Plenary Panel with Pavan Sukhdev at the Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity

June 1, 2013


Back in Norway again! This time as part of a ‘high-level’ Plenary Panel on ‘Trade-offs in National Policies’ at the 7th Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity – the theme of which was  ‘Ecology and Economy for a Sustainable Society’ (27-31 May 2013). Designed to enhance science-policy communications following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Trondheim Conferences on Biodiversity have been organised by the Norwegian Government and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity since 1993.

The panel was moderated by Pavan Sukhdev, leader of the high-profile UN and EU programme on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). I was extremely honoured to be invited to speak alongside key actors in the biodiversity policy world, namely Sir Bob Watson, Co-Chair of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment; Edgar Selvin Pérez, Director, National Council for Protected Areas, Guatemala; Valerie Hickey, Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), World Bank; Nik Sekhran, UNDP; Anthony Cox, Head of the Climate, Biodiversity and Water Division, OECD; and Diego Pacheco, Head of Delegation, Bolivia (from left to right in the image above).

We each had five minutes to speak, and this is what I said! me

It is an honour to be invited to be part of this panel – thank you.

I want to make some comments on the creation of nature as ‘natural capital’.

Yesterday afternoon, Pavan Sukhdev mentioned the Higgs-Boson which is an elementary particle in subatomic physics. Now I am not a physicist, but the story of the Higgs particle is interesting. It was first theorised in 1964, but was only tentatively confirmed to actually exist in March of this year. Its existence is important in order to confirm particular models in physics. And indeed since the 1960s, immense work and resources went into finding it, including the construction of a massive particle collider at great expense and with significant environmental impact. (1)

The Higgs particle is now considered to be an objective fact that exists and has an effect in the world. Another way of looking at this, however, is to say that it has been brought into being through all the work, resources and technical construction that permitted its observation.

I think that the creation of nature as ‘natural capital’ is similar to this. In some respects ‘natural capital’ does not really exist. It is brought into being by particular ways of conceiving, measuring and valuing nature (2). Nonetheless, it is a way of thinking about and constructing nature that has the potential to have powerful effects in the world.

One of these effects might be the provision of numerical information that can assist with generating the sorts of accounting feedback needed to change behaviours and preferences so as to stimulate actions that are more friendly to biodiversity. Great work is being done in this direction. We heard yesterday, for example, about the Trucost and TEEB for Business report that provides prices for the costs of corporate impacts on what have been treated as environmental externalities (3). This is fantastic work, but I would also like to learn more about how companies would in fact internalise these costs and continue or perhaps discontinue their business. We are also hearing about the World Bank’s WAVES [Wealth Accounting and Valuing Ecosystem Services] project, which seeks to assist countries to recognise the capital value of unexploited assets, including perhaps biodiversity (4).

It is noticeable that these approaches seek to change behaviours by making biodiversity more visible within the current economic paradigm. As we have heard this is done through economic methods that assign monetary values to aspects of nature, that turn ecosystem services into work that can be priced, and that construct biodiversity – the myriad breathing and living entities with whom we share earth – into a form of capital, just like any other.

This also worries me. It is a movement that seeks to demonstrate nature’s value, but within the economic and evaluative system that has devalued nature so atrociously. Is there a possibility that by making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics we might enhance rather than reduce its exposure to market failure?

There is another connection here that I think it is important to make. This relates to the extent to which the economic valuing of ecosystems and biodiversity might contribute to current patterns in wealth allocations – which have a tendency towards both significant inequity, and ‘plutonomy’ – that is, to disproportionate influence by the very wealthy in society. We heard a lot yesterday about poverty, and about the intentions in the Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate poverty – but I think we need to understand this much more clearly as the mirror of extreme wealth. Many figures exist on this, but to provide a snapshot – Bloomberg Magazine reported last year that the global economy allocated US $2.7 trillion in net worth to 200 people who they describe as ‘the billionaires who pull the levers on the global economy’. [That’s an average of 3.5 billion each.] The poorest 3.5 billion people were allocated only $628 each(5). [A report published this year by Oxfam states that globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years. The growth in income for the 0.01% has been even greater(6).] In addition, the divergence in wealth seems to have intensified since the financial crisis.

