Current Conservation 3(3), special issue: displaced and disobedient knowledge

Special journal issue bringing together cases and critique regarding the impacts of neoliberal biodiversity conservation on local peoples and alternative nature values.

Download full journal issue (.pdf)


  • Problematising Neoliberal Biodiversity Conservation: Displaced and Disobedient Knowledge ~ Jim Igoe, Sian Sullivan and Dan Brockington 4  (SEE BELOW)
  • Questioning Conservation Practice – and its Response: The Establishment of Namaqua National Park ~ Tor A. Benjaminsen and Hanne Svarstad 8
  • Silent Spring in the Land of Eternal Spring: The Germination of a Conservation Conflict ~ Liza Grandia 10
  • When a Push Comes to Hush: Promoting Mainstream Views and Silencing Alternatives through Conservation Narratives ~ Saul Cohen 14
  • Critical Business and Uncritical Conservation: The Invisibility of Dissent in the World of Marine Ecotourism ~ Katja Neves 18
  • Strategies for Effective and Just Conservation: A Summary of the Austral Foundation’s Review of Conservation in Fiji ~ Annette Lees and Suliana Siwatibau 21
  • The Spectacular Growth of the African Wildlife Foundation and the Paradoxes of Neoliberal Conservation ~ Hassan Sachedina, Jim Igoe and Dan Brockington 24
  • Strategies for Effective and Just Conservation: The Global Environment Facility and India Eco-Development – Growing the Inefficient Economic Approach to Conservation ~ Zoe Young 27

(Also see report from the workshop Neoliberal biodiversity conservation: displaced and disobedient knowledge)

OPENING PAPER: Problematizing Neoliberal Biodiversity Conservation: Displaced and Disobedient Knowledge ~ Jim Igoe, Sian Sullivan, and Dan Brockington

It has now been nearly five years since Mac Chapin’s article, “A Challenge to Conservationists” (2004) caused a stir that reverberated through the 2004 World Conservation Congress in Bangkok. Although many readers will be familiar with Chapin’s article, which provoked the largest outpouring of reader letters ever received by Worldwatch, his main points are worth reiterating here. First, Chapin noted that a growing portion of the money available globally for biodiversity conservation increasingly is being controlled by the three largest conservation NGOs, which he called BINGOs (Big NGOs): the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Dowie (2009) has added the Wildlife Conservation Society and the African Wildlife Foundation. Next, he pointed out that the growth of these organizations coincided with a general failure of conservation interventions in relation to local and indigenous communities, together with increased conflicts between these communities and global conservation practice. Finally, he expressed concern over the growing influence of the World Bank, bilateral agencies, and corporations on conservation BINGOs. He argued that this situation made it increasingly difficult for conservation BINGOs to be critical of the environmentally and socially disruptive spread of corporate enterprise, including extractive industries like logging and oil mining. Many of Chapin’s observations and arguments have been echoed in the work of journalist Mark Dowie, which culminated this year in the publication of Conservation Refugees (2009).

This special issue of Current Conservation is the product of a network of scholars, activists, and conservation practitioners who have also observed and documented the kinds of dynamics noted by Chapin and Dowie. Members of this network also share an observation that there has been a clear move beyond simple partnerships between corporate interests and global conservation, to an apparent paradigm shift in which economic growth and big business increasingly are presented as essential to successful biodiversity conservation and a sustainable future for our planet. In other words, there appears to be a strengthening consensus that there is a synergistic relationship between growing markets and the protection of nature. This consensus, which can be seen in both the realms of concept and practice, is variously referred to as market environmentalism (Anderson and Leal 1991), green capitalism (Goldman 2005) and neoliberal conservation (Igoe and Brockington 2006; Sullivan 2006).

