Interview: Vasilis Tsipidis, TRAFFIC - International

Tourism planning cannot be left to the industry to decide, it is sad even to consider such a move.


Vasilis TsipidisVasilis Tsipidis is from Athens, Greece and has been involved in the ecotourism movement since 1999 while he has also been an active Member of since 2001. He has a degree in Tourism Administration and a Master's in Ecotourism. Vasilis has been working on EU-funded projects for the past seven years on a variety of topics ranging from sustainable rural development, sustainable tourism and ecotourism development and more recently on illegal wildlife trade issues. Until 2012, Vasilis was part of an international team that helped shape the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria and the development of the European Ecotourism Labelling Standard. Currently he is based in Cambridge in the United Kingdom where he works for TRAFFIC International (Web: as an Administrative Officer for EU Projects. What are the main activities of Traffic and what does it count as its highest achievement(s) since its founding back in the not so environmentally-aware 1970s?


Vasilis Tsipidis: TRAFFIC was established in 1976 by the Species Survival Commission of IUCN, principally as a response to the entry into force during the previous year of an important, and at the time, innovative conservation agreement, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Assisting and encouraging the development of CITES as a focus for international efforts to prevent unsustainable wildlife trade, has remained at the core of TRAFFIC's work since its establishment. However, TRAFFIC has also developed a strong and recognised role in addressing wider wildlife trade issues, including a greater emphasis on the impacts of demand at a local scale and increased attention to trade from major natural resource sectors such as forestry and fisheries. TRAFFIC is a strategic alliance of WWF and IUCN and the leading international non-governmental organization focused specifically on addressing the conservation, social and economic challenges and opportunities linked to trade in wild animals and plants. As such, we promote policies that will lead to sustainability in wildlife trade and aim to reduce unsustainable and/or illegal trade. The activities range from training e.g. Customs and other enforcement agencies (from everything from legislation to species identification), companies involved in timber trade (e.g. on legislation), helping shape and inform government and other decision-makers' policies relating to wildlife trade (e.g. through CITES), active monitoring of legal and illegal wildlife trade (e.g. our Elephant Trade Information System, that tracks illegal ivory trade), helping promote strategies to reduce poaching of flagship species such as tigers and rhinos, promote policies to ensure sustainable fisheries stocks and reduce IUU "Pirate" fishing, promote legal and discourage illegal timber trade, promote sustainable harvesting practices and trade in wild plants along the entire trade chain - from local harvesters through to suppliers, buyers and consumers. Please explain what are your specific duties, what you most enjoy about your current position and work and what would you like to achieve in this capacity.


Vasilis Tsipidis: My job is to make sure that our EU-funded projects operate smoothly and my tasks involve a variety of administrative and technical aspects. The projects I am working on currently are on timber legality focused in South America and on medicinal and aromatic plants focused in China. Both are large cooperation projects that focus on the sustainability of the respective industries, something that interests me a lot as I have worked in the past for similar issues faced by the tourism industry. And probably not surprisingly, the differences I have found are very small. Being in TRAFFIC also gives me a broader perspective on conservation issues and input from all over the world and it is a great place to be for researching the links of tourism with illegal wildlife trade, something I am really keen on doing in the future. In the front page of the TRAFFIC website one reads in capital letters that "Traffic aims to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature". This sounds as quite a pro-business approach rather than something typically coming from environmentalist circles: it seems to imply that as long as trade in wild animals and plants is not excessive, then it is acceptable. On the other hand there are many other environmental NGOs that talk about the inherent rights of wild plants and animals, their rights NOT to be traded as commodities, and of course there are all those on the green left of the spectrum, who are against the commodification of nature. There are also increasingly recognised threats to society, from wildlife trade, for example a local community being displaced by the new owner of a forest or of a plantation. What is your personal view on the ethics and politics of wildlife trade?


