The ethics of mediation in conservation spaces

The author of this article prefers to remain anonymous. 

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While states, extractive industries, pharmaceuticals, and trophy hunters continually occupy positions as amoral, neoliberal agents, the role of conservationists in conservation spaces are much more complex. Western-style conservation, reliant on evidence-informed science, often results in priorities that conflict with traditional knowledge systems and the customary practices that they support. As a result, anthropologists have often criticised conservationists for using western science to marginalise local/indigenous communities, dismissing their relationship with nature, ecological knowledge, and longstanding traditions. Accused of fuelling the rampant “green grabs” that pervade conservation efforts and leave vulnerable groups without sources of livelihood or identity, conservationists argue that the critique is one-sided and does not acknowledge their position of vulnerability as they grapple with wildlife cartels and corrupt government. Within these nexus of relationships, anthropologists find themselves in high-stakes participant observation: positioned between local communities (who lay, to some extent, their customs, practices and agendas bare to scrutiny hoping for an alliance in return) and big power (to which they are often unable to speak truth to). Conservation is one such area of research – where big power expands across the space, reaching far corners of conservation NGOs, small charitable organisations, and the local/indigenous groups themselves, all of whom transition between the role of “good guy” and “bad guy”..

For the remainder of this blog, I look at my own role as anthropologist, conservationist, and activist and consider the precarity of ethics within this dynamic and complex space, where the distinction between right and wrong is both blurred and highly subjective. My research takes place within a mid-elevation wet limestone forest in the uplands of a Caribbean island – hereby known as “The Forest”. The Forest, with many endangered and endemic (that is, it can only be found in that one place) plant and animal species, was recently designated a protected area after years of campaigning by the conservation collective BNRT (comprised of NGOs, state departments, research institute, and the indigenous group that inhabits The Forest) against mining concessions. The proposed area, however, does not include the indigenous village located on its southern border. Though protected areas (PAs) are often either regulated nor enforced in the global south – often because of weak governments, corruption, or lack of national resources – local communities are often less able to access ecosystem services (such as groundwater or bushmeat) in PAs. Often the fear of repercussions and the stigma that occurs as a resut of criminalising resource use drives younger generations to other means of livelihood as traditional practices are seen as more archaic, become increasingly impractical as it becomes more clandestine, or yield less profits as contraband harvests are harder to sell. In short, PAs can negatively impact traditional forest use.

Lydia G

During the 1730s war, the indigenous village adopted many western practices. This included forbidding multiple west-african languages and only speaking English to remove ethnic distinctions and encourage further cohesion, and combining western military strategy and ecological knowledge to ambush British troops in The Forest. Parrot hunting, illegal by national law (there are no international restrictions), is one of the few remaining traditions that nurtures the indigenous group’s relationship with the forest and is a form of livelihood for the few skilled hunters that are trained every generation. As conservation efforts around parrot hunting have grown, it has become increasingy difficult for the indigenous group to engage in the domestic pet trade as perceptions around owning parrots begin to shift. My researh looks, in part, at these shifting perceptions. More broadly, my research attenpts to understand the effect conservation narratives has on traditional resource use and the impact these changes have on the indigenous identity of the inhabitants of The Forest.

While in the field for the first season of my fieldwork (this research spans four parrot hunting seasons occurring between July and September each year), I met with researchers from the local university. In my excitement, I revealed the focus of my research. They were horrified to hear that the indigenous group were engaged in “poaching” and was sure that if any member of the BNRT (of which the indigenous group were part) caught wind of it, the collective would surely be dissolved and the indigenous prosecuted. It may be confounding that allegiances within conservations seem so fleeting; it is a result of trends in conservation and the top-down nature of western priorities. Conservation it is becoming as much about networks of relationships as it is about scientific observations. Increased emphasis on people-centred approaches by international agencies and donors have seen the status of indigenous people grow ever visible and increasingly politicised. Inclusion of local (and, in particular, indigenous) groups are now essential to legitimise priorities, satisfy donor criteria, and anchor western science to local contexts. These “person-centred” priorities may result in a seat at the proverbial table, but it doesn’t guarantee any meals: indigenous knowledge and an understanding of local traditions and ecological relationships remain far removed from the science that ultimately impacts policy. It is this dissonance that underlies the sad irony that Maroons may likely be excluded as the result of conservation efforts of which they were an integral part.

