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The moral arc of conservation.

A personal reflection on conservation's evolving engagement with human rights. A contribution from Dr Kent H. Redford.

“Change also came about at the turn of the last century because of the issue of justice. The arc of conservation was bending with the realization that our moral argument for the value of conserving biodiversity was seriously flawed if we ourselves were acting immorally towards people. Seeking one justice did not justify abrogating another. So conservation entered the period of accommodation, of self-examination, and of change. It was clear that we needed to seriously consider how our actions, taken in pursuit of conservation goals, affected the rights of the people impacted by those actions.”

In a speech entitled “Where do we go from here?” given in August, 1967 Martin Luther King said “let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”  

The practice of conservation has been following its own moral arc in the thirty years I’ve been involved in the field.  By now the story of the origin of the field is well-known: the former European and U.S. big-game hunters concerned about disappearing wildlife, particularly in Africa, started the movement that became the modern conservation movement.  This effort was joined by work in the U.S. that led to the creation of the modern national parks.  With the force of moral certainty and the perspective of white men in a still imperial world, the leaders of this movement seemed sure of the rightness of their actions, despite the fact that they were predominantly either dispossessing people from their lands in order to create parks and save animals or severely limiting the access of local peoples to natural resources that were necessary for their livelihoods.

I entered the story in what might be called the ‘early-modern’ period of conservation – the late 1980s.  For me the formative experience was visiting Monte Pascoal National Park in Brazil at a time when it was contested by the Brazilian Parks Agency and the Pataxó Indigenous people.  The park was said to be the first sign of land seen by the Portuguese when they discoveredBrazilon April 22, 1500 and it preserved a good chunk of the almost gone northern Atlantic forest.  The Pataxó, claiming the land, had seized part of the Park and cut down a chunk of its forest.  It seemed to me to be a losing hand for both parties and an example of what to avoid. 

With the help of several anthropologist colleagues I gained some field experience with different Amazonian indigenous peoples including the Kayapó (with Darrell Posey) and the Chimane and Yuqui (with Allyn Stearman).  My interest was in hunting and the impact of subsistence hunting on animal populations.  I saw how easy it was to overhunt slow-reproducing, large-bodied game species and how external pressures could easily lead small human communities to overhunt. With my perspective on hunting I found myself in disagreement with many people who were touting the sustainability of resource use by Amazonian peoples – all of whom were focused on plant resources.  Harvesting of animals just did not yield the same kind of positive sustainability results that plants did (or seemed to).  Meat was not the same as fruit or latex. 

This experience led me to write a piece called “The ecologically noble savage” (which got me my only hate letter).  The case I was trying to make was that the sustainability of resource harvesting by indigenous peoples could not be assumed to be an inherent quality of their cultures.  The impacts of harvesting were instead a product of internal and external forces that changed over time.  To assume that indigenous peoples were inherently conservationists, I wrote, was to saddle them with an externally imposed view that was not consistent with their changing cultures.   This view was not popular with many of my colleagues who wanted, and needed, to believe that somewhere, someone knew how to sustainably use natural resources.  And it must exist in the Amazon! 

About this time I left the University of Florida where I had been on the faculty and joined The Nature Conservancy in 1993, the beginning of almost 20 years spent in conservation NGOs.  Part of my job was to manage the large USAID-funded Parks in Peril program that worked at 20+ parks in Latin America and the Caribbean.  This work was built on what has been called the “U.S. model” of national parks with people mostly seen as a threat to the conservation work of the protected area.  Much of the conservation community was pushing this model though there were some early voices, including within the Program, maintaining that there were some threats to conservation targets that did not originate from local peoples and that excluding them might not solve the problem and, in fact, might create new problems. 

The argument in the conservation and development communities became pointed, personal and polarized.  You were either regarded as “pro-park-anti-people” or “pro-people-anti-conservation.”  The argument, mostly stoked by academics, made claims and counter-claims.  Social scientists, largely anthropologists maintained a set of elaborate claims that people living in remote settings – particularly tropical forests – were not only the best positioned to save the forests, but, in some cases were actually responsible for the diversity of the forest itself.  Rhetoric soared with “bullets and barbed wire” or “fences and fines” being the language used to describe those of us interested primarily in conservation.  The post-modern wave that informed many of these criticisms crested with conclusions as eccentric as that there was no such thing as nature anyway so our efforts were nonsensical. 

