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«1. Introduction Over the last twenty years, conservation has become a central analytical focus in the social sciences. This review article brings ...»

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Political ecology and conservation policies: some theoretical


Ismael Vaccaro 1

Oriol Beltran

Pierre Alexandre Paquet

McGill University, Canada

Universitat de Barcelona, Spain

1. Introduction

Over the last twenty years, conservation has become a central analytical focus in the social sciences.

This review article brings together contributions to the understanding of the political ecology of conservation

in an attempt to unveil the conceptual genealogies that connect the work of anthropologists, geographers, political scientists, and sociologists. We also set out the historical chronologies of the political ecology approach to conservation.

The interest in conservation started as a trickle of studies on specific protected areas and their human communities (Carruthers 1995; Duffy 1997; Neumann 1992; Ranger 1999; Stevens 1997) and quickly became a stream that included study cases of all sorts including numerous monographs (Brockington 2002;

Haenn 2005; Heatherington 2010; Igoe 2003; Theodossopoulos 2003; Walley 2004; West 2006) and articles (Berkes 2008; Chapin 2004; Lowe 2004; Moore 1998a; Wilshusen 2010) amongst many others. Case studies were soon followed by theoretical work that attempted to create a general framework for understanding conservation (Borgerhoff-Mulder and Copolillo 2004; Brockington and Duffy 2011; Brockington, Duffy, and Igoe 2008; Milton 1996; Orlove and Brush 1996; West 2005; West, Igoe, and Brockington 2006; Zimmerer 2006). Political ecology textbooks have included chapters on conservation (Neumann 2004; Robbins 2005).

A wave of articles connected conservation to specific issues such as climate change (Berkes and Jolly 2002), forced displacement (Agrawal and Redford 2009), or tourism (Münster and Münster 2012). The bibliographic field was consolidated by the publication of several edited collections (Anderson and Berglund 2003; Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Stevens 1997; Zimmerer 2006), and several special journal issues. 2 The American Association of Anthropology even has a task force on conservation, called the Community and Conservation Working Group (Peterson, Russell, West, and Brosius 2010).

2. Political ecology, conservation, and history: chronologies Political ecology defines the environment as an arena where different social actors with asymmetrical political power are competing for access to and control of natural resources (Bryant and Bailey 1997). The act of declaring and implementing a conservation policy is a paradigmatic example of this competition for environmental control. Protected areas, by definition, establish jurisdictions and borders that define exclusionary rights. They are implemented by different social and institutional actors (often powerful), suffered by other social groups (often not so powerful), and enjoyed by yet another set of players (tourists and scientists). These discrete actors, therefore, remain engaged in an assemblage of contradictory social relationships. These different social actors define nature, legitimacy, rights, or use in very different, and culturally dependent, ways. It is not surprising, then, that political ecology, from its very beginnings, devoted analytical attention to the socio-ecological context of conservation policies (Neumann 1992). Political ecology emphasized the connections between ecology and social context by matching ecological and social chronologies, contributing to the understanding of their interactions and the social production of landscapes (Blaikie 1985; Fairhead and Leach 1996; Vayda and Walters 1999).


Dr. Ismael Vaccaro, Associate Professor, Dept. of Anthropology (and School of Environment), McGill University, 838 Stephen Leacock Building, 855 Sherbrooke Street W., Montreal, Quebec, H3A 2T7, Canada. Email: ismael.vaccaro "at" mcgill.ca. Dr. Oriol Beltran, Professor of Social Anthropology, Universitat de Barcelona, Spain. Email: Obeltran "at" ub.edu. Pierre Alexandre Paquet, PhD student, Dept. of Anthropology, McGill University, Canada. Email: pierrealexandre.paquet "at" mail.mcgill.ca. Thankyou to three reviewers and the editors.

Annual Review of Anthropology 2006; Conservation and Society 2007; Antipode 2010; Development and Change 2012;

Journal of Peasant Studies 2012.

Vaccaro et al. Review: political ecology and conservation Although conservation is a vast field, with many different types of policies, in these pages we mainly focus on territorially based conservation policies: the creation of protected areas. We are, however, interested in disentangled the conceptual genealogies used by political ecology in particular, and social sciences in general, to talk about and to analyze such policies. Admittedly, not all protected areas are the same. The goal of this article is not talk about the differences between national parks, natural parks, or reserved areas for instance, nor to discuss the impact of UNESCO or IUCN on the development of conservation areas.

Descriptive analysis and detailed critical inventories can be found elsewhere (Europarc 2008; Santamarina 2009; Lausche 2012; UNESCO 2012).

Grosso modo the literature has created an historical framework of analysis that describes the evolution of the territorially based 'conservationist industry' in three main phases (Wilshusen et al. 2002);

a) fortress conservation (Brockington 2002; Neumann 1998)

b) different forms of co-management conservation (Brechin et al. 2003; Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Gibson and Marks 1995; Peters 1998)

c) neoliberal conservation (Brockington and Duffy 2011; Igoe and Brockington 2007).

Neoliberal conservation appears to have created a backlash against previous participatory models and provoked a return to an austere - and marked-dominated – 'quasi-fortress' model, with some important changes, including a concentration of capital, of science and of political clout in private hands. This authoritarian backlash manifests as privately owned 'fortress' conservation areas or in the interaction between private exploitation ventures and the public conservationist effort (Fortwangler 2007; Langholz 2003;

Brosius and Russell 2003; Peterson et al. 2010).

