Re-Placing Nature

As the environment has become an object of global concern, anthropologists have increasingly paid attention to the ways in which conservation projects and approaches have understood and reconfigured, local patterns of human-environment interactions. The articles in this special section compare the historical and cultural particularity of the idea of nature as a nonhuman domain, with the changes represented by the adoption of more people-friendly conservation policies.

North American-style wilderness preservation is now recognised as not viable for many areas of biodiversity that contain, or are surrounded by, human communities. But just as conservationists’ understanding of nature has shifted, anthropologists also no longer see cultures as the discrete, formative meaning structures they were once presumed to be. The case studies from Nepal, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Cameroon, Greece and Brazil investigate how policies and discourses of conservation have made interventions that produce meanings of cultural diversity, as much as they have demarcated and regulated activities to protect areas of biodiversity. Who comes to be recognised as a local in areas designated for conservation, and what attendant rights and expectations follow from this?

Conservation solutions from the 1870s to 1970s tended to ghetto-ise nature in enclaves of bioauthenticity, or as resource reserves that excluded human intervention. The outcome of such conservation was a territorial nature-society divide. Nature was ‘purified’ of its social networks. As Ingold argues in his commentary on the collection, the terms nature and society do not so much describe the world as make certain kinds of claims for it. The ways in which environmental protection is now thought about are deeply entwined with developments in global economy and social change. Post-Cold War adjustments of trading patterns, investment, and rural subsidies have rendered many areas of agricultural production unprofitable, while the market for ecotourism, and scientific interest in bio-prospecting have grown, all of which have consequences for how claims are made for valuing nature. In order to evaluate the extent to which conservation has become socially reflexive, these ethnographic case studies present the view points of people who are on the end of chains of policy-impact. These studies make apparent the cultural forms and terms of relevance in which conservation appears to them. These people have often had no comparable sense of a non-human context implied by a conservation worldview, yet they have to face, on a daily basis, the socially powerful consequences of this worldview.

Ethnographers increasingly record encounters with explicit formulations of the environment as being materially threatened by human activity. These formulations were once perhaps recognisable as culturally specific. They are now no longer a straightforward criterion for defining the difference between cultural universes. There are now several examples of people’s adoption of the language of environmental protection as a discourse of the powerful to position themselves for instance, as ‘forest people’– in order to make claims for environmental entitlements.

The principal means by which communities are encouraged to view conservation favorably is through the provision of incentives and material bene”ts to compensate for their loss of access to resources.This follows from the logic that resistance to conservation has been due to economic consequences for people’s livelihoods. O’Neil’s commentary on the collection argues against this kind of analogy between environmental and use values. Many of the articles develop the ‘dwelling perspective’ of Ingold to highlight the dissonance that can be expected when the environment is regarded merely as a source of income detached from human involvement, rather than as part of a way of life.

It is not then merely a matter of compensation or alternatives for livelihood support that is necessary to forge consent for conservation. These kinds of solutions, based on economistic assumptions of human behaviour being motivated by rational cost–benefit calculations of resource alternatives, appear from the policy perspective as the more benign and peoplefriendly components of ‘participatory conservation’. Such measures of replacing ecological dependence with alternative livelihoods do not address a key anthropological reality. This reality is that managing the environment by the regulation of resource use implies conceiving of the environment as something that is external, quantifiable and controllable, and frequently involves a ‘cultural’ transformation in the ways that people place themselves in their relational life contexts. In other words the expectation of convergence between traditional relationships with ecology and modern conservation has an important gulf to contemplate – the latter views nature as a non-human domain subject to human intentions, as opposed to a cosmology in which environmental entities are accorded all manner of responsive agency, including the care of humans.

This is not a simple matter of clearly identifiable ‘moderns’ and ‘pre-moderns’. The studies discuss ways in which discourses of social and ethnic identity enter the moral contexts of environmental projects in different contemporary states. In Greece, Portugal, Spain and Finland, examples are presented where people are exhorted to conform to stereotypes of communities with iconic ecological livelihoods: artisanal fishermen, transhumant pastoralists, and specialist reindeer herders. Those who find difficulty transforming themselves into folkloric images of national nostalgia, whose livelihood practices are more hybrid, and whose communities are more global, often find themselves subject to censure from environmental authorities that only permit culturally prescribed varieties of resource use, corresponding to ‘proper’ indigenous behaviour.

Practices of eco-governance in protected areas put into place regulations on movements of people, animals and ‘natural’ things within desired topological states. This effects a new territorialisation of life process, mediated through bureaucratic surveillance, check-posts, patrols, and permits. Legitimate user groups or other collectivities are established on the basis of property, birth, ethnic affliation, or licensing arrangement. Likewise, non-human species are subject to an accounting of presence, recruitment, and loss, as if species can be pinned to the ground. Ingold argues that this ‘parking’ of nature is a distinct kind of placemaking that assumes illusory borderlines between nature and humanity.

For O’Neill, the abstract, un-placed, discourse of global environmentalism makes assertions about environmental goods and ethics that are taken as universal and not relative to time, place, and culture. The authors of this collection of articles suggest that context-rich ethnographic environmental description is of as much intrinsic value for understanding how to make conservation politically and culturally sustainable.

Originally published as:

This is a summary of a special section on “Re-placing Nature: Anthropological Encounters with Environmental Protection” in Conservation and Society 3.2, edited by Ben Campbell.

This article is from issue


2007 Jul