Conservation and Culture: Natural Resource Management and the Local Voice

Article excerpt

Introduction

Contemporary natural resource management is expanding its focus as a result of the dynamic interchange between conservationists and local people residing in or near the world's protected wildlands. "Whereas conservation efforts previously focused on the biological aspects of particular wild areas, todays conservation involves local, national, and international stakeholders in a broader, more sociopolitically-charged context. This paper illustrates the different variables involved in natural resource management from the local to international sphere, and discusses the new emphasis in management programs that involve culture and local involvement as crucial components to their success. Following this discussion, the paper will illustrate how these variables have broken down in the Ecuadorian Amazon, resulting in desperate attempts by local communities to surpass national resource managers and appeal to the international conservation community for protection of their native environment. The process of contextualizing natural resource management is difficult, especially when viewed at the external or international level. However, integration of different cultural perspectives concerning natural resource management at die local level, with acknowledgement of sitespecificity, may prove to be die new paradigm in conservation. It is upon the social stage, radier than the economic, diat conservation of culture and conservation of-environment will be viewed as die same process. And it is when local perspectives and cultural contexts are respected and valued, that conservation becomes an effective process.

The Politics of International Conservation

Conservation projects in the developing world have been historically driven at the national or international level by interest groups concerned with preserving biological diversity. International and national-level non-government organizations (NGOs) and other conservation institutions around the globe have oftentimes undertaken projects which reflect dieir biases for preservation of biological diversity over cultural integrity, without reflection upon the relationship between the two. Policies with direct implications for local communities are oftentimes formulated in international arenas (Milton 1993), radier than at the sites of their administration.

Acceptance of national parks has been shown to increase proportionately with increased distance to the area (Rentsch 1988), afindingwhich reflects the decontextualized nature of park delimitation. This decontextualization in environmental policy making can have drastic consequences upon local communities "who may find their everyday activities banned by international laws, or their economies undermined by the campaigning efforts of NGOs" (Milton 1993: 5). As notes Einarsson, "in the realpolitik of international relations, ethnocentric assumptions can be forced upon cultures that deviate from what hegemonic cultural superpowers define as civilized and acceptable" (1993: 81-2). He further states that, "greater understanding of the cultural barriers that are crossed when policies are implemented could make these policies more sensitive to local needs" (Milton 1993: 5). Developing countries, many of which retain large expanses of wildlands in unprotected or newly-protected status, may be forced politically or economically to accept natural resource policies that ignore the cultural context of resource use. While management successes such as the debtfor-nature swaps and ecotourism have served to combine wildland protection with economic planning (Hendee et al. 1990), their effects upon local people in terms of social, rather than economic, factors have not been fully explored.

The decontextualized nature of international conservation projects often results in a breakdown in enforceability at the local level. It has been noted that the Western ideals of parks and preserves have protected externally-valued areas at the expense of local rural peoples, who view the reserves as taking away local life support (Field and Burch 1988). …