How Neoliberal Conservation Fails Forward

Market-based conservation instruments’ continual “failing forward” exposes the naked emperor of an unsustainable capitalism. Post-capitalist degrowth is our only salvation.

By Robert Fletcher, Wageningen University

A recent Guardian article claims that the vast majority of forest caron offset projects managed by one prominent firm, Verra, have, despite more than one billion euros of investment over more than a decade, produced no “genuine carbon reductions”. This is merely the latest in a long line of similar concerns raised about such so-called “market-based instruments” (MBIs) for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. In 2017, for instance, Rainforest Foundation UK asserted that despite a similar amount of investment and timeframe, World Bank support of the popular REDD+ (Reduced Emissions through avoided Deforestation and forest Degradation) mechanism had “not yet prevented a single gram of forest carbon from entering the atmosphere.” Similar examples could be multiplied endlessly.

Notwithstanding such concerns, however, almost every prominent organization in the world concerned with conservation has enthusiastically endorsed MBIs, from international financial institutions like the World Bank and Global Environment Facility to intergovernmental bodies like UNEP and UNDP to NGOs including Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund, and many others. Moreover, the recently finalized Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework intended to guide conservation efforts worldwide over the next decade continues to promote MBIs as one of its central tools.

Unveiling the Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation  at the 2016 World Conservation Congress, Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo credit: IISD/ENB Diego Noguera.

Failing Forward

In my new book Failing Forward: The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Conservation, I outline and analyze this long history of MBIs’ promotion despite their significant shortcomings.

As the title suggests, I describe this as a process of “failing forward,” whereby one new MBI is rolled out after the next, each with the promise to compensate for the deficiencies of the previous and thereby achieve even bigger and better results for “people, planet and profit” simultaneously.

Supporting people, planet and profit simultaneously: The triple bottom line: Source:

And when each new MBI proves to be similarly problematic as the previous, this deficiency is typically explained away with a series of predictable arguments, from the lack of “political will” to implement it properly to the fact that (notwithstanding three decades of activity) it is still only “early days” in MBIs’ development. In this way, the expectation of future success can be sustained whatever the reality of present failure.

As if to directly illustrate this analysis, after initially disputing the Guardian’s findings, Verra has since pivoted to announce that it will terminate its current offset projects to develop a new methodology to govern future projects more effectively.  

Saving nature by selling It?

MBIs’ fundamental logic, consistent with the neoliberal reasoning in which they are grounded, holds that if conservation can be shown to generate more profit than the resource extraction it seeks to combat, basic economic rationality will direct investment into the former rather than the latter, and global markets will follow suit by allocating capital to conservation in an escalating virtuous cycle. Yet in practice, it has proven extremely for difficult MBIs to outcompete extractive industry in pure market terms.

While this difficulty is also consistently explained away as merely a problem of implementation (“getting the market right”), my analysis suggests that it is actually due to MBIs’ basic nature. Extractive industry, after all, generates profit by externalizing environmental and social costs, the very things MBIs try to internalize to reconcile sustainability with economic gain. As a result, the sustainability they pursue limits the revenue MBIs are able to generate. Even more damning, MBIs are usually funded precisely by offsetting extractive industry itself. Paradoxically and perversely, therefore, expansion of MBIs also requires resource extraction to expand. And if this is the case, then MBIs must inevitably fail in their aims.

Catastrophic but not serious

Why, then, do so many powerful organizations and actors continue to stake the future of our planet on neoliberal conservation instruments that are surely doomed to fail? While cynics may assert that few proponents really believes that MBIs will work – that this is really just a form of greenwashing allowing corporations to get on with business-as-usual – in my research I have encountered many really smart and successful people who appear to genuinely believe in MBIs’ potential. Many of them have, indeed, given up much more lucrative careers in other sectors to pursue something they feel is in the greater good.

To try to make sense of all of this, I turned to Lacanian psychoanalysis, which has made strong inroads into social science recently largely due to the tireless work of Slavoj Žižek. From a Lacanian perspective, proponents of neoliberal conservation mechanisms can be understood as akin to a smoker who is able to continue their addiction in the present despite its well-known harmful impacts by convincing themselves that they will indeed quit and redress the damage caused at some point in the future. In this way, as Žižek phrases it, we can continue to act as if our current situation is “catastrophic, but not serious.”

