Are You a Conservationist or Are You Human?: An Examination of Subjectivity in Conservation

The conservation movement does not belong to one stakeholder.  Instead, it entangles the concerns of indigenous or rural people, their domestic governments, and more recently, international political organizations and NGOs.  However, not all of these stakeholders are considered to be “conservationists.” Historically and presently, conservationists identify themselves as those whose scientific perspective allows them to objectively protect the environment. As The Nature Conservancy (TNC) claims, you can trust TNC because they are “leading with science:” “Its centrality to our mission and work means that…we look unflinchingly at the world as it really is and will be. And that we solve conservation problems by analysis as opposed to assertion and storytelling” (Kareiva, n.d.). Conversely, because of their supposedly detrimental subjectivity and experiential, rather than scientific, knowledge, rural and indigenous people often have not been considered “conservationists.” As the director of the Word Wildlife Fund in Latin America stated in 2002, “We don’t work with indigenous people. We don’t have the capacity to work with indigenous people.” At around the same time, a CI biologist working with the Kayapo in the Lower Xingu region of Brazil echoed, “Quite frankly, I don’t care what the Indians want. We have to work to conserve the biodiversity.” (Chapin, 2004, 21)

This definition of the conservationist has not gone unopposed. In “A Challenge to Conservationists” (2004), Mac Chapin examines contemporary billion-dollar global conservation NGOs, questioning their supposedly objective intentions (Chapin, 2004). Similarly, Karl Jacoby examines the seemingly conservation-minded U.S. government in “The State of Nature: Country Folk, Conservationists, and Criminals at Yellowstone National Park 1872-1908” (2001). He compares the motivations of the government to those of indigenous and rural people, questioning the constructed distinction between conservationists and locals.  Terence Turner examines the indigenous, rather than the conservationist, perspective.  In “An Indigenous People’s Struggle for Socially Equitable and Ecologically Sustainable Production” (1998), he questions whether the purportedly destructive subjectivity of indigenous people bars them from being conservationists (Turner, 1995).  Thus, the arguments of Chapin, Jacoby, and Turner challenge us to question, who is the conservationist?  Is scientific objectivity a necessary prerequisite? Does the subjectivity of rural or indigenous people exclude them from this role? While self-named conservationists believe that science should be the guiding principle of environmental conservation, these authors prove that this objectivist ideal is not realistic (Chapin, 2004). While the label “conservationist” seems to imply an unbiased and selfless relationship with the land, the culture, society, and self-interest of conservationists indubitably influence their interactions with nature and each other.

Chapin refutes the seeming objectivity of contemporary global conservation NGOs by highlighting economic and political influences that have shaped their agendas.  He thus challenges how the “The Big Three”—The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Conservation International (CI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)—define their “conservation” mission and themselves as “conservationists” (Chapin, 2004). These NGOs claim that “biological science should be the sole guiding principle for biodiversity conservation in protected natural areas.” (Chapin, 2004, p. 20) Because they act in the name of science’s impartial principles, these conservationists believe their objectivity to be akin to that of a divine power.  Chapin (2004, p. 21) sites a critic who writes “‘they see themselves as scientists doing God’s work,’” entrusted with “‘a divine mission to save the earth.’” They believe that this godly objectivity enables them to be impervious to the influences of human political and economic institutions. Conversely, these conservationists believe that the political and economic interests of indigenous people render them incapable of carrying out the conservation movement’s mission: to protect nature, not people (Chapin, 2004).

However, as Chapin proves, they are not impervious to the influences of politics and money. The Big Three are just as guilty of acting upon their economic and political interests as the indigenous people whom they fault. While conservationists claim to act in the name of the environment, their financial needs often lead them to advance the anti-conservation agendas of politicians and big corporations (Chapin, 2004). Before 1990, the Big Three only received funding from private foundations and donors.  However, after the expansion of their fundraising reach to include bilateral and multilateral agencies and corporations, they now fall prey to the capitalist interest of businesses (Chapin, 2004). While some of these businesses have environmentally friendly agendas, Chapin argues that often these NGOs “are allying themselves with forces that are destroying the world’s remaining ecosystems” (Chapin, 2004, p. 26). Conservationists may claim that conservation’s agenda is objective and addresses exclusively environmental concerns.  However, because corporations such as Chevron Texaco, ExxonMobil, and Monsanto and capital often dictate this agenda, conservationists instead help destroy that which they crusade to protect.