Then, in an unnoticed feat of legerdemain, the critiques of conservation as being anti-indigenous and anti-local people morphed into a critique of conservation as being anti-poor people. I am not sure what caused this refocusing and reframing on poor people but it was associated with the same global effort that gave birth to the Millennium Development Goals.  Conservation as a movement was harnessed to the goals of human development and nature became just another resource to be managed for poverty alleviation. 

Those, like me, who resisted this new focus on using conservation to alleviate poverty were charged with the same things as before.  The rhetoric was the same but the number of ‘victims’ of recalcitrant conservation had increased greatly as the global analyses proceeded apace detailing the crimes committed by parks with an asymmetry in which bad news was much easier to get published or publicized than good news.  This was typified by our efforts to address a particularly unfortunate set of claims that were being made and repeated about the impacts of protected areas on poor people in Central Africa.  It seemed easy for the author to keep publishing these claims despite their having been disproved.  Bad news always seems to sell better and travel faster. 

As all this was taking place – largely in the pages of academic journals - the mainstream U.S.-based practice of conservation gradually began to change.  It recognized that people were both good and bad for conservation depending on setting, history, politics, funding and all the other usual things that influence the world.  The change took place for many reasons, including the appreciation of a need to admit aspects of our past history and move on, the recruitment to the field of people with social science training, the clear evidence that local people were not always the source of the threat to conservation objectives, and the equally clear evidence that some of the ‘natural’ systems we were intent on saving were the result of past, and continuing human manipulation.  And then there were a growing number of cases where protected areas were being shown to be good for people and some indigenous groups had actually promoted the creation of new protected areas to help them achieve their own goals. 

Change also came about at the turn of the last century because of the issue of justice.  The arc of conservation was bending with the realization that our moral argument for the value of conserving biodiversity was seriously flawed if we ourselves were acting immorally towards people.  Seeking one justice did not justify abrogating another.  So conservation entered the period of accommodation, of self-examination, and of change.  It was clear that we needed to seriously consider how our actions, taken in pursuit of conservation goals, affected the rights of the people impacted by those actions.  

On a broad front, in many places, the issues of humans and human rights were raised in conservation organizations.  A few years ago Nick Winer and Dilys Roe invited me to represent the Wildlife Conservation Society (where I worked for 14 years) and attend a meeting held in London to see what global conservation NGOs were doing about human rights issues.  This meeting led to WCS hosting a meeting in New York to raise this issue primarily with the US-based conservation organizations.  A group of us, led by WCS, Kristen Walker-Painemilla of Conservation International and Jenny Springer of WWF-US decided that we needed to try to get our organizations to agree on a common set of principles on human rights and conservation. Our group, which included WCS, CI, WWF-US, The Nature Conservancy, IUCN, Birdlife International, Wetlands International, Fauna and Flora International, developed a set of standards that would be acceptable to all organizations  Not every institution was able to sign on to the same exact wording so there ended up being a family of standards, with WCS and Birdlife International developing a version that was tailored to their institutional needs.  But all versions committed the conservation organizations to respecting human rights principles, incorporating them in their work, and assessing their performance. 

There are several challenges to incorporating human rights perspectives into the work of conservation organizations.  These range from people who say that their job is to do conservation and that others elsewhere should worry about the people, to those who feel that incorporating human rights principles into their work will compromise the conservation outcomes.  Of course, there are also people who welcome such principles and have been working to apply them for years.   The challenge is going to be to move beyond simply adopting principles, to putting them into practice and demonstrating this work. This brings up the difficult issue of accountability and transparency.  Who should know when behavior within an organization has not followed the principles, and what should be done about it?  Can you convince others that your organization is adhering to principles without at the same time demonstrating complete transparency?  And how can you reward conservation practitioners who start adopting the new principles without punishing them for what they have yet to accomplish? These are questions that I am sure are not unique to conservation organizations and we have much to learn from the experience of others. 

Some good ideas conceived by human societies do not start out the right way.  Thus, with democracy, which originally was practiced by only men (excluding slaves and women) and only through hard-fought change was extended to all citizens.  And so with conservation, a good idea still striving for its best practice. But we’re getting better.  I am pleased to say that I think that conservation is aware of many of its previous failings and, although not achieving all it might, is on the right track.  The moral arc of conservation is bending towards justice.  Now we must work on the moral arc of development so that it bends towards a recognition of the importance of nature.  Twin arcs reaching towards justice for all. 

Kent H. Redford 

Kent has a career in academia at the University of Florida and in the NGO world at The Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society.  In January 2012 he left WCS to establish Archipelago Consulting (
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