The fantasy of sustainable capitalism

At its heart, I believe, what neoliberal conservation is ultimately about is supporting the possibility of decoupling: that environmental impacts can be divorced from economic growth and hence that the latter can be sustained indefinitely. It is precisely the economic gain through so-called “non-consumptive” resource use that neoliberal MBIs promise that allows faith in decoupling to be sustained. In this way, the venerable critique asserting fundamental biophysical limits to growth can be countered and the fantasy of a sustainable global capitalism maintained.

But if MBIs and other forms of fictitious capital don’t work, then widespread decoupling is impossible, capitalism is inherently unsustainable, and consequently degrowth coupled with dramatic wealth redistribution becomes the only viable way to reconcile social justice with sustainability. And given that capitalism is an economic system relying on continual growth to overcome intrinsic contradictions, genuine degrowth must necessarily be post-capitalist as well. In the realm of biodiversity governance, this entails pursuit of what elsewhere Bram Büscher and I have labelled convivial conservation.

Degrowth. Warsaw, Poland. Photo credit: Paul Sableman.

Transcending capitalism will certainly not solve all of the daunting problems confronting us. But it is a good place to begin.

Author Bio:
Robert Fletcher is Associate Professor of Sociology of Development and Change at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He is the author of Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism (Duke University Press, 2014) and Failing Forward: The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Conservation (UC Press, 2023), and co-author of The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature beyond the Anthropocene (Verso, 2020).

Conservation, culture, and consciousness: awakening to a re-imagined vision of nature co-existence

Cebuan Bliss, Radboud University

Conservation, culture, and consciousness: awakening to a re-imagined vision of nature co-existence

Do you have a personal ritual in nature? A place where you feel particularly connected and in awe of the intricacy of it all? Perhaps there is a special tree under which you seek solace, or a walk you take at sunrise just to hear the dawn chorus of birds. This is not unusual, as humans we have revered the natural world in our cultural and spiritual traditions throughout time. Nature is recognised as essential for our physical and psychological health (White et al., 2019). However, awareness of its necessity for our spiritual health has been lacking, especially outside of traditional contexts. But this is changing, and it is likely to benefit conservation too.

Conservation programmes historically relied on the ecological and natural sciences to achieve their desired outcomes, such as the recovery of a particular ecosystem or species, sometimes at the expense of certain displaced groups of humans and non-human entities. For example, the ‘fortress conservation’ model where parks are fenced off and local people excluded. The narrative in recent decades has become more inclusive of traditional beliefs and practices, understanding them as advantageous to conservation (Hill et al., 2020). This ontological turn requires more direct engagement with and explicit acknowledgement of indigenous knowledge (Todd, 2016). Nevertheless, more can be done to re-awaken a sacred awe for nature, not only in traditional settings, but also in modern cities and developed countries, where many have become disconnected from the natural world. Doing so may enhance conservation outcomes in a more ethical and equitable manner.

This so-called awakening of consciousness, encompassing new, re-imagined or personal spiritual practices is already occurring.  For example, growing numbers of people are embracing plant medicine (which includes the likes of ayahuasca and psilocybin-containing ‘magic’ mushrooms) to heal themselves and to connect to a higher spiritual dimension (Gandy et al., 2020). With the psychedelic decriminalisation movement gaining ground in the United States, this age of ‘awakening’ looks set to continue. Certain modern mindfulness techniques are also practiced for and within nature (Willard, 2020). People exploring such practices often develop a profound sense of connection with the natural world, which encourages them to protect and restore biodiversity within their own environ and beyond (Gandy, 2019).

Preparation for plant medicine ceremony, Netherlands, July 2019 (photo credit: James Calalang)

On fieldwork in the Netherlands, Kenya and South Africa, when asking different types of people who do not participate in traditional cultural practices whether they have a spiritual connection with nature, the answer was a resounding yes. Through such personal spiritual practices, people are becoming more conscious of their ecological footprint. Often these are individuals living in developed areas, whose consumption habits have a disproportional detrimental impact on biodiversity through the resources that have to be extracted from natural areas (often far from where they live), in order to produce the products they use (Wiedmann & Lenzen, 2018).

