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January 5, 2016 | How to Protect the Wild

Contemporary American culture idolizes the wilderness, but how exactly do we protect this Eden-like places? As public sentiment shifted to the protection and conservation of these Eden-like refuges against human contamination, a vast array of different (and often conflicting) conservation development approaches began to emerge. Currently, there is a global trend towards conservation development and a variety of different approaches have emerged. In the past century, protected areas have become increasingly employed as the venue in which people visualize and experience the wilderness. The issue with this approach, however, is that it superficially applies a foreign dichotomy of nature and culture on people and places where this distinction may have not previously existed. This foreign conservation approach defines the “natural” as that which is free of human exposure, which has often disrupted and contradicted the lives of indigenous people and communities who may not adhere to this blunt division between “the human” and “the natural."

In this blog post, I hope to explore the premise behind the neoliberal conservation development approach; that is, parks-and-people.

The driving factor behind neoliberal conservation development is that environmental protection and economic growth can be mutually compatible. This approach challenges the traditional conservation method of “fortress conservation” by offering more to communities on the receiving end of development: increased democratic involvement, guaranteed property rights, green business practices, and ecotourism.

Neoliberalism is a process that dramatically differs from location to location; however, one guiding principle in this process is the reduction of state authority and its ability to regulate. The neoliberal approach to conservation development seems to favor reregulation more than deregulation. For example, in Zanzibar, the Environmental Management and Sustainable Development Act entrusts the management authority over protected areas to “any person qualified to exercise these powers.” In Mexico, the government authorizes private investors and NGOs to acquire land in the Yucatán. This neoliberal approach to development has, therefore, increased the dependence of protected areas on “external funding, technology, and expertise,” which makes them more vulnerable to external actors.

Jim Igoe, a prominent conservationist, who labels this phenomenon as territorialisation, presents the argument that the growing authority and pervasiveness of these external networks results in a situation in which these external actors (multinational conservation NGOs, commercial tour agencies, and eco-developers) are the primary beneficiaries of this process. This benefit to external actors often occurs at the expense of local communities and indigenous people, who are postulated as the supposed-recipients of this development. While proponents of neoliberal conservation development approaches will maintain that these practices will, as a matter of course, benefit local communities and the environment, the neoliberal emphasis on competition creates a setting in which local communities simply cannot compete with more powerful external actors.

But, what is the alternative to these neoliberal conservation development approaches that are being employed throughout the world? In recent years, many governments and NGOs have relied heavily on “the Western division between nature and culture." When conservationists adopt the concept that humanity is something separate from the wilderness, it becomes the default to begin to regard these environments as only existing in their “natural state” when void of human inhabitants. For example, while the Thai concept of nature involves human inhabitants, the vast majority of Western NGOs have imposed a strict division between the human and the natural. These conflicting views of “wilderness” have led to many clashes between conservationists and local people in not only Thailand, but also in many other countries around the world. Fortress conservation, an approach that seeks to protect the natural environment through the forceful exclusion of local people, has arguably similar benefits to some neoliberal conservation development approaches, but is still unquestionably operating at the expense of local communities.

Contemporary protected areas are not only accredited with the displacement of indigenous communities inside them, but also have changed the landscape of the Earth by reassigning borders, enforcing boundaries, and renaming these spaces. In the lenses of fortress development, indigenous communities are often being forced to either submit themselves to the products of these protected area – such as ecotourism and commodification – or simply pack up and leave their former homes. For example, in Cuc Phuong National Park, many Muong villagers have been relocated from their the protected area to “buffer zones," which has resulted in conflict between some Muong who are allowed to stay in the protected area and benefit financially from ecotourism and other impoverished Muong who were subjected to forced relocation.

While it is vital that we continue to protect these treasured natural spaces around the world, we must remember who is being affected by these policies.


Eric Beeler is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Eric is a sophomore studying International Affairs and Chinese at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.