Feb. 9, 2005


By Lindsay Hitz

LEWISBURG, Pa. - Even as species disappear at an unprecedented rate in biodiversity hotspots, government, non-governmental, and community conservation efforts are being impeded by complex politics, said Peter Wilshusen, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bucknell University.

In the first presentation of the spring 2005 Faculty Colloquium Series, Wilshusen gave the presentation, "Contested Nature: The Hidden (and Not So Hidden) Politics of International Conservation and Development."

Based on more than a decade of personal experience in conservation projects, his goal was to highlight the hidden politics of global conservation efforts. "The political side tends not to figure explicitly in conservation planning efforts and that is where a lot of problems start to arise," he said.

Among the conservation areas Wilshusen discussed was Quintana Roo, Mexico, a region currently dominated by international tourism in Cancun, but with a significant forestry-based economy.

In this area, he said an important barrier to conservation planning was the local practice of informal lending in which funds were diverted in the form of loans to people for purposes not related to conservation. The practice, Wilshusen said, illustrates how common, everyday exchanges can be an obstacle to nature protection and community development. Such practices also can be invisible to conservation planners.

In Colombia, Wilshusen spoke about an internationally funded project to develop a biodiversity conservation strategy with local participation in one of the planet's richest biotic zones - the Chocó.

"The main complication with this project occurred when Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples demanded much greater participation in decision-making - in line with the project's initial formulation," he said.

"This forced the international conservation organizations involved to alter existing plans in order to compromise with the wishes of local people. While this process of negotiation resulted in delays and budget extensions, it allowed the project to go forward instead of stagnating."

Wilshusen said another factor impeding conservation efforts is the "difficult political dynamics" that can exist between international conservation organizations and authoritarian governments.

Citing his work experience in Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich nation in West Africa, there is what he called "pretend planning," in which authoritarian rule can reduce conservation strategy to a "continual process of planning with no results occurring on the ground."

Yet another set of political dynamics complicating conservation efforts stem from the practices of the so-called "BINGOs" - an informal reference to "big international non-governmental organizations." Recent charges from within the conservation community allege that groups like Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund can be hostile toward indigenous people by advocating a "people out" stance in which people are restricted from protected areas such as national parks.

Non-governmental organization conservation efforts, he added, also may be influenced by their partnering and fundraising efforts in combination with multi-national corporations.

He concluded by saying that because conservation efforts can be politicized through interactions between local governments, communities, and large organizations, conserving biodiversity hotspots is a highly complex equation.

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Lindsay Hitz, a first-year student majoring in political science, is a Presidential Fellow in the Communications Office at Bucknell.

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