These figures are concerning not least because it is obscene for such poverty to exist alongside such wealth, but because economic inequality – both between and within countries – has also been shown to be a robust predictor of rates of biodiversity loss(7).

In relation to this I hope that the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals place due emphasis on measures and mechanisms of wealth distribution as an indicator of societal progress, in the knowledge that this also connects with environmental impacts.

To sum up.. some questions I have include:

  • to what extent does current economic valuation for ecosystems and biodiversity contribute to, or counter, unequal wealth distribution, both within and between countries?
  • Is there more to say about where the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation might lie? for example, might there be basic societal commitments to the sustenance of biodiversity, or to wealth redistribution, that are beyond pricing?(8) And how can governments be supported to enact such commitments?
  • And finally, how might it be possible to more fully recognise, and also to learn from, the diverse other ways that people all over the world have lived with, known and valued other species? On this point, cultural and linguistic diversity correlate strongly with biodiversity presence – we know this because most biodiversity hotspots and national parks tend to be located in areas of high linguistic and cultural diversity(9) – both of which are sadly as threatened today as biodiversity. Is it possible for us to create deliberative forums for listening to and learning from different ways of living with and valuing other species and ecosystems? .. rather than requiring that everyone, every species, everywhere, succumb to the reductive evaluative framework of capital.

trondheim logo


In preparing for the Plenary Panel, panelists were asked to complete an ‘aide memoire’, guided by the following three questions:

a) How can public service, business and households be made aware of the meaning and values of biodiversity and of the actions they can take to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity?

b) How can the biodiversity and economic planning sector assess and integrate biodiversity values and actions into national planning, poverty reduction, accounting and reporting?

c) In what ways can the ecological foundation for measurements of societal progress beyond GDP be advanced?

Below I include my ‘aide memoire’ as guided by these questions.

Title of presentation –
On Evaluative Frameworks, Value Pluralism and the Wealth-Poverty-Biodiversity Nexus
By Dr Sian Sullivan, Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, and Birkbeck College, London University

Abstract Since the CBD entered into force in 1993, enormous work and resources have gone into various layers of biodiversity assessment, measurement and accounting. These have included National Biodiversity Assessments, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 and subsequent National Ecosystem Assessments, various academic analyses of biodiversity indicators, and now the move towards Natural Capital Accounting. Over the same period, there has been no reduction in the rate of global biodiversity decline. This raises questions about the relationship between measurement, assessment and accounting on the one hand, and the actions needed to prevent decline on the other.

Current measurement and accounting practices for ‘valuing nature’ are occurring within an economic calculus designed to support both biodiversity and economic growth, through voluntary internalization of new nature prices and market incentives. It is not clear, however, that such design can produce the massive changes needed to reverse or even slow down biodiversity decline, because of the strong vested interests in developments that transform habitats, damage biodiversity and displace relatively low-impact livelihoods. Given measured links between income inequality and biodiversity decline, both within and between countries globally, it also seems clear that biodiversity decline will continue in the absence of strongly redistributive policies both between and within countries.

Such trends suggest that support for biodiversity will require:

  1. strong regulation and planning;

  2. progressive and redistributive taxation and public service policies;

  3. and deliberative spaces from local to global levels where plural value considerations can enter democratic decision-making regarding choices for both biodiversity and economic sustenance.

Key considerations
How might the CBD process support the need for strong and collaborative regulation by well-advised governments so as to mandate the cessation of actions damaging to biodiversity?
– How can the relationship between inequality and biodiversity decline be better measured, understood and incorporated in policies that support Sustainable Development Goals and targets?
– How might poverty be understood more systematically as a relational phenomenon mirroring mega-wealth and over-consumption, and arising from socio-economic structures that impoverish both people and biodiversity?

