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Conservation, Human Rights and Poverty Reduction

A progress report of an ongoing debate

Abstract In the context of the World Parks Congress and the World Conservation Conference much has been written about conservation, human rights and poverty reduction. While the debate has been productive, it has paid remarkably little attention to the problems of eviction from protected areas. Many protected areas in poor countries still contain people and a challenge facing conservationists is how to deal with future moves to displace people from existing protected areas as legislation tightens. We suggest three principles which will be useful as these developments unfold; 1) that the social impacts of protected areas need to be carefully monitored; 2) broadening our concerns to address the needs of all local communities, not just indigenous peoples; and 3) understanding the ecologies and social impacts of co-existence could win more land for conservation purposes than currently found in protected areas.

Recent exchanges in Oryx and Conservation Biology reveal considerable discomfort about the relationship between conservation, human rights and development needs (Sanderson and Redford 2003; Brockington and Schmidt-Soltau 2004; Price et al. 2004; Romero and Andrade 2004). The former concerned the problems of combining poverty reduction with conservation priorities. The latter, anticipating an angrier exchange in World Watch (Chapin 2004; Seligmann et al. 2005), revolved around the potential of international NGOs to neglect local people’s needs.

This discomfort is unproductive because of its disconnections. Compare, for example Brosius’ and Terborgh’s perceptions of the World Parks Congress (Brosius 2004; Terborgh 2004). Or try to find arenas for constructive engagement between the writings of Brandon and others (1998) with those of Brechin and his colleagues (2003). Conversely, attempts to find common ground can result in anodyne platitudes that fail to confront real problems facing protected areas (eg Scherl et al. 2004). Fortunately we are not yet at an impasse here. We do, however, need some new directions. In this article we wish to make three observations that may generate productive discussion.

First, there is an extraordinary dearth of good information about the social impacts of protected areas. Protected areas have expanded threefold in recent years and the stricter category 1-4 protected areas now number some 49,000 and cover 6% of the land surface of the planet. We should expect this to have involved some evictions. Yet when two of us recently reviewed as much literature on protected area displacements as we could, we found, just under 250 books and papers containing information on just over 150 protected areas (Brockington and Igoe Forthcoming). Most reports merely mentioned displacement, exploring none of the details. This dearth of information is at the heart of the current controversies surrounding conservation evictions, since different sides are frequently generalizing from a handful of cases.

The importance of this issue is recognized, with the last Conference of the Parties of the Convention of Biodiversity calling for an assessment of ‘the economic and socio-cultural costs and impacts arising from the establishment and maintenance of protected areas’ (CBD-Cop 7: 2004). But the conservation community is yet to find the political will to pursue it. Assessing protected areas’ social impacts is perceived to be hostile to conservation. The IUCN Secretary General observed in a meeting at the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok that a proposed global assessment of the social impacts of conservation was unlikely to receive support within IUCN programmes because powerful groups within the IUCN feared that "the results might be used against conservation itself".

Understanding conservation-induced displacement will be an important concern, not because of what has happened, but because of what will. Many protected areas are yet to be cleared of human residents. Available reports suggest that between 56% and 100% of stricter protected areas in South America and Asia are used or occupied by people (Kothari et al. 1989; Amend and Amend 1995; Bruner et al. 2001; Rao et al. 2002; Bedunah and Schmidt 2004). Much of the use and residence is illegal, which means that as legislation and enforcement tightens then millions of environmental refugees could be created (Geisler and de Sousa 2001). Recent reports from India for example suggest that nearly 4 million people face eviction following amendments to protected area policy (Kothari 2004). One of conservation’s severest forthcoming challenges is how to deal with this portending displacement, to be carried out in Nature’s name.

Second, we need to be wary of an exclusive focus on indigenous peoples. We thoroughly support policies which advance Indigenous People’s rights and needs. Indigenous people have experienced the lion’s share of modernity’s misfortunes. They have been particularly hard hit by the impacts of protected areas and conservation policy. Support for Indigenous People’s rights is fundamental for advancing human rights. However, we must not allow our concern for indigenous rights to obscure the experiences of ‘non-indigenous’ peoples, which can be just as serious (Brockington and Igoe Forthcoming). Reports which focus only on indigenous people are not representative of the broader concerns, especially in countries where non-indigenous groups are as impoverished as indigenous ones (cf. Nelson and Hossack 2003 and Chapin 2004).

