Alejandro Nadal, a Giant in Global Conservation

The following tribute to Alejandro Nadal appeared in La Jornada newspaper in Mexico, penned by his longtime editor at the paper. It highlights work Alejandro did on the economics of the illegal wildlife trade, one of the many areas in which Nadal left his indelible mark.

By Luis Hernández Navarro, La Jornada, March 24, 2020; cross posted from Triple Crisis

On 13 April 2012, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos de Borbón, stumbled into Botswana, broke his hip and dented his crown. The setback initiated the political decline that would culminate in his abdication to the throne. The monarch was in that African country accompanied by his lover on an elephant hunting safari.

Killing elephants is not a crime in several African countries. Every year 35,000 pachyderms are killed on the continent, on average one every 15 minutes. This figure, to which natural mortality must be added, already exceeds the birth rate of elephants, which are in danger of extinction.

These pachyderms—explained Alejandro Nadal Egea, who died last March 16th—are not hunted, they are actually killed. They are animals that live in community, very intelligent, with an exemplary way of life, exceptional in the animal kingdom, from which we must learn. They suffer for their dead, they have a history. A matriarch—for example—can remember the watering hole to which she led her family 30 years ago.

Alejandro’s opinion was neither improvised nor romantic. He was a great connoisseur of the life of pachyderms, the ivory trade and biodiversity. His contributions along with Francisco Aguayo were central in debunking the myth that the legalization of wildlife trade is a solution to protect endangered species. He denounced the falsehood, held in some environmentalist circles, that legalizing this business serves as a brake on illegal transactions because it lowers prices. He showed how legal trade increases illegal trade and poaching, since the real demand for these goods is greater than the legal supply. Even worse, it serves as a cover.

According to Nadal, the multi-million-dollar ivory trade behind the killing of thousands of elephants is a metaphor for the predatory nature of capitalism, which seeks to transform anything that comes its way into a profitable space. In fact, the only use of ivory is as a status symbol. It does not produce some sophisticated technological device or a healing medicine.

It is, moreover, a business intimately linked to the slave trade. “Now we talk about China,” he said, “but in the 19th century Europe was the great market for ivory. Where did it come from? The elephants were in the savannah, inland, not in the ports of Africa. The traders had to go there to kill the animal, remove the tusks and transport them. They did this through the slave trade. The transfer of ivory was done on the back of slaves, their blood and exploitation.”

Alejandro took this metaphor even further and maintained that it symbolized the problems of profitability that present world capitalism suffers from. We have, he explained, a problem of stagnation in the profitability of capital since 2000. Before that there was some recovery, but between 1966, 1980 and 1985 there was a tendency to very strong falls in industrial and service activities. We have been seeing a trend of stagnation in the global economy for 40 years, a fall in the rate of return, which led to the boom in financial capital.

According to him, financial capital seeks all kinds of opportunities for profitability in speculation, and when this is exhausted, it enters into what has been called the financialization of nature.

Alejandro Nadal discovered the economy after finishing his law degree.  He then studied a doctorate in economics at the University of Paris X Nanterre.  He taught comparative economic theory at El Colegio de México.  He worked on microeconomics, which is the theory of the market, of how prices work, of how the famous invisible hand works.  Then he ventured into macroeconomics, that is, the analysis of entire capitalist economies.  At the same time, he carried out several in-depth studies on different industries.

Concerned with what we do with the planet, he researched and dedicated himself to the defense of the environment.  He documented in depth (as in the case of elephants), the economic forces that drive the destruction of the environment, from climate change to genetic resources.  He was a member of the Board of Directors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

For more than 20 years, he published a weekly article in La Jornada, in which he explained, with rigor and relative simplicity, complex issues in the national and international economy.  “I think,” he told In Motion Magazine-“that it is very important to go out and try to send the general public the alarming things I discovered in my research.”  Those columns were his passion.  He wrote the last one seriously ill, just a week before he died.

In Alejandro Nadal’s obituary, written by Dr. Adam Cruice in the Journal of African Elephants, he describes him as a giant of global wildlife conservation, with a colossal legacy. According to him, his immense knowledge illuminated from within the economy of the legal trade and illegal trafficking in wildlife. However, this being true, his contributions to the critique of contemporary capitalism went beyond this field. We will miss him.

