Local Struggles over Rain-Forest Conservation in Alaska and Amazonia

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The ecological effectiveness and the social costs and benefits of international conservation strategies are coming under increasing scrutiny. This is especially true in restricted-use nature reserves, also called protected areas,(1) which traditionally have been modeled on the U.S. National Park System (Allin 1990) or derived from European colonial systems of game and forest reserves (Grove 1995). Natural-reserve establishment has long represented the leading strategy for maintaining biotic diversity, preserving scenic landscapes, perpetuating natural ecological services, and containing humanity's drive to blanket the globe with its handiwork.

Of late this natural-reserve strategy has been criticized for a variety of reasons, with consideration of social justice a prominent concern.(2) In many documented cases the establishment of a restricted-use reserve has had serious negative social consequences, including the forced dislocation of residents and severe - even lethal - sanctions against those who persist in attempting to extract resources (Anderson and Grove 1987; West and Brechin 1991b; Bonner 1993). Critics have demonstrated that the imposition of U.S. and European conservation models represents a form of environmental intervention in local affairs that is designed to serve the interests of foreigners and local elites while overlooking the basic human rights and needs of many local peoples (Schroeder and Neumann 1995). Although promoted under the banner of common global interests, international preservation strategies, in this accounting, actually amount to "imperialist interventions" (Cosgrove 1995, 38). Even those who would defend conventional protected areas acknowledge a need for increased local involvement in nature-reserve management (McNeely 1994). Consensus exists on this point for the very pragmatic reason that effective enforcement of a reserve's use restrictions requires that local opposition be reduced by shifting the balance of the social costs and benefits of nature reserves more in favor of local people (Hobbs 1996). Still, questions of power sharing, such as who should establish conservation priorities and strategies and who should be involved in natural-resource policymaking and implementation, are highly contentious.


Such debates over conservation strategies, particularly those that deal with the establishment of nature reserves, have commonly been framed in terms of the spatial location and cultural attributes of different groups of people who have interests in a given territory. Consideration of location and culture is, undoubtedly, essential for conservation policy. But there has also been an unfortunate tendency in much of the literature to reduce spatial and cultural categories to a misleading dichotomy between two poorly differentiated social groups: so-called local people and outsiders.(3) This has led to arguments over the relative merits of local resource management versus outside intervention. It would seem, in this formulation, that everyone must choose sides, either supporting the devolution of power over nature reserves to local people or adhering to the customary approach, with power to set agendas for international nature preservation relatively centralized among a nonlocal political and scientific elite.

The word local is almost never precisely defined in this literature. A general, if unwritten, assumption seems to be that local people can be empirically identified in purely spatial terms, by measuring the proximity of their residence and/or work to any given nature reserve or potential reserve. Another characteristic of this debate, though, is that it quite often intertwines spatial and cultural descriptors, so that local may imply indigenous or traditional. In the debate over conservation politics, a potentially confusing and inaccurate conflation of the spatial and the cultural is understandable, because many people who reside in or close to the remaining large, undeveloped spaces could be described as indigenous peoples or, at least, as culturally traditional with respect to majority populations in their respective regions. …