Weak yet strong: the uneven power relations of conservation

Over the summer I have been lucky enough to go to various meetings and events (particularly the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Madison, US and the Cecil Summit in Oxford) that have exposed me to unfamiliar examples of conservation practice around the world. A consistent theme running through much of what I have learned is the importance of the power relations between conservation and other actors, and how much these affect conservation thinking and practice. This in itself is not surprising, but what has really struck me is that there are two different, and seemingly contradictory, narratives about conservation and power in circulation.  

First, conservation is weak. According to this narrative, mostly used by conservationists themselves, theirs is a minority cause with few powerful friends, seeking against all odds to achieve transformative societal change that is against the interests of those in control. To succeed, conservation must persuade large companies, wealthy individuals and (sometimes corrupt) governments to change their practices, and it does so from a very weak position. It is common to hear conservationists bemoaning the lowly status of their stories in the media, public opinion surveys and corporate boardrooms. These concerns were raised repeatedly at the Madison conference, which focused on communicating conservation to achieve action.

Much of conservation practice in the last few decades can be interpreted as a strategic response to this perceived weak position – reframing conservation issues using language and ideas more palatable, or at least less offensive, to those with power. Given the current global dominance of a neoliberal ideology, this has tended to mean reframing conservation as friendly to capital, through ideas like ecosystem services, natural capital accounting, and so on.

Second, conservation is strong. According to this narrative, mostly used by critical social scientists, conservation is a powerful, almost hegemonic industry that can, and does, trample on the rights of marginal people to get what it wants. Much of the work done by conservation organisations takes place in remote rural areas in the global south; areas populated by very poor and marginalised people, often living at low population densities. These people are usually ignored by their governments (few votes), by businesses (few dollars) and by development agencies (fewer poor people than urban slums). In contrast, conservation organisations in such places have shiny vehicles, well paid staff, strong backing from government agencies (or they are government agencies) and international connections to wealthy donors and opinion formers such as celebrities. Conservation exploits its position of superior power to inflict harm on local people and their livelihoods in the interests of a distant elite. These concerns were discussed extensively at the Cecil Summit, which sought new ideas to improve the outlook for both lions and people in Africa.

The reality of course is that both narratives are true, and false. False in the sense that conservation is never quite as weak as is sometimes made out (after all, if protected areas designated for conservation were a single country, it would be the largest country in the world), and that even where conservation appears to be strong, there are always weapons of the weak that can be used to fight back. And true in the sense that conservation really is relatively weak and powerful at the same time, because its power is unevenly distributed. This unevenness is spatial (i.e. it is much easier to get land with low economic value in the global south protected), but it can also relate to types of conservation activity (i.e. conservation can be powerful when getting a space protected, but weak when seeking reforms to the structure of the economy, even in the same place).

The uneven distribution of conservation’s relative power matters in at least two ways. Firstly, it creates ambiguity in how we think about the fairness of conservation actions. In a context where conservation is relatively weak, I find it quite legitimate for conservation organisations to use strong advocacy tactics to call for changes to the status quo – for example the current campaign to end driven grouse shooting in the UK, which is a direct assault on the interests of the UK’s rich and powerful landowning elite. In contrast, a similar campaign to reduce illegal hunting by poor people living in Southern Africa would make me very uncomfortable, because I would fear that conservation was unfairly targeting people who have few alternative options and lack the means to defend themselves from conservation demands. The conservation arguments for the campaign in both cases might be the same, but the relative power of the parties on either side of the campaign affects my judgement of its legitimacy.

Secondly, many conservation organisations work across multiple contexts and therefore have to cope with being strong and weak at the same time in different areas of their work. This could create the risk that organisations seek out places where they hold relatively greater power to try things out, a bit like a bullied kid in the playground looking for someone weaker to pick on. Indeed, political ecologists like Roderick Neumann have argued that many conservation actions can be explained this way – from aristocratic colonial preservationists finding new estates in Africa when they were losing them at home, to modern BINGOs finding the places where they can get the most bang for their buck. At its worst, this can lead to conservation organisations establishing some kind of semi-sovereign regime of questionable legitimacy. Addressing this problem requires good internal processes and safeguards to make sure that rules about appropriate actions apply wherever an organisation works, and not just where there are regulators and empowered citizens to hold conservation to account.

The uneven distribution of conservation power is not going to go away, and is not something that can be ‘solved’ by some simple intervention. But I do think that it is important for conservationists, and those of us who study conservation, to reflect on this unevenness and the two narratives of conservation power that it generates. At the moment I worry that there would be grounds to retitle them the ‘good guy’ narrative (where conservation is weak and does no harm to vulnerable people) and the ‘bad guy’ narrative (where conservation is strong and throws its weight about). Uneven power doesn’t have to lead to uneven behaviour, but making sure it doesn’t requires a concerted effort to ensure that conservation actions are fair and balanced wherever they take place.


One thought on “Weak yet strong: the uneven power relations of conservation

  1. Thanks Chris for these reflections – I can readily relate to both polarities from my own experience. There is however another third narrative – one I have tried to promote in the ‘rewilding’ work with BANC and oddly prompted by the recent uptake of rewilding by the more corporate and powerful conservation organisations. As we aimed to show in the BANC/Ethos book ‘Rewilding’ (2011), there are more than a dozen major projects in the UK that have been running for about ten years (with Trees for Life a lot longer), all with different strategies of relating to the local and national power structures, but all essentially ‘grassroots’ in their origin, with local champions and organic community based growth. These initiatives have been very successful at a time when conservationists generally have been bemoaning their declining status on the political scene (with apparent losses, for example to infrastructure projects or in changing agricultural practices).

    The recent State of Nature reports focus upon declines – usually species-based, whereas there are many examples of increases despite the broader losses.Further, the rewilding initiatives are very much social as well as biodiversity initiatives (in fact, diversity of species as implied by that term is not a particular useful index where scale, process, wildness and societal meaning and involvement are concerned) – there is an element of rewilding the human present which in the long term I feel is more important than safeguarding species of conservationists’ concern (a balance needs to be struck).

    I relate this because our experience in the UK – perhaps less local and communal in the USA, I do not know enough about the rewilding projects there but they appear rather top-down, may be of relevance to models for the global South, where ‘ownership’ of the conservation project would be a crucial antidote to the ills of the top-down power conservationism you describe. I am sure that many of the international organisations know this anyway and try to reach out to local people, but ultimately it is going to be a matter of changing consciousness (and of course, local economies).

    One element worth highlighting is the way that larger conservation organisations relate to the media and fund-raising. The need to get messages across and raise money affects the narrative strongly – especially when it comes to ringing alarm bells about losses, rather than balancing that with successes.

    Thanks again for this thought-provoking piece.

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