Where is the line between imperialism and conservation? With so many of the most biologically diverse and ecologically sensitive places remaining on the planet located in developing countries this is not an idle question, nor an easily answered one. Determining how to strike the proper balance between environmental conservation and economic development is a challenge that academics and practitioners have struggled with for well more than a decade. The debate centers around weighing the need for conservation with the risks of neo-imperialism. Ignored, often, by both sides of the debate are the benefits that conservation can have for local communities independent of any benefit to nature.
The line between imperialism and conservation becomes even finer when the conservation is done by a private entity or single individual rather than a government. There is a long history of private conservation projects benefiting local communities (work continued today by organizations like The Nature Conservancy) but they remain controversial. It is not surprising that a movement that traces its origins to the private hunting reserves of European kings can still prompt vehement local resistance.
The work of Douglas Tompkins in Chilean Patagonia is one, well-publicized, example of both private conservation and the resistance that it can engender. Although statistics on global private conservation are difficult to find, he is likely the world’s largest private conservationist having purchased and/or donated more than two million acres of land in Patagonia to the Chilean government. For comparison’s sake, the largest landholder in the United States owns 2.2 million acres – just under twice the size of Delaware.
That work has not come without significant local opposition, as a recent Atlantic profile detailed. But while the discussion of local opposition to Tompkins is well fleshed out, the article glosses over the potential benefits that conservation could have for these communities, only mentioning the employment opportunities once.
Ignoring these benefits does a disservice both to Tompkins and to the role that conservation can play in aiding economic development. Conservation, particularly the brand practiced by Tompkins that creates new national parks, can increase local wages by creating guide jobs and other tourism related positions. These jobs have the potential to increase overall demand for labor in the communities and, therefore, increase wages paid to all jobs requiring similar levels of skill. In other words, there are indirect effects from the creation of these conservation areas that can benefit the entire community, not just those individuals that are directly employed by the park.
The theoretical existence of these types of benefits for communities has been confirmed by some of my forthcoming work examining private conservation projects similar to those conducted by Tompkins in other locations in Patagonia. Most notably, the conversion of land from grazing to eco-tourism outside of Palena, Chile – a few hours south of Tompkins’ Pumalin project – has increased local incomes by around 2.2%. This may not seem like an enormous improvement, but the fact that there was an improvement at all, and that it was an economy-wide improvement is what is notable. The benefits are not limited to the small subset of individuals able to get jobs in the conservation projects.
The upshot of all of this is two-fold. First, it is easy to dismiss wealthy, sometimes confrontational conservationists as selfish and ignorant of local’s desires. But that ignores the reality that these types of private conservation projects often bring benefits to these local communities. Whether a 2.2% increase in economy-wide incomes justifies the changes imposed on the gaucho culture is unclear and a debate that the community must hold. But to dismiss these projects as the selfish work of wealthy outsiders is disingenuous.
The second important point is that this example – the Atlantic’s ignorance of current academic work on conservation projects – highlights the importance of closing the knowledge-practice divide. While it should, perhaps, be obvious that a conservation project could have some employment benefits for a local community, the author of the recent piece on Tompkins could be forgiven for not being aware of academic work that is still in working paper form. For better or worse, economic working papers are not the purview of journalists. But that means the public often misses out on the full scope of the debate. The goal of closing the knowledge-practice divide is to make sure that academic work that has relevance to these current policy debates sees the light of day as early in the process as possible. Doing so will help to clarify the full scope of debate and accurately represent the evidence on both sides.
Private conservation can be beneficial for local communities. It can also threaten existing ways of life. Whether the economic benefits that can come from conservation are worth the cultural changes they require is an open debate. But it is a debate that is not well-served by only listening to one side. Bringing academic research into the public sphere as early in the research process as possible will help to ensure both sides get their fair shake. Until that happens the best solutions to policy challenges will consistently remain obscured.
Image credit Cristian Barahona Miranda.