Key discussion points and conclusions
What are the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation and natural capital accounting? What are the contexts in which other evaluative frameworks might be more appropriate for making decisions that halt actions causing biodiversity decline?
– Is there a possibility that making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics as ‘natural capital’ will increase rather than reduce its exposure to market failures?

The conference’s core message was projected in large letters on various screens throughout the event:

ecol as currency


(2) I discuss this further in a blog post called ‘The Natural Capital Myth’ for the Public Political Ecology Lab,

(3)Trucost Plc and TEEB for Business 2013 Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business

(5)Miller, M.G. and Newcomb, P. 2012 The world’s 200 richest men. Bloomberg Markets Magazine 1 November 2012

(6)Hickel, J. 2013 The truth about extreme global inequality. Aljazeera 14 April 2013, after Oxfam 2013 The cost of inequality hurts us all. Oxfam Media Briefing 18 January 2013.

(7)Mikkelson, G., Gonzalez, A. and Peterson, G.D. 2007 Economic inequality predicts biodiversity loss. PloS ONE 2(5): e444.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000444

(8)On which, see Bolivia’s ‘Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well’ (, in which Chapter 2, Art. 4(2) states that ‘The environmental functions and natural processes of the components and systems of life of Mother Earth are not considered as commodities but as gifts of the sacred Mother Earth’.

(9)See, for example, Loh, J. and Harmon, D. 2005 A global index of biocultural diversity. Ecological Indicators5: 231–241.

The environmentality of ‘Earth Incorporated’

June 16, 2010

The environmentality of ‘Earth Incorporated’:
on contemporary primitive accumulation and the financialisation of environmental conservation

Paper presented at the conference An Environmental History of Neoliberalism, Lund University, 6-8 May 2010.

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In the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, the villainous business tycoon
Domenic Greene, makes a moving (and familiar) speech to potential company sponsors at a spectacularly glamorous, environmental fund-raising gala in Bolivia. He states:

We are in a spiral of environmental decline. Since 1945 17% of the planet’s vegetated surface has been irreversibly degraded. The Tierra Project is just one small part of a global network of Eco-Parks that Greene Planet has created to rejuvenate the world on the brink of collapse. I hope that tonight you make a decision to be part of that.

Meanwhile, Greene is creating immense environmental and social upheaval: investing in oil pipelines and profits in various localities globally; creating a scarce resource of Bolivian water by diverting it into huge hidden dams, thereby increasing dependence on private provision which he of course owns; and managing a tight cabal of self-serving global élites intent on resource capture on a massive scale.

The parallels with contemporary scenarios are uncomfortable. As Mac Chapin in A Challenge to Conservationists, Christine Macdonald in Green Incorporated and Dan Brockington in Celebrity and the Environment have detailed recently, the world’s major environmental organisations are collaborating systematically with corporations known more for their socially and environmentally polluting effects, competitive exploitation of highly valued natural ‘resources’, and élite profit structures. Donations from the corporate world have led to staggering increases in such funding for the ‘not-for-profit’ mega-environmental NGOs (ENGOs) of Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF);  leading to harsh accusations that these organisations are ‘polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted’. The corporate world in turn is rewarded by these mega-ENGOs with ‘green awards’ for apparent demonstrations of environmental stewardship, distributed at glamorous environmental fund-raisers not dissimilar to that conveyed for Domenic Greene’s ‘Eco-Parks Foundation’ in Quantum of  Solace. Corporate ‘green’ reputations are thereby ensured, contributing to accusations of ‘greenwash’ from some quarters.

