Readers' Responses to "A Challenge to Conservationists"

[Editor’s note: The letters on this page were submitted in response to Mac Chapin’s article “A Challenge to Conservationists” (November/December 2004 World Watch) but were received too late for publication in the limited space available in our print edition. Any further contributions on the matters discussed in Dr. Chapin’s article will be posted here as well. These letters have received only the minimum of editing attention in the interests of format and readability.]


Mac Chapin's November/December 2004 article "A Challenge to Conservationists" and the responses to it (January/February 2005) failed to address a key element in the bigger picture with respect to indigenous people and conservationists. Chapin's main thrust is that the big NGOs are ignoring goals of indigenous people when it comes to conservation planning, the responses to this article were generally along the lines of "the story was incompletely told" or "here is how our organization does things differently." In general, letters agreed that Chapman has identified a major issue in international conservation. But the letters did not address other important aspects of this admittedly complex problem. One concern that I have is that Chapin implies that "science" is the driving force behind much NGO conservation activity. Unfortunately, the reality is that this science is largely limited to bringing together enough information to argue for protecting a region and monitoring of megafauna. Not enough attention has been paid to the need for capacity-building for science in the biodiversity-rich regions of the world. Chapin and too much of the conservation community and those that fund it seem to often forget that successful long-term conservation will depend not only on the support of local communities, but also on local and regional scientific institutions with properly trained local staff who can continually interact and educate the public about the science behind conservation in an ever-changing world. Sadly, these institutions seem to be missing from the world of Chapin and those that responded to him.

Of the millions of dollars going to conservation, only a tiny percentage is funding scientific training and staffing at academic institutions in regions of high biodiversity. I am particularly speaking of institutions like local universities, museums, and research stations. What is needed is more investment to provide the best education possible for the next generation of scientists capable of documenting, monitoring and arguing for the preservation of biodiversity. There needs to be more support to establish additional positions at universities so that even broader scientific training and communication can be provided in the future. Chapin makes a point that staff (including scientists) at the big NGOs may have to follow specific agendas. This is true, but he never points out that academic institutions present a logical and extant alternative that have traditionally been places where such agendas are not as prevalent. Unfortunately, in too many countries, the best and brightest young biologists are now siphoned off to work for NGOs, often because NGOs can pay more than an educational institution can. It strikes me as far too rare to find a large NGO supporting a local academic institution. In many cases, they simply employ academic staff on a project-by-project basis.

It is amazing, but Chapin mentions universities once in his entire article and even then they are relegated to a list of entities that received funding from USAID, although he quickly goes on to point out that most of this funding went to large NGOs. My guess is that in this example, little was spent building the capacity to train future in-country scientists. Leaving academic institutions out of the conservation equation is simply shortsighted. Local academic institutions in particular offer an obvious place to bring stakeholders at all levels together.

I am consistently dismayed at the state of support for academic institutions that are involved in biodiversity conservation in the countries where I work. While staff of the conservation NGOs in the region (or the park staff supported by the NGOs) motor about in their new SUVs and travel to meetings all over the world, academic colleagues ride public buses or dilapidated vehicles that are maintained because there is nothing else and struggle to find funding to go abroad. Recently, several colleagues at an academic institution came to me saying they wanted to create their own NGO in hopes of being able to carry out their research. The issue is not just about material resources and I am not saying that all funding should go to improving scientific capacity. However, I do believe that if there was a better balance of support between traditional academic institutions, NGOs, and indigenous people, then interactions might be better at all levels. Academic institutions offer what may be the best avenue to make governmental agencies more accepting players with respect to biodiversity conservation. I hope that the major foundations, who have long supported educational institutions throughout the world, will not lose sight of the fact that the people at these institutions and those they train can and will, if given the proper support, conduct scientific research that will have a have a huge impact on successful conservation in the future. In this sense, local academic institutions represent a much more critical long-term resource than conservation NGOs. They also may represent the best places to establish the connections with local communities that Chapin and others feel the large NGOs currently lack.

John Bates
Field Museum of Natural History
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.


As a field biologist working for the government of Bhutan, I found Mac Chapin's "A Challenge to Conservationists" most enlightening. The question that the article raised "Can we protect natural habitats without abusing the people who live in them?" is most apt for Bhutan, the jewel of the Himalayas, and "staked off real estate" of WWF-US. I learned this the hard way and am paying the price.

The World Conservation Society (WCS) and the Nature Conservation Division of the Forestry Department in Bhutan signed an MoU in 2004 for WCS scientists to work in Bhutan. I had no role in the signing of the MoU but was happy to meet with WCS scientists later and discuss possible field work with them. One was particularly interested in studying the Takin (Budorcas taxicolor) Bhutan's national animal. We know little about this species and information on the threats and habitat conditions will help with conservation efforts.

Little did I know what the reaction of WWF-US would be like. In October 2004 I was summoned by Bruce Bunting a Vice President at WWF,on a visit to Bhutan, and shouted and yelled at for helping WCS people. The message was clear, WCS is not to be welcomed to Bhutan. Bunting reminded me of our "professional relationship." WWF-US had given me a scholarship for undergraduate studies in the US to study conservation biology in 1990. I was rudely reminded about where my loyalties should lie. Bunting of course seemed to have forgotten about the bond that I signed with my government on receiving the scholarship. I would pay for the scholarship by working for the Bhutan government on my return. The conversation ended with an implicit threat from Bunting. I was just a puny third world biologist and should not interfere with the agendas of mighty conservation organizations.