Bram Buscher (2008) offers a concise and thorough treatment of the ‘neoliberalization’ of conservation in a study of the 2007 meetings of the Society of Conservation Biology in South Africa. Buscher describes the alignment of conservation with market forces, seen through the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideas and rhetoric at the SCB meetings. He was especially concerned with assertions that markets can bring about win-win solutions through conservation interventions, in which value is added to nature through ecotourism and ‘ecosystem services’. This value added, neoliberal discourses assert, can help pay for nature protection and create incentives for local people to protect wildlife and take care of the environment. This thinking was pervasive at the most recent World Conservation Congress in Barcelona. The entrance to the Congress was aesthetically dominated by corporate displays, while the Congress featured films with titles like “Conservation is Everybody’s Business”. The Congress was also marked by contentious struggles over an emerging partnership between the IUCN and the Rio Tinto Mining Group, as well as another between the IUCN and Shell Oil. Saul Cohen’s (forthcoming) research on the Congress reveals how specific groups within the IUCN used various kinds of marketing strategies to make market-based conservation appear unproblematically compatible with social justice and ecological sustainability.

These are concerning transformations on a number of levels. As work by Zoe Young (2002) and Michael Goldman (2005) have shown, the greening of the World Bank and the creation of the GEF (Global Environment Facility) in the 1990s facilitated the extension of market logic into natural and cultural realms previously beyond its reach. This process has revolved around the phenomenon that social scientists from Marx on refer to as commodification, the transformation of objects and processes into products and experiences accruing monetary value determined by trading in frequently distant markets (e.g. Castree 2007; Brockington et al 2008). The underlying logic is that the higher the price for a tradable commodity — a species, a landscape, a cultural practice, or an ‘ecosystem service’ — the more likely it becomes that the commodity will be conserved or sustainably utilized into the future.

An economistic application of the term ‘ecosystem services’ (as posited by Costanza et al. 1987 and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005) thus reduces and transforms complex natural and social phenomena into priced and thereby tradable commodities whose priced value is set from afar (Sullivan 2009a and 2009b). An especially problematic aspect of these processes of commodification is that of environmental and social mitigation. Basically, this proposes the substitutability of one landscape for another, an environmental good for an environmental bad, and market opportunities for the livelihood practices and lifeworlds of people living on the landscapes in question. These concepts increasingly are deployed in association with extractive enterprises like hydroelectric dams (Goldman 2005) and oil pipelines (Brockington et al 2008), which harm the environment and contribute to the physical, social, and economic displacement of local people. The mitigation concept proposes that these types of harm can be corrected through nature conservation in other landscapes, combined with the absorption of displaced people into market-based economic opportunities.

Paradoxically then, conservation and capitalism end up transforming the world in partnership (Brockington et al 2008). Conservation grows with extractive enterprise and large-scale development. It grows through promoting a global tourist industry that is heavily dependent on ecologically and economically unsustainable fossil fuel consumption (Chapin 2004; Carrier and MacLeod 2005; Sullivan 2006; Neves forthcoming,). It grows through the promotion of consumer goods like green credit cards, Starbuck’s conservation coffee, and McDonalds Endangered Animal Happy Meals — to name a few (Igoe, Neves, and Brockington forthcoming). Finally, it grows alongside extractive enterprise through the provision of mitigating services and carbon offsets. Conservation grows, in other words, as capitalism matures and spreads, and vice versa. Biodiversity conservation and ecological sustainability appear, according to these arguments to be best achieved through increased consumption.

Countering this logic is difficult. As a general rule, the analyses presented in this special issue have not been well received in conservation circles. As Buscher (2007: 230) has argued, the types of win-win scenarios proposed by neoliberal conservation are highly effective in bringing together ‘a broad variety of interests and goals into apparently immutable objectives that can be embraced by all’. It thus is especially valuable in mobilizing resources and support for conservation organizations and the interventions they support, which increasingly are also opportunities for business investment. In his systematic observations of the 2007 SCB meetings, Buscher noted that presentations of these kinds of ideas and scenarios more often were cast in terms of consensus building than in terms of ‘intellectually sound and clear argumentation’. He thus concludes that the promotion of these types of concepts and scenarios tautologically affirms the very market logic they are promoting, a phenomenon he calls ‘market science.’ In market science ‘the best knowledge is apparently that which the most knowledge consumers (i.e. the audience) buy into’.

