Thrush on Anderson and Berglund, 'Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege'

David G. Anderson, Eeva Berglund, eds.
Coll Thrush

David G. Anderson, Eeva Berglund, eds. Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003. xi + 226 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57181-464-7.

Reviewed by Coll Thrush (Program on the Environment, University of Washington) Published on H-Environment (December, 2003)

All the World Is Gabon: Conservation's Shadows

All the World Is Gabon: Conservation's Shadows

Something exciting is happening in Gabon, a country in western central Africa that is home to some of the world's most diverse ecosystems. After completing his 2,000-mile "Megatransect" of Gabon's rainforests and wetlands in 2000, American biologist Mike Fay joined other conservationists in lobbying President Omar Bongo to cordon off more than 10 percent of the nation's land mass as national parkland. The 2002 lobbying effort worked, and now Gabon--a fairly well-off and stable country, and thus a relative anomaly among its neighbors--seems poised to make environmentalist history. The thirteen national parks will include highland rainforests, vast papyrus marshes, white sand beaches, and other treasures, and will offer ecotourism as an alternative to deforestation. It seems a win-win situation--or so the National Geographic Society, which both bankrolled and publicized Fay's Megatransect, would have us think. In the latest issue of the Society's venerable magazine, noted author David Quammen rightly points out the unique and often surprising circumstances of Gabon's "green gamble," not least of which is the $53 million in financial backing offered by the Bush administration. Cast as an environmental "success story," Quammen's tale appears to highlight a breakthrough meeting of minds between Western conservationists and the forward-thinking government of a developing nation.

But at the edges of this bright narrative, there are shadows. Or more to the point, there are people--Gabonese people--who appear to be working against the national park initiative. These are not the affluent government leaders in Libreville, but Gabon's rural poor. Many of them are loggers; one fourth of Gabon's population is employed in the timber industry, living in outposts surrounded by rainforests leased to logging interests. Still more are participants in the bushmeat industry, a harvest of wild (and often rare) game whose annual worth rivals the United States's entire four-year contribution to the national parks scheme. The collision between these Gabonese ways of living and the conservation visions of President Bongo and his foreign advisers is already apparent; in the previously protected Reserve de Okanda-Lope, neither timber extraction nor hunting is allowed. And perhaps more profoundly, Bongo's government recognizes that one of the chief struggles of the new conservation program will be to "help Gabon's populace understand the importance of this initiative."[1] For all its promise, the "green gamble" also seems poised to create new social and economic conflicts in the places it hopes to preserve.

Ethnographies of Conservation, edited by David G. Anderson of the University of Aberdeen and former University of London lecturer Eeva Berglund, is about exactly this sort of conundrum. It is about the individuals, families, and communities, such as Gabon's bushmeat hunters and timber workers, who eke out livings in and around places set aside for "Nature." Or, perhaps more accurately, this book is focused on the ways in which the rest of us--policy-makers, non-governmental organizations, and academics--talk about those people and places. The collection has its origins in a one-day workshop of the same name convened at Goldsmiths College at the University of London in 2000, where participants found that they shared similar experiences as observers and consultants working with environmental organizations around the world. What each had found was the "troubling convergence of theme," whether in South Dakota, Syria, or Siberia, of a "happy fit between expressing discourses of primitiveness and historic relationships of disempowerment" (p. 2). In other words, they had each found that environmentalist discourse and practice, particularly in (but not limited to) places identified as the "developing world," relied upon ideas not only about nature but also about race, ethnicity, and other social categories. Hence, this collection.

After an introduction setting out some of the theoretical frameworks for thinking about primitivism, conservation, and power, Berglund and Anderson have organized the papers from that London workshop into three sections. Each addresses the collection's focus from a different direction. In part 1, ethnographers with experiences in Brazil, Nicaragua, and Indonesia explore the "irreducibly political and distributive dimensions of environmentalist thought and action" (p. 3), showing the ways in which policies of conservation have all too often gone hand in hand with policies of expropriation, discrimination, and exploitation. In part 2, case studies from places as far-reaching as Namibia, Syria, South Dakota, and Papua New Guinea examine the connections between conservation's demarcation and control of spaces, and the mythic and political dimensions of state identity. When Bedouins, Lakotas, and others challenge conservation policies in places like the Badia and the Black Hills, they are often also engaged in challenges against national narratives based on fictions of wilderness or management. (There is also a wonderful moment, easily the best in the entire collection, in which contributor David M. Ellis turns his ethnographic gaze on the Port Moresby apartment of an NGO representative and uses potato chips and a polystyrene soft drink can holder to point out the ecological footprints of conservation professionals [p. 121].) Riffing further on these themes, the contributors to part 3 parse the metaphors used in conservation discourse in the former Soviet Union, the Philippines, and the Amazon. Here, as elsewhere, these ethnographers make the connection between policy and language--between how we talk about protected places and how we talk about the people who live there (and, sometimes, how they talk back).