We also need to be mindful of the politics of indigeneity. NGOs, local and international, can represent indigenous peoples in problematic ways while consuming funds as overheads. Being recognized as indigenous is not easy. It requires access to passports, to political patronage, to the policy making elite which only a few can acquire (Conklin and Graham 1995, Igoe 2004). Attention to indigenous peoples can marginalize the non-indigenous. For example popular concern for pastoralists evicted from the Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania has focused on the indigenous Maasai and Parakuyo peoples to the exclusion of non-indigenous groups, with a longer history of residence in the area (Brockington 2002).

This problem is part of a deeper difficulty in current and future conflicts over protected areas. Whether these disputes result in stronger conservation fortresses or devolved collaborations we can be sure that they will contain a ‘myriad of marginalisations and inequalities enforced on smaller and smaller scales’ (Brockington 2003: 29). Our understanding of how protected areas or community conservation works will depend upon how we understand the ways differences in gender, class, ethnicity, and identity structure the distribution of costs and benefit.

Finally it will be vital to understand the ecologies of co-existence. Decisions to evict people, or restrict their access to resources, should be governed by pragmatic ecological considerations rather than ideals of wilderness. Yet for some conservationists it is the wilderness ideal which really matters. Strictly protected areas containing people are anathema. In many countries national parks are envisaged to be places where rural livelihoods do not belong. In these contexts, people in parks are a category error. But it is an invidious one. It fosters antagonisms for there are several cases of animals and forests being deliberately destroyed to avert planned protection (Brandon 1998, Brockington and Igoe Forthcoming). It threatens degradation, for displaced rural livelihoods can cause considerable environmental problems (Schmidt-Soltau 2005). It ignores local conservation initiatives, for rural groups all over the world set aside areas in which residence or resource use is restricted. 

If we deny this category error by accepting that people and nature can co-exist in ways which are worth protecting, then we need to answer these questions:

- what are the impacts of current human use on the landscape / different taxa?

- what are the long term trends of human these resource use patterns?

- will currently benign forms of use continue?

- how can co-existence with diverse aspects of nature be promoted?

Ecologists and social scientists both need to contribute the answers here. The former because co-existence is a fundamentally ecological question; the latter because its human complexities demand a thorough understanding of local politics, economics and society. We suspect, however, that assessments of ecology are more urgently needed, particularly at smaller scales. There are a great many assessments of community conservation schemes which analyze the distribution of benefits to people, but relatively few which also analyze their impact upon nature and biodiversity (Magome and Fabricius 2004). Success for people does not necessarily mean success for nature.

Some of the most interesting examples of the kind of science we are talking about have been published in the pages of this journal. Studies of the American West (Curtin 2002, Maestas, Knight, and Gilgert 2003); Amazonian agroforestry (Anderson et al. 1995); the conservation of Central Asian snow leopards (Mishra et al. 2003), and community forestry in Mexico (Bray et al. 2003) are but a few of the valuable contributions in this field. If coupled with research into the social, economic and institutional dynamics of co-existence then we would be in a much stronger position to understand how co-existence can be promoted. For example, Bray and colleagues writings on Mexican forestry is powerfully elucidated by Klooster’s work on the same (Klooster 2000); the conservation of Mongolian snow leopards needs to consider the dynamics of Mongolian pastoralism (Bedunah and Schmidt 2004).

The ecologies and social impacts of co-existence are most important because this is an issue which extends far beyond the boundaries of protected areas. Six percent of the world is, after all, not very much from the perspective of conservation on a global scale. The ultimate challenge facing conservationists today is not only to reconcile errors of the past  but how to shape human interactions with nature far beyond the boundaries of protected areas in a way that combines conservation, human rights and poverty reduction.


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