Conservation theory

  • Understanding socio-ecological systems as an integrated whole could be a promising theoretical base for conservation
- KAMAL RAJ GAIRE
Conservation theory

Jul 2, 2014-

The government’s recent decision to act decisively on the conservation of Nepal’s Chure region has been followed by a wave of excitement across political and social divides. The Chure range extends from the eastern to the western border of the country and is home to many ethnicities, languages and cultures. It is considered a biodiversity hotspot and supports the livelihood of a large number of people.

Efforts to preserve the Chure are among the very few instances in Nepal when the government has been proactive about natural resource conservation without instigation from donors; of course, other than some obvious Indian concerns. One key reason for this may be that this time around, people have visibly experienced the cost of degradation and have realised the importance of informed Chure conservation. While there is widespread unanimity on the need to act, the way the decision was made has been questioned by some quarters, including some sections of community forest users’ groups. The key concern being raised is if there will be enough space for people’s participation and other local socio-economic aspects in this new conservation initiative.

Political ecology

Amidst the failure of past governance regimes to protect the Chure from wide scale exploitation, a new Committee has been set up to take charge. It is critical that past gaps or failings in natural resource management theories and practices from Nepal and developing countries in general be considered before the committee undertakes its works.

The newly formed High Level Chure Tarai Madhes Conservation Committee, I assume, is privy to the fact that that there is no alternative to people’s genuine participation when it comes to forest management. We had a failed ‘conservation narrative’ in the 70s when the state alone sought technological fixes by establishing protected areas that excluded local people in conservation planning, implementation processes and resource sharing.

This top down approach failed to address key social issues of natural resource management. These issues are related to resolving power issues, providing solutions to the notoriously escalating process of marginalisation and supporting local livelihoods while conserving ecology. In order to address these issues, scholars like Piers Blaikie and Paul Robbins refined the ‘sustainable livelihoods’ approach as accommodating ecological as well as social concerns (including social justice) to develop an approach known as ‘political ecology’.

Political ecology attempts to combine the basic premises of human ecology with the fundamentals of political economy. At root, political ecology is designed to focus on the intersections of structural, political forces and ecological dynamics, although there are many variations. Many natural resource conservation attempts around the developing word have borrowed ideas from political ecology in their attempts to balance ecology with social justice issues. Nepal’s community forestry programme along with recent endeavours in buffer zone programmes also have elements that draw up on ideas from this body of literature.

Failing in the Chure

But with experience in hand of putting these ideas into practice, it is getting more and more clear that this approach too has been inadequate when it comes to conserving Nepal’s Chure region. Community forestry programmes have largely failed in the Chure region in their equally important two objectives of natural resource conservation and livelihood enhancement; not to mention the top down management regimes being enacted at ‘protected conservation areas’ in some parts of the Chure range.

Many independent studies have indicated that elites control many of our community forests. This forest governance system, until recently, was lauded globally as one of the most participatory. Some experts in Nepal’s community forestry have expressed their frustrations that conventional forms of power and authority endure in Nepal’s community forestry, signalling the need for a fresh new effort on both fronts: conservation and social justice.

Scholars list a number of reasons for this failure in Nepal’s conservation efforts. Key reasons are Nepal’s lingering political instability, systemic corruption and compartmentalisation of government efforts. And these are not just Nepal specific problems. They are common to many resource poor developing countries. In addition to these genuine problems, evidences from all over the developing world show that there is an intrinsic lacuna in theories underpinning natural resource management.

One key shortcoming is that despite promise in principle to balance ecology with political economic issues, the ecological aspect is increasingly getting less and less attention in practice. Nepal is no exception in this regard. As a result, many scholars have now questioned the ability of these approaches to do justice to ecology. This failure has prompted many scholars to call for a more balanced yet powerful approach to natural resource management.

Social-ecological systems

Sustainability is now a prime focus of development. The sustainable development agenda attempts to combine livelihood concerns, the priorities of local people and global concerns with environmental issues.

One promising new idea being used to explore these issues is the ‘social-ecological systems’approach with its theoretical base in resilience theory. A social-ecological systems perspective aims to give equal weight to social and ecological systems and understands them as an integrated whole. It envisions social and ecological systems as coupled, with problems in one system affecting the other. It promotes collective community actions, democratic and decentralised natural resource governance, believes in the diversity of livelihoods and above all, puts in efforts to conserve natural resources so that we can successfully hand them over to the next generation.

The social-ecological systems approach provides a theoretical foundation to practice active learning and pursue adaptive management processes—a management process very few would disagree that Chure conservation efforts today need the most. The social-ecological systems approach is criticised for failing to properly integrate power-related issues; however, this deficiency can be resolved by drawing from political ecology, as has been successfully done in many areas.

As leading political ecologist Fiona Miller asserts, political ecology largely focuses on actors within systems and associated processes and negotiations, decision making and actions whereas social-ecological systems approaches can potentially complement this by examining the interaction of social and ecological processes. A social-ecological lens therefore, provides the opportunity to integrate these systemic considerations in natural resource management with an appreciation of the agency of actors and political economic structures. An integrated social-ecological framework that combines these two theoretical positions should provide an effective guide to the Committee’s Chure conservation efforts.

Gaire is pursuing a PhD at the Melbourne School of Land and Environment, Australia

Published: 03-07-2014 09:02

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