Parks and Poverty: The Political Ecology of Conservation

In 2004, the government of Ethiopia moved 500 people out of the Nech Sar National Park in the south of the country, before handing it over to be managed by the Dutch NGO,African Parks. The following year, African Parks signed another contract to manage the Omo National Park. The issue of evictions in these parks quickly became the subject of intense lobbying by international human rights NGOs. Such problems have been reported from many countries as the area protected has risen, doubling in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. By 2005, over 100,000 protected areas (PAs) covered more than 2 million sq. km., or 12 per cent of the Earth’s land surface. Systems of protected areas existed in every country, wealthy and poor alike. The place of people in protected areas has been much discussed by academic researchers and human rights activists. For whom are parks set aside? On whose authority?At whose cost?

Debate about people and parks is typical of much wider questions about the social impacts of conservation on human welfare, including the compatibility of conservation and poverty alleviation and the feasibility of ‘win-win’ policy strategies. Action to conserve biodiversity, particularly in the creation of protected areas, is inherently political. Yet most writing about conservation draws, to only a limited extent, on an explicit understanding of the political and economic dimensions of conservation policy. There are various reasons for this. One is the profound and long-standing disciplinary gulf that exists between predominantly natural science-trained conservation planners and predominantly social science-trained critics of conservation. The field of political ecology offers productive possibilities for developing that engagement. Political ecology is a diverse and trans-disciplinary field. It first emerged in the 1970s, and developed through the 1980s, particularly in work by Piers Blaikie on the problem of soil erosion.

Political ecology views the environment as fundamentally social and political. The use, overuse, degradation, conservation and restoration of the environment are inherently social and political processes. Political ecology considers the interactions between ecology and the politics and impacts of social action affecting the environment. It takes from ecology a concern with environmental dynamics and change, and from political economy a concern with the control of resources and labour. Moreover, in recent formulations (notably the work on ‘liberation ecology’ by Richard Peet and Michael Watts) it takes from social theory an interest in the way nature is understood and represented. It recognises the power of science and policy discourse to channel the way people combine to control the environment, and each other. Therefore not only does the actual state of nature need to be understood as the outcome of political processes, but the ways in which ideas about nature are formed, shared and applied are also inherently political, even those ideas that result from formal scientific experimentation.

The political ecology of conservation is now recognised as important in a variety of ways. A key issue is the social impacts of protected areas, particularly on people displaced (either through physical removal or denial of access), and the impacts of the ways such displacements are organised, particularly the issue of involuntary displacement and coercion. A related set of problems concerns the social impacts of conservation regulations (e.g., controls on hunting, fishing or forest use). Third, there are important political questions about the way the economic benefits of conservation activities (e.g., the revenues from tourism) are shared between people. This leads on to a fourth set of issues concerning the links between poverty and conservation, the debates about possibility of ‘win-win’ strategies that both conserve nature and reduce poverty. Behind all of these lies the issue of the power of ideas about nature to dictate the way conservation is thought about and practiced (for example, in the concept of wilderness as a way of describing areas of forest or savanna with low human population densities).

Conservation has become a powerful political force, at least in the rural districts of poor developing countries. Large international NGOs have undertaken sophisticated exercises in conservation planning (such as Conservation International’s ‘hotspots’). Through such science and the funds they raise from supporters in developed countries, conservation organisations can wield considerable influence with governments and donor organizations. They can both initiate and drive forward conservation programmes on the ground with profound social and economic significance for rural people.

An understanding of the politics of conservation is vital if policy is to be effective and any potential harm is to be minimised. To achieve this, better dialogue is needed between conservationists (who are mostly trained in natural science) and critics of conservation, many of whom are social scientists. The emphasis of political ecology on the links between political economy and the actual state of the environment offers some potential to improve their conversation.

There is no doubt that politics matters for conservation. In December 2007, African Parks (now called the African Parks Network) withdrew from Nech Sar andOmo National Parks in Ethiopia, citing the unresolved issue of resettlement. The rights and needs of the many people resident in these parks could not be wished away. Such issues are fundamental to conservation planning. The political ecology of conservation offers a way of considering the conceptual and material place for human society within, and not outside, nature.

Originally published as:
Adams, W.M., and J. Hutton. 2007. People, Parks and Poverty: Political Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation. Conservation and Society 5(2):147-183.

This article is from issue


2008 Jun