I guess my superiors got the message too and the MoU was cancelled. Sons and daughters of powerful people in the Bhutan government have scholarships to attend colleges in the US, paid for by funds raised by Bunting, no bonds to sign. Others travel on junkets to Europe and the US paid for by WWF.

I learned about the MoU being cancelled in an email from a WCS scientist who said he was perplexed by the whole situation and did not understand why the MoU was cancelled.

I replied that perhaps he should ask Bruce Bunting.

The following day I received a phone call at home in Bhutan from Bunting telling me to take it back or else–

A few days later Bunting arrived in Bhutan on holiday. He had a meeting with my minister, one of the most dynamic and powerful men in Bhutan, and managed to convince the minister that I was a threat to the minister's interests.

Before this I had never had the opportunity to actually meet with the minister, except to obtain a signature on a forward to a book on the mammals of Bhutan I had written. Unfortunately my first real meeting with him was a scary one. Bhutan is not yet a democracy and even though I have the highest regards for the powerful minister, in his present brain washed state, I am a victim.

Can we protect natural habitats without abusing the people who live in them?

Tashi Wangchuk, Ph.D.
Department of Forestry
Ministry of Agriculture
Thimphu, Bhutan


Recently Mac Chapin argued that the activities of large environmental NGOs, including Conservation International, advance their own agendas at the expense of local ones (WorldWatch Nov/Dec. 2004). Chapin points out, rightly, that the inherent imbalance between large NGOs, with their vast financial resources, and local indigenous communities, who lack financial resources, challenge our notions of fair and equal "partnering." While I agree that the gap between the financial capabilities of large NGOs and local communities indeed weighs heavily against effective partnering, I recognize that the relationship between indigenous peoples and NGOs, large and small, can be mutually benefiting. Certainly, more effort is needed to improve this relationship before it is abandoned. It is too necessary to all parties.

While Chapin blames large NGOs for failing in their stated mission to benefit indigenous groups, he does not examine the shortcomings of specific partnerships and the factors that drive their failure. It is important to dis-assemble these partnerships to identify positive and negative outcomes and link them to process.

I will attempt to do that here with a case that I regard as successful. The case is pertinent in that it involves one of the world's largest NGOs, Conservation International (CI). The project, which is admittedly new, is the partnership in territorial surveillance between CI and the Kayap– NGO, the Protected Forest Association. I will briefly describe the project, based largely upon my own observations and interviews, and then turn to why I think it works.

Kayap– reservations in Brazil encompass 10,905,175 ha in the southern portion of the Amazon basin in the upper Xing– River in the states of Par– and Mato Grosso. Among them, the –rea Indigena Kayap– (AIK), in southern Par–, contains 3,284,005 ha that encompass one of the largest continuous blocks of pristine, closed-canopy rainforest in the world. It is also site of the northern limit of Brazil’s savannic cerrado, one of the largest, yet least understood, habitats in the Americas. Although these two biomes are recognized for their importance and vulnerability, they are underrepresented in Brazilian conservation units (including National Forests, Parks, and Research Stations).

The Kayap–, who militantly control access to their lands, play a critical role in the preservation of the region’s biodiversity. AIK's population of approximately 4,000 Kayap– is sparcely distributed, with village sizes ranging from under 100 to over 1000. The Kayap– practice a variety of low-intensive land use methods, combining cultivation with foraging of game, fish, fruit, insects, and honey. Because of small garden size and short cultivation cycles, interference of the natural dynamics of forest succession is minimal. As a result of scant population, low-impact utilization, and militant surveillance of intruders by the Kayap–, the size of uninterrupted tracts of forest and cerrado is sufficient to maintain reproductive populations of numerous species of plants and animals that have been driven to local extinction elsewhere.

The extent of intact forest cover is all the more remarkable given the relentless pressure from mining, logging, ranching, and export agriculture in the region. A growth spurt that accompanied the gold rush into southern Par– in the 80s and early 90s resulted in rapid rates of deforestation. Most recently large soy plantations are expanding ever closer to the reserve, pushing ranchers and colonists in their path. Today, deforestation reaches the borders of the Kayap– territory.

The absence of ranching and corporate agriculture inside the reserve is due to close border surveillance by the Kayap–. As recently as the late 1980s trespassers could be killed. More recently the Kayap– have employed two principal protective strategies: 1) border monitoring posts and 2) overflights. This militant defense has deterred appropriation of their lands and large-scale destruction of forest resources in a manner unprecedented elsewhere. In the absence of conservation safeguards at the local, state and federal levels, and the presence of entrenched development interests in the region, the role of the Kayap– in protecting their own territories has been vital to the preservation of these lands.

CI, whose objective is "to conserve the Earth's living natural heritage, … global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature," identifies among its priorities "Tropical Wilderness Areas" (http://www.conservation.org). From the perspective of Conservation International, the Kayap– reserve is important because it constitutes one of the largest remaining tracts of pristine tropical rainforest on earth.

Kayap– wealth is contained in the forests in which they live. These lands are guaranteed them by the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 and by international instruments on indigenous rights. Yet there are costs associated with its protection. The purchase of fuel and the maintenance of the collectively-owned airplane require financial resources. At the same time as the Kayap– are concerned about managing their lands, their need for revenue for medical, educational, and personal supplies continues. While the Kayap– gained worldwide reputation as fierce guardians of forest resources, a number of Kayap– are also savvy exploiters of them. Over the past two decades, individual Kayap– entered into negotiations with both miners and loggers. The village nearest the edge of the reserve suffered the greatest abuse, turning in 1994 against opportunistic leaders. Income through harvesting products of the standing rainforest was an available alternative to the Kayap– during the 1990s when the Body Shop-UK contracted with two villages to supply Brazil nut oil. While that project generated income for those villages for a brief period, it has ceased to function.

