In the 1960s, theoretical movements in the social sciences and humanities began to challenge the presumed benefits of modernity and science. These movements were led in part by feminist and post-colonial theorists who saw science as part of a patriarchal system that was complicit in the subjugation of women and colonized people throughout the world. In environmental sciences, this move to question the objectivity of science can be seen in political ecology, a diverse field that includes many anthropologists along with geographers, political scientists, sociologists, and other social scientists. Political ecology’s primary message is the importance of examining environmental questions that seem, at first glance, to be strictly scientific (i.e., apolitical). Questions of cause and effect, for instance, are comprised of political and economic agendas that can be masked by a seemingly neutral language of scientific objectivity. By focusing our attention on the power dynamic in political dimensions of conservation, principally in the developing world, political ecologists illustrate why conservation efforts so often fail to achieve the desired goals.
In an early an influential study of political ecology, Piers Blaikie and others argued that soil erosion was not caused by many of the factors blamed by state governments, including overpopulation, bad farming practices, and environmental stresses. Instead, they found that state policies such as taxes forced farmers into capitalist economic systems that encouraged unsustainable farming practices.17 From this perspective, soil erosion, which seemed to be primarily a local problem, was actually connected to national politics and needed to be addressed in that larger context. Once attention had been drawn to the relationship between state policies and soil erosion, the solution to the problem could no longer come from simply teaching small-scale farmers better soil conservation techniques. It required eliminating government practices and economic conditions that provided an incentive to use unsustainable farming practices.
Political ecology often focuses on the impacts of governments and corporations in establishing political and economic systems that constrain local behavior and challenges standard narratives regarding environmental destruction and conservation. Learning about political ecology can be difficult for environmentally minded people because it requires them to rethink many of their own positions and the science that supports them.
Revisionist Environmental History
Some of my favorite work in political ecology challenges the causes and effects of tropical deforestation. James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, for example, looked at tropical deforestation in the West African country of Guinea. 18 The state’s forestry department and later conservation organizations described the savanna as containing only small fragments of a once extensive tropical forest. Administrators, foresters, and botanists had created forest policies based on the idea that this degradation was caused by local villagers as they cleared and burned forests to create fields for agriculture. Through careful study of historical archives, oral histories, and historical aerial photographs, Fairhead and Leach challenged these narratives. Instead, they argued that the remaining fragments of forest had been planted by local villagers who had gradually planted useful species around their villages, improving the soil for planting and generating other positive ecological changes. Rather than being the cause of the deforestation in areas that was previously forest, the villagers were creating the forest in an area that had previously been savanna through generations of hard work, turning the colonial narrative on its head.
Another fascinating tale comes from William Balee’s work in the Amazon. Balee was a friend of Darrell Posey, and their work together got Balee thinking about the extent to which the Amazon rainforest is a product of human productive activities and not entirely natural processes. Balee disagreed with earlier anthropologists who had described how primitive groups were forced to adapt to the constraints imposed by fragile tropical ecosystems, such as declining soil fertility, a lack of plants and animals that provided protein, and other limiting factors that constrained their behavior. Balee examined a wide variety of ecosystems in the Amazon that seemed to have been created or significantly modified by human activity, including the forest islands of the Kayapó discussed by Posey, babassu palm forests, bamboo forests, Brazil nut forests near Maraba, and liana forests. His conservative estimated was that at least 12 percent of the Amazon, the largest rainforest on the planet, was a product of indigenous intervention. This conclusion challenged two major assumptions made about the rainforest and the people who lived there. First is the notion that indigenous groups were forced to adapt to the harsh environment of the rainforest. Instead, Balee found that they were resource managers who had developed ecosystems to better provide for their needs. Second is the notion that the Amazon was primeval, untouched, and pristine.19 If we extend this analysis to other regions and ecosystems, it challenges the entire notion of “untouched nature.” If the wildest, least populated, and largest rainforest in the world is already highly anthropogenic, or shaped by humans, what can we say about supposed ideas of wilderness in other places?
Environmental historian William Cronon tackled this question directly in his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”20 Cronon argued that, by celebrating a nature supposedly untouched by human hands, we tend to forget about preserving the nature with which we come in contact every day. If we focus exclusively on a concept of wilderness, which excludes humans and human activities by definition, we may ignore ways to help humans better interact with nature, leading to conservation policies that try to create parks without anyone inside of them and do not fully consider agricultural and urban areas. It means that one must leave civilization behind to be in contact with nature. Cronon ended his essay with a plea:
If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world, not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.21
Cronon’s call to action is for humans to consider themselves fully part of nature and to look for ways to behave responsibly in that relationship. In a way, his message is similar to Bruno Latour’s about the Anthropocene. By recognizing that nature does not exist outside of human activities, we must come to terms with the impacts of our lifestyles on the environment. Some may believe that this cheapens nature, making it less sacred and significant, but understanding the diverse ways in which humans have affected the environment should make us better able to appreciate and evaluate our interactions with it. Instead of seeing nature as outside of human activities, we need to consider how our food production, transportation, and habitation systems affect the environment.