But the benefits to business do not stop there. Environmental mega-NGOs increasingly are working with the corporate, business and financial worlds to reformulate and repackage environmental conservation and ‘sustainability’, such that this is centralised as part of profit-making portfolios. This includes: endorsement of so-called ‘green’ products; assistance with finding ‘offset’ solutions, such that environmentally damaging extractive development in one location can be ‘offset’ against investment in environmental health in a different location; work to mobilise additional financial values in land now owned by corporations based on measures of environmental health, such that these can be traded in new environmental offsetting markets and additional profits can ensue; and lobbying international environmental policy forums for subnational rather than national targets, the former being easier to manage for lucrative revenue generation under emerging global markets in new environmental commodities.

There are several interrelated strands to the justifying, and neoliberal, logic guiding these alliances and practices. First, that it is a capitalist market economy based on the profitable trade of commodities, including commoditised environmental damage, that will solve environmental crisis. Second, that it is only the correct pricing and ‘capitalization’ of nature, framed as the attribution of ‘value’, that stands between degradation and health of the non-human world. Third, that with the assistance of appropriate technical, scientific, economics, financial and legislative expertise, this pricing will additionally boost and sustain the global economic growth required to sustain capitalism, thus producing ‘green growth’. And fourth, that business and corporations are the key to the development and instituting of social and environmental ‘sustainability’. Stuart Hart, writing in the Harvard Business Review epitomises this view in the statement that ‘corporations are the only organizations with the resources, the technology, the global reach, and, ultimately, the motivation to achieve sustainability’. In this logic, it clearly makes sense for those with apparent expertise in nature management to join forces with those with expertise in business and finance.

Since a key motivation in the corporate, business and finance worlds is the expansionary production of surplus to sustain the acquisition and growth of capital, what is required for these sectors to be brought onto the environmental board in a structural way is that environmental concerns are reconfigured as ‘a major source of revenue growth’. ‘Sustainable development’, as the catch-term that brings the notion of environmental sustainability into the arena of economic development, increasingly is presented as ‘one of the biggest opportunities in the history of commerce’, with companies ‘selling solutions to the world’s environmental problems’. This is a discourse that has intensified in the wake of recent financial crisis.

These developments constitute an important shift. Under neoliberalism, business frequently has been protected from the costs of environmental governance through ‘free trade’ agreements that identify environmental regulation as a barrier to trade, and that may require additional legal mechanisms to protect the right to profit of investors. Today, the current combination of environmental and financial meltdowns instead are being constructed explicitly as creating investment opportunities in ‘sustainability’. The homepage of the new investment fund ‘Inflection Point Capital Management’, for example, states that it is ‘the world’s first multi-strategy asset management boutique offering exclusively sustainability-enhanced investment products across a broad range of asset classes’; and elsewhere on the website includes the statement that the company sees ‘recent market meltdown as a multi-trillion dollar “advertorial” for sustainability-enhanced approaches’. This fund is headed by Matthew Kiernan, acclaimed author of Investing in a Sustainable World, former President of the World Business Council of Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and regular speaker at the annual Davos World Economic Forum. Kiernan suggests that we are entering a ‘Sustainable Investment Revolution’, poised to re-engineer ‘the very “DNA” of the capital markets’. The cover of Kiernan’s book features an image of a blue-green earth, half of which is subsumed by gleaming American quarter-dollar coins (1.). This is an optimistic ‘earth-as-money’ trope repeated in the logo of the United Nation’s Environment Programme’s (UNEP) New Green Deal initiative, which depicts a delicate young green plant, shooting up from a pile of Euro coins (2.); and echoes an earlier UNEP and IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) document on payments for ecosystem services (PES) that includes an image of verdant green foliage amongst which various currency notes appear as ‘leaves’ (3).