CI's involvement with the Kayap– -- like that of so many others, including the Body Shop -- has origins in the late 1980s when Kayap– leaders in Washington DC, Altamira, Brazil, and elsewhere, campaigned to stop a hydroelectric project that would inundate their lands. The Altamira-Xing– River Complex, proposed by the Brazilian government to the World Bank, would cost US$10.6 billion and flood 7.6 million ha of land along the Xing– River. No less than 85% of the lands to be inundated belonged to indigenous peoples -- the Kayap– among them.

Two Kayap– leaders, Paiak– and Kube'i, were invited to the United States to speak at a Miami conference on rainforest conservation that brought together representatives of environmental advocacy NGOs in January, 1988. (I was one of the organizers of that conference.) Apart from vague rumors, the Kayap– leaders had been unaware of the proposed dams. The encounter with DC-based environmentalists provided the Kayap– with needed information as well as a mechanism for launching a campaign to protect their lands. Members of several NGOs invited the Kayap– to Washington to make their case known. They arranged meetings for the Kayap– with advocacy organizations, the US Treasury Department, US Senate Appropriations Committee, and Executive Directors of the World Bank.

That David-and-Goliath effort launched an international campaign that halted a megaproject that appeared, at first, inevitable. It also demonstrated the necessity for and the potential in indigenous collaborations with NGOs, catalyzing a number of alliances, collaborations and programs in its wake.

The present case is but one example of many projects that directly or indirectly evolved from this historic collaboration. During his appeal to halt the Xing– dams, Paiak– met the Canadian ecologist Barbara Zimmerman, who had ties to World Wildlife. He invited Zimmerman to his village A'ukre. To his surprise, she arrived soon after.

It was Paiak– who proposed the idea of an absolute preservation zone within the AIK where hunting would be prohibited (pers. com., Zimmerman June 2004). Zimmerman, enthusiastic about the site and its preservation, recognized the opportunity for a biological research station. With funding from the Conservation International and the Suzuki Foundation, Zimmerman worked with Paiak– and the people of A'ukre to established the Pinkait– Reserve and Ecological Station in 1992. Since that time, researchers from Pinkait– have produced a number of significant publications on neotropical biodiversity and ecological interaction. (See, for example, publications by Peres, Nascimento, Malcolm, and Zimmerman.) In spite of the nearby hunting population, Pinkait– researchers report some of the highest recorded figures for tapir, white-lipped peccary, collared peccary, brown capuchin monkey, bearded saki monkeys, and other species whose populations elsewhere in Amazonia are severely depressed.

As the role of the Body Shop declined, CI expanded its involvement in the AIK by beginning negotiations to fund the already-existing border surveillance activities. Sixteen guard posts had been established along the borders of the territory to monitor land invasions. The posts were satellite settlements of larger villages whose inhabitants occupied the post to create a visible presence and inhibit interlopers.

In 2001 CI and the Kayap– began a project to support territorial surveillance along the 1,600 km border of the –rea Indigena Kayap–. The role of CI is to provide 1) on-the-ground surveillance supplies such as boats, motors, gasoline, and radios to guard posts (accounting for about 73% of budget); 2) GPS and satellite data (about 15% of budget); and 3) training and meeting expenses (about 12 % of budget). Total annual operating expenses for border surveillance, training, and meetings, provided by CI, do not exceed $200,000.

Why has this project succeeded? First, the goals and strategies of the project were developed by the Kayap–. Prior to the start of the project the Kayap– had 16 satellite villages in place for purposes of border surveillance with no outside assistance. Today, with CI provisions, the number of surveillance posts has increased to twenty-two. Rather than the superimposition of a prefabricated plan, the surveillance project builds upon an existing Kayap– practice that coincided with conservationist goals.

Second, Kayap– leadership continues to maintain its decision-making role, a basic tenet of any true "partnership." By funding the logistics of annual meetings by Kayap– leaders to discuss strategies and other issues of concern, CI has furthered full project participation. Three assemblies of Kayap– chiefs were held inside the Kayap– reserve between the years 2000 and 2003; I was present at two of the tree meetings. Each meeting lasted 2-3 days, during which all present were permitted open-ended speaking time.

In these meetings the Kayap– and CI set out the terms of their partnership and made these known to one another. At every step each party is able to demand accountability of the other. The Kayap– call CI to task if they feel they are not meeting their part of the bargain as made explicit in the verbal and written contracts.

It was in these meetings that leaders decided that the Kayap– NGO, the Protected Forest Association, was the appropriate vehicle for distributing assistance for territorial surveillance and protection against invasion. This points to a different, but equally important factor in the success of this partnership to date. The project benefits all Kayap– villages and individuals without exclusion. Any village that wishes to participate in the project may do so. Many projects fail because they benefit a portion of a community, creating factions and disrupting social life.

