Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege

Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege

Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege

Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege

Synopsis

Anthropologists know that conservation often disempowers already under-privileged groups, and that it also fails to protect environments. Through a series of ethnographic studies, this book argues that the real problem is not the disappearance of "pristine nature" or even the land-use practices of uneducated people. Rather, what we know about culturally determined patterns of consumption, production and unequal distribution, suggests that critical attention would be better turned on discourses of "primitiveness" and "pristine nature" so prevalent within conservation ideology, and on the historically formed power and exchange relationships that they help perpetuate.

Excerpt

Anthropologists at the start of the twenty-first century face familiar professional challenges. As always, they must engage with both the ethnographic encounter and the preoccupations of academic production. Once again, as a century ago, anthropological work is framed by the crumbling of relatively stable global power blocks. If a century ago the so-called centres of world civilisation found themselves dethroned by colonial independence movements, and then gutted by world wars, today a new order is being built upon the rubble of post-socialism and warring fundamentalisms. At the start of the past century, the great settler states of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Russia and the United States launched continental ecological experiments, transforming grassland into farmland and forest into plantations. At the start of this century, intensifying competition to control strategic minerals and fuels continues to parcel out local ecosystems with pipelines, railways, and transitory settlements, and, more likely than not, it is altering the planet’s climate. If in the nineteenth century botanists prospected among indigenous societies for useful plants, today biotechnologists race to license the genetic patterns of flora and fauna. Everywhere they go, anthropologists learn of the struggles that accompany these contests, yet their reflections on these encounters remain marginal to public and political debate. This book arises out of a sense that the discipline could and should reshape itself through an active engagement with these debates, alert to the echoes of the not dissimilar debates which shaped the discipline a century ago.

Seen in historical relief, the identity of the discipline appears fundamentally challenged by the new politics of ecology. At the start of the twentieth century, anthropologists were not yet ‘professionals’. Nonetheless, when reading colonial blue books or even missionaries’ accounts, we can still recognise ourselves in the actions of those who were concerned about the plight of rural peoples in colonial hinterlands. In particular, we like to claim a kinship with those ‘practical men’ who spoke against slavery and structured exploitation, and who drafted enlightenment programmes for the ‘protection’ of languages, cultures and traditional lands (Kuklick 1991). On this topic, however, we find an important contrast with the applied work of our twenty-first-century professional colleagues. The anere only to be found under different, separate disciplinary classifications in any library. For all these reasons, members of the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food (ICAF) thought it worthwhile to edit a book which brought together into one volume a cross-disciplinary selection of relevant research methods.

An immediate question at this initial stage has to be: ‘Who does what? Which kind of food anthropologist tends to follow, conventionally, which kind of approach and how, at the simplest level, do these approaches overlap?’ Nutritionists, human biologists and biological anthropologists study food items and their chemical constituents in order to understand the biochemical effects of these foods on human physiology, health, behaviour, survival and fertility. Yet, they also need to know whether any food items under consideration are consumed by the people they are studying and in what quantities. A broad range of human attitudes to those food items has an overwhelming effect on whether the items will be consumed, in what form, to what extent and whether they are even available and affordable. These attitudes in turn vary with social, cultural and economic patterns and situations, which are studied by social scientists, especially by social anthropologists, social psychologists and market . . .

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