In addition to corporate interests, the Big Three also fall prey to those of politicians. After 1990, these NGOs began to receive funding from agencies that work closely with national governments, such as USAID and the World Bank (Chapin, 2004). Chapin argues that to maintain these funding sources, the Big Three “are [not] able to openly oppose government corruption or inaction” (2004, pp. 25-6). Chapin believes that these limitations influence these organizations’ relationships with indigenous communities. The Big Three may claim that they do not advocate for the “social welfare” of indigenous people because doing so is beyond conservation’s purview.  However, Chapin (2004, p. 26) suggests that their inaction might be due to financial concerns: he points out that to these NGOs, “siding with indigenous peoples in their struggles or uprisings against those [funding] partners might seem financially unwise.” While these conservationists contend that they are apolitical, the financial interests of the Big Three have left them at the mercy of politics.  Thus, if the conservationist is one who argues for conservation from scientific and objective standpoints, Chapin proves that the Big Three are not conservationists and their agenda is not that of conservation.

Jacoby complicates Chapin’s argument by questioning the distinction between conservationists and indigenous or rural people.  By pointing out the similarities between the interests and motivations of these two actors, Jacoby also upholds that those who are considered to be conservationists do not always act in the interest of the environment.  Additionally, he points out that, while not conservationists in name, indigenous and rural people often act in the interest of the nature even if they do not proclaim it to be their primary concern. In his account of the controversies surrounding the origins of Yellowstone National Park, Jacoby describes the U.S. government as the predecessor of contemporary conservation NGOs.  Advocating that the government should preserve much of the public domain as permanent state-owned holdings, self-named conservationists, many of whom were political officials and politicians, deemed the government to be “manager of the environment” (Jacoby, 2001, pp. 91-2). Like conservation NGOs, these politicians argued that science should dictate the agenda of conservation: they believed that only “government-appointed technicians” with “expert, scientific oversight” could determine how best to protect and conserve these holdings (Jacoby, 2001, p. 92). They too believed that conservation should not be anthropocentric—disregarding the importance of these holdings to the livelihoods of local ranchers and Native Americans, their goal was to restrict human usage of this land in the interest of preserving it.  Although these conservationists pre-date Chapin’s by more than 100 years, their scientific, non-anthropocentric arguments resemble those of the Big Three.

Viewing local interests as exclusively anti-conservation, political officials differentiated between conservationists and indigenous and rural people.  In so doing, they ignored the identity and opinions of those living in and around the new National Park.  Jacoby (2001) explains that government officials thought everyone in the communities surrounding Yellowstone either illegally poached or supported the crime.  He argues that “poacher” consumed the entire identity of these locals, overriding even racial differentiations: “park officials often lumped [whites and Native Americans] into one uniformly dangerous class,” calling poachers “red or white Indians” (Jacoby, 2001, pp. 96-7).  This dichotomy between the conservationist and the local not only ignored the nuanced views on and reasons for poaching, but also overrode the historical, widespread belief that white people were inherently superior to Native Americans.  In so doing, officials classified these Yellowstone locals not only as anti-conservation, but also as racially inferior criminals.

However, Jacoby proves that this distinction was not warranted. Not all rural folk were in fact poachers; their environmental concerns often paralleled those of conservationists. Additionally, not all conservationists acted purely in the name of conservation—similar cultural influences motivated the actions of both conservationists and rural poachers.  When park officials caught the infamous buffalo poacher Ed Howell in 1894, local newspapers did not exclusively support him.  As Jacoby (2001, p. 101) explains, “far more common…were expressions of local disgust at Howell’s killing of a rare animal.” Jacoby (2001, p. 101) cites the Livingston Enterprise (3/31/1894) as stating “the sentiment here is universal that the small remnant of American bison still in the Park should be protected by rigid laws.” This newspaper’s call for legal enforcement to preserve American wildlife echoes conservationists’ preservation mission and belief that the government should be the “manager of the environment.” Thus, even though government officials may have differentiated between the conservationist and the rural, the views of each party did not necessarily oppose those of the other.