Finally, I wish to return to the point of establishing (some would say "constructing") balance or equality in a partnership where one entity comes to the table with abundant financial resources and the other does not. I concur with Chapin that, for a partnership to be successful, the playing field must be level. I would argue, however, that indigenous peoples can bring to a bargaining situation many types of resources, including natural ones, social ones, and political ones. In the case described here, the Kayap– hold a natural resource whose worth is of extreme value to its partner, CI. In the relationship between the Kayap– and CI, it is the Kayap– who have the greater leverage. They do not require CI in order to carry out their activities -- indeed these activities were underway before the collaboration began. CI's assistance is welcome so long as it furthers the long-range goal of Kayap– in maintaining the intactness of their territory. However, CI cannot work to conserve the tropical wilderness without the full collaboration of the Kayap– whose lands are guaranteed them by Brazilian and international law. Both the Kayap– and CI are aware of the power of dominion and the political advantage it provides the Kayap–. It is the very purpose of these legitimized "rights" to provide indigenous peoples with an inalienable resource that is theirs by virtue of origin.

Much lip-service is given by environmental NGOs to "listening" to the voices of indigenous peoples. Yet "listening" requires a degree of attentiveness and engagement in which most NGOs invest few resources. Zimmerman, the mediator between CI and the Kayap–, as a counter-example, has invested over ten years working among them. She speaks Kayap– and maintains "fictive" familial relationships with a Kayap– extended family through whom she is related to others and by whom she is addressed as "daughter," "sister," or "aunt." In A'ukre many newborns are given the names of Pinkait– researchers.

Zimmerman (and by extension, CI), have fallen, however inadvertently, into a "participatory" mode of interaction. This is a methodology not regularly or consciously employed by environmental NGOs who may regard as sufficient five or fewer days for an "on-site" analysis. Yet inclusion and partnering are complex processes, carrying potential for mutual misunderstanding. The complexities are compounded if the goals of the entities are not the same and systems of meanings -- even in one apparently common, negotiating language -- differ.

In the case described here, the goals of the partners are not the same. Whereas the goal of CI is biodiversity preservation, the goal of the Kayap– is to protect their own territories from intrusion. The case illustrates that the goals and the assumptions of the partnering entities may differ. That which is essential is that the goals of each entity, though different, are satisfied. Communication (I have called it listening) is key in this. I suggest more investment by NGOs in that exercise.

I am a member of the Commission on South American Indigenous Peoples of the American Anthropological Association and former Chair of the Association's Committee on Human Rights. I have also worked with the NGOs Cultural Survival and the Nature Conservancy, among others (though not CI), in indigenous conservation projects. Although I do not speak on behalf of any of these entities, I attribute to them my commitment that collaboration is possible.

Janet M. Chernela,
Department of Anthropology
University of Maryland, College Park


Mac Chapin's recent article 'The challenge to conservationists' has indeed provoked the enlightening debate it was intended to provoke. Chapin may have got some of his facts wrong, but as the WWF response noted, and many contributors observed, he has voiced concerns which trouble many conservationists and human rights activists alike.

There is a curious omission in the debate which must be rectified, since it should be - in contrast to what as been said by many contributors - a relatively easy job to determine the social and economic impacts of establishing protected areas. Simply consult the lists of protected areas of different categories which are compiled by the IUCN for each country and are publicly available

(http://sea.unep-wcmc.org). Then examine the published the literature for these protected areas, as well as government documents concerned with their establishment. From these we should be able to establish who has been impacted, and to what degree, by the evictions or restrictions that attended the establishment of the conservation areas. This would bring light to a heated debate by providing an overview of the extent to which protected areas have caused problems to indigenous people and other local communities.

Unfortunately, trying to establish such an overview right now would be a waste of time. Two of us, Jim Igoe and Dan Brockington, have reviewed all the literature we could find dealing with the issue of evictions from protected areas. We discovered that the issue of evictions is remarkable for its absence in the literature. Despite the three-fold increase in protected areas in recent decades, (they now cover more than 10% of the land surface of the planet), the conservation community has paid little attention to the social impacts of protected areas. Moreover, more than half of that which is written (we reviewed over 230 books and papers) merely mentions the fact of evictions and gives no further details on the problems resulting from them. Indeed there have been very few attempts to find out systematically how many people are resident inside protected areas - and thus vulnerable to their restrictions. This information has been gleaned for South America and India, but these surveys are both now more than 10 years old and are out of date.

The absence of attention to the social impacts of protected areas implies that local needs and interests are not being adequately represented. A representative survey of the social impacts of protected areas is urgently needed. This is a relatively straightforward task. A global assessment of the social impacts of protected areas was recently launched at the World Conservation

Congress in Bangkok by the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (http://www.social-impact-of-conservation.net). A CARE initiative has already started activities in East Africa.

Unfortunately, when IUCN secretary general Achim Steiner was asked by CEESP members, whether this study can be funded in the context of the IUCN programme, he replied that he liked the proposal very much, but that strong groups within IUCN are against any assessment of that kind, "since the results might be used against conservation itself.” This seems to imply that conservation by protected areas must necessarily impoverish people. We don't think so. In the end the "challenge to conservationists" is not to find out whether people have been facing adverse social consequences, but rather understanding these impacts better in order to guarantee "that protected area management strives to reduce, and in no way exacerbates, poverty" (World Park Congress 2003: 4).

The Convention on Biological Diversity has specifically called for such an assessment within its work program on protected areas (COP 7 Decision VII/28, page 354,

http://www.biodiv.org/doc/decisions/COP-07-dec-en.pdf), in order to provide for the necessary adjustment of principles, policies and practices. It urges all parties to position biodiversity conservation more strongly within the framework of poverty reduction strategies. So the political framework is there, the technical problems are being addressed, all we require is the political will from within the conservation community.

Dan Brockington
University of Oxford
United Kingdom

Jim Igoe
University of Colorado at Denver
U.S.A.

