Biodiversity is in the eye of the beholder

While I was conducting my PhD research at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, I spent a lot of time talking to local people about ‘the forest’ (or eihamba in the local language, Rukiga). My interviews were about the benefits and costs of mountain-gorilla tracking tourism and conservation for local people, and the forest came up all the time. This was not surprising – the forest is home to the gorillas and other species of conservation concern, and also plays a major role in the livelihoods of local people. But something was wrong. As I wrote up my interviews in my room every night, I noticed that in some cases the same respondent had been very positive and very negative about the forest in the same interview. This often seemed entirely contradictory.

After a lot of thinking and discussions with my supervisors it finally dawned on me that the word ‘eihamba’ was being used to mean two very different things. On the one hand, it meant the physical forest, including the species within it and the resources it provided (or took away in the case of crop-raiding animals). On the other hand, it meant the institution of the national park, the boundary of which almost exactly matches the edge of the physical forest (which of course is no coincidence). The same respondent could talk in positive terms about benefits of gorilla tourism that they attributed to the forest as a physical entity, and then about the costs of conservation that they blamed on the forest as an institution. In both cases they used the same word – forest.

This insight helped me to understand my PhD data. But I think it also raises wider questions about the way that abstract concepts are used in conservation research and practice. By way of example, I would like to return to the question of costs and benefits. It is common to see the impacts of conservation for local people talked about as a kind of cost / benefit analysis, in which all the benefits are on one side of the scale, and all the costs on the other. If benefits outweigh the costs, then we should expect to see people supporting conservation, and vice versa. Of course the reality is much more complicated than that, as Lucy Emerton (2001) pointed out in her excellent piece entitled The Nature of Benefits and the Benefits of Nature. In it she explains, among other things, that benefits and costs might be in different formats. So a cost in the form of lost access to food resources might not be compensated by a benefit in the form of a new school. This makes it meaningless to sum the benefits and costs to establish a ‘net’ impact.

To this I would like to add another problem, based on my insight from Bwindi. This is that a question like ‘what are the costs and benefits of conservation’ assumes that the respondent perceives there to be such a thing as ‘conservation’, to which all the costs and benefits the questioner has in mind can be attributed. In fact, biodiversity is in the eye of the beholder, and this assumption may well not hold.

For example, at Bwindi, it is commonly argued that benefits for local people from conservation (largely in the format of revenue and jobs from gorilla tourism) will compensate for costs that are exacerbated by conservation, such as crop-raiding by gorillas, baboons and bushpigs. Leaving aside Emerton’s point about how these benefits and costs are unlikely to be commensurate, we can also see that the logic depends on the people concerned seeing these both of these things as linked to the idea of ‘conservation’. In practice, I spoke to many people who were very positive about gorillas, because of the benefits they brought, and were perhaps even willing to tolerate some level of crop raiding by gorillas as a result. But they were very intolerant of bush-pigs and baboons, which bring no benefits of their own but can cause considerable damage. These people often suggested that the park authorities should do more to control ‘their’ bushpigs and baboons, and certainly didn’t make any connection with gorillas and tourism as compensation. Why should they?

These people were in a sense in favour of gorilla conservation, but not in favour of all conservation, and they certainly weren’t convinced by any linking argument around the idea of ‘biodiversity’.

I’m not sure if this is an original insight, but I think it is rather important. Why should we expect people affected by, or who have an effect on, conservation, to see the world in the same way that those trained to think about conservation in western universities do? To me it makes sense to think of benefits and costs of conservation, biodiversity, or indeed tourism. But to a local person with a completely different linguistic and cultural background, it seems highly unlikely that any of these abstract ideas will be seen in the same way. I think that, as I learned in my interviews about forests, those involved in conservation practice and research need to be a lot more careful to check that they understand how their terminology and concepts are perceived by others, and to avoid assuming that different things are lumped into categories that make sense to us. This might help to explain why some community-based conservation interventions don’t work as well as expected, and might also encourage us to seek a deeper understanding of the people involved in conservation before designing interventions.


I would like to thank Chloe Hodgkinson for her help in thinking about these ideas, which at one point in the distant past we had considered writing up for a journal.


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