Preserving with Guns

Credit: National Geographic

In recent months, an old pattern of conservation is emerging: from Africa to Southeast Asia, countries are using soldiers to protect nature.  The government of Cameroon recently announced that they were sending in the military to combat a massive increase in the number of elephants killed illegally in the north of the country.  In Nicaragua, meanwhile, the government has gone a step further; creating an Ecological Battalion whose purpose is explicitly to combat deforestation and illegal logging.  Not to be outdone, the Philippines announced on Tuesday that they plan to use the police force to plant 10 million trees per year until 2013.  Involving the military in the protection of natural resources may be one of the oldest ideas in conservation, and one of the most controversial.

Using soldiers to protect natural areas dates back, at least,  to the use of royal guards to patrol royal hunting preserves and kill any commoner so bold as to try and kill the King’s game.  The modern interpretation of the use of the military to protect nature has become associated with ‘fortress conservation’ — the once popular idea that in order to preserve nature, you had to remove all human habitants.  Unsurprisingly, it became necessary to use guards to prevent displaced communities from returning to their lands.  This resulted in the notion among many indigenous communities that a natural park is no more than an area of forest where entry is forbidden by men with guns (PDF).

Mounting indigenous opposition to the growth of conservation areas over the last thirty years has led many within the conservation community to reconsider the model of fortress-based conservation in favor of more inclusive models.  Generally called Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (IDCPs) these purport to both protect nature and help aid communities in the areas targeted for protection.  Many REDD+ projects fit this second model: the community protects a forest and receives carbon payments for doing so. While the jury is still out on which method is ultimately the most effective, most major conservation organizations are beginning to advocate the latter approach.

Despite this popularity, should the news that several countries are now bringing their military to bear on the problem of conservation be taken as a sign that fortress conservation has begun to make a comeback?  Despite the surface similarities, it appears that the answer is no.  In each of the above cases the involvement of the military has taken on less of the character of guards excluding individuals from accessing their own land and more of the character of preventing unlawful use of the land.

The difference between these two approaches is illustrated by comparing the Nicaraguan Ecological Battalion with the actions taken in the Dominican Republic.  In the 1930s, then dictator Rafael Trujillo began creating a national park system in the DR.  Ostensibly to protect the forests and hydroelectric potential of the country, it was also a means of ensuring Trujillo’s monopoly over the logging industry.  With his personal interests at stake, Trujillo was not shy about using a heavily armed military to forcefully prevent any encroachment on the parks.  Over the short term, this was undeniably effective; the forests of the DR were preserved.  After Trujillo’s death in 1961, the military ceased to protect the parks, the logging rate skyrocketed, and farmers immediately began to encroach on the park’s land.  In the late 1960s, President Joaquín Balaguer turned to the military again, ordering night raids against logging camps; because he had no personal interests in the park, finally, viable long-term support for the parks began to materialize.

Similarly, the actions of the Ecological Battalion in Nicaragua are targeted at illegal logging camps instead of simple exclusion  Working in conjunction with the state prosecutors, their goal is to fight illegal logging by directly targeting the individuals and organizations involved, not by using military force to guard park boundaries and limit access.  They have recognized that it is no longer a fortress they are guarding but their national heritage.  It appears they have adjusted their approach to one more befitting the mission at hand.

Effective enforcement of environmental laws is desperately needed in many developing countries.  In many cases, the military is in the best position to provide this enforcement.  For instance, in many parts of Africa where poaching is often done by heavily armed and well-organized rebel groups, the military is the only entity equipped to handle enforcement.  Despite the military’s position as the best option, whenever the military is engaged for environmental protection, care must be taken that it does not become a force of general exclusion protecting a “fortified” natural area, but instead takes a targeted approach to stop those whose actions pose a direct threat to conservation.  Doing so will prevent the alienation of local communities who may otherwise benefit from the existence of a protected area and whose blessing is critical for the long-term success of any conservation plan.