Consciousness calling

Concurrently, our understanding of consciousness – the ability to have subjective experiences – is evolving, and not just of our own. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states that ‘humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness’, non-human animals also possess this ability (Low et al., 2012). This will have implications for what is considered ethical practice in biodiversity conservation. For example, there is increasing recognition of non-human sentience, such as enshrined in Article 13 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty (EU, 2012). There is also growing awareness of the sentience of cephalopods like octopus (Birch et al., 2021), and even plants are said to have their own form of intelligence (Calvo et al., 2019).

This recognition has paved the way for ideas such as compassionate conservation, in which the lives of animal individuals are valued in conservation, as well as species as a whole (Ramp & Bekoff, 2015), and multi-species justice, which sees non-humans as worthy subjects of justice (Treves et al., 2019). In practice, it is argued that ‘a comprehensive conservation ethic should promote an ethics-of-care together with the codification and enforcement of animal claims so as to provide explicit ethical guidance in our mixed-community’ (Santiago-Ávila & Lynn, 2020). Furthermore, some are calling for the recognition of animal agency in conservation, where interventions could even be co-designed with the animals themselves (Edelblutte et al., 2022; Hathaway, 2015). For example, choosing where to place wildlife road crossings based on the preferred routes of the animals living in the area (Greenfield, 2021). This would represent a radical departure from the conservation norm.

Lion in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, February 2022. Photo taken by the author.

Additionally, as more people begin to sense the inter-relationality of natural systems and beings, the important role of emotion in conservation is coming to the fore. It is argued that emotion is not detrimental to conservation (preserving our life-sustaining ‘Gaian mother’ is inherently emotive) and emotion can even be utilised to enhance conservation outcomes (Batavia et al., 2021). Such developments inevitably encourage the promotion of ethical and equitable principles in conservation.

Equitable beyond humans

In terms of making conservation more equitable, at least for the humans involved, strides have already been made. The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) conceptual framework acknowledges different epistemological worldviews, including a spiritual dimension of ‘living-well in balance and harmony with mother earth’ (IPBES, n.d.).

Similarly, indigenous traditions and knowledge are recognised in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Post-2020 Framework, which is currently being finalised: ‘Recognition of intergenerational equity, including the transmission of knowledge, language and cultural values associated with biodiversity, especially by indigenous peoples and local communities’ (CBD, 2020).

In this wording, nevertheless, the spiritual dimension is omitted, and recognition of modern spiritual and cultural practices is missing. Therefore, at present, it seems that there is only tacit acknowledgement of more subjective worldviews. Lee et al. (2021) found in an analysis of leaders’ discourses at the CBD’s Conference of Parties (COP), that discourses which view nature as a spiritual entity were represented only marginally. Are we afraid to admit reverence for the scared in nature?

We needn’t be. Comprehending our relationality in this living system is prudent in order to secure ‘abundant futures’ for all (Collard et al., 2015). This could occur through a self-reflexive process of ‘worlding’; making plain and learning from the many ways we view the world, including in different spiritual dimensions (Inoue, 2018).

Poster at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, South Africa, April 2022. Photo taken by the author.

Some are pioneering this model of nature connectedness. For instance Londolozi, a private wildlife reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, is reimagining conservation through ‘consciousness awakening’ and partnership with nature (Londolozi, 2022).

Transformative conservation

Building a more holistic model of conservation which acknowledges and promotes humans’ innate connection to the earth is possible and there is scope for scholars to fill this research void, explicitly acknowledging and engaging with indigenous ontologies in the process. In striving for objective conservation science, we have often been working against our innate biophilia, or love for the natural world. Recognising the value of new and re-imagined cultural and spiritual practices, in addition to traditional beliefs, has the prospect of transforming conservation. This would have implications from an ethical perspective, for example in how we manage so-called ‘invasive alien’ species or ‘surplus’ animals.

As greater numbers of people embrace the spiritual dimension of nature, it may be possible to make conservation not only more effective in terms of protecting and restoring biodiversity, but more ethical and equitable for humans and non-humans alike. A question we may wish to ask ourselves is what sort of relationship do we want with nature?


