The Eternal Dialectic between Abuse and Inexperience: Some thoughts about the conservation of nature, the State and the limitations of consensus

By Adrian Monjeau, ParksWatch Cono Sur

Dr. Adrián Monjeau is an Ecologist (UNLP-La Plata National University), with a doctorate in Natural Sciences (UNLP), and post-doctorate in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Minnesota, USA; also a researcher for CONICET. He is specialized in the technical, political and philosophical problems of conservation biology. He has published more than 50 scientific papers and has carried out more than 100 presentations in national and international congresses; he is co-author of 8 books within his field of work. He has performed more than 50 technical studies in environmental problem-solving consultancy with respect to protected areas. He is consultant of the World Bank, UNDP, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and World Wildlife Fund. At present he director of the IANR (Institute for the Analysis of Natural Resources) and of the Parkswatch/Greenvest organization for the Southern Cone.

The first protected areas were created as extensions of land to be isolated from the objectives of landscape transformation that accompany economic development. Since their very beginning, in the times of Muir and Leopold, there had been conflicts between those who intended to protect nature for its intrinsic value and those who supported the idea that national parks (as of course the rest of the planet) should be subjected to exploitation according to human convenience.

The huge demographic growth and burst of western techno-capitalism gave place to a world map in which the human footprint has reached and domesticated almost every single patch of fertile land. A devastating force has homogenized and simplified landscapes across the globe with a very clear purpose: to make them accessible to the brutal language of multiplication of capital (which abhors complexity with as much enthusiasm as it does everything else that it doesn’t know or understand). Most of the world’s diversity, be it in biology, wildlife, ethno-linguistic groups and other minorities that still survive western intoxication, is finding itself fenced into the last corners of the planet, where the global market’s routes have yet to reach: notably, a great part of the areas where biological diversity is highest also contains the largest linguistic diversity. The West would not have been possible without this devastation.


The extreme of strict conservation
or "parks without people"

In other words, many natural environments still survive today thanks to their inaccessibility—due to the lack of development—and not due to the conservationist efforts of governments. And what has happened in areas where the global market has been able to extend its reach? It is in these places, whose ecosystems are now completely modified, where strict conservation protected areas have demonstrated their capacity to resist the attacks of the oxymoron called progress . If it were not for the pioneering efforts of a few people capable of understanding the future, today we would be unable to enjoy these marvels that harbor the last paradises on Earth.

Even though protected areas are the most efficient and necessary tool we have (as far as we know) to safeguard the last remnants of wildlife we have, they are not enough to stop the debacle. Conservationist scientists have realized that protected areas, if isolated, cannot achieve their objective of sustaining natural functioning and diversity. Nature has to be complete in order for its ecosystems to function. For this it is necessary to manage large extensions dedicated to conservation that are interconnected. The concept of isolated refuges has shifted to one of corridors. Paradoxically, a group of islands is united by that which separates them. If we can mitigate the resistance to the exchange of genetic material between these islands we have then achieved a corridor status. At the same time, in order to reach this objective there is a necessity to manage ecosystems as integers. The biological limitations of these ecological archipelagos are coupled to problems that exceed the reach of biology, since the management of entire ecosystems implies the accommodation the best possible mosaic between stakeholders of diverse interests that are superposed in a very complex way with the objectives of conservation.

Consensus is the most desirable attitude to achieve these conservation objectives at an ecosystem scale. This does not mean, however, that a consensus will coincide exactly with the ecologically correct decisions in every single grid of the mosaic, since the consensus finds its limits where the diffuse collective interests of stakeholders imply restrictions on individual ones.

Paraphrasing Garrett Hardin, we could argue that the ‘I-here-now" has a vast preference over the weaker "All-there-after". This "law of the human footprint" is the one which has ultimately structured the present world map and its tendencies.

Taking this law into account, it becomes evident that the State (representing us all, everywhere and in the long term) is the integrating tool for the above-mentioned mosaic, whose main concrete objective is tragically paradoxical: to impede—in representation of humankind—that humankind be what it is; a necessity of restraining individuals for coexistence to be possible.

It has been irrefutably demonstrated that internal and external pressures will eventually transform a natural area under no conservation management of any sort. How much of the world’s wild areas are actually safe from the pressures of transformation? In a recent study, my research group demonstrated that the total area under strict conservation without any kind of pressure from its surroundings is around 8% in Latin America (out of a total of 1511 protected areas studied). This is obviously insufficient to carry out functions such as preservation of biological diversity, endemisms and ecosystem processes crucial to human and natural economy: soil fertility, global temperature regulation and provision of water. If the remaining 92% depends—to any degree—on achieving a consensus between conservationist agendas and the surrounding social entities, the core question to this essay is: to what extent can the State maintain a set of correct ecological decisions while respecting such a consensus?