People versus Parks
Generally, when we think of nature, we tend to think of national parks and other kinds of protected areas set aside for conservation under various categories. In the United States, these include national and state parks, forests, wilderness areas, recreation areas, and wildlife conservation areas. In most cases, people are allowed to visit these areas for recreational or scientific purposes but cannot live directly in them, and regulations control the kinds of activities allowed. Protected areas developed from the Western vision of nature that separates it from culture and assumes that one must exclude humans to conserve nature. This model of setting aside protected areas has been exported to the rest of the world and persists as the most common strategy for numerous environmental goals, including protection of watersheds, endangered plants and animals, and providing space for people to interact with nature.
The most common example of a protected area is a national park. In the United States, national parks are so popular that they have been called “America’s Best Idea.” While I am an enthusiastic fan of national parks, I also recognize problems associated with the concept. We often forget, for example, that the “natural” state of such parks is mostly a recent phenomenon. Many Native American groups were systematically removed from parks (and rarely compensated) to make the parks “natural,” and some parks, such as Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, are directly on top of sacred sites for Native Americans. In other areas of the world, especially in developing countries, most protected areas are occupied by groups of people who have lived there for decades or centuries and have legitimate claims to the land. Some may not be aware that their land is being transformed into a park and, once informed, are shocked by all of the new regulations they are expected to obey. In worst-case scenarios, they are evicted without compensation, becoming environmental refugees. From the perspective of such groups, the government seems to value elephants, tigers, or scenic vistas more than the people living on the land.
The conflicts that have developed between local communities in and around protected areas and state conservation officials and international conservation NGOs that advocate for the parks is referred to as the “people-versus-parks debate.”22 Communities, rather than seeing parks as preserving a public good that benefits everyone, view creation of a park as an effort by government officials to extend their power to remote rural areas. And those negative views can thwart conservation efforts when locals resent preferential treatment of animals and choose to poach or simply ignore the new regulations.
Conservation groups have begun to recognize that they must support economic development of local communities to get them on board with conservation efforts. When local residents benefit from jobs as park guards, tour guides, and research assistants, they recognize the positive economic benefits of conservation and support the initiatives. This approach aims to combine conservation and development, bringing together typically different objectives. Initially, this approach was a response to development policies associated with building infrastructure such as roads and dams that had huge environmental impacts and created negative press for the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other institutions that funded the projects. Now, most conservation projects incorporate development objectives, and the environmental impacts of development projects usually must be assessed. In addition, the failure of many of these projects has inspired governments and NGOs to include local communities in planning and operating conservation and development schemes.
Conservation and Sustainable Development
Since the early 1990s, environmental conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International and development organizations such as the World Bank and USAID have been working to bring conservation and development together. The structures and success of these approaches vary widely. Some aim to help local communities develop industries that depended on rainforests in nondestructive ways, such as non-timber forest products like rattan, rubber, medicines, and fruit. By assisting local communities in developing and marketing such products, the programs have provided them with economic alternatives that encourage people to preserve rainforests instead of chopping them down, a form of sustainable development.
The conservation and development project with which I am most familiar is related to extractive reserves in the Brazilian Amazon. I spent a summer doing research for my master’s thesis on extractive reserves established by Brazilian rubber tappers in Acre, which is in the northwestern corner of the Brazilian Amazon. These rubber tappers live in the rainforest and tap natural rubber by scraping a long thin cut into the bark of the tree and returning later in the day to collect the sap that had dripped into a small container hung on the tree. Rubber trees do not grow together; they are spread out throughout the forest, requiring rubber tappers to walk several trails each day. Many also collect and sell Brazil nuts, which fall from ancient trees that live for centuries. Brazil nuts cannot be commercially grown so they must be collected from rainforests. Both of these economic activities require a healthy, mature forest. And although rubber can be produced synthetically, natural rubber is stronger, longer lasting, more flexible, and more resistant to heat than synthetic alternatives, making it ideal for use in medical and aeronautic industries where high-quality material is essential.
As cattle ranching expanded in the Amazon, rubber tappers were being evicted because they did not have formal title to the land on which they lived and worked. Led by local activist Chico Mendes, the rubber tappers organized and petitioned the government for the right to remain on the land. Mendes was eventually assassinated by owners of some of the cattle ranches who were unhappy about his activism, but ultimately, the movement was successful. Environmentalists who were worried about Amazonian deforestation joined forces with the rubber tappers, who were worried about their livelihoods, and together they created extractive reserves—protected areas owned by the federal government but managed by local communities of rubber tappers who could stay on the land indefinitely as long as they followed the environmental regulations they established. The model was successful and has since been expanded to include millions of hectares throughout the Amazon.
