Friday, August 5, 2011


From the early days of the Western World’s concern with the preservation of tropical biodiversity it has been apparent that biodiversity hot spots are mainly located in regions where poverty is an evident social problem.  Crude consequences were sometimes proffered (e.g., imprudence about family planning leading to deforesting offspring), but for the most part the evident structural problem was acknowledged from the beginning.  Alleviation of the poverty so obviously associated with biodiversity emerged as the single most vexing problem conservationists have had to face over the past half century. 
            There was, to be sure, also a knee-jerk reaction that saw as the only solution “fencing in” pristineness, sometimes only metaphorically, but sometimes with real barbwire.  Yet for the most part, people and agencies seriously concerned with biodiversity conservation approached the basic problem with a series of sensible initiatives.  Thus we have seen “debt for nature swaps,”  “extractive reserve buffer zones,”  “integrated conservation units,” “payment for ecosystem services” and a host of other initiatives that recognize the need to deal with the issue of local poverty as part of any conservation program. There seems, however, to be general agreement that all such programs have had limited success at best, that poverty is indeed a trap, a recalcitrant problem that continually interferes with serious conservation planning.  But searching for the next magic bullet initiative, although probably inevitable, is not likely to have more success than previous ones.  I am certainly not the first to suggest that failures thus far have not been due to a lack of good will nor of interesting and clever ideas, but rather mainly caused by an unwillingness to ask the basic question – What causes poverty in the first place?  There is a rich history of avoiding this question, articulated in modern times so eloquently by the Brazilian priest Dom Hélder Camara when he said “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they called me a Communist.”
The poverty trap metaphor is compelling, partly because of its humanistic overtones, but also because of its seemingly unchallenged motivational structure.  Envisioning a pitfall trap filled with the poor we can see two obvious interventions, first to help them out of the trap and second, to help them avoid falling into the pit again.  Yet with this metaphorical framework there is a bigger picture, a whole landscape filled with pitfall traps each of which contains not only the poor but an army of development experts frantically trying to help those poor folks climb out and remain out of the devastatingly recalcitrant traps.  There are so many traps, so many people in them, and they pockmark the landscape everywhere we look, so we must redouble our efforts to get more funding to help them, more innovative plans to get them out of those traps, more “development” to help them not fall into those traps in the first place.  Yet it seems that the more we work, the more people become entrapped.  And the reality is that the proportion of the world caught in poverty traps is greater today than it was yesterday and will undoubtedly be greater tomorrow.  It is no wonder that those of us concerned with biodiversity conservation throw up our hands and begin asking for fences and armed guards.
            But the rich texture of the poverty trap metaphor perhaps allows a better vision, if we extend the metaphor to its logical conclusion.  If all these poverty traps pockmark the landscape, doesn’t it make sense to ask where they come from?  Who set the traps in the first place?  If we are to take the conservation of biodiversity as a truly serious issue, we must resist remaining in the intellectual trap of “helping the poor escape the poverty trap” and ask, at the risk of catching the same sort of ad homina launched at Dom Hélder,  “what is the cause of poverty in the first place?”  Who sets the traps? 
            A careful look at poverty’s roots, an exercise we insist needs to be done for the sake of conservation, must conclude that European Imperialism, writ large, set the stage for unequal development of most regions of the Global South (Latin America, Asia, Africa).  In more recent times, that unequal development was reinforced by neoliberal capitalist policies that resulted in unfair and unbearable economic pressure on rural livelihoods, largely a result of political and economic arrangements coordinated mainly from the United States, leading to rural/urban migration, international migration and impoverishment of the countryside.  Given that rural poverty is seen as antithetical to conservation goals, a point now acknowledged by most conservation proponents, truly understanding the roots of that poverty will enable a more intelligent intervention.  If we find poverty’s roots in the unfolding of neoliberal capitalism from its European Imperial roots, should we not conclude that attacking those roots involves attacking the neoliberal capitalist model at its core? 
Fine tuning this attack, I note that tropical biodiversity today is invariably embedded in that very matrix containing the poverty traps.  Modern ecological understanding of biodiversity compels us to ask how the animals and plants that constitute the biodiversity view the matrix.  And the conclusion is inescapable.  A large, pesticide-drenched, pineapple plantation could never be seen as a biodiversity-friendly place – indeed, part of its very purpose is to eliminate almost all the biodiversity (saving only the pineapples, of course).  Mile upon mile of oil palm creates an environment that is dramatically different for almost any animal or plant you can think of that existed in the forest those palm trees replaced.  From a strictly ecological and environmental point of view, large scale industrial monocultures are simply the enemies of biodiversity.  They must be replaced.
A truly effective and long term program of biodiversity conservation must include simultaneous attacks on poverty’s roots and the industrial agriculture paradigm.  Precisely where will allies in developing this program be found?  I propose that the so-called poverty trap/biodiversity conservation dilemma is best addressed by the emerging peasant movements that have as their fundamental goals first, the challenge of systems that are at the root of poverty, and second, the grass-roots construction of sustainable economic activities, especially sustainable agriculture.
            La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’) is the most prominent and global of these peasant movements. The Movement originated in Latin America, but quickly acknowledged that peasantries around the world share the same problems, leading to a globalization of the movement from below, including an elaboration of a new conceptual framework, the notion of ‘food sovereignty’. According to Martínez-Torres and Rosset (2010, J. of Peasant Studies 37), ‘food sovereignty argues that food and farming are about much more than trade and that production for local and national markets is more important than production for export from the perspectives of broad-based and inclusive local and national economic development, for addressing poverty and hunger, preserving rural life, economies and environments, and for managing natural resources in a sustainable fashion.’ Through this concept, La Via Campesina envisions ‘agrarian trajectories that would reintegrate food production and nature as an alternative culture of modernity’. It is this sort of global/grassroots social movement that has been challenging the neoliberal model of development and has put forward a vision of what geographer Susanna Hecht calls a “new rurality” which would not only contribute to the conservation of biodiversity but also provide a dignified and sustainable livelihood for rural communities.
As we in the conservation community have gradually come to the realization that serious conservation must include programs to “help people escape the poverty traps” we are seen as saints, but as soon as we ask “who sets the traps in the first place” we are communists, sometimes only metaphorical, but sometimes literal.  The inevitability of such ad hominum attacks should not dissuade us from the conservation mission, and we must seek allies among those who share our ultimate values which, I argue, are not to be found in the board rooms of the international corporations that fund the large conservation organizations, but rather in the grass roots small-scale farmers’ organizations that today are more than ever before understanding the true roots of both poverty and the loss of biodiversity. 


At September 6, 2011 at 1:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the conclusions presented here, but I wanted to point out that the history of conservation is a bit more tangled than you portray here (not that it was your point to discuss the history of conservation). A lot of good scholarship has been done recently on the creation of various land preserves and conservation systems and the concommitant dispossessions of the various native populations that accompanied this. In as much as this contributed to increased poverty, political dis-empowerment and and an antagonistic relationship between natural habitat areas and local populations, one could say that conservation helped create the problem it was ostensibly supposed to solve. This, of course, is not meant to condemn all conservation efforts or conservationists but rather to point out the historical entanglement of conservation with imperialism and colonialism, something that needs to be kept in mind going forward.


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