Vasilis Tsipidis: I think that TRAFFIC's mission statement is a simple one. But I agree with you, it could be interpreted as implying a pro-business attitude. It was a thing that also caught my attention when I started researching about TRAFFIC. But it is not pro-business or pro-trade, it is an honest statement that acknowledges the fact that there is wildlife trade out there and our work is not to let it threaten conservation. Many NGOs are animal rights organizations, and we are very clear that this is not our role or niche. It is interesting that you put wild in bold in your question. Using/trading wildlife is embedded to forestry, agriculture, fishing, mining, manufacture, food production even ecotourism and so on. There are laws and regulations governing the use of wildlife which have been made tighter over the years with the efforts of the environmental community. And wildlife trade is a common topic in the environmentalist circles, take for example CITES. Personally, before coming to TRAFFIC I was not really aware of the actual threat to conservation from wildlife trade. I think many of us understand that things are serious but we miss the actual impact or realise how much wildlife trade is part of our everyday life. But consider that it is literally everywhere. It is in tea and the herbs we use, in our medicines, in our furniture, in our food and beverages, in the devices we use and so on. And of course many people still depend or live from nature and wildlife products, which creates a series of social issues as you highlight. This brings us to policies and their intentions which in my view vary substantially. If you consider the decades that took CITES to actually get established and start having some impact you realise that the whole issue is low on the political agenda. And as with many political issues affecting the environment, it is up to the atmospherics of global politics and of the current national governments in power of whether any attention will be paid. As for ethics I have a particular view as it is a word with significant weight in Greek that often tends to be abused. And that is particularly true when you talk about politics and environmental or humane issues. But for argument's sake, just like in tourism, there are many ethical issues surrounding wildlife trade and its related policies. Without touching the illegal aspects of wildlife trade, I personally do not accept as ethical practices such as trophy hunting for example. I am also particularly alarmed with the practice of trading wildlife resources for the sake of luxury. What is certain is that there is no ethos in the consumption of wildlife resources based on modern consumerism. Going over the list of Traffic key donors at it appears that the organisation welcomes funding from large (construction and furniture) companies which presumably use (legal) wildlife products. In an era of limited means, it seems as a sensible thing to do, business-wise. One wonders however, as with all large NGOs, if it is easy to limit the influence of corporate donors on policy, so that it does not become essentially innocuous?


Vasilis Tsipidis: TRAFFIC has projects funded by large corporations and it is not a new thing, we worked with the private sector before the crisis and based on the quality of projects I presume we will work after the crisis as well. Every organisation, be that small or big, works with set red lines. I want to believe that it is a big red line to flex conservation impact for industry benefits for all conservation NGOs. TRAFFIC has a reputation as a research-driven organisation and if we tailored our research to soften donors' attitudes, be that corporate, governmental or non governmental, then I honestly do not think there would be a reason or support for us to exist. Now if there are benefits from working with corporate donors? Well, a change in their attitude can trigger a wider change in the supply chain so your impact as an NGO, given the circumstances, can be amplified sometimes with much less resources than you would do bottom-up. But of course it is not easy to influence corporations and working with them should be done following a realistic assessment of what the actual impacts can be. In general though, I believe it is essential to have a feel of the market, you need to be in touch with all parts of society if you aim to address it as a whole. There are plenty of news reports indicating that the global economic crisis has not led to any slowdown in the growth of wildlife trade, quite the opposite. Apparently demand is still strong and there are huge margins to be made from illegal logging and poaching when many economic sectors are suffering. What is the solution? Continuing the militarization of conservation through armies of rangers funded by large (otherwise 'non-violent') western environmental NGOs, heavy penalties for consumers, working with governments which still turn a blind eye to Customs-service corruption or something deeper / more political perhaps?


Morning frost outside TRAFFIC International HQ in Cambridge, UK - Photo by Richard ThomasVasilis Tsipidis: I am not sure if that is true for wildlife trade but certainly illegal wildlife trade is on the rise. There are a lot of bad things happening in the field and in TRAFFIC we see that daily from the reports of our colleagues around the world. In times of crisis you get opportunism and wildlife is easy and profitable to abuse. And you don't have to go far, to Africa or Asia to see evidence of that. As we are both Greeks, I will give a simple example of something that really caught me by surprise. Last winter due to the crisis, Athenians turned for heating to their wooden stoves to save costs. Illegal logging sky-rocketed during that period. In every other neighbourhood you could see piles of freshly cut pine and olive wood and trucks were roaming olive fields in the dark. Those who saw the "opportunity" became illegal loggers and started selling timber around the city. And that was just during the mild winter of 2012 and I am sure the same thing will be repeated this winter. No ranger would have stopped these people, be that of a government or an NGO, a ranger is a ranger. And since you asked the question, safeguarding wildlife and national resources should not be the job of any NGO, but solely that of governments. NGOs have a supportive role to play. So the ball should be in governments' hands. How easy or difficult is for a government to realise and act timely on the problem is something very different. I do not think the solution is on how tight regulations are, how effectively customs services work, how many sets of eyes are in the field, how educated and environmentally aware the peoples are or how great the economy does. In my view it is all of these together and taking one out of the mix, the whole thing gets unstable and you just do damage control. If there is a catalyst for holding this together, it is probably the rise of a culture that respects human life and wildlife alike, that would urge for a wider change in the system. I do not think it can happen otherwise. The (neoliberal?) idea behind REDD and REDD+ was to use efficient market mechanisms and incentives, rather than bureaucratic rules and penalties, so as to reduce (emissions from) deforestation, or - critics would argue (putting-out-fire-with-gasoline-style) a way to sell forests to the big guys (multinationals) and then partially deforest them, a part of the famous land- grab for development (agriculture, mining, tourism). What are your views?


