Tuesday, 27 November 2007

STEPS SEMINAR: BILL ADAMS ON THE POLITICAL ECOLOGY OF CONSERVATION

By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Listen to the podcast of Bill Adams' STEPS Seminar
Read Bill Adams' presentation

The author of many seminal works on green development, Bill Adams of the University of Cambridge, visits us at the STEPS Centre today. Photo: Bill Adams delivers his STEPS Seminar

"Conservation is never anything but social and never anything but political,” Adams says, launching into examples (Masoala National Park in Madagascar; Offham Valley in Lewes, Sussex)of the many political issues that can surround conservation projects, what he calls the ‘politics of conservation'.

So, what are the costs of conservation? Adams breaks it down into three areas - neighbour and opportunity costs and population displacement. Neightbour costs might include crop-raiding or physical attack by wild animals and harassment from park staff; opportunity costs include the global value of land set aside while the population may suffer lost homes, land and resources, and loss of future use and loss of religious and cultural values.

There are streams of benefits, particularly through tourism, but most of the benefits in the developing world are enjoyed in the developed world.

So, there is a need for pro-poor conservation, and there is a long tradition of doing that, but the enthusiasm for poverty alleviation by conservationists is now being criticised by people including John Oates, Steven Sanderson and Kent Redford, who argue that poverty reduction is not the job of conservationists.

There is an argument - raging both within conservation and outside of it - now that we need to re-tool conservation so that its work flows towards poverty reduction and alleviation.

The politics of knowledge now comes in to play, with the “packaging of wilderness” – the US National parks is the first example of this packaging Yosemite Valley was cleared in 1852 by the army. And then to Africa – repeatedly described as an “unspoiled Eden” home of safari – but what place is there for African people in the wilderness? The idea of protecting nature from people features very strongly from the first packaging of Africa as the ultimate wilderness – and continues today with films such as the Lion King.

And now on to Adams’ own work in the Laikipia district of Kenya, where there have been elephant crop raids in and around ranch land and smallholder land. The elephants sit next to smallholdings and then move in at night to eat the crops. His team has tracked the raids by using technology used to track car theft!

One solution is ‘e-Fence’ – elephants wear a collar, when they cross a fence a message goes to a computer that rings the nearest elephant ranger with the animal’s GPS positioning. It only works, obviously, if there is someone to phone, but not really applicable elsewhere. But they are considering fencing the whole district and have just raised $1m for the project.

A community elephant defence is a fence with sheets tied to it smeared with chillis, which elephants don’t like. Adams is not sure if the fence itself works, but it gives people the impetus to go out and shout at the elephants, and so, to do something about the problem.

The interaction of the landscape ecology – the sharing of the land between people and animals – underlies all this research. And interesting questions about land rights have been thrown up – issues of pastoral and national identity and electoral politics. People are claiming to be Laikipiak Maasai – but those Maasai are long gone in that area, meanwhile there are also claims from Mukogodo Maasai and Pokot; Samburu. So the question of who ought to be managing the land and the wildlife is a complex one.

And we're out of time now, but you can listen to the podcast to hear Bill in action and log on to the STEPS website 'recent events' page where we will live his presentation as soon as. Bye for now.

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