This apparent ‘financialisation’ of environmental crisis and protection extends a key feature of capitalism in its current guise as neoliberalism. As Moore notes, this is ‘the penetration of finance into everyday life, and above all into the reproduction of extra-human nature’. In this paper I am concerned with the specific ways in which this financialisation is occurring in the arena of environmental governance for environmental conservation, as a constitutive part of ‘world-ecology’ – of both ‘the accumulation of capital and the production of nature’ – under neoliberal capitalism. I am interested in environmental crisis as not only signalling a developmental crisis of capitalism – aka James O’Connor’s ‘second contradiction of capitalism’, whereby capitalism undermines its own possibilities for accumulation by depleting its required material base. Instead, I wish to draw attention to the ways in which environmental crisis and conservation become accumulation opportunities for capitalism, particularly through relationships with finance and investment. I thus depart from Brockington and Duffy, who state that ‘[c]onservation has hardly been involved in the production of value through financialisation’, in focusing on some ways in which environmental governance for conservation, justified by environmental crisis, currently is being financialised.

For capitalism to make an accumulation opportunity of environmental crisis it needs to create new products, new commodities, that can be invested in, traded and speculated on. Nature needs to be ‘capitalised’ and ‘capital ecologized’ in new ways. Or, to paraphrase Morgan Robertson, capital needs to create new natures that it can see: requiring that the earth-in- crisis is rethought and reworded such that it is brought further into alignment, conceptually, semiotically, and materially, with capital.

With regard to the scale of planetary ecosystem management, three statements by significant ‘players’ in the world of global environmental governance are indicative of the magnitude and reach of this current ideational shift. The first is by the Deputy Head of the Species Programme of the IUCN who, in a 2009 document on the IUCN websites states that ‘[i]t’s time to recognize that nature is the largest company on Earth working for the benefit of 100 percent of humankind – and it’s doing it for free.’ The second is by Maurice Strong, Secretary General at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and first Executive Director of the UNEP. In a 1996 lecture to the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, Seoul, he states that ‘[i]n addressing the challenge of achieving global sustainability, we must apply the basic principles of business. This means running “Earth Incorporated” with a depreciation, amortization and maintenance account.’ Recently, this second statement has appeared in full on the website of a new investment fund called EKO Asset Management Partners, whose website homepage describes them as ‘… a specialized investment firm focused on discovering and monetizing unrealized or unrecognized environmental assets… in short, a “merchant bank” for the world of environmental markets.’ EKO’s investors hail from the world of haute finance and include James Wolfensohn, 9th president of the World Bank Group, as well as Lord Jacob Rothschild and Alexander and Ben Goldsmith of the Rothschild and Goldsmiths banking dynasties.

There are two key aspects of these statements that I wish to emphasise. First is the conceptualisation of nature as a company that needs to be acknowledged for the work that it does. Of course, any ensuing payments do not actually go to nature, but to the people who are able to capture them. So what becomes significant is the question of who, via enforceable property rights signalling ownership, becomes able to capture the revenue arising from such exchanges. The second is the construction of nature as akin to a bank account: as a store of capital, requiring and justifying ‘its’ expert management by ‘nature bankers’. These conceptualisations are making possible the rapid creation and proliferation of an arguably unintuitive, even weird to use Polanyi’s term, ‘environmental infrastructure’ of new markets in novel environmental commodities seen as representative of environment health and damage. In combination, these innovations are posited as a solution to environmental crisis that not only sustains a capitalist political economy but actually enhances it to produce ‘green growth’ (see below). This environmental infrastructure is populated by a new and frequently opaque ecology of intersecting terms and concepts: offsetting, payments for ecosystem services, natural capital, green-indexing, biodiversity derivatives, green bonds, environmental mortgages, to name a few.

In what follows I highlight a few aspects of these new concepts and products that I think are indicative in terms of the earth they are bringing forth, and in which particular social relationships, as well as relationships between human and non-human worlds, are implicit and imbricated. I will conclude with some gestures towards how I am currently theorising the implications of these phenomena.

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See discussion of this paper on the Capital Institute website here.

For the G20 Alternative Summit, London 2009

January 1, 2009

Notes on the poverty of constructing nature as service-provider

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (UN Declaration of Human Rights, article 19)

This post consists of my notes for a short talk I was due to give at the Alternative G20 Summit planned at the University of East London (UEL) today (April 1st) to coincide with the G20 summit meeting in London on April 2nd. The latter has been called with some urgency in the search for solutions to the astonishing meltdown of the international finance markets that has occurred in the last few months.