Vasilis Tsipidis: I am not very familiar with REDD/+ to contribute something new to the debate. It seems as no one really knows what to make of it as it's highly complex and its details are still defined. I would briefly say that the time taken to rationalise the funding options indicates there are a lot of grey areas. But to be fair, I don't think that the intention is to hand over the forests to corporations. What I could mention that is relevant to your question, is the more relevant to our region EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Action Plan (EU FLEGT) and the new EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which I am a bit more familiar with because of one of the projects I am involved in. These initiatives will hopefully stop much of the illegality and will do some good to the forests. Based on the new legislation companies will have to prove to the national authorities of importing countries that the imported timber or timber goods are legal and that they have done everything in their power to verify its legality. And it is not only the illegality of harvesting that is examined but any illegality issues along the supply chain. So in short it puts pressure to the industry, promotes forest governance and in some cases asks exporting countries to rethink their legislation. I think that is a good thing to start with. The EUTR is new and its implementation is still thin, but it is being quickly picked up, Member States and FLEGT negotiations are starting slowly to give results. There is already a lively debate about its shortfalls so I am interested to see how this will develop in the future. As a tourism expert, have you found any evidence that the development of tourism, even of alternative forms of tourism, has really led to a permanent decrease in wildlife trade?


Vasilis Tsipidis: I have not researched this yet and I am not aware of any resource, so I can only speculate. I suspect that increase in mass tourism brings increase in the demand for illegal trade. Drugs and prostitution follows the same patterns more or less. Instinctively I would say that responsible forms of tourism should statistically give much lower causes of concern than mass tourism. Hopefully the awareness raising campaigns that TRAFFIC does in tourism receiving countries have some positive impact and I am sure there is measurable data somewhere out there that would be worth having a look at. I am planning to do that soon and will let you know. In an ideal world, who should have the right to "own" the world's last remaining rainforests (if anyone)?


Vasilis Tsipidis: It's hard to envision an ideal world, a world with ideals is easier to imagine, but I will give it a go and say that I would like to see rainforests celebrated and respected as part of a symbiosis of humans with their natural environment. Then maybe terms like ownership of forests or environmental sustainability would be redundant. Are plantations what the world needs so as to protect forests, and who should own them? Local people, the government, NGOs or private companies?


Vasilis Tsipidis: In my view good forestry can save forests and good forestry can include plantations. Who owns the products or the locations is a difficult question and the instinctive answer would be locals, but it's up to national governments to find the proper mix. From chainshaw to chains (home store chains): When buying furniture what should we look for and what should we avoid? Is sustainable timber certification working or is it only for boutique furniture companies and affluent customers? Do we know what percentage EU timber imports are legal, and what percentage of the 'legal' are really legal and ethical?


Vasilis Tsipidis: Currently no one can really tell you if a product is of 100% legal timber. The problem is rather big and the industry is extremely complex. Buying products that bear the logo of one of the leading certification schemes is definitely worthwhile as in theory you minimize the chances of purchasing something that is illegal or unsustainable. Certificates have several shortfalls, including evaluation, but it's currently the safest bet. Avoiding consumerism, taking informed decisions, being a responsible purchaser, reusing timber and refurbishing furniture is probably some common sense advice I could remind. Sourcing locally, yes, if you trust that your local supplier/manufacturer is responsible. Ethos as you might have guessed is not my favourite topic and I suggest buyers to ask that question and put pressure to the companies they buy products from. I would also advise them to read and understand the labels they choose to trust and if they do not understand something to ask them. Putting pressure to the market is a good tactic if we don't get the clear answers we want. As for EU imports based on a WWF survey, a conservative estimate would put illegal imports to the EU at 10%. As for how much of the rest is 100% legal or ethical, nobody really knows, but if you consider imports certified by the big certification schemes, that's about 25% of what's coming into Europe. As an expert in EU Projects and Sustainable Tourism in Greece how satisfied are you with EU and Greek policies in this sector in the past two decades? Is it fair to say, as some analysts now support with the benefit of hindsight, that such programs increased corruption, dependency and waste since the 1990s? And if so, how would you allocate the blame to each side: EU officers, the Greek central government, local government, private sector?


