Participatory Politics in Conservation

The dominant and well-funded discourse in conservation is that specific lands – especially biodiverse corridors – should be saved from human use that degrades them. Allowable uses for conserved lands are limited, for example, to ecotourism and sustainable agroforestry. This changes the ways in which local people are allowed to reside and thrive in the given territory, from prior forms of land use that may have included hunting, fishing, agricultural development, logging, or even mining.

In a 2004 “Challenge to Conservationists,” the Worldwatch Institute noted that the “world’s conservation agenda” (dominated by the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International, funded by corporations and governments) has “been marked by growing conflicts of interest—and by a disturbing neglect of the indigenous peoples whose land they are in business to protect.” This trending neglect prevails despite programmatic efforts toward community-based participation. One possible frame for these conflicts of interest over land management is a basic power struggle between international and local that involves both knowledge and institutional hierarchies.

Government- and NGO-initiated conservation programs are problematic because their structures and goals tend to devalue local knowledge and exclude local participation. Focusing on non-human land and resources, even the most participatory of conservation programs tends to exclude locals whose agendas and interests don’t align with conservation politics. Programmatic conservation for the sake of land and resources also attributes limited value to local people’s experiential knowledge. Underlying this misattribution is the assumption that previous local forms of resource management have necessitated an intervention that will restore the land to a more pristine condition for conservation rather than use.

There are two main flaws in the assumption that previous or traditional land management practices are inferior to conservation. First, the goal of a pristine condition excludes all presence of humans, even though humans are inherently a part of wilderness. In the dynamic history of earth, there never was a pristine condition. And yet, the ideal of a pristine wilderness has led conservation programs to physically exclude people from biodiverse “conservation corridors” (p. 24). The removal of people from living in or using a certain terrain certainly shapes it in a new way that may promote forest regrowth or river replenishment, but it comes at the expense of the displaced and resource-deprived community.

Second, human land use is not necessarily degrading. In Changes in the Land: Colonists and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon highlights such cases in which human land use in itself can conserve and promote the health of the land: the Indians who were seen by arriving colonists as ravaging Northern New England forests were actually responsible for much of the biodiversity that the colonists observed. The problem of conservation’s limitation on human use of land (to activities like recreational hiking, ecotourism, and sustainable agroforestry) appears not only in government managed conservation programs but international NGO-led initiatives.

In the case of Yellowstone National Park from 1872-1908, support came largely from elite classes: conservationists who cited the importance of “expert scientific oversight of environmentally sensitive areas,” upper-class sport hunting clubs that also functioned as conservation groups (e.g. Boone and Crockett Club), and tourists who found appeal in “Yellowstone’s image as a remnant of a long-lost western rural past” (p. 92, 99, 111). Two notions of North America as a ‘free country’ clashed: an individual’s freedom to do or use anything in ‘free’ space was incompatible with society’s push to conserve land that defines its national identity as ‘free.’ Meanwhile, a multiplicity of interrelated social and economic factors played into various uses of the land (hunting, poaching, tusking) and their perceived legitimacy by locals and officials.

Yet government purchase and protection goals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to the enforcement of policies that excluded people who had been or wanted to make a living off the land. Yellowstone’s institutional enforcement sought to exclude American Indian seasonal hunters and Euro-American poachers alike from using the land through “rigorous patrolling of park boundaries, tightening of reservation regulations, new treaties” and arrests, establishing a new discourse for legality and legitimacy of land use (p. 95). In effect, Yellowstone’s park management disregarded the livelihoods of those who had been using the land and its wildlife for income and sustenance in favor of conservation for recreation, aesthetic beauty, and national identity.

“Participation” rhetoric emerged as a backlash to such cases of managerial elitist and exclusive forms of land and resource conservation. The historic shift from non-participatory government “preservation” to participatory nongovernmental “conservation” seemed progressive in the rhetoric of environmental conservation and development. Yet problems of exclusivity continued in NGO-led programs.

From the late 1980s to early 1990s, international NGO conservation groups began designing community collaboration programs, supported by both private foundations and multilateral donor agencies: “community-based natural resource management,” “community-based conservation,” “sustainable development and use,” “grassroots conservation,” “devolution of resource rights to local communities,” and “integrated conservation and development programs” (ICDPs) (p. 20).

It is important to note that these programs were generated by conservationists, not by indigenous or local people. Mac Chapin also notes that ICDPs in the 1990s were “driven largely by the agendas of the conservationists, with little indigenous input” (p. 22). Rather than being something “that people create for themselves,” participatory programs are an “invited space, [ … ] structured and owned” by the NGOs and conservationist funders (p. 275). “Invited spaces” of conservation programs exclude participants whose local or personal agendas don’t align with that of the leaders and funders. While conservationists may be concerned with environmental resource value, local people may want to uphold their rights and access to the land and its resources. Local communities then tend to be excluded from programs that set out to protect and conserve certain plots of their land.

Conservation development arguably necessitates helpful outside and globalized networks of people to factor in concerns about biological integrity and human livelihood. But programmatic implementations of conservation – in cases that range from government-managed national parks to NGO-led community-based programs – has given powerful leverage to the governments and NGOs, rather than local people and communities. To return to the frame of a power struggle between local and international hierarchies, perhaps we are now looking for top-heavy interactions in global networks of expertise, where local community agents and experts are at the top, supported by a base of international funders and experts in land use and livelihood.

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