1 March 2016

“Should we farm tigers or ban all trade in them?” is one of many questions explored by Lancaster University’s new conservation scientist

A childhood in Costa Rica meant that Dr Jacob Phelps grew up “keenly aware” of environmental and sustainability issues and how they play out on the ground.

“We are facing rapid environmental change across the tropics.  Purely environmental issues are rare—there is always a human dimension” says Jacob, who joined Lancaster Environment Centre in October, following seven years conducting research across Southeast Asia.

Jacob is fascinated by how we design environmental policies and schemes to promote conservation and sustainable behaviours in ways that are not only effective, but also fair.  Conversely, he is interested in why and how people break environmental rules.

“Should we forbid all trade in tiger parts, or should we humanely farm them to satisfy market demand? Should we arrest small-scale farmers who set fires to clear land for agriculture, or should we pay them to change their behaviour?

“We need to delve into the mechanics of the various policy options, to inject evaluative, honest science into debates that are inherently complex, and often political and sensitive.”

The path to Lancaster

After studying environmental science as an undergraduate in the United States, Jacob did a masters in geography at Cambridge University. He completed a PhD in the Applied Plant Ecology Lab at the University of Singapore, exploring the illegal trade in ornamental plants, a subject that still occupies him today.

Before coming to Lancaster, Jacob spent two years at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a research-for-policy institute based in Indonesia where he developed an interest in the illegal clearing of forested peatland using fires.

“People are illegally clearing farmland using fire because it’s cheaper than machinery or manual labour. However, drained peatlands are highly flammable, so fires often become uncontrollable.  These escaped fires are now responsible for huge greenhouse gas emissions and chronic haze.

“We know people are breaking the rules, but that doesn’t tell us much about what is actually happening on the ground, or about how to change behaviours.

“We need not only to identify individual perpetrators, but also to understand their context. How do they manage land? What are their alternatives? How do they get away with setting illegal fires?  How do different people gain and lose from the fires.

The carrot and the stick

“A new law, in and of itself, is unlikely to resolve large-scale tropical deforestation, illegal wildlife trade or environmental pollution. We often need incentives to encourage behavioural change, such as social pressures or payments to promote better environmental management. We may also need to identify novel strategies to strengthen monitoring and enforcement”

Jacob believes we can learn from what has worked in one context, and apply it elsewhere.

“Following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a liability suit levied huge financial sanctions on the perpetrators, and recovered resources to enable restoration and restitution. If we are using these types of policy tools to address oil pollution in North America, can we use them to address deforestation in Borneo or Costa Rica?”

At Lancaster he has made early links with Dr. Gary Potter, a criminologist with experience working on policy responses to drug trade, where consumers are often prosecuted alongside those who produce and sell drugs.

“What lessons can we draw from the existing body of work on drugs, to inform our understanding of how the environment should - and shouldn’t - be regulated? For example, we often criminalise people who do the harvesting for illegal wildlife trade or who illegally clear land for farming, but should we do the same for the consumers who buy those illegal products?  What can prior experience from other fields and contexts teach us?”

Involving students

At the Lancaster Environment Centre, Jacob is building the Tropical Environmental Change and Policy Lab. 

As well as teaching on a number of different modules, he is identifying new field-based opportunities to help Lancaster students better understand both the global and the on-the-ground realities of conservation and sustainable land use management. 

He recently returned from the 66th Standing Committee Meeting of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva, where he went with his masters student, Sophie Banks.  They wanted to experience how policy is made in this field.  Read their blog about meeting the decision makers.