Academic journal article Human Organization

Marine Protected Areas in Panama: Grassroots Activism and Advocacy

Academic journal article Human Organization

Marine Protected Areas in Panama: Grassroots Activism and Advocacy

Article excerpt

In Latin America, the role of the state in funding and implementing environmental protection has been consistently inadequate. As alternative responses develop, national and international conservation NGOs replace governments in the quest for environmental sustainability. The environmental discourses and practices-and the morality accompanying resource use and conservation-privileged by the donor organizations become the environmental truth by which environmental sustainability is planned and designed. The goal of this article is to contribute to the more recent literature on power dynamics product of the collaboration among allies in global environmental and indigenous rights issues. It addresses the alliances developed among North American conservationist organizations, Panamanian authorities and NGOs, and Ngöbe indigenous peoples to create a master plan for the management of a marine protected area in the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. I focus on the conflicts among apparent allies in the quest for environmental protection and on how the environmental truth (in the name of global environmentalism) of donor organizations shaped the creation of a management plan in the Archipelago. The process of the creation of the Assembly and the development of the plan illustrate both the efficacy and the limits of grassroots activism in situations of uneven status and power.

Key words: Marine protected areas, grassroots activism, advocacy, Caribbean, tourism

Central American nation-states have increasingly responded to global environmental agendas. As countries address these agendas, they also emphasize the need to develop legal systems that facilitate environmental protection and create protected areas. However, the role of Central American states in funding and implementing environmental protection has been consistently inadequate (Sundberg 2003). This has produced alternative responses to environmental protection, from the creation of certification programs to assess and audit facilities and products (Honey 2003; McLaren 2003), the development of formal mechanisms that allow landowners to transform their properties into privately owned conservation areas, to the creation of consortiums and trusts to manage these areas. As a consequence, national and international conservation NGOs replace governments in the quest for environmental sustainability. The environmental discourses and practices-as well as the morality accompanying resource use and conservation-privileged by the donor organizations become the environmental truth by which environmental sustainability is planned and designed (Worster 1990; Sundberg 2003).

This article contributes to the relatively recent interest in environmental anthropology in discussing collaborations involved in "the production of environmental objects, projects, and political positions" (Tsing 2001:15) as well as the study of social movements centering on environmental and indigenous rights issues (Brosius 2001). The article focuses on the alliances developed among North American conservationist organizations, Panamanian authorities and NGOs, and Ngöbe indigenous peoples to create a master plan for the management of a marine protected area in the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Believing that the government was unable to protect the natural resources of the Archipelago, public, private, grassroots organizations, and indigenous communities united to create the Consejo Consultivo (Consulting Assembly), whose main goal was to develop a more inclusive and environmentally friendly management plan for the marine park. Research on the divergent perspectives of groups (villagers versus the state, activists versus corporations) has produced very important works on the topic (Peluso 1995; Brosius 2000, 2001, 2003). However, as Tsing (2001) notes, differences among allies has been less explored (but see Baviskar 1995; Peluso 1995; Reed 2003; Sturgeon 1997). In this article, I examine the conflicts among apparent allies in the quest for environmental protection, and on how the environmental truth (in the name of global environmentalism) of donor organizations shaped the creation of a management plan in the Archipelago. …

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