Participating in Conservation

The idea of participation is steadily gaining ground in conservation. But what does it mean to participate, and in what exactly can (or should) one participate? These are the questions I want to reflect on in this post.

I use conservation here in its widest possible sense. For example, the Bronx River Alliance has been running a project aimed at restoring the Bronx river, traversing the famous NY neighborhood. This would count as conservation. So would the more established practice of protecting vulnerable species and their habitat. Finally, I would also include an experiment like the Dutch Oostvaardersplassen under the rubric of conservation. This is because I consider conservation to be any project that is aimed at preserving or restoring a relationship with the natural world that is beneficial to both humans and the wider biotic community. What is conserved, in other words, need not be an untouched version of nature, but rather a meaningful relationship to the natural environment.

There are two ways in which participation can be used as a requirement in conservation projects. One can ask of conservation ideas in general to come out of the community closest to the affected area or one can expect, regardless of the origin of the idea, the community to be involved in the various subsequent phases of a conservation project. These two requirements are not mutually exclusive, as it is possible for an idea to both originate from and be implemented by a community. However, many conservation ideas do not tend to come out of affected communities, for a variety of reasons. So then if we relax the origin requirement, we are left with a kind of inclusion imperative. But it is also the case that in many conservation projects, inclusion all too often means informing people through workshops and the like about what will end up happening anyway, in a token attempt at some form of legitimacy. Conversely, many communities do not have the sometimes specialized skills needed to meaningfully participate in conservation projects. In other words, there tends to be an unacceptable gap between the declared goal of participation and the reality of engagement. This being the case, we need to take a step back and think about what it is that participating in conservation projects is supposed to do, and then we might understand how to best achieve that.

The idea of participation first and foremost signals that what is about to be participated in (or not) is political in nature. In other words, it has to do with how to live together, and with determinations of power within that arrangement. In this sense, conservation paying attention to participation signals that it has finally come to understand itself, however reluctantly, in political terms. To conserve something is a political decision inasmuch as it structures our common life and delineates new conflicts. It is also from this angle that it becomes clear why participation – in policy in general as much as in conservation in particular – is so often an empty mantra, a way to justify what has already been decided. Think of urban planning decisions for instance, and how often these involve a participation phase that is effectively a choice between already formulated alternatives. Similarly, conservation ought to avoid just paying lip service to the idea of participation and think instead about what the political nature of conserving demands that we do.

If we see participation as signaling the political nature of a decision, then it matters little where an idea originates. The birth of an idea should be of no more importance to its quality than the birth of a person is of importance to judging her character. Instead, what is absolutely crucial is how an idea is metabolized at the level where it has its highest impact, no matter its origin. So the salient question is how a conservation project will be lived by the people whose lives and livelihoods intersect with the area of the project. There is no deciding ahead of time how a place will become (or fail to become) meaningful to people. However, participating together in a project of conservation holds the promise of positive meaningfulness.

In the Bronx River Alliance project mentioned earlier, many local residents participated with their time and effort in reintroducing the first oysters, cleaning up trash, and so on. Participants in the project felt a greater connection to their particular neighborhood after having themselves worked for its transformation, through cleaning and rehabilitating the river. In the village of Armeniș, Southern Carpathian Mountains, Romania, where the European bison I wrote about were introduced, locals are organized in an association that both manages and rips the benefits of the wisent conservation project. What’s more, when the village was first approached for the implementation of a reintroduction project, the conservationists shied away from reaching a deal with the mayor and instead opted to first present their ideas to a town gathering. They could have simply spoken to the mayor – he is, after all, supposed to represent the people. But recognizing and respecting the political nature of their craft, they decided to keep the door of participation wide open from the very beginning. So the first time the mayor heard about the idea of reintroducing wisent on village land was the same time that anybody else in the community heard about it. This allowed interested people to get involved, and therefore to shape the project, from the very beginning.

Examples such as these show what it means to treat participation as the crucial political component that it is, as opposed to a justificatory phase in a ready-made project. On a theoretical level, there seem to be several elements that one should pay attention to in thinking about participatory conservation projects: autonomy, competence, belonging, and caring. The issue of autonomy refers to the fact that people find most meaningful the experiences that confirm their sense of self-determination. We all know that we are more likely to perform well, and find meaning in, tasks that we choose and that we like. Similarly, a conservation project should aim at increasing the autonomy of participating individuals, through inclusion from the very beginning, like in the case of Armeniș above.

Competence is an interesting one. William Jordan talks about the ways in which restoration (as a form of conservation) can help what he calls the reinhabitation of the natural world. In other words, through conservation people can come to see themselves and their activities as part of the natural world. This would mean that conservation should move away from chastising human activity and rather aim at making it a mutually beneficial part of nature. This is where competence comes in: in seeking out true participation, conservation projects should look to take advantage of what people are already good at doing. Ideally, participating in conservation would also enhance once’s abilities, but it is important to start on a basis of competence. This can range from driving a tractor or a boat to tracking animals, burning reeds or prairies, singing songs, telling stories, or any other of the activities that already exist in communities everywhere, but disconnected from the goal of restoring a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world.

Belonging and caring should really be thought of together. Belonging refers to the feeling that a sense of places gives people, and which is fundamental to human identity. The importance of belonging to a place is not diminished in a world of globalization: part of what makes living meaningful is that whichever place one might find oneself in is also a particular place, and one that can be known intimately in its own right. In other words, what makes belonging meaningful is the way in which it brings forth our capacity to care deeply for contingent features that become staples of our existence. Belonging and caring are universal capacities, and they do not only develop in landscapes that we would be tempted to call ‘natural’; they work in cities just as well. The point is that this universal human drive for place attachment could be better exploited by conservation projects, by themselves becoming part of the feature of a place that generates meaning. Through this lens, conservation projects as I presented them here can happen on abandoned industrial plots in our cities as much as in seemingly untouched landscapes. Caring within a conservation project can focus people’s place drive, as it were, on areas that are currently neglected for no good reason, and it could be particularly valuable in urban settings.

These are some of the coordinates in which I have found it helpful to think of the meaning of participation for conservation. Of course, in any given context things will be much more difficult than they seem in a considered discourse. It might be that people do not want to get involved, for whatever reason, or that value conflicts in a given case are too stark to overcome. Irresolvable conflict is always a possibility. However, seeing how participation is becoming a token nod of the conservation profession to the social sciences, these reflections are a way to think about how we could go from so much nodding to developing conservation into an inclusive political project that aims at restoring the human relationship to the natural environment in mutually beneficial ways. We could even imagine a society where this kind of conservation would be a given – would seem natural, as it were – because that society decides to restore its relation to the natural world and gets everyone on board, just like now everyone is on board the free market train, whether they want it or not. This would be a world in which conservation is not made up of ‘projects’, spearheaded by specialised organisations, but rather one where it is systemic, and therefore truly political.

To come back to where we started: the requirement of participation in a conservation project signals first and foremost the political nature of conservation. This means that participating in conservation has the potential of democratizing the politics of nature, of opening up the arena where we decide how to conduct our natural lives. I think one way to do this that lives up to its potential is by paying attention to what makes for meaningful participation, and trying to emulate that in conceiving of conservation projects. Ultimately, true participation in conversation has the potential of becoming a new way in which communities relate to the natural environment: not as passive observers or guilty encroachers, but as active shapers of a thriving world.

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