo meat,
you can easily earn between 1.5 million and two million francs ($1,500
and $2000). Imagine when you have three tonnes of meat — because
a big hippo can weigh three tonnes — you have three million francs."
Faye added that most dead hippos have been found in military areas.

Not
to fear, however, the ZSL has the solution: computer models. Yes,
the conservationist organization is fighting illegal hunting and
the negative affects of the bushmeat trade by using mathematical
models to simulate the bushmeat hunting system so scientists may
devise management policies to ensure a legal and sustainable bushmeat
trade. Such policies include "encouraging" the hunting
of smaller, plentiful species with high reproductive rates, such
as rodents and antelopes. How such behavior will be encouraged is
unclear, but it is unlikely to significantly affect the industry,
given that much of the trade is already illegal.

It
is generally stipulated that the bushmeat trade is essential for
the poor in many African nations, which have been desolated by civil
wars and economic collapse. In fact, according to the ZSL, bushmeat
supplies 50–85 percent of the protein requirements for those
living in Africa's tropical forest-dwelling communities. One recent
CNN Headline News guest acknowledged that some bushmeat trade is
necessary to prevent Africans from starving, but then complained
about the "commercialization" of the practice. Environmentalists
are thus torn between their desire to protect endangered animal
species and the humanitarian desire to allow Africans to alleviate
their hunger and poverty. If only a system existed that could resolve
this dilemma! It does, of course, in the form of the free market.

What
is needed is more private property — not more government
property — and even more commercialization. In a true free
(laissez-faire) market, all land would be owned by individuals.
Private landowners would have a strong interest in policing their
own property to protect against poachers and other thieves. By contrast,
since no one really owns government wildlife preserves, there
is little incentive to preserve the land or the plants and animals
that live there and wild game is free for the taking so long as
you can avoid getting caught (which is not difficult for the reasons
discussed previously). Landowners would likely hire guards to protect
their property, providing the added benefit of jobs for the poor.
Those that decide to go into the bushmeat business would have a
powerful incentive to ensure the survival of their products (wild
game). No species, no product, no profit. Gorillas and chimpanzees
and hippos would not go extinct for the same reason cows, pigs,
and chickens will not go extinct: they are too valuable! (Note that
those who oppose the farming of these animals would have equal opportunity
to purchase land for the purpose of creating private zoos and preserves,
which could also prove profitable.)

Thus,
private property allows for the provision of the needed bushmeat
while preserving endangered species (and the environment in general,
for that matter). By creating wildlife preserves, government takes
the value out of natural resources and creates a tragedy-of-the-commons
problem that inevitably leads to scarcity (extinction) and lost
economic opportunity in a section of the world that desperately
needs economic development. The true challenge is not establishing
enough parks or passing enough laws against hunting endangered species
or spending enough public money to enforce such laws, it is establishing
strong institutions of private property and the rule of law. In
a continent where nations are plagued by war and government corruption,
this is the overlooked solution to both economic and environmental
problems in the region.

September
22, 2003

Adam
B. Summers [send him mail]
is a freelance writer and Visiting Policy Analyst at the Reason
Foundation. He holds a Master’s degree in economics from George
Mason University.


        
        

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