After explaining to the local researchers that one of my research aims sought to establish the sustainability of parrot hunting and indigenous research the practice, they became increasingly interested in the project and decreasingly outraged at the practice itself. In fact, the researchers have agreed to collaborate with me on a separate but related conservation project: assessing the presence and distribution of endangered and endemic bird species in the southern region of The Forest excluded from the protected area. The offer of a collaborative conservation project has also placated another researcher, this time in a state department. But much like the allegiances in BNRT, these collaborations are superficial at best: they seek to increase their profile in western academic circles (not that I can offer any kind of clout), and I seek to legitimise the activities of the indigenous group by anchoring conservation projects to their ecological knowledge. Exploiting the “person-centred” approach, I hope to attract conservation funding by highlighting their ornithological knowledge, their affinity to the forest, and the sustainability of their activities. As more conservationists are attracted to the project, the indigenous group – the nucleus of the project – are able to better defend the use of The Forest and argue for their inclusion in the protected area and its management. As indigenous knowledge becomes increasingly entangled in, rather than undermined by, science, the indigenous group is no longer merely invited to the table, it is others who dine at their table.

In one sense, my plan brings together actors within the conservation space in the true spirit of the “person centred” approach, however in another I am playing Russian roulette with the future of the indigenous group. To this point, members of the collective have had no disagreements because nobody has researched the way this indigenous group has used the forest. There have been historians, African Studies scholars, and anthropologists studying the political structure and cosmology of this group. In the north of The Forest (where elevations peak at 200m), ecologists and conservation biologists have studied endangered species, deforestation, and geological features. Nobody, however, has studied the south of The Forest; with altitudes greater than 600m, steep cliffs, and dense forest cover researchers have found the region inaccessible. Because of this, they have also assumed that the indigenous group – who have grown increasingly westernised since the 18th century war – no longer possess the skill and traditional knowledge to access The Forest. This assumption has safeguarded them from prosecution, but it has also obstructed them from protection. It is within this tension that the ethical quandary lies: in exposing their resource use am I empowering them to demand inclusion or do I leave them vulnerable to incarceration? In short, is this ethical?

How can I ensure there will be no negative repercussions to this exposure? And if I can’t, should I be taking this gamble? I have already eluded to the lack of consequence this protected area brings (in the likelihood that it is not enforced), why don’t I just leave well enough alone? In truth, no researcher can make any assurances that the work they undertake will not negatively impact their informants or the wider community. I have chosen to position myself effectively as a double agent (that really works for the indigenous group) because they have asked for my help in getting the southern boundary of the protected area extended. I have seduced my fellow (local) researchers with offers of co-authoring publications into supporting these efforts because I know that the perception that the indigenous group undertake their own local conservation work will give the group more agency and provide evidence-informed arguments to justify the expansion of the protected area. I am willing to adapt this project and my doctoral research if the impunity I seek on their behalf doesn’t materialise. I have published this blog post anonymously, removing all identifying descriptions of “The Forest” and “the indigenous group”, and I have quietly praised myself for valiantly publishing anonymously (although goodness knows I could use the credit – my CV is a bit sparse).

In the midst of the pat on the back, I reminded myself that I am no martyr – I have won a research grant from a royal society on the back of the novelty and contentiousness of this research. I may be willing to sacrifice visibility from this blog post, however publishing the result of the collaborative project will not be treated with the same selflessness. Have I convinced myself that I work on the orders of the indigenous group I serve, drawing ethnical distinctions between myself and the self-serving conservationists, when I too have been seduced by co-authorship? What are my motivations and how quickly am I willing to divert – or halt – my efforts if I sense that the parrot hunters are at risk of being penalised? In this world of publish or perish, I admit the difficulties in changing course when you have a highly original, interdisciplinary, buzzword-filled project that appears to be writing itself. As I said before, conservation spaces have blurred boundaries of morality and mediating (and advocating) in this space is tricky business. Balancing the interests of the indigenous group, conservationists, nature, funders, myself could easily result in me amassing my own pocket of big power as I convince myself – research grant in one arm, publication in another – that I too am speaking truth to it.

What, then, are my safeguards? My supervisors have been instrumental in helping me develop a plan B, that looks at another traditional forest use: medicinal seeds (though this has very little to do directly with conservation, so it would require some leaps of faith to bring this research together cohesively). I’d be remised if I didn’t stress, however, that we are all in when it comes to the parrots. Every ethical hurdle I face – be it the university ethics approval, or the risk assessment when applying for research grants – I dangle the interdisciplinary, novel, complex soap opera in front of it and they too are sold. However, there is a check that I cannot escape – my own comfort. My mother is from this Caribbean island; one of the motivations for this PhD project is attempting, on some level, to dismantle western oppression in postcolonial encounters. The indigenous group often speaks of the many researchers over the years that they never hear from again – I could not live with myself if I joined those ranks. I use this as a guiding light in my interactions and in my academic pursuits. As I negotiate the labyrinthine networks of relationships that surround our field site, I endeavour to remain (as ever) reflexive, vigilant to the outcomes of my efforts, and open to adaptation. We are not beholden to our research aims, funders, or academic visibility, we are beholden to the people we have asked to make themselves vulnerable to us.

 

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