Thoughts from Pathways 2017 conference, the future of human dimensions

As a journalist, when I started inquiring about ‘community-based conservation’ projects in 2010, I anticipated that we will be dealing with works which are empowering and enabling people into conservation, but that was not to be. We have found out that, in many cases, communities are less likely to be planning or implementing the conservation projects and more likely to be silent ‘poster child’ for the NGOs who are. Not only CBCs, to my experience back in Bangladesh, other approaches to conservation are also built on the gross dehumanization of people who are suffering the most from ecological degradation. And oftentimes, the ‘best’ leverage to trigger conservation interventions turns out to be very costly for the people who are the least negative actors in the system.

In this context, I am happy that I got the opportunity to attend the Pathways 2017 Conference in Colorado last year. It was very positive to listen to the first-hand account of professionals from many countries that, things are changing in many places. Most particularly, considering ‘human dimensions of wildlife conservation’ is being gradually popular among managers, slowly, but it’s happening.

YMCY Estes Center Fireplace
‘What an awful fireplace’, a friend commented after seeing this photo on my Facebook wall. Except fireplaces decorated with animal trophies like this at YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center (located between Rocky Mountain National Park and the town of Estes Park), the Pathways 2017 Conference venue was a very quiet and scenic place. I was not surprised to see herd of Elks outside my window in the morning. ‘Ample opportunities to see wildlife’ is well advertised on YMCA’s website. Elks in flocks still frequent the 860-acre mountain resort where ‘wholesome Christian environment’ ensure that they are not being disturbed.

More than three hundred professionals involved in social science aspects of fisheries and wildlife management took part in the conference from September 17 through 20, 2017; mostly academics, and there were other scientists, NGO professionals, and students. Partnered with The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the conference theme was; ‘Futures: Integrating Human Dimensions into Fish and Wildlife Management.’ With a poster session, a number of panels and workshops, and at least 142 (not official count) contributions as oral presentations, it was very tightly scheduled.

Organized by the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at the Colorado State University, to my knowledge, it is THE largest knowledge forum to know about HWC works and meet the related people. Pathways is also a training platform focused on ‘increasing professionalism and effectiveness’ in the human dimensions of fisheries and wildlife management.

Elks a YMCA Estes Park
The wild mountain elks on the campus worked as ‘energizer’ during the breaks throughout the conference. And, seasonal warning signs of ‘bear activity’ brought hope to some participants, though the conference ended without any reported encounter. I remember a conversation during an Elk-watch. One of my colleagues exclaimed that ‘now that’s something that we call human-wildlife conflict!’ I added that, how about ‘human encroachment into wildlife habitat?’ The reply was intriguing; ‘I don’t think so. Maybe something worse could have happened if we were not here.’ Now, that’s something. What could have been happened if ‘humans were not the dominant species.’

It’s not my purpose here to inventory all the sessions and presentations I attended, but just a few notes are in order. And, of course, nothing preoccupies me during looking at a conservation intervention as much as the stake of the community who is being affected or expected to participate. So, I was mostly focused on that type of presentations and sessions.

Getting mainstream: Research related to human dimensions of wildlife conservation can be traced back to as early as the 1930s in North America (Stevens & Organ., 2017). But still, in the particular case presented by Stevens and Organ, the funding ratio for HWC research has not significantly increased. But interestingly, diversity of HWC research projects has been increased involving diverse stakeholder communities, and ‘society began to demand greater input into decision-making regarding wildlife and fisheries management’.

Rocky Mountain National Park
At 8000 feet, the temperature was fluctuating between 2 and 8-degree Celsius. The sudden change in altitude and temperature was little difficult for me. But after our presentation (Self-funded Model for Community-led In-situ Conservation of Sea Turtles), one day I went for a hike to more higher altitude into the national park on a 7-mile out-and-back trail. I was alone, and throughout the hike, while I was, of course, enjoying the well-conserved landscape I could not stop thinking about the indigenous people who were massacred and almost wiped out from this region. The massacres continued, even in many cases ‘accelerated’ after the independence from Britain. Probably later in November last year, I came across a news story on the Denver Post that, ‘Rocky Mountain National Park is going back to its roots, expanding its representation of Native Americans.’ Now, it should make us hopeful of the future.

Another thing I would like to note that, at least half the presentations I have attended was about working with something ‘first of its kind’ or ‘one of the first’. Social Suitability Index (SSI) for predator conservation that ‘measures the cultural context for conservation in a region’ (Kraftee et al., 2017), for instance. Given the history of big cat conservation, one can think that this could have been done long ago if there were enough attention and resources. And, that is a possibility if it is mainstreamed into conservation narrative. I remember, President and CEO of Association of Zoos and Aquarium, Dan Asher’s main argument during his keynote, that is, ‘there are no human dimensions of conservation, conservation is all about humans.’ It is an very effective rhetoric to show the way forward; we need HWC to be mainstreamed into conservation.

The challenge to transform ‘human dimensions’ into the ‘new normal’ of conservation: And, how do we do that? There are many critical opinions out there. And, with my little experience as a practitioner, it does not seem like a disciplinary case. For instance, mainstreaming social sciences (Bennett et al., 2017) in conservation will not do the job as such. Of course, it might help HWC to be broadly accepted; we will be seeing more works of this kind. But I can’t see that will necessarily transform HWC into the new normal of conservation. To me, the challenge is, whether HWC will enable us to intervene in core political and policy premises of traditional nature conservation narrative that still see ‘human dimensions’ as just another ‘tool’ to do the old job more effectively, that is, continuing the ambivalence towards ecological justice while celebrating only the presumed success of species-level conservation.

