A Greyer Shade of Green

The World Wildlife Fund is just one among many science-based environment groups that are engaged in a savage reappraisal of their philosophy. ... They are coming to a heretical conclusion: conservation — at least in its hard-line forms — is its own worst enemy. Far from saving endangered species and their habitats, it often accelerates their destruction, because it alienates local people and forces trade underground.

Several factors are driving this sea change. First, there is an admission that hard-line conservation has a chequered history, with more failures than successes, and that it often breeds resentment in local communities. Secondly, there's the realisation that western environmentalists, however well-meaning, have no right to ride roughshod over local sensibilities. Finally, they are riding the current fashion wave: the idea that environmental protection and economic development don't have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, there are conservation strategies that allow them to reinforce each other. And this ethos of "sustainable development", first made popular at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago, is taking many environmentalists in directions they had never anticipated.

The evidence for the failure of conventional conservation is everywhere. It simply takes too much land, for one thing. Take Kenya, which has turned more than a tenth of its land into strictly protected parks and reserves. But the majority of its large mammals still spend most of their time outside the parks, says former Kenya Wildlife Service director David Western. And there is a deeper problem. Wildlife habitat is often better outside the parks, because human activities in savannah grasslands such as the Kenyan parks region are an integral part of the richest habitat. The traditional cattle-herding communities here may have helped promote the high density of wildlife, say ecologists. "The ending of human activity such as fires and shifting cultivation in the parks has reduced biodiversity," says Western. "Those human activities created the patchiness of terrain that encouraged more species."

Hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people depend on wildlife to survive. And if they can't make a living from nature's forests and animals, then they will probably eliminate them with guns or chainsaws to free more land for farming. "Parks and other protected areas will be overrun by people's needs for land unless the parks serve the needs of the local population," says Thomas McShane, a former programme officer for Africa at WWF International who now heads their tropical forest division.

Political expediency, too, plays a part in the shift away from traditional conservation. "If we go for the ideological protectionist approach, nature and conservation will always end up being sidelined," says Jeff McNeely, IUCN's chief scientist.

Environmentalism doesn't look so simple anymore.

Fred Pearce
abstracted from New Scientist
21 June 2003, pp. 41-43