It was announced on 31st March, however, that the management of UEL has decided to close the University Campus  completely on April 1st and 2nd. The official reason is over security concerns, given the proximity of UEL’s Docklands campus to the Excel centre where the  G20 meeting is being held. But the noticeable effect is the cancellation of the Alternative G20 summit: amounting to prevention of public  expression of a range of concerns and ideas regarding the various global crises of our time that might run counter to those discussed behind closed doors by the leaders of 20 of the world’s nations.

A petition has been circulating that emphasises the need for ‘the university to act as a truly public space for debate in a time when nobody can doubt that radical new ideas are needed’. Currently, a reduced event with a range of speakers is still planned, via occupation of two lecture theatres in the university. Go to Alternative G20 Summit for more information.

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On bioculturalism, shamanism and unlearning the creed of growth

April 13, 2008

This piece started life as a talk at the a symposium on ‘Sustaining Biological and Cultural Diversity’ at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, April 2008. A shorter version was published in Resurgence online, Issue 250, Sept./Oct. 2008.

There is an ancient Greek myth that seems to be a potent parable for our times. Demeter, goddess of grain, fertility and the rhythm of the seasons, appears as a mortal priestess to the imperious King Erysichthon, suggesting he refrain from cutting the trees of a sacred grove planted in celebration of all that she embodies. He ignores her and continues to cut, hungry for timber to build a new banqueting hall for his palace. Demeter, revealing herself in her full splendour, condemns the King to perpetual hunger, however much he consumes. Unable to sustain the excess of a hunger that is never satiated, he becomes a beggar in the streets, reliant on handouts and eating dirt.[1]

Permanent dissatisfaction and unfulfilled desire similarly are a zeitgeist of the freedom to produce and consume that is the hallmark of the creed of growth of state-corporate capitalism. And with indicators everywhere of decline and collapse in both global economy and ecology – from housing and finance markets, to disruptions in the dance of the seasons, the wake-up call of imminent ‘peak oil’ productivity, monstrous inequalities in the distribution of material wealth and resources, and reductions of cultural and biological diversity – perhaps we now are experiencing the inevitable inability of contemporary structures to sustain that hunger. As central banks bail out the excesses of failing asset markets, from Northern Rock to Bear Stearns, it also seems, as one commentator puts it, that we are witnessing a rapid reduction of ‘the King’ of market triumphalism to the public begging bowl of bailouts from state coffers[2].

But the heart of the myth above is that all these ailments are consequent on the King’s inability to pause in wonder and respect in relation to the beings constituting Demeter’s sacred grove. This is the fall from grace of ‘Man’s’ seemingly irrevocable break from Nature; a conceptual divorce that is normalised and naturalised in modernity, and that makes possible the fundamentalist instrumentality of our (non)relationships with the non-human world. Nature is some thing to be measured, mapped, modelled, commodified, conserved, used. It is not felt, celebrated, danced, or given gifts. Even in the arena of ‘biodiversity conservation’, policy and practice is guided by quantifiable measures of desirable rarity and endemism, of numbers conserved, of percentages of the earth’s surface under ‘protected area estate’, and of money generated via such endeavours through tourism, trophy hunting, and now via global finance markets in the burgeoning area of Payments for Ecosystem Services.

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Conceptualising glocal organisation

March 23, 2006

Conceptualising glocal organisation: from rhizomes to E=mc2 in becoming post-human

pp. 149-166 in Kornprobst, M., Pouliot, V., Shah, N. and Zaiotti, R. (eds.) 2008 Metaphors of Globalisation: Mirrors, Magicians and Mutinies, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. (First presented at the workshop conference on Metaphors of Globalization: Mirrors, Magicians and Mutinies, at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, March 2006 ).

