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

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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Abstract
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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