Kai Schmidt-Soltau
Yaounde
Cameroun


I have been on an extended project evaluation in Asia, and so this letter comes late to an ongoing debate, but I heard Mac Chapin speak on National Public Radio, and felt compelled to respond to his piece “A Challenge to Conservationists” in the November/December issue of World Watch:

I serve as field officer for a private foundation that supports health, development, and conservation efforts in developing nations. We have supported initiatives by Conservation International to address human needs and so I read the piece with great interest. Doing right by indigenous people is critical to the success of conservation, and critiques of NGO’s—especially the big and influential ones—are essential for both donors and the organizations themselves.

Mr. Chapin’s piece—and the subsequent reaction to it—were mostly concerned with behaviors and attitudes, with no real examination of their impacts. It astonished me that a piece igniting such a firestorm was virtually devoid of documented examples (never mind rigorous data) of negative outcomes for indigenous people as a result of the actions of the major conservation organizations. Without a clear demonstration of outcomes, the piece and the ensuing reaction become a confusing morass of allegation and opinion that provides little chance to achieve the clarity and common understanding needed for effective action and positive change.

It doesn’t help matters that Mr. Chapin seems to subscribe to the “where there’s smoke there must be fire” approach to journalism. An ongoing insinuation of the piece is that big is somehow bad, without substantiation that this is so. Another is that working with corporations is wrong, despite the reality that corporations are often the biggest actors in conservation settings and that relatively small modifications in their behavior can have profound benefits for local people, indigenous or otherwise. Chapin’s repeated allegations of failure by these NGO’s to openly confront governments and other big actors ignores the role of non-confrontational, private efforts with leaders made possible by carefully maintained relationships—efforts that arguably achieve more than zero-sum confrontation.

To simply report accusations by local groups does not provide meaningful information. Those of us who have worked in these volatile settings know that accusations fly constantly in every direction, and Mr. Chapin seems content to repeat them without troubling to determine whether there is any real substance. His example of CI’s work in Chiapas is particularly egregious: he cites outrageous accusations and then appears to give credence to them by an irrelevant reference to CI’s corporate ties.

Chapin continually tars all of the “Big Three” with the same brush, an approach that seems neither fair nor accurate. I have not worked with TNC or WWF, but my own experience with Conservation International doesn’t support his allegations of exclusion. I spent extended periods in the mid-1990’s on an initial evaluation of work with the Machiguenga in Peru, the Kayapo in Brazil and the indigenous inhabitants of Makira in the Solomon Islands. In all of these settings, local people were at the center of project design and implementation, and were treated with the deference due them as the key actors in conservation. In each case, achievement of clear indigenous land tenure was a priority and the work was focused on meeting human needs in the context of conservation.

We need rigorous critiques of conservation approaches and NGO’s—as Mr. Chapin pointed out in a recent radio interview, “we have to, somehow, do some in-depth, impartial studies of what the conservation groups are doing in the field.” What is so disappointing is that he wrote the piece without such studies, without the evidence of outcomes and impacts that would have made it useful. As such it has more potential for harm than for positive change.

Those of us who support World Watch—and those in the conservation and donor communities—deserve better.

Kevin Starr, MD
The Mulago Foundation


One of the rare successes mentioned by Chapin of happy cooperation between an indigenous community and a conservation organization is that of the Izoceno partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bolivian Chaco to co-manage a national protected area.

I carried out my anthropology doctoral dissertation research in Izozog between 1997 and 2000, and remain in frequent contact with Izoceno people through visits, letters, e-mails with young people employed by NGOs or studying in cities, and the occasional phone call to the same. The partnership to which Chapin refers, while indeed a good one, has had moments of fractiousness - both between WCS and the Izoceno and from tensions generated inside Izozog by the distribution of financial largesse from the collaboration.

That fractiousness is not my main concern in writing, however—I just want to establish my bona fides as a feets-on-the-ground commentator.

What struck me in both Chapin's challenge and the responses it received was the ease with which the phrase "traditional and indigenous peoples (or communities)" slid around in everyone's texts. It is a useful handle, to be sure - I deploy it all the time in my own writing as an anthropologist. However, in issuing calls to policy-making battle, and then in joining that fray, I wonder whether a bit more specificity is in order. As someone who has lived in one particular community for a good while, learned about its history, and compared its experience to that of other "traditional and indigenous" groups also attempting collaborative partnerships for conservation ends, I have come to believe there are Izoceno-specific reasons the Izoceno experience has been relatively successful while many apparently similar such collaborations elsewhere have not resulted in equivalently happy outcomes.

To affirm that "conservationists" must include "indigenous and traditional peoples" in their efforts is to substitute a sort of showy solidarity with amorphous sketch-figures where genuine attentiveness to manifold differences would be far more useful. To declare "conservationists" mustn't include "indigenous and traditional peoples" in their efforts sounds much worse, but is in fact the same sort of airy generalization. Some "indigenous and traditional" communities make terrific "partners in conservation" while other "indigenous and traditional" communities make abysmal ones. Forcing bad partnerships won't help conservation goals, just as denying opportunities for good ones won't help "indigenous and traditional" communities. Startlingly, Chapin, his supporters, and his detractors speak as one in supposing that conservation organizations will be the prime movers in determining whether more such partnerships will emerge and whether they will be successful. It's worth keeping in mind that an indigenous organization - COICA - itself got the ball rolling with their 1989 open letter. I'd wager that just as they have been since 1989, future successes and failures will continue to be significantly driven by the "Southern" side of the North-South equation.