Modern conservation, in the form of territorial exclusionary policies, appears at the end of the nineteenth century as a key cultural element of the relationship that dominantly urban Western societies develop with nature. At the heels of the political and economic globalization that came with the Industrial Revolution, conservation policies quickly became ubiquitous and a source of local tensions around the globe (Tsing 2005). They also became a tool for territorial homogenization and cultural universalization (Sullivan

2010) as they stepped over alternative pre-modern - non-state dominated - forms of territorial management such as the commons, for instance (Ostrom et al. 2002). Conservation is also culture: exclusionary territorial public policies are a modern way of socially constructing and politically controlling nature (Bromley 1991) and landscape (Hirsch and O`Hanlon 1995); of turning place into space (Feld and Basso 1996).

The three phases of modern conservation, although they emerged in different historical moments, coexist in time in many different locales, or they succeed each other depending on the vagaries of the protected area management in charge at the time: led by government officials, NGO priorities, or notions of environmental stewardship prevailing at all stakeholder levels, including the local (Zanotti 2011). The three categories in this classification scheme are, of course, ideal types. They are, in themselves, categories that encompass high levels of historical, geographical, and institutional variability. The historiography of conservation is context dependent, as are the political forms and ideologies that have dominated public policy and the production of science in general (Adams and Hutton 2007).

Fortress conservation This is the first stage of public conservation, established as originating in the US following the Yellowstone National Park model, founded in 1872 (Spence 1996). Fortress conservation is characterized by an exclusionary approach: it has often resulted in evictions of local inhabitants. It also focuses part of its managerial efforts on protecting and defending its borders from outsiders. More often than not, the managerial body does not share jurisdiction with locals or local institutions (Brockington 2002; Peluso 1992, 1993). This approach is by no means limited to the early parks of the late nineteenth century. Fortress conservation is still implemented, and its adequacy is often questioned (Wilshusen et al. 2002). This model is often used to present conservation discourses akin to modernity's main narratives, characterized by the implementation of state bureaucratic governmentality (Lowe 2006), dominated by experts (Saberwal et al.

2001), state-making (Vaccaro 2005), and ultimately linked to commoditization (Castree 2003). Protected nature not only becomes a commodity worth paying to see and experience; it is printed on posters, it is traded as a strategic good in international agreements, and an industry has emerged around its exploitation. The inclusion of conservation into the public realm is also closely related to the development of the idea of 'collective public good' as a fundamental legitimating argument for state intervention (Foucault 2007), and the typification of acceptable behavior (Duffy 2010).

Most of the time the newly created parks were focused on peripheral, often mountainous environments that in many cases are also populated by marginal populations, as seen by the respective national imaginaries (Santamarina 2008). This initial phase of territorially based conservation is articulated

–  –  –

around very specific ideas of what nature is from a cultural, but also from a political perspective. The inefficiencies of the fortress model have pushed the conservationist movement (and its public and private bureaucracy) to rethink the paradigm, due to continued local resistance and accusations of environmental injustice (Adams and Hutton 2007; Robbins 2005). These policies are, as we will see, articulating a new form of colonialist reconceptualization of nature, landscape, and society.

Co-managed conservation At some point many contesting voices started to claim what became quite obvious: imposed conservation resulted in extensive environmental injustices associated with the violation of traditional local rights to land and resources. Imposition often led to local opposition and attacks against outsider governance, and even against the natural assets themselves (Stevens 1997; West and Brechin 1991). This opposition appears to be part of wider social movements, especially in the Third World (Guha 1999). There seems to be a convergence between;

a) postcolonial independence struggles that spurred demands for more political and economic recognition, inclusion, and empowerment of non-Western actors, giving birth to participatory approaches to development (Argiyrou 2005; Escobar 1995)

b) the recognition of the role local communities have had in the management (or even creation) of valuable environments (Cinner and Aswani 2007; Posey and Balick 2006; Redford and Mansour 1996; Toledo et al. 2003)

c) the introduction of the concept of sustainable development, which interlinks social and ecological systems over time (WCED 1987).

d) the recognition that policies had different impacts of different intensity on diverse communities and on different types of social actors inside these communities (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Schlosberg 2007).

The acknowledgement of this internal heterogeneity of the communities affected by conservation and development projects has led to the analysis of the consequences for different groups of individuals, depending on their identities or positionality. Subaltern groups, because of their productive choices, gender, or social standing, are also part of local communities, have strong local relationships with the natural environment, and often endure the worst consequences stemming from the sudden and radical changes brought about by conservation policies (Agrawal 1996; Carney and Watts 1991; Rocheleau et al. 1996).

Sustainable development also bound together concerns for environmental conservation with the right to development (Sachs 1999). In the 1970s, the political claims of the newly independent countries of the Third World and the idea of sustainable development were introduced into the conservationist agenda.

Conservation proper became enshrined in conservation-as-development projects (West 2006). Even institutions like the World Bank worked on the 'greening' of their policies (Goldman 2006) and adopted participatory approaches during this period. There was, then, a strongly felt need to redefine conservation policies and, especially, conservation's relationships with the local populations with which they were in direct contact. Conservationist NGOs such International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and many others, started to redefine concepts such as nature, use, or jurisdiction in order to consider nature and culture in their work (Santamarina 2008). The resulting international agreements were designed to integrate pre-modern forms of environmental management and local communities into conservationist institutional networks. This interaction resulted in a generalized change in the discourse and practice of conservationist ideology in regard to the acceptance of human use and habitation inside protected areas. In terms of governance, this meant the devolution of jurisdiction from central authorities to local partners, partially through co-management, or fully as community-based conservation (Brosius et al. 2005; Igoe and Croucher 2007; Western and Wright 1994).

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