The lopsided discourseThe hegemonic account of conservation relies on unequal power relations
In my last piece I argued that imported models of conservation have failed to address ground realities in Third World countries. Why, then, do governments in poor countries sign on to the agenda of international conservation organisations? In an August 2016 article in The Guardian, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said, “Governments like conservation because there is a lot of money in it. It brings money from the Global Environment Facility and elsewhere. But when your economic priority is to generate money from conservation, you want to get rid of people from these protected areas. That is what is now happening.”
Perks and prestige
Along with funding comes prestige and a range of opportunities. Big organisations regularly provide government officials opportunities to travel abroad and take part in global forums. Delegates at such forums are expected to demonstrate their commitment to a particular brand of conservation. A senior member of ForestAction Nepal recalled one such gathering: “They showed a clip of a bleeding rhino, its horn had been hacked off by poachers. The audience became very emotional. But there were no clips of people who were suffering because of wildlife attacks and park regulations.”
Further, many top-ranking officials at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation have worked for international conservation organisations, both during and
after the end of their tenure. For example, a number of park officials, including former wardens, have been on WWF’s payroll.
The government’s relations with conservation organisations might have been less harmonious had the latter called out powerful actors involved in environmental destruction. In India, Modi’s government launched a harsh crackdown on Greenpeace India for its activism against coal mining companies. The environmental group was accused of working against ‘growth’ and ‘development’. Imagine if conservation organisations in Nepal demanded that big hydropower projects meet all the environmental safeguard requirements before proceeding, or that companies involved in illegal sand mining and politicians who protect them be brought to book. No doubt they would be labelled enemies of ‘bikas’ and ‘samriddi’.
“Villagers destroy the forest because they lack awareness,” says Mangal Tharu, chair of Shiva community forest, which lies in an area that WWF branded as ‘Khata wildlife corridor’ in 2001. He was referring to another community forest that is used by many poor households including landless Dalits. “They cut grass, collect fuelwood, graze cattle. We need to hold more seminars and workshops to raise their conservation awareness. Conservation is for the country.”
In 2011 Shiva community forest won a global award for growing and selling chamomile and mint. The competition rewards community projects that use “business methods” to address social and environmental issues. It is sponsored by Newsweek and Shell, the oil multinational notorious for its contribution to climate change.
“We must spread conservation awareness among the locals,” says Krishna Chaudhary, an energetic young man who runs a homestay near Banke National Park. Asked whether the government made the right decision by placing national parks under the central government, he says he supports the decision “because national parks are our nation’s wealth.” Chaudhary is chair of the network of community-based anti-poaching units, which receive training and support from WWF and USAID.
In a 2012 article co-authored by Hemanta Ojha, he writes how transnational actors shape Nepal’s conservation policy by attaching “incentives and prestige” to the conservation model imported from the West. Such incentives also trickle down to the villages, where local actors are mobilised to propagate this model. Many people I met in the buffer zone villages frequently used the word “steal” to describe the act of collecting essential resources from the forest. This alone shows the extent to which they have internalised the dominant narrative. In this narrative, a good, responsible, ethical citizen joins hands on the conservation agenda rather than demanding his or her right to access resources or retaliating against wildlife attacks.
Mass media spectacle
In a 2011 article in Conservation and Society, Sian Sullivan writes how neoliberal conservation uses mass media to “sell its concerns and wares.” Mass media representations of nature foreground “the sensational, the picturesque, the exotic, and the unpeopled” while occluding the culture and livelihood of people who inhabit “wild” places. As Sullivan observes: “The modern conservation spectacle appeals to, and sustains, the relatively wealthy of the world, who also tend to be those with the greatest per capita global ecological footprint.”
A piece by Ryan Davy in last week’s Nepali Times is a small example. Anyone with even basic knowledge of Nepal’s mountain life knows the importance of yaks in the livelihood of people in the high Himalaya. Studies have shown how yak herders, who have long contributed in maintaining ecological balance, are gradually losing their way of life because of social and environmental pressures, as well as anti-poor conservation policies.
But such facts are of little use to those on a mission to explore the Himalayan “wilderness.” Davy is in the mountains of northern Nepal to capture the Himalayan wolf on camera. These wolves attack yaks and come into frequent conflict with yak herders. “Perhaps this is nature’s way of protecting the slopes from overgrazing,” Davy writes. One wonders whether he would sound as generous had his career depended on herding yaks in Nepal’s mountains rather than on collecting spectacular footage of Himalayan wolves. “It is human activity that has created a need for nature to compensate for the over-abundance of yaks,” he writes. In other words, yak herders’ way of life sustains more yaks than Davy thinks is appropriate, so it’s justified that the wolves sometimes kill those yaks. “If villagers have a stake in conservation, maybe they will not exterminate predators.” It is ironic that a white Westerner adventuring in the Himalaya should remind the marginalized yak herders of their conservation duty. Finally, Davy muses whether nature might have “summoned” the wolves to “take care of the problem of yak overpopulation.” A nice, wistful idea, only factually incorrect. Far from being overabundant, yak population is steadily declining; some studies suggest they face the threat of extinction.
As my recent articles have tried to show, conservation in Nepal has extracted the heaviest price from the poor and marginalised. The hegemonic discourse of conservation relies on unequal power relations between rich countries and poor countries, between Kathmandu and the rural populations, and between the relatively privileged locals and those at the very bottom. With the power of funding and knowledge production, as well as an extensive publicity campaign, conservation elites have thus far won the unequal battle of narratives.