Vasilis Tsipidis: Huge question that forces me into a fairly short answer. EU funds helped those that had a long term plan and knew what they wanted to achieve. And in many cases their success was inspiring and brought change where it wouldn't have happened otherwise. Transnational projects exposed businesses, public servants, academia and individuals to a collaborative way of working with other nationalities and other cultures of work. I really believe it broadened horizons and allowed for an unprecedented exchange of experiences and understanding of our good or bad practices. It also introduced the value of innovation and tried to build bridges between academia and the private sector, concepts considered a taboo in Greece. The main problem was that this wasn't an organic process, it was forced and we were widely unprepared. This resulted to the things we know that went wrong such as the mismanagement of funds, instilling yet again unpunished corruption from top to bottom, grants driven rather than needs driven projects/actions, increasing dependency to reckless public funding, decrease in genuine entrepreneurship and non state investments and huge increase in opportunism. One other important aspect, maybe the one that bothers me most, was that in most cases of good practice there was no continuum, no picking up of results, no investment in the knowledge generated, a waste, as you state, of lessons and experiences, as there were few systems in place to exploit the benefits and divert them where they could actually make a difference. No planning at all for the day after, complete and utter unpreparedness. In tourism there have been some good examples, probably because there is know-how, but where funds mattered most, in rural Greece for example, the good examples seemed proportionally much less than the funds received. The recipients of grants where not ready to manage the funds, control and monitoring was weak to say the least, results varied in quality and as for the national/local governments they failed to put to use schemes that could have transformed their communities. Leader and Leader+ plus for example was a good chance for realizing the potential of rural communities. But the choices of the various governments on the planning and management of the scheme was inadequate. Many of the schemes were also completely out of touch with the Greek reality. But equally the EU didn't have the measures in place or didn't take corrective actions when things were evidently wrong. European court sentences, fines and returns of grants have no impact on unaccountable governments be they local, regional or national. Can further planned tourism development and policies (pharaonic mega-projects by shady offshore investors, real estate, condo-hotels, golf, privatisations of airports and ports, replacement/displacement of the Greek National Tourism Organisation by the private tourism sector association SETE, further expansion and liberalisation of the cruise sector) succeed in providing a sustainable way out the current socioeconomic crisis for Greece, or will it rather be a one-off sale which will deepen both the environmental and socioeconomic crisis by destroying what so far had escaped from development?


Vasilis Tsipidis: No. These measures are aiming to a direction that will benefit no one, not even those that devised them in the long run. Maybe it's based on this distorted concept that tourism developments are easily digestible by the public, it's the easy solution to all our problems and a profitable safe bet for investors. This was the tactic of all modern governments, this is what the majority of rural state and non state officials preach, this is what is being served to the public as progress and as a sustainable economic policy mix. Praying for troubles in North Africa before the tourism season and luring international tour operators with last minute ridiculous prices are indicative of the state of strategic planning in the sector. Nature was never really valued in modern Greece, so the only way to put it to use is by selling it as a feature to a mega-resort or by chopping it for properties. Other uses of our nature have never occurred as viable. Valuing the landscape, creating jobs out of the forests and so much more has never been seriously regarded, no matter how much research, projects, evidence have been presented over the years. Now downgrading a public authority, or stripping it of any power that might give meaning to its existence and handing in the national tourism planning to an industry driven institution such as SETE makes absolutely no sense. SETE was founded to play a different role and should play a different role, as one of the industry's voices in this country. Tourism planning cannot be left to the industry to decide, it's sad even to consider such a move. With Greek youth unemployment already at around 60% many are again emigrating, mainly to Western Europe and the Gulf, this time it is mostly highly-skilled people, with Masters and PhD. Having recently moved to the UK yourself, what are your feelings about this new brain drain? Could it be beneficial in the medium term with many returning home richer (experience-wise and money-wise)? Do you feel that these new EU highly-skilled immigrants are generally welcome in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe, which is also facing an economic crisis?


Vasilis Tsipidis: I do not feel strongly about the brain drain issue, particularly given the current circumstances. In my view, if you are qualified and skilled without a job or just doing something to get by, staying is worse than depriving your country of your skills and expertise, particularly when your country is not ready to put them to use. Skilled people have been leaving Greece or refusing to return after studies for a couple of decades now, especially those on a niche or highly skilled fields that Greece didn't create the space for. That is a sad fact for a country that invests in the skills of its people by providing free education to all. In any case it's a deeply personal decision, for many the desire or willingness to live abroad is already there regardless of the climate. If it would be beneficial to return when the state shows signs that it can accommodate us? Yes, it would create a positive impact as long as we improve what we bring with the valued things of this country, rather than replicate or impose practices and standards. What works well in Germany, Sweden or the UK does not necessarily mean it works well universally. As for the acceptance from the receiving EU states, yes I think we are accepted. Having said that, societies across the EU are becoming more conservative and acceptance is bound to drop with the increase of unemployment across the EU. Thank you for your time, we wish you success in your work and hope that it will contribute to a reduction in wildlife trade, legal or illegal.