The distinctions between the anthology's three parts are not always clear; each essay tends to circulate through and around similar issues. The somewhat arbitrary division into sections, and the occasional repetition of concerns and claims, is more than made up for by diversity of places and contexts in which these issues arise. That peoples, governments, NGOs, and ecologies in Tatarstan and Nicaragua face similar challenges as those confronting their counterparts in Brazil and Indonesia in fact confirms the pervasiveness and importance of the collection's subject. And the anthology's strongest points come at the moments when we can see into the politics not just of conservation, but into the politics of writing about conservation. In Sian Sullivan's piece on Namibia, for example, the author includes a discussion of her own encounters with conservation, in the form of colleagues accusing her of libel, government officials claiming she simply needed a boyfriend, and indigenous allies emailing her paper to NGOs to ask for support for her interpretations of the situation (p. 84). It is in these moments that we gain glimpses into how the politics of conservation really work, and into the complicated nature of ethnographic work. More of these insights would have been welcome, but as the editors point out, the collection almost led to litigation in its current form (p. 15).

The book is not without its weaknesses. As in many ethnographic works, jargon and the passive voice abound. More worrisome, however, is the relative silence of the people under discussion in many of these essays. For all their attention to the concerns of people and communities who bear the brunt of conservation initiatives, the authors included in Ethnographies of Conservation do not always give those people and communities a voice--through direct quotations, for example--with the result that too many of the essays affect the detached, almost bureaucratic demeanor that they set out to critique in the first place. Inadvertently silencing one's sympathetic subjects is a common challenge for many scholars, but luckily, these authors are also directly involved on the ground. That being the case, a number of them point out explicitly that we need more than just metaphors and unpacking of narrative. Luna Rolle's contribution about "youth ecological culture" in post-Soviet Tatarstan, for example, shows just how malleable and contradictory language can be in the absence of action. For the members of the Guardians of Nature, intent on challenging their own ecological underprivilege and reclaiming control over the local environment, do so using new reformulations of older Soviet nature-vs.-culture metaphors (pp. 151-152). Metaphors, it would seem, are slippery, and there is more concrete work to be done besides. And so like several of her colleagues here, Rolle notes the limitations of the "ethnographic word" at the same time that she makes a strong case for paying attention to it.

We can probably guess, then, what these authors would have to say about the "Eden" (talk about a metaphor!) currently experiencing salvation in Gabon. In the caption to one of the National Geographic article's photographs, Quammen (or perhaps an editor) notes that Gabon's new parks program is "roughly equivalent to the Queen of England putting a fence around Wales."[2] Elsewhere, Quammen likens President Bongo's parks initiative to Ulysses S. Grant's creation of Yellowstone in 1872 in terms of its significance for both conservation and national identity.[3] Both comparisons are unfortunate. From English dispossession of lands at the Celtic periphery to American ousters of indigenous people from newly created "wilderness," the history of conservation is also a history of injustice. It is this shadow history of conservation that the authors of this collection are ultimately in the process of engaging. They rightly point out that the dynamics they write about exist "in this century, once again" (p. 2), suggesting that they are more than aware of the historical continuities at work here. And so, while acknowledging the profound contributions of conservation on many scales, they argue that we must now work to blur the artificial (and sometimes all too real) boundaries between the cultural and the natural. And if they do not always suggest solutions, the contributors to Ethnographies of Conservation at least get us talking--but talk, as these scholars and workers would argue, is a big part of the problem.


[1]. David Quammen, "Saving Africa's Eden," National Geographic 204:3 (2003): p. 72.

[2]. Ibid., p. 51.

[3]. Ibid., p. 64.

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Citation: Coll Thrush. Review of Anderson, David G.; Berglund, Eeva, eds., Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. December, 2003. URL:

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