From a scientific stand point, Buscher concludes, this is a problematic state of affairs. He acknowledges the urgency of biodiversity conservation, and the corresponding need to build constituencies and procure financial support/investment. At the same time, he warns that doing this without an empirically grounded understanding of the (often problematic) complexities of relationships between global markets, ‘the environment’, and local peoples and livelihoods can contribute to the perpetuation of social injustice, as well as to paradoxically undermining the goals of biodiversity conservation.

Despite the difficulties of bringing alternative views into the arena of conservation business, we think these developments require critical analysis and challenge. The links between capitalism and conservation are more problematic than mainstream ideas regarding synergistic relationships between markets and the environment would have us believe. In some cases global conservation may be facilitating processes and relationships that undermine its own goals of protecting the environment and creating sustainability. In others, market-based approaches to conservation often are inimical to both good conservation and democratic processes.

Nevertheless, we also caution against treating conservation NGOs, and particularly BINGOs, as a group that acts in concert and always in agreement. It is true that many of the practices described above and their associated rhetoric are present in conservation NGOs: with so many of these organizations receive various forms of support from the World Bank and other bilateral development organizations, this is hardly surprising (cf. Young 2002). But it also is interesting to note the diversity of responses to these global pressures and funding flows that are visible in the conservation NGO sector. Despite an emphasis on consensus building, and the common stance that large global conservation meetings appear to encourage, it is intriguing to observe the variety of practice engaged in by different NGOs in their respective contexts of action. The empirically grounded studies of conservation performance and policy which this network has collated, some of which are reported below, thus describe considerable variety in policies, practices and consequences. Different NGOs working in the same region can behave in very different ways. Indeed the same NGO’s performance in different regions also can vary considerably. These are structures and institutions which themselves produce diversity (see especially Dowie 2009).

This diversity in the conservation movement is reflected by the fact that some of the authors in this special issue themselves were working for conservation NGOs when they formed their views, and all have worked closely with them. This collection itself was reviewed and critiqued by other members and former members and employees of conservation NGOs. In other words, this is not a sector which can be easily typecast.

Unfortunately, it also has been a frequent common experience that the formal institutional responses to our work have not been sympathetic. In some cases our work and writing has been actively shut down and shut out through censorship, threats and proposed legal action. It has seemed at times that the knowledge we have produced through research and reflection somehow is ‘disobedient’ and subject to disciplining as such, which is why we use the term ‘disobedient knowledge’ here. Clearly, the knowledge we have produced in collaboration with local people and situated in local contexts does not mesh well with the ideas and rhetoric of neoliberal conservation. Nevertheless we remain convinced that it is relevant, in terms of both conservation and social justice agendas.

Because of our concerns we have been working together to create an alternative locus of knowledge production concerning biodiversity conservation, sustainability, and our collective future. Based on our experiences we are working to design this locus of knowledge with the following principles in mind:

1) Collaboration: current approaches to conservation, especially market-oriented ones, are driven by competition. BINGOs compete with one another for sources of conservation funding. At the same time, scholars researching and producing knowledge regarding conservation, frequently in close collaboration with local people, also compete with each other for even scarcer sources of research funding, often provided by BINGOs or the foundations that fund them;

2) Affinity and common concern: research on conservation issues often is built around the availability of certain sources of funding, which may be tied to particular perspectives and agendas. We are attempting to build a research network that is minimally influenced by funding priorities, emphasising instead collaboration, friendship and shared concerns for both biological and cultural diversity;