 

References:

Stevens, S., & Organ, J. (2017). The Evolution of Human Dimensions Research through the Lens of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program Grants in the Northeast United States. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Kraftee, K., Larson, L., Powell, R., Allen, L., Hallo, J., & Jachowski, D. (2017). Assessing Cultural Context for Predator Conservation. Presentation, Pathways 2017 Conference, YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, Colorado.

Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K. M. A., Clark, D. A., Cullman, G., Epstein, G., Nelson, M. P., Stedman, R., Teel, T. L., Thomas, R. E. W., Wyborn, C., Curran, D., Greenberg, A., Sandlos, J. and Veríssimo, D. (2017), Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conservation Biology, 31: 56–66.

Gellately, Robert. 2006. The specter of genocide: mass murder in historical perspective. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Conservation in former colonies, how to stop dehumanizing people

The more I was attending those meetings, the more I was getting this feeling that as if I am sitting among a group of colonists who are making plans to set up new reserve in an occupied country; in the countryside, ‘protected’ from access by the colonised people; where the white settlers will be enjoying the utilitarian and intrinsic values of the ‘nature’, and the natives will be living on the edge to serve the whites.

Problem with this feeling is, first of all, I am not recounting memories from past centuries (I am not that old, you know), those meeting happened between 2013 and 2016. And, there were very few white people attending those meetings. Those meetings were not taking place in India under East India Company’s brutal rule, or in colonized Zimbabwe, those meetings were held in present-day Bangladesh. And most importantly, no one was talking about the violent business of colonization; cleansing, slavery, or dislocation of native communities, in old or new form, neither.

Now, let me use the vocabulary of a good-hearted politically-correct liberal naturalist; those meetings were about nature ‘conservation’, where conservationists (experts, practitioners, government officials, local representatives of international NGOs) were discussing ‘spatial management’ or ‘protected area’, and so on; they were discussing strategies, management plans for ‘protected areas’, to create ‘alternative livelihoods’ for the ‘local communities’.

Probably, you can make a guess, this type of meetings are generally workshops, consultations, seminars, conferences and so on, mostly organized by INGOs, NGOs, UN agencies, and universities. Unfortunately, I have found myself among the organizers, sometimes. It’s been almost one year I am not attending any such meetings, but all these thoughts recently came back to me while I was talking to one of our colleagues; we were on a very long-distance call about something else, but he was seemingly uncomfortable about a discussion recently took place in Dhaka which he was a part of.

It was a discussion about conservation of Hilsa, and one of the talking points was, riverine communities engaged in wild Hilsa fisheries are ignorant people, ‘beyond amending’, and we should think about pulling them out of this largely subsistence and artsianal fishery and re-employ them as workers in export-oriented ready-made garment factories. Maybe it is a noteworthy fact that most of the experts who attended the meeting are aquaculturists.

Children at Saint Martins
”The question is, if the best leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful for the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought?”

It is not just something being discussed here and there by some groups, it is happening. Rather than focusing on addressing major stressors in social-ecological systems, conservation projects are going after the most vulnerable communities. Because simply it is ‘doable’ to mislead about ‘indicator’ of success. For instance, where in a fishery hundreds of mega-trawlers are dredging without Turtle Excluder Devices, a conservation project can just declare success by forcing out some subsistence-oriented fishing families from the coastal waters to urban slums and name it as ‘alternative income generation’.

If you do not have the historical experience as formerly colonized people, experience of being dehumanized in this way, you will find it very difficult to get the idea, why these discussions are reminiscent of the brutal colonial era; how in 21st-century conservation is still rationalizing violence on people.

So, while protecting or conserving the nature always sounds unquestionably innocent when we live in our liberal bubbles, it is not that rosy for the people who are suffering most from ecological degradation without contributing much in the process of degradation, and again they become ‘victim’ of nature conservation efforts. When it comes to ‘conservation’ efforts by a specific government or inter-governmental agencies or international or national NGOs; things are not very black and white for the people living on the edge.

The question is, if the ‘best’ leverage for a conservation intervention is harmful for the people who provide the least negative trend in the system, then is the leverage really well-thought? Was it chosen because it was deemed as the best possible leverage to start creating a positive trend? Or it was just hand-picked based on the ease-ness of delivering the project? If you are a conservation partner of government in the global south, in countries where oftentimes political participation is restricted, you know it better, there’s no other easy things to do, than motivating such a government to go after the marginalized communities.

But we can’t allow it to be continued. Because in this time when the unsustainable global economy is at its peak with all the consequences in the forms of global warming and extinction threat and so on, we can’t afford any more false hope in conservation.

If any ‘conservation’ efforts exclude the ‘nature’ from social system, if they consider nature as ‘resources’, if they deny the indigenous relationship, knowledge, and practices of communities, if they consider communities as ‘means’ to achieve ‘conservation’ ends, we should call those efforts out, those projects are not conservation, something else.

Conservationists should certainly stop excluding nature from societal spheres. In this way, we will be able to see that, we are not the messiah saving the ‘pure’ nature from the ‘people’. We need to be conscious of this savior complex of ours and avoid it.
And, when working with the communities to empower them against internal and external stressors within the social-ecological system, we should certainly stop stereotyping about communities because as a people no community is a homogeneous group. Individuals in a community need to be recognized for their unique vulnerabilities as resilience.

Conservation needs to empower people who are the worst victims of ecological degradation; in countries like Bangladesh where political participation is very limited, that is a very difficult thing to do, and the job of conservation is to start addressing it no matter how much difficult it is. Of course, there is the sectoral limitation, we can’t just start talking partisan politics, we should not. But working with communities for ecological justice is a good way to start, it will help flourish clusters of locally-led conservation efforts.

The development agencies who fund conservation efforts run by the governments in the global north need to understand that, if they want to serve interests of their taxpayers, which they are supposed to do, the interests should be mitigating the biggest global ecological crisis in human history, not aggravating it.