Kathleen Lowrey
Rockefeller Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow Center for International and Comparative Studies Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois, U.S.A.


With respect to the indigenous people/conservation issue, we debated whether to write. Will writing only further entrenched positions or can it actually have a positive impact leading to better understanding and collaboration towards common goals? As issues become more complex, the trend seems to move toward easier more simple positions in order to “satisfy and perpetuate our narrow niches.”

We work with a small local Trust in Tanzania that attempts to walk the middle road. On one side stand the indigenous activists, often but not always allied with the development core. Environmental sustainability, gender equality, poverty reduction & good governance are some of the development ‘marketing’ catchwords. These belie well meaning service provision which often undermines the ecological base of local land economies leaving communities impoverished and open to outside resource exploitation.

The indigenous rights agenda too often becomes an end towards garnering and pilfering financial resources while communities are left without the leadership needed to meet the challenges of confronting a globalized world.

On the other side stand the conservation organizations. Tanzania has close to 25% of its land area in the protected area network and rights abuses notwithstanding, conservation organizations in sum deserve credit for great gains in preserving biodiversity. With this kind of track record one would assume there would be a readiness by central government and the conservation organizations to ‘risk’ entrustment of natural resource management in remaining areas to local communities. Yet, despite policy lip service to the contrary, practice in most sectors remains centralized with no real devolution, this abetted by conservation organizations. Conservation organizations have huge resources, are dependent on staying in the good graces of central government and will readily run over people’s rights for narrow conservation agendas. White washed gains and hidden or twisted failures are ‘marketing norms’.

Despite a massive influx of donor money and significant revenue from natural resources, central government does not have the capacity to adequately manage the 25%. Isn’t it time to incorporate people into the equation? One of the biggest frustrations is that the continual battle for rights significantly impedes community action on the pressing sustainability side. How can people and communities be responsible if they don’t have rights?

We would welcome an objective, independent investigation of this issue in northern Tanzania if there is a reasonable chance it will lead to positive conservation gains on the ground.

E. Gayewi
Maanda Ngoitiko
David Peterson
Ujamaa Community Resource Trust
Arusha, Tanzania


Congratulations to Worldwatch Institute for your challenge to conservation. Over the last 50 years around 2 million people have been alienated from the lands they depend on for their survival; some researchers believe it to be even more. However, while conservationists race to defend themselves, we must be cautious of their inflated rhetoric and crocodile tears!

African Initiatives’ experience of working with pastoralists and hunter-gatherers in East Africa is that while conservation organisations may be strong on rhetoric, sadly this is not translated into practice. Many communities see conservation as the biggest threat to their lands, livelihoods and survival.

In the name of community conservation we have witnessed local leaders, always men, being offered money, jobs, big salaries, large allowances and other inducements to support conservation. Many call this bribery. Local organisations, often desperate for funding, are co-opted by international conservation agencies to implement a foreign agenda that runs counter to communities expressed wishes and needs. Communities living in or around conservation areas are often poor and marginalized, a situation exacerbated as conservation sets its sights on more land.

Unscientific, colonial myths about land being unoccupied or local people destroying their environment continue to be pushed by conservationists who are unwilling to accept the legitimacy and sustainability of traditional modes of production and natural resource management systems. Blaming the victim is common. They then wash their hands of bad practice by hiding behind national government policy while giving money, advice and ‘capacity building’ of those same governments. Communities are often confused, misled and threatened with proposed changes in land policies that primarily come from international donors such as USAID and the EU. Land uses are increasingly measured in US dollars resulting in effective modes of production such as pastoralism and hunting and gathering being cast aside as uneconomic.

It is also noticeable that very few conservation agencies talk of peoples’ rights – their responses to your article bears this out. A senior manager (recently retired) in one of the UK branch of one of the conservation agencies mentioned in Mac Chapin’s article told me that “Human rights is political correctness … a luxury the environment cannot afford.” The evidence used to justify their position is usually unscientific, culturally biased and historically inaccurate.

Communities are increasingly aware of the thinking and strategies of conservation agencies however they do not have the power, knowledge, confidence or resources to resist. There are some exceptions and African Initiatives and our partners have successfully supported the implementation of community led, rights based, ecologically sustainable, natural resource management with pastoralists and hunter-gatherers.

The sustainable management of ecosystems and biodiversity requires more complex solutions than the “fortress Eden” fundamentalism community conservation waffle of conservation organisations. Communities’ rights to natural resources should be secured, including their intellectual property rights. Local knowledge should be integrated into the management of ecosystems and communities should benefit from an equitable distribution of revenue generated from their lands.

If conservation agencies are serious about moving beyond the spin their first test is a simple one – they must work to dismantle those conservation policies and practices that have damaged peoples’ livelihoods, culture and environment and replace them with sustainable, rights based and equitable processes.

Mike Sansom
African Initiatives
Bristol, England


I expect many people have written to you citing specifics of what they considered to be fair or unfair in Mac Chapin’s article A Challenge to Conservationists. Our intention at the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is not to join this debate, but rather to focus our attention on building a different kind of conservation organization.

When we were founded in 1961, we saw ourselves as a Washington-based organization with field programs in Africa. In the last few years, we have worked tirelessly to turn this equation upside down. We are now an Africa-driven organization that happens to have an office in Washington with certain supporting functions. More than 85% of our staff members are African citizens, and most of the remainder comes from a Peace Corps Africa or development background.

