Wildlife conservation projects do more harm than good, says expert

New book claims western-style schemes to protect animals damage the environment and criminalise local people

Amelia Hill
The Guardian
Thursday 29 July 2010

A new book claims that schemes to protect habitats of endangered animals, such as the Sumatran tiger, often end up criminalising local communities. Photograph: Bagus Indahono/EPA

Ecotourism and western-style conservation projects are harming wildlife, damaging the environment, and displacing and criminalising local people, according to a controversial new book.

The pristine beaches and wildlife tours demanded by overseas tourists has led to developments that do not benefit wildlife, such as beaches being built, mangroves stripped out, waterholes drilled and forests cleared, says Rosaleen Duffy, a world expert on the ethical dimensions of wildlife conservation and management.

These picture-perfect images all too often hide a “darker history”, she adds. Her new book, Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong, which draws on 15 years of research, 300 interviews with conservation professionals, local communities, tour operators and government officials, is published today.

When wildlife reserves are established, Duffy says, local communities can suddenly find that their everyday subsistence activities, such as hunting and collecting wood, have been outlawed.

At the same time, well-intentioned attempts to protect the habitats of animal species on the edge of extinction lead to the creation of wild, “people-free” areas. This approach has led to the displacement of millions of people across the world.

“Conservation does not constitute neat win-win scenarios. Schemes come with rules and regulations that criminalise communities, dressed up in the language of partnership and participation, coupled with promises of new jobs in the tourism industry,” claims Duffy, professor of international politics at Manchester University.

A key failure of the western-style conservation approach is the assumption that people are the enemies of wildlife conservation – that they are the illegal traders, the poachers, the hunters and the habitat destroyers. Equally flawed, she says, is the belief that those engaged in conservation are “wildlife saviours”.

Such images, she argues, are oversimplifications. “The inability to negotiate these conflicts and work with people on the ground is where conservation often sows the seeds of its own doom,” she adds.

“Why do some attempts to conserve wildlife end up pitting local communities against conservationists?” she asks. “It is because they are regarded as unjust impositions, despite their good intentions. This is vital because failing to tackle such injustices damages wildlife conservation in the long run.”

Duffy stresses that her intention is not to persuade people to stop supporting conservation schemes. “Wildlife is under threat and we need to act urgently,” she acknowledges. Instead, she says, she wants to encourage environmentalists to examine what the real costs and benefits of conservation are, so that better practices for people and for animals can be developed.

“The assumption that the ends justify the means results in a situation where the international conservation movement and their supporters around the world assume they are making ethical and environmentally sound decisions to save wildlife,” she says. “In fact, they are supporting practices that have counterproductive, unethical and highly unjust outcomes.”

Duffy focuses on what she says is the fallacious belief that ecotourism is a solution to the problem of delivering economic development in an environmentally sustainable way.

This is, she says, a “bewitchingly simple argument” but the assumption that such tourism necessarily translates into the kinds of development that benefits wildlife is far too simplistic.

“Holiday makers are mostly unaware of how their tourist paradises have been produced,” she says. “They assume that the picture-perfect landscape or the silver Caribbean beach is a natural feature. This is very far from the truth. Tourist playgrounds are manufactured environments, usually cleared of people. Similarly, hotel construction in tropical areas can result in clearing ecologically important mangroves or beach building which harms coral reefs.”

But the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, one of the four biggest environmental NGOs in the world, maintains that the loss of wildlife is one of the most important challenges facing our planet. As such, a powerful focus on conservation is necessary: “Conservation is essential so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says a WWF-UK spokesman. “There are examples out there where ecotourism is working and has thrown a lifeline to communities in terms of economics and social benefits, as well as added biodiversity benefits.

“Let’s have more of those projects that are working for everybody and everything,” he adds. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to ecotourism and conservation.”