The problem is not a simple one: there seems to be an inverse proportionality between that which is politically correct and that which is ecologically so. In today’s world, the nature conservation movements find themselves in a crossroads, where two extreme myths or beliefs are dialectically opposed: 1) it is impossible to establish effective conservation with people; 2) it is impossible to establish effective conservation without people. It is not hard to guess that the coexistence of these two approaches generates a great amount of confusion within conservationist policies. This gives way to the bewildering fact that the engine driving the history of conservation has become a dialectic between abuse and inexperience.

The abuse factor is clearly exemplified by the first blunders committed during the periods of land occupation and subsequent territorial designation. Protected areas—preceded by a history of usurpation and genocide at a regional scale—find themselves in conflict with the rights of the original inhabitants who were forcedly displaced from them. At this end of the spectrum, the unviability put forward by myth 1 is understandable, since in the memories of the usurped there is a "karma" against conservation, as a symbol of imposition by a foreign enemy who expelled them from their native lands.


The extreme of conservation
with managed resources
or "parks for people"

The pressures to return to the use of the natural resources of their native forests, valleys and prairies (also understandable) swell up in the public conscience to a point where myth 2 becomes valid. Consequently, when the State grants the lands, these people’s lack of conservationist priorities within their subsistence practices (again, understandable as well as justifiable) tends to re-validate myth 1, and so the dialectic continues. And from the libraries, Hegel will be shouting, "I told you so!".

The inexperience factor consists of presuming that the debts of abuse can be paid merely by creating protected areas. This is a short-term demagogic approach that compromises the public’s right to live in a healthy environment, endangers the planet’s inhabitability and—worst of all—doesn’t repay the debt of a shameful injustice of continental dimensions! To cover up errors with more errors doesn’t seem to be the wisest road to a fair, ethnically integrated society that is in concord with its ecosystem; it is more like a road to the political positioning of a few opportunistic individuals who take advantages of the dynamics of consensus. In this way they favor the process of deconstruction of the State towards a reversal into territorial tribalization.

Nowadays, a "Hegelian end to history" is being pursued, resolving the dialectic with a paradigm shift with respect to the priority of functions that a protected area must perform. The paradigm known as protectionist, which defends the necessity of strict conservation, is being replaced by a paradigm that is more socio-environmentalist that prioritizes the social functions of conservation, under the main banner of sustainable development. Along these lines the idea has therefore been put forward that strict protected areas are not viable in situations of high social pressures, because people do not want them. This argument is as dangerous as stating that traffic lights are not viable on corners where traffic is excessive and consensus is that they be removed, because people do not want to stop when the lights are red for them.

As a consequence of these tendencies, the promises of this so-called sustainable development are being carried out in areas under the category of ‘managed resources’. In most cases, buffer or reserve areas are open to human exploitation, without it being possible to differentiate them (as pertains to conservation objectives) with purely productive establishments outside the parks. This is an important point: if sustainable development is useful to correct an pre-existent development, mitigating the environmental damages and making it more efficient than before, then… congratulations. But if the sustainable development is masked by a new utopia to be able to dig into previously unavailable natural resources, then the ally becomes the traitor.

Protected areas should sustain the functions they were created for, and the supposed objectives of sustainable development should be implemented across the rest of the planet. But this is not the case: the rest of the planet is being devastated at an alarming rate and protected areas are gradually relaxing their limits. The decay of wildlife is not a sacrifice necessary for society’s wellbeing, let us not kid ourselves: the devastation of natural resources advances as swiftly as hunger, inequality and poverty. As in the times of "evangelization", nature is again being pushed to the unproductive corners of the world, responding to discourses that are camouflaged in beautiful words such as equality, welfare, democracy, humanity, but that in actual fact turn out to be an elegant justification for the scavenging and greed of the globalized market. It is largely in "areas of freedom" that the human footprint has advanced the most. If natural areas become "freed" from the care of the State, their future is directly proportional to the time taken by the (free) markets to reach their resources (and the ethnic groups that inhabit them). With the tremendous confusion that exists at present, the daft idea that indigenous people are enemies of conservation has become quite trendy. On the contrary, both cultural and natural diversity are threatened by the same enemy: it is a giant that advances at a huge step. It is so gigantic that it is invisible at a local scale. If it were up to this giant, there would not be a single square meter of land left outside its grasp.

Returning to the subject of new utopias and taking into account that the planet’s sustainable production capacity to feed the human species was reached and exceeded ca. 1978 (and this is without considering the energetic demands of other species), rather than "sustainable development" we should be referring to a "reasonable reversal". Reversal is reasonable because it seeks to replace the impending catastrophic and irrational scenario typical of shipwrecks. It is essential to implement a program of reduction of the human footprint, both in quantity as in intensity. This applies to us all.