At AWF, we view the wildlife and wild lands of Africa as a key asset for the continent to draw upon in developing a sustainable future. We see the engagement of local communities as an integral part of our conservation strategy, not because it is fashionable but because we understand that conservation efforts will never succeed if local people do not.

Patrick J. Bergin
African Wildlife Foundation
Washington, D.C.


Mac Chapin’s challenge to conservation practitioners opens a Pandora’s Box of issues that the Conservation and Development community has largely tiptoed around for the past two decades.

Chapin’s focus on the inclusion of indigenous people in conservation inadvertently risks diverting attention from the principal and more pervasive constraint to successful biodiversity conservation: All local peoples living in biodiversity rich areas must be part of the process. Indigenous peoples are but one category of stakeholders possessing rights and responsibilities regarding resource use, and do need to be factored in conservation and sustainable development programming. Chapin’s presentation of conservation failure as a cause c–l–bre for the participation of indigenous peoples submerges the reality that the participation of millions of poor, marginalized people will be critical to conservation and the protection of indigenous cultures. A still larger perspective recognizes an inevitable role for governments, NGOs, donors, and the private sector. If effective cultural and biodiversity conservation is the objective, the involvement of indigenous and other peoples is not a simple panacea, and must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

As to Chapin’s point concerning NGO funding, the comparatively vast financial resources enjoyed by the BINGOs translate into marketable technical capabilities. This advantage is perpetuated through professional and personal networks linking donors, foundations and BINGOs. In a world of stagnant conservation funding, this limits program opportunities to a small set of implementing organizations. The relationship between BINGO financial success and program success is, however, another matter, as financial clout apparently often has little to do with the measurable effectiveness of conservation programs. The accelerating loss of biodiversity and the precarious status of many developing country protected areas suggest considerable daylight between funding streams and program outcomes.

A possible reason for why program outcomes seem to matter little to the current momentum of the BINGOs has to do with the ‘intangibles’ of conservation brand names, institutional networks, and resilient (but inadequate) program models. Save for specific cases and limited purposes, BINGOs present the appearance of indifference to critical examination of program approaches that are marketed as successful despite the scarcity or absence of publicly available empirical data demonstrating success. Systematic partnering with other NGOs offering promising alternatives is also of low priority. Why would BINGOs need to work with LINGOs (little NGOs) unable to mobilize financial resources and insider networks of similar power? And why would the major institutions that fund conservation do so either, when the tautology of reputations has it that the BINGOs are inherently most capable of promoting biodiversity conservation? So the funding continues to flow.

Correctives are urgently needed in the way conservation is funded, designed and managed. Conservation options that respect the rights, knowledge and cultures of indigenous peoples will require significant shifts in approaches. Current standards for participation and inclusion are inadequate, ineffective, and perhaps even unethical, based as they typically are on superficial consultation. Meaningful stakeholder engagement is what is needed. We strongly believe the most important positive step the conservation community could take would be to support, develop, test and refine frameworks for multi-stakeholder partnership building in conservation programming. This is one of the critical points on which Chapin’s article, as well as much of the current work of the BINGOs, falls short.

Another critical step in transforming participatory ethics into operational conservation programs – and one that is too often ignored in prevailing program models – is to strengthen the vital technical and organizational capacities of local peoples. To reduce the ‘threats’ these stakeholders represent to the conservation agenda, viable livelihood options must be developed, and a significant re-allocation of decision-making prerogatives must be conveyed. The assumption that these communities, whether indigenous or a more typical mix of ethnicities and identities, now possess these capabilities is romantic or unrealistic. In IRM’s experience, the need is to create skills for stakeholders to negotiate appropriate plans and agreements that promote both conservation and sustainable development, and that enable appropriate sets of stakeholders to work effectively together. We have developed the Community Options Analysis and Investment Toolkit (COAIT™) and Consensys– to do this.

Unless the conservation community develops a broad range of community-based conservation tools that can be compared for efficacy and results at both process and biophysical levels, it is likely that conservation losses will continue. This will impose unaffordable costs on indigenous peoples, conservation organizations, governments and other stakeholders to conservation. We can collectively do much better, but a shift in attitudes, methods and behaviors within the conservation community remains a first priority.

Michael Brown
Innovative Resources Management, Inc.
Washington, D.C.


The response to Mac Chapin’s article “A Challenge to Conservationists” seems to have had a worldwide response. I wish to point to two lacunae: none of the letters were from India or China, the two largest nations with possibly the largest indigenous populations; secondly only a few visible indigenous people responded. The white man (in India the World Bank and the upper crust) still manages the indigenous people’s biodiversity assets.

Although the proportion of indigenous/tribal/aboriginal people in India is only eight percent, they number 80 million and dominate most of the forested areas. In a seminar in November 5-7, 2004 on a slightly different subject (Redressing Inequities of Displacement by ‘Development’: Dams and Mines) we found that out of the fifty million people displaced over the past 50 years about 40 percent or 20 million were tribal. The macro data are extremely inaccurate or non existent, its as if the powers that be don’t want to know that they are violating the ILO and World Bank norms. We held the seminar in my native town Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand (forest land) one of the three new states created in 2000, which has a 27 percent tribal population, so that tribal leaders and some displaced tribal people could participate.

For the broad Indian picture, three examples may suffice: The Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD), just completed on the Narmada river, has displaced about half a million people most of whom (57 percent) are tribal. The SSP will also destroy 13,000 hectares of prime forest land. Second in the North-east of India 23 large dams are planned on the Brahmaputra river; most of which affect the tribal states of Arunachal, Mizoram and Manipur. Third, nearly all the mining of coal, iron or alumina, is in the Eastern belt states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, where environment impact assessments (EIA) have to be fudged to permit mining.