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  1. Susan the other

    My reaction is sadness. Why do we ignore the good guys? Why didn’t I hear of Alejandro Nadal long ago? The simple fact that he, as an environmentalist-economist, called attention to “the problems of profitability” of the capitalist system might well be the answer. That truth still is not front page. From the first big tremors in the 60s to the ransacking of the 80s to the absurdity of financialization – it was 40 years of denial. Like the euphemism “the invisible hand” which can only be translated in today’s dysfunction as “the obvious hand” – but never ever is. There is indeed a problem with the “profitability of capitalism.” Instead of accepting that it is no longer useful and constructive to use it as an ideology, we look for quick-fix solutions… and wind up with the idiocy of financialization of everything including precious nature. When it comes to denial we humans are tragically tenacious.

  2. Fergus Hashimoto

    According to Alejandro Nadal, “in the 19th century Europe was the great market for ivory. Where did it come from? The elephants were in the savannah, inland, not in the ports of Africa. The traders had to go there to kill the animal, remove the tusks and transport them. They did this through the slave trade. The transfer of ivory was done on the back of slaves, their blood and exploitation.”
    If, as Nadal claims, “the transfer of ivory was done on the back of slaves”, then the slaves must have been captured close to the elephants’ habitat. What is the likelihood that the villages that were attacked and whose inhabitants were then enslaved were close enough to the elephant hunting grounds for it to be economical to use the newly captured slaves as carriers of ivory? Not very likely, since transportation through Africa was arduous and its population density very thin. It might have happened occasionally that the source of the slaves and of the ivory coincided, but it was certainly not the rule. Besides, slaves were shackled together to prevent their escape, so their ability to carry heavy tusks on their heads was greatly restricted.
    On the whole it sounds like a post-colonial fantasy more than a historical account.

    1. Fíréan

      Ref. slaves used as bearers for ivory trade
      quote ”
      In the second half of the 19th century, the northern border of Central Africa was suddenly opened up to the impact of an intense new trade in ivory. Rapid prosperity in both Europe and North America had led to an increase in demand for ivory to make piano keys, billiard balls, knife handles, and ornamental carvings. Traders from Egypt and the old Ottoman Empire of North Africa went across the Sahara and up the Nile to cross into the upper reaches of the Congo basin, where elephants were still plentiful. In so doing, they severely disrupted local societies as they kidnapped local peoples to serve as bearers, servants, and concubines. The victims of the trading and hunting raids not only were used in the heavily armed and fortified ivory camps but also were taken away to be sold as slave girls in the harems of Constantinople or as water carriers in the streets of Cairo. ” end quote

      Not such an arduous route , even before the europeans became involved.

      I could continue with other references , yet for why ?

  3. Fergus Hashimoto

    Besides Nadal makes the elementary mistake of claiming that black Africans carry loads on their backs — like native Americans — whereas they actually carry them on their heads. So much for his claims to historical accuracy.

  4. Fergus Hashimoto

    “A fall in the rate of return, which led to the boom in financial capital” sounds like a rerun of Marx’ law of decline in the rate of profit. It puts the cart before the horse. Financialization is the outcome of deregulation. Deregulation, in turn, appeared under the name of monetarism in the 1970s, as a panacea to combat stagflation, which admittedly involves a low rate of return. But stagflation was blamed on government meddling in the economy, not on a low rate of return, and deregulation was conceived as a method for raising the growth rate of the real economy, i.e., industry, not as a means of diverting resources from the real economy to the financial sector, which was deregulation’s end result.
    It now seems likely that stagflation was the medium-term result of the hike in oil prices in 1973 and 1979, caused by large-scal restructuring of the economy to shed energy-intensive industries. Consequently staglflation was not the fault of Keynesianism at all, but of a one-time change in factor prices. Therefore the shift in economic policy to deregulation failed to address the root cause of stagflation. We should have stuck to Keynes.
    However stagflation was merely an excuse. Between 1945 and 1975 the private sector grew much faster than the state sector. Deregulation was the outcome of the private sector’s growing political influence.

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