Simultaneously, Jacoby points out that government officials, supposed conservationists, did not act entirely in the name of the environment.  He argues that “many of the factors that animated those rural folk who attacked Yellowstone animated the park’s local defenders as well;” poaching and scouting both involved “tracking and other outdoor skills, the competitive challenge of outwitting an opponent, toughness, and physical bravery” (Jacoby, 2001, p. 104). Like that of poachers, the intrigue of these officials’ position did not lie simply in its potential to help or harm the environment. They too were inspired by traits that American culture regarded as honorable and manly (Jacoby 2001). While conservationists differentiated between themselves and poachers, Jacoby reveals that these theories did not always manifest themselves in reality. The actions of conservationists and rural folk were shaped not only by their concern for the environment, but also by predominant cultural influences. Therefore, while Chapin questions the motivations of the conservationist, Jacoby’s argument questions if we should differentiate between rural people and conservationists, since this differentiation in name does not always reflect differences in motivation.

Turner’s argument challenges the conservation movement’s non-anthropocentric agenda by challenging the notion that the subjectivity of indigenous people bars them from being conservationists.  In so doing, his argument implies that objectivity is not an essential prerequisite for a conservationist.  Because the interests of humans are often intrinsically linked to the environment that immediately surrounds them, it is possible for people to act in the interest of humanity and nature simultaneously. In Turner’s argument, the people of the Brazilian Kayapo tribe do not claim to be objective; they act almost exclusively in their own interest.  Yet, despite their partiality, the communal interest of the Kayapo ultimately proves to align with that of nature because of their interconnectedness with the land.  In examining the conservationist tendencies of the Kayapo, Turner (1998) focuses on their changing leadership. Because of increased interaction with Brazilian society, leadership fell into the hands of educated young men from chieftain families. These young leaders allowed logging and mining companies to work on and essentially destroy Kayapo land, in return for a percentage of their profits (Turner, 1998). The revenue that they gained from these ventures propelled these leaders into the ranks of the Brazilian social elite; thus, these anti-conservation contracts formed “the basis of [these leaders’] life styles and leadership” (Turner, 1998, p. 103). However, this basis proved impermanent.  Other village members challenged these concessions as antithetical to not only communal but also environmental interests. Older chieftains and younger Kayapo members working in the mines “felt the piratical polices of the leaders were damaging an economic and ecological system of which they too formed part, and were keeping them from enjoying their rightful share of the benefits of their de facto participation in the system” (Turner, 1998, p. 107). Turner implies that to these Kayapo members, the environment, the economy, and their tribe are intrinsically linked.

In acting upon these concerns, the Kayapo were able to end these socially and environmentally detrimental practices.  Through “the successful assertion of communal control over the young leaders,” the Kayapo reversed “the ecological and social damage caused by the mining and logging contracts” (Turner, 1998, p. 118). In so doing, they determined ways of generating revenue through ecologically sustainable, self-directed production projects (Turner, 1998, p. 116). By acting in the interest of the community, the Kayapo chose practices that benefited their economy as well as their environment.  Thus, the Kayapo did not need to act in the name of science to uphold the conservation agenda of environmental protection.  Because of the intrinsic link between the Kayapo and the land on which they live, they were able to benefit their environment by pursuing the interests of their community.

Thus, the arguments of Chapin, Jacoby, and Turner challenge us to question, who is the conservationist?   Despite the failures of previous conservationists, is scientific objectivity an essential prerequisite? Does the subjectivity of rural or indigenous people inhibit them from acting in this role? Is the distinction between self-named conservationists and rural and indigenous people warranted? As these authors prove, objectivity is never a realistic goal.  Even if we claim to have a divine, objective, and global perspective, our humanity bars us from fulfilling this goal.  Thus, we must allow the conservationist to be subjective and local.  Similarly, conservation’s agenda can never be purely environmental; it must consider human concerns. By acknowledging our humanity, the interests of our communities, and the human element implicit in conservation, we place ourselves in a better position to act as conservationists within our communities.

Anna Santoleri is a senior at Harvard College concentrating in History and Literature.