Allow me to leave India and go to the United States and the Columbia river dams. While working in Washington State University (WSU) (1957-61) I studied two tribes—the Spokane and the Yakima—displaced by the Roosevelt and Celilo Falls dams. It’s amazing how much rapport an Indian from India can build up with the adibasis (original settlers) of the U.S. The Yakima were a little more hostile to the whites: “The treaty that we signed with U.S. government says that as long as the sun rises and the sun sets we will be allowed to fish on the Yakima river. Has the sun ceased to rise?”

The tribal council would not let any white anthropologist assess the average salmon catch, which was the basis of the compensation the tribe would receive. WSU therefore asked me and a Nise faculty member, Ike Yoshino, to do the fieldwork for the project. In both tribes we interviewed every family to make our estimates. In both these cases the Indians were displaced to provide irrigation and power mainly to the whites. This is very similar to what is happening in India today, the poor sections of Indian society of tribals and outcastes (harijans) are being impoverished to enrich the contractors of large dams, politicians and bureaucrats.

Although these widely separated illustrations from two very different continents are not only about conservation, both the indigenous people of the Pacific North-west, like Chief Seattle, and the tribal people of India have within their cultures a great deal of deep ecology. They have lived with nature for centuries if not millennia. While the US policy had an underlying principle of assimilating their tribal populations, India has tried to protect their tribal cultures and let them “hasten slowly” into the mainstream. Inadvertantly, the caste system has prevented inter-marraige, and therefore permitted the tribal cultures to survive into the twenty-first century. Both the First World Indians and the tribals of India have a long way to go in their battles to protect and to manage their own environment.

Prodipto Roy
Council for Social Development
New Delhi, India


Having served as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the rain forests of the Philippines, I read with interest ‘A Challenge to Conservationists’ by Mac Chapin. In it, as well as in the subsequent editorials it spawned in the January/February 2005 issue, I looked for discussion of the tools conservationists use to bridge the gap between the conservationist’s understanding of ecosystems and indigenous understanding of these same ecosystems. Finding little such discussion, it struck me that few tools may be available in this regard. To fill this possible void, I would like to offer as a possibility, the body of knowledge known as permaculture. I believe permaculture represents a ‘language’ that can be understood by both conservationists and indigenous people, thus bridging that seeming gap.

Permaculture represents a way of thinking about ecosystem design and management where all members of an ecosystem, including humans, are integrated in a manner that serves all members of the ecosystem. Permaculture could be described as:

  • The art and science of designing human beings’ place in the environment
  • A method of ecosystem design and management that serves to consciously maximize the abundance of an ecosystem by mimicking nature’s designs
  • Environmental design that blends indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge, utilizing the best of both.

Permaculture requires close observation of nature and its interactions. By applying what is learned through such observation, it is possible to determine how best to integrate our human presence into the ecosystem and actually increase biological output while at the same time restore ecosystem health. In a permaculture-based system, there is no such thing as waste, for any ‘waste’ from one member of the ecosystem is actually food for another. In this sense, everything is a resource. Within a permaculture system, work is minimized, productivity and yields increase, and the environment is restored. I find that the real beauty of permaculture lies in its simplicity and its focus on ‘what works’. Anyone can understand and apply the principles, be they scientifically trained or trained through direct study of nature, and therefore these principles can serve as a common ground upon which conservationists and indigenous people could work.

Looking back on my early 1980’s Peace Corps experience through the filter of my subsequent permaculture training, I see that an in-depth introduction to permaculture would have served as the second most important technical training I could have received (after our extensive language training). Unfortunately, this body of knowledge was not available at that time, having evolved over the past thirty years, largely through the inspiration and work of Australian Bill Mollison.

In their January/February 2005, World Watch editorial, The Nature Conservancy states as part of their core values, “we respect the needs of local communities by developing ways to conserve biological diversity while at the same time enabling humans to live productively and sustainably on the landscape.” I can think of no better means to achieve that goal than by implementing permaculture principles into conservation projects. Biological diversity is vital to a healthy, permaculture-based ecosystem. Furthermore, by following nature’s example of ecosystem management and applying our scientific understanding of its integration, the productivity of the ecosystem can move from sustainable to surplus producing. In the permaculture paradigm, this emerging surplus is used either for the benefit of the people managing the system or it is returned to the ecosystem to further its enrichment. The surplus is created largely by ‘stacking’ functions into the ecosystem. One aspect of stacking would be to integrate perennial and annual plantings into the ecosystem in a manner that would maximize the amount of light harvested. Since plants have different light needs at different times of the day and different times of the year, plant guilds can be intelligently blended to maximize production. Into this system, animals can be introduced, further ‘stacking’ the system’s production.

I might also point out that application of these principles to ecosystems on a global basis could increase global food production. An increase in per hectare food production was not considered in the September/October 2004 article by David Pimentel and Anne Wilson entitled, “World Population, Agriculture, and Malnutrition”. Unproductive land, especially arid land, has been restored to productive status by intelligently applying these principles. For this reason alone, permaculture deserves study and application on a larger scale.

If conservation agencies do not currently utilize this body of knowledge in their approach, I encourage them to do so, and challenge them to integrate its principles into their work with indigenous people. I know my work would have benefited greatly had knowledge of permaculture been available to me during my Peace Corps experience.

Mark Hoffman
Center for Sustainable Community
Stelle, Illinois