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Introducing glocal earth
Have you ever tried to locate your home using the online program Google Earth? I tried this recently. The program opened with a satellite image of the earth against the black background of space, North America the default continent that loomed large in front of me. I typed in the simple 6 character postcode for my home in Norwich, UK. Within seconds the globe had spun around and was speeding towards me – initially a blur of blue ocean, green vegetation, and brown built-up areas, rapidly disaggregating as the outline of clusters of trees and the edges of buildings. The process made my stomach lurch, producing a sensation of roller-coaster vertigo. The dive from space to the hill that I live on, and the house that I live in, lasted around five seconds: a bewildering movement from global to local; a near simultaneous representation of inhabiting – of dwelling – in both a planet and a place.

For me, this is what is conjured up by the contemporary notion and phenomenon of glocalisation. Not only does this describe a collapsing of temporal and spatial scales to produce simultaneous experiences and productions of macro and micro. It also combines with a non-dualist imagining that is suggestive of a dynamic situatedness in both the local and the global; potentiating a corresponding embodied knowledge of comprising and constituting – of being and becoming – both a reflective and generative part of the whole.

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How sustainable is the communalising discourse of ‘new’ conservation?

June 13, 2002

How sustainable is the communalising discourse of ‘new’ conservation? The masking of difference, inequality and aspiration in the fledgling ‘conservancies’ of Namibia

pp. 158-187 In Chatty, D. and Colchester, M. (eds.) 2002 Conservation and Mobile Indigenous people: Displacement, Forced Settlement and Sustainable Development, Berghahn Press, Oxford.

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A so-called ‘new’ conservation of community-based resource management attempts to address issues of equity and rural development by creating pathways whereby local ‘communities’ can benefit from, and ultimately hold decision-making power over, wildlife resources. As such, it is celebrated as constituting a radical departure from the exclusive, centralised and alienating ‘fortress’ conservation policies of the past. In this paper I contend that ‘new’ conservation is not the qualitatively different ideology or practice that it purports to be. My analysis is based on the emerging communal area ‘conservancies’ of Namibia’s USAID-funded Community-Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) programme, internationally acclaimed as southern Africa’s most progressive, people-centred conservation initiative. My discussion begins with an alternative framing of the conservancy model as the continuation of a northern concern for the preservation of threatened large mammal species, albeit in a rather more politically-correct world where the blatant alienation of people from resources is no longer acceptable. Divergences between national and local objectives become apparent when considering the different ways in which debate regarding the establishment of conservancies is articulated: namely, that while presented nationally as a policy which enables the decentralisation of rights to animal wildlife, it has been appropriated locally as a forum for expressing and contesting claims to land in a context of gross inequity in land distribution. The paper moves on to critique some of the claims made for the success of community-based conservation initiatives in Namibia under the rubric of conservancy formation: first, that the anticipated diversification of incomes will improve livelihood sustainability; second, that decision-making processes are representative and participatory; and third, that conservancies per se provide an enabling environment forthe empowerment of disadvantaged people. Throughout, and as apparently identified by local people themselves, the tensions existing between individual aspirations and differences, particularly in relation to gender and ethnicity, are made explicit. A donor-led equalising of ‘other’ people as ‘communities’ thus displaces both individual entrepreneurial initiative and priorities not held by those who become ascendant in the hierarchies of CBNRM institutions. Despite both the emancipatory rhetoric of current environment and development discourse, and the specific context of a ‘successful’ community-based conservation initiative, it seems that a more realistic (and honest) reframing of ‘new’ conservation is required: as the fine-tuning of an existing status quo of inequality in the global and national distribution of capital; as a shifting of the costs of conservation onto communal area residents; and as driven by a preservationist concern for saving a spectacular fauna of ‘the south’.

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First presented at the conference on Displacement, forced settlement and conservation, organised by the Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford, September 1999; also as a seminar at the Anthropology Dept. , Köln University, Germany, in February 2001.

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