Saving threatened habitats worldwide

What have Turner and Darwin in common?

25 November, 2014 - 15:00 -- John Burton

JMW Turner is in the news. Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner starring Timothy Spall has generated plenty of interest in the artist’s life and work, and next week the winner of this year’s Turner Prize will be announced.

I find it curious that Turner’s great name has been put to a prize for art in a form that Turner himself would have been unlikely to recognise as art. In his day arts and crafts were pretty clearly defined, and conceptual art, and art without any craft, was something that I feel a great craftsman and artist such as Turner would have abhorred.

But Turner is not the only great Briton to have been hijacked by UK institutions to fulfil their aspirations. The same fate has befallen the English naturalist Charles Darwin.

In Darwin’s case, manipulation by the state started when he died and was buried in Westminster Abbey, something he had expressly not wished to happen. (A Christian burial for someone who had made it quite clear he was a non-believer? Surely not.)

More recently Darwin’s name has been adopted by the UK government in order to deliver its commitments under various international treaties. The so-called Darwin Initiative, jointly funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Development (DFID), is a massively bureaucratic process designed to fund research that has (at least in the past) often had little real bearing on biodiversity or conservation.

As an independent researcher, Darwin would have had little time for the voluminous form filling, reporting and process driven activities that are required to get a grant from this initiative. We were delighted to hear last year that World Land Trust’s conservation partner in Guatemala, FUNDAECO is to receive more than a quarter of a million pounds from the fund to build on existing conservation initiatives in the tropical rainforest of Caribbean Guatemala, but these grass roots conservation projects are the exception rather than the norm when it comes to Darwin Initiative awards.

Much Darwin Initiative funding goes to academics, but is more research really going to address the real crisis that is hitting the world’s biodiversity?

The one thing the Darwin Initiative seems to lack, is initiative. Those who manage the fund wait for applications to come in. That to me is completely lacking in ‘initiative’. Surely the panel of the great and good advisors know what is needed to protect the world’s remaining biodiversity? Surely they know where funds need to be directed? And if so, why is so little funding channelled towards addressing the real issues on the ground?

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