3) Inductive and empirical research, open to scrutiny and contestation: our goal is to weave theories and discussions regarding conservation and sustainability that emerge from a diversity of empirical observations from different parts of the world. We are building these perspectives from patterns that we have noticed arising from our observations in many different locales and contexts. Our goal is to present these perspectives in both web based forums that are interactive in nature creating opportunity for dialogue and debate, as well as to publish in journals and other outlets, of which we intend this issue of Current Conservation as an initial collaborative contribution; and finally

4) Openness: Collaborative knowledge building depends on modes of communication that are, as far as possible, open, sincere, and constructive. In a competitive environment geared towards funding and profit, there are strong incentives to communicate in ways that cast doubt on perspectives and information that may be seen as undermining the procurement of funding and institutional growth. Such modes of communication often require the overlooking of perspectives and information that might be essential for effective institutional learning.

We do not envision this alternative locus of knowledge production to be standing in opposition to, or even wholly separate from, mainstream conservation. Our intention is rather that it will contribute to new types of productive tensions that broaden our understanding of conservation and its problematic relationships to capitalism, consumerism, and institutional competition. Our hope is that the conversations emerging from these productive tensions will reveal that alternatives to market-oriented conservation deserve more substantial consideration in policy circles, academic research, and public understandings of environmental issues. A full discussion of such alternatives is beyond the scope of this special issue. We anticipate that these will be the topic of upcoming conversations. We look forward to being part of these, as well as working with similarly committed people to imagine and implement alternative futures.

Works Cited

Brockington, Daniel, Rosaleen Duffy, and Jim Igoe 2008. Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism, and the Future of Protected Areas. London: Earthscan.

Büscher, Bram 2008. Conservation, Neoliberalism and Social Science: a Critical Reflection on the SCB 2007 Annual Meeting, South Africa. Conservation Biology 22, 2: 229-231.

Chapin, Mac 2004. A Challenge to Conservationists. Worldwatch Nov/Dec.

Cohen, Saul forthcoming. How to NASDAQ the Environment: the Science and Performance of Neoliberal Conservation at the World Conservation Congress.

Dowie, Mark 2009. Conservation Refugees: the 100 Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native People. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Goldman, Michael 2005. Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal 1991. Free-Market Environmentalism, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Carrier, James and Donald Macleod 2005. ‘Bursting the Bubble: the Socio-Cultural Context of Ecotourism.,’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11: 315-334.

Castree, Noel 2007b. Neoliberalizing Nature: The Logics of De- and Re-Regulation. Environment and Planning A, 4: 131-152.

Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., de Groot, S., Farber, M., Grasso, B., Hannon, K., Limburg, S., Naeem, R., O’Neill, J., Paruelo, R., Raskin, R., Sutton, P. and van den Belt, M. 1987 The value of the world’s ecosytem services and natural capital, Nature 387: 253-260.

MEA 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment:Ecosystems and Human Well-being, Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Neves, Katja (forthcoming) ‘Cashing in on Cetourism: A Critical Ecological Engagement with Dominant E-NGO Discourses on Whaling, Cetacean Conservation, and Whale Watching,’ Antipodes.

Sullivan, Sian. 2006. The elephant in the room? Problematizing ‘new’ (neoliberal) biodiversity conservation, Forum for Development Studies. 33(1): 105-135.

Sullivan, Sian 2009a. An Ecosystem at Your Service? The Land, Winter 2008/2009: 21-23.

Sullivan, S. 2009b Green capitalism, and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service-provider, Radical Anthropology 3: 18-27.

Young, Zoe 2002. A New Green Order? The World Bank and the Politics of the Global Environment Facility. London: Pluto Press.

One Response to Current Conservation 3(3), special issue: displaced and disobedient knowledge

  1. Jennifer says:

    Excellent Srticle Siana

    The World Bank estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 10 million people per year. According to the World Bank an estimated 33 million people have been displaced by development projects such as dams, urban development and irrigation canals in India alone.

    India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement in India. According to Bogumil Terminski an estimated more than 10 million people have been displaced by development each year.

    Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.

    This is what experts have termed “development-induced displacement.” According to Michael Cernea, a World Bank analyst, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.

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