An environmentally plausible human society must be much smaller and have a completely different attitude towards nature—a Copernican one. This consists of removing humankind from the epistemological centre in conservationist discourses (as Foucault requests).

There are portions of ecosystems where nature must be complete in order to function, and that do not need or resist human presence. We humans need space to sustain our wellbeing (and protected areas have much to offer), but it is unviable to presume that we need the entire planet for productive activities. It has already become evident that if we do not limit our humongous appetite, even an entire planet is not enough. Because human economy would not be possible either if we do not allow nature to function correctly: the dialectic is resolved when understanding that the only way to adapting to a plausible future is to cede spaces in a mosaic of coexistence.

At this crossroads that we are analyzing, we see that one of the main problems, which the State must address, to carry out effective conservation in a mosaic of coexistence is the tension that exists between public and individual interests. Individuals prioritize their interests in the short term and in the reduced environment of the convenience of their group. This—the law of the human footprint—is the main tragedy in ecology. Hobbes’ assertion in the 17th century "homo homini lupus" is hard to refute when looking back into history. If humans destroy each other in defense of their own interests, it would be ingenuous to expect a majority’s consensus to be concerned about other species, for generations still to come or for what—roughly—might occur to the planet in future scenarios. It is very hard to get present generations to give up even a small amount of its present welfare for the sake of a better future. This conduct characteristic of survival of the present fittest is ‘reasonable’ if we base it on a demolishing argument: as the bearing of time as a variable is unidirectional the present is in no way dependent on what might come to be in the future. In other words, what has the future done for us for us to have to do something for it? However, as the philosopher Sergio Cecchetto put it, given that the inverse relationship is opposite (in a cause-and-effect sense), the irresponsible behavior of past generations has led to ‘that future’ becoming present in our every day life. Ecologically sound projects at a global scale, such as the maintenance of ecological functioning, exceed the lifetime of the present generation. It is evident that the State must make decisions for the common good, at a global scale and in the long term, because future survival depends on this. Nevertheless—as Ortega & Gasset state in The Revolt of the Masses—the government lives the day, hiding in the present, avoiding each hour’s conflict without resolving it, imposed upon by the urgent circumstances of the moment, neither delving into the future nor constructing anything for long-term survival, even if its opportunities to do so are vast.

This evolutionary lesson on future survival has been learnt already—by animals. Africa termites, for example, build extraordinary constructions with ducts to regulate the temperature in their interior, release the excess of carbon dioxide, with farms, incubators, and routes and rooms to accommodate a horde of millions of termites. This construction, which guarantees the survival of the colony for both present and future periods, far exceeds the duration of any one termite’s lifetime. With no plans, State, science or intelligence, they have achieved a successful social work of unparalleled complexity, not even by humans if corrected for scale. It is a paradox that the best examples of ecologically and evolutionary correct decisions for the long term be represented by individuals without the slightest capacity to reason or choose between alternative decisions via a voting system. The same example is valid for ants, the intestinal bacterial system or even bee colonies.

Six billion humans, equipped with a brain thousands of times larger than that of a bee or a termite, prioritize the interests of the individual above the collective ones and risk our own survival in doing so; and with it, the survival of many other species. As we are incapable of self-organizing ourselves to maintain the adequate inhabitable conditions of our planet, we need an emerging order that will allow us to adapt to a planet we no longer fit in. This order is the State.

What can we do? In the struggle for the conservation of nature we confront an enemy that is gigantic to our land and people, and who is personified by this overdose of globalizing neo-liberalism. Political scientists are talking about the end of history following the lack of alternatives to this devastating force. It’s done, we’re done, they say. Not so: from the humus in the forests rises a new force, an alternative that will allow us to survive in coexistence with other species, to safeguard the remnants of the world we want, through solid conservation policies. We are minute against such a giant, as minute as a bee against a galloping rhinoceros. On our own we are unable, and even more so when standing up against each other like a leaderless pack of wolves. We must unite to pressurize the State to fulfill its functions for the greater common good and our future survival. For this, in chronological order, we need to: 1) have quality knowledge, 2) act to ignite the public conscience upon the real and serious bases weaved from point 1, 3) mobilize the masses to push the government towards taking ecologically sound decisions, and 4) create and enforce the necessary laws. An isolated and unorganized bee, up against a rhinoceros, will end up squashed. But a swarm of laborious interconnected bees can sting a rhinoceros and drive it off a cliff. It is what we must do. To paraphrase Hamlet, when facing the corpse of our extinct species alongside countless others, we could say: To be a bee, this is the question.

The paradigm of integrated ecosystem management as a game of forces between conservation
and development, pursuing the best possible mosaic (Illustrations by Ana Monjeau)