As with many conservation and development projects, the economic benefits of the extractive reserves were slow to accrue. When rubber prices fell in response to international commodity markets, many families stopped tapping rubber and focused on subsistence agriculture. In fact, some turned to cattle ranching, mimicking on a smaller scale many of the destructive processes they had originally protested. Because the regulations were poorly enforced, a number of families gradually turned old swidden fields into pastures instead of letting the fields revert to rainforest.
Despite these challenges, development of the land was significantly reduced relative to the original plan of allowing owners of large tracts to move in and convert large areas to pasture and soy plantations. Likewise, the rubber tappers, though still poor, had access to greater resources than they would if they have been evicted and forced to move to urban slums. Extractive reserves succeeded because they were implemented across vast areas of the Brazilian Amazon and provided rights to thousands of small landholders.
Significant challenges remain for organizations working to improve the standard of living of rubber tappers in Brazil and conserve biodiversity, and this case study illustrates many of the problems associated with conservation and development models. Often, the economic gains are limited and require compromises in terms of conservation benefits. Usually, neither local communities nor environmentalists are completely happy with the models and their results but also agree that compromise is better than the rampant destruction averted by a reserve. Research on political ecology from such case studies forces us to recognize that the debates are not solely about environmental ethics; they also involve control over valuable resources such as land, timber, and oil. Political ecology invites us to think about the local political and cultural processes that shape the outcomes of conservation projects and determine who benefits from such projects.
First World Political Ecology
A significant challenge for political ecologists is that most of the research so far has been done in the developing world; relatively few studies have been conducted in the United States and Europe. Some newer studies are aiming to showcase what political ecology might look like when applied to similar questions in the developed world. One such study came from the Sierra Nevada foothills in California. There, a participatory conservation project was being developed that would have included local conservation organizations, government offices, and other groups. Their goal was to create an environmental management plan for the region that would limit development and urban growth. They tried to bring together a variety of environmental and pro-development groups to dialogue but were met with an intense political backlash. Pro-development forces, rather than participating, mobilized politically to remove supporters of the plan from county government seats and derail the process. In first world countries, local groups can mobilize significant political and economic resources to influence the fate of a project. This is an unlikely scenario in the developing world where conservation organizations are generally more powerful than local communities.23
Clashes between environmentalists, who are often exurban migrants who moved from urban to rural areas for outdoor activities and scenic nature, and longtime residents who are involved in extractive industries such as mining, ranching, and agriculture are common in the western United States. In many cases, communities are bitterly divided over the importance of nearby public lands and the role of the federal government in managing those lands. In developing countries, political ecologists as a group tend to side with local communities and against government intervention. In the United States, left-leaning and environmental sympathies can push them to side with government intervention at the expense of local communities. Some political ecologists have noted this contradiction and called for local movements and their pushes against extension of states power to be taken more seriously, including in the United States.24
Another fascinating political ecology associated with the first world is a study by Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp that looked at the American lawn, noting that 23 percent of urban land in the United States is dedicated to lawns and that urban areas are growing at a rate of 675,000 hectares a year.25 In addition, the vast majority of those lawns are sprayed with fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Because these chemicals wash into waterways, lawns have an enormous collective environmental impact. Robbins and Sharp analyzed advertisements for lawn care products and interviewed and surveyed households across the country, leading to some startling discoveries. One of the strongest indicators of intensive and toxic lawn care was not a lack of knowledge about the environmental impacts of the products, but how well they knew the names of their neighbors. They describe the moral economy of a turf grass commons in which maintaining a healthy lawn signified important values of being connected to the community, your family, and nature. The aesthetics and family values associated with lawns outweighed concerns about environmental impacts, suggesting that water conservation activists must understand and address underlying cultural ideas about lawns in the United States.
Where’s the Ecology?
Political ecologists Andrew Vayda and Bradley Walters have noted that the field of political ecology seems to be increasingly political, overemphasizing how different groups use environmental issues to gain control over land and resources and ignoring important ecological considerations.26 They argue that political ecologists need to take the limits, constraints, and challenges associated with natural systems more seriously and research those systems in addition to local cultural and political systems. In a study of the destruction of mangrove forests in the Philippines, they examined both the role of local communities in the destruction and management of mangrove ecosystems and the natural limits that impede replanting in the area. The next section presents examples of anthropologists who thought creatively about how to integrate theories from the natural sciences back into anthropology while simultaneously questioning whether science provides unbiased objective results. This requires a careful balancing act but is necessary to generate an approach that respects the contributions of scientific and anthropological knowledge.