The sins of our forefathers

Last week Ed Carr and I had an amicable little to-and-fro in the comments stream of his blog on the culpability of the environmental movement in pushing economically restrictive rules on those least able to resist (the global poor). Ed concluded his post:

“Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a ‘think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)’ mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Ed’s case in point was restrictions on charcoal makers in Zambia, which appear now to be rationalised as part of the fight against global climate change. Although I do not know the Zambia case specifically I suggested that these restrictions might actually have much older provenance in colonial times, with an intellectual heritage that dates back to laws designed to safeguard mediaeval aristocracies’ hunting privileges. And indeed that much (though sadly not all) of the modern international conservation movement now opposes such anti-poor regulations, which are rarely very effective any way.*

Some people might get a bit frustrated with this unjustified negative image that others in mainstream development may have of us in tropical conservation. For my part, however, I think we need to face up regularly to the sins of our forefathers. Push back by all means, but better to have people like Ed Carr keeping us on our toes than to naïvely assume that just because now we are a bit more people friendly we have automatic claim to the moral high ground.

It takes a lot of hard work to shed a bad reputation, and the job is yet at best only half done.

* It’s a bit of a dirty secret that some community conservation programmes were at least partially originally justified on the basis that the government of the time simply did not have the resources to police their own laws, and community conservation was as much an attempt to co-opt local allies into the enforcement effort as to generate them any particular rewards.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for this – a very fair reading of my motivations! I think that it is too easy to demonize conservation efforts…and in fact, my post was really a critique of development donors’/implementers’ efforts to foster particular kinds of environmental governance in the context of conservation. In short, I think that a lot of these programs are really more about governance than conservation, and conservation becomes the convenient excuse for building new/more governance structures. However, in the context of conservation and livelihoods, these governance structures often don’t work (and I know you are aware of this) and, worse, actually undermine any effort to build the legitimacy and efficacy of civil governance. This is not conservation’s fault as much as it is those who think too narrowly about governance…

    That said, I appreciate your willingness to think about the sins of the past (I do plenty of that in the context of development), but fortress conservation never really went away. It is still there, lurking under a lot of different guises. It is not fair to tar an entire field with a single brush, so I don’t want to suggest that all conservationists want fortress conservation. But charcoal is just one example of what is happening in Southern Zambia. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Area has already resulted in the construction of a massive fenceline along the Zambezi that restricts the movement of residents, and appears likely to impose significant restrictions on local livelihoods (i.e. no extensification of farms). The “fortress” is already under construction via the fence. The evictions are not a formal part of the plan…but de facto evictions are likely when communities are forced to move to adequately farm or graze their cattle.

    It is totally unfair to say the KZTA represents contemporary conservation as a whole. But it is equally unfair to suggest that fortress conservation is a sin of the past. There are plenty of examples of this mentality still in play today. I hope that you and other members of the conservation community will continue to hold the wider world of conservation to account for the intended and unintended consequences of their efforts!


  2. […] environmental movements in ‘development land’ check out two articles HERE and HERE. So how do I (how should we) navigate all of the complex environmental problems we face today and […]


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