Batavia, C., Nelson, M. P., Bruskotter, J. T., Jones, M. S., Yanco, E., Ramp, D., . . . Wallach, A. D. (2021). Emotion as a source of moral understanding in conservation. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.13689

Birch, J., Burn, C., Schnell, A., Browning, H., & Crump, A. (2021). Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans. Retrieved from

Calvo, P., Gagliano, M., Souza, G. M., & Trewavas, A. (2019). Plants are intelligent, here’s how. Annals of Botany, 125(1), 11-28. doi:10.1093/aob/mcz155 %J Annals of Botany


Collard, R.-C., Dempsey, J., & Sundberg, J. (2015). A Manifesto for Abundant Futures. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105(2), 322-330. doi:10.1080/00045608.2014.973007

Edelblutte, É., Krithivasan, R., & Hayek, M. N. (2022). Animal agency in wildlife conservation and management. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.13853

Consolidated version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,  (2012).

Gandy, S. (2019). From Egoism to Ecoism: Psychedelics and Nature Connection | Sam Gandy | TEDxOxford.

Gandy, S., Forstmann, M., Carhart-Harris, R., Timmermann, C., Luke, D., & Watts, R. (2020). The potential synergistic effects between psychedelic administration and nature contact for the improvement of mental health. Health psychology open, 7(2), 2055102920978123. doi:10.1177/2055102920978123

Greenfield, P. (2021, 29 December). Animal crossings: the ecoducts helping wildlife navigate busy roads across the world. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Hathaway, M. (2015). Wild elephants as actors in the Anthropocene. In T. H. A. Research (Ed.), Animals in the Anthropocene (Vol. 4, pp. 221-242): Sydney University Press.

Hill, R., Adem, C. i. d., Alangui, W. V., Molnár, Z., Aumeeruddy-Thomas, Y., Bridgewater, P., . . . Xue, D. (2020). Working with Indigenous, local and scientific knowledge in assessments of nature and nature’s linkages with people. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 43, 8-20. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2019.12.006

Inoue, C. (2018). Worlding the study of global environmental politics in the anthropocene: Indigenous voices from the Amazon. Global Environmental Politics, 18(4), 25-42. doi:10.1162/glep_a_00479

IPBES. (n.d.). Conceptual Framework. Retrieved from

Lee, S. H., Kang, Y. H., & Dai, R. (2021). Toward a More Expansive Discourse in a Changing World: An Analysis of Political Leaders’ Speeches on Biodiversity. Sustainability, 13(5), 2899. doi:10.3390/su13052899

Londolozi. (2022). A RISE OF CONSCIOUSNESS. Retrieved from

Low, P., Edelman, D., & Koch, C. (2012). The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Retrieved from

Ramp, D., & Bekoff, M. (2015). Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation. BioScience, 65(3), 323-327. doi:10.1093/biosci/biu223

Santiago-Ávila, F. J., & Lynn, W. S. (2020). Bridging compassion and justice in conservation ethics. Biological Conservation, 248, 108648. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108648

Todd, Z. (2016). An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism. 29(1), 4-22. doi:

Treves, A., Santiago-Ávila, F. J., & Lynn, W. S. (2019). Just preservation. Biological Conservation, 229, 134-141. doi:

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200 NGOs and experts warn against UN plan to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030

Contributed by Jonathan Mazower, Survival International

The One Planet Summit for biodiversity in Paris last month confirmed the agenda of many governments, and the conservation industry, to push ahead with a plan to place at least 30 percent of the Earth’s surface under conservation status by 2030.

Organized by France in cooperation with the UN and the World Bank, the summit launched the “High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People,” to drive progress towards the “30×30” target. 

But two hundred NGOs and experts have now signed a warning that the drive to increase global protected areas such as national parks could ruin the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and do nothing to preserve biodiversity.

In a letter to the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), the NGOs warn that as many as 300 million people could be dispossessed unless there are much stronger protections for the rights of indigenous peoples and other land-dependent communities.

Later this year, the Conference of Parties to the CBD is set to agree on the new 30×30 plan. It would double the current protected land area over the coming decade.

Many indigenous representatives, such as Archana Soreng of the Kharia tribe and Pranab Doley of the Mising people, have been campaigning against the 30% target. 

Together with Survival International, the global movement for the rights of tribal peoples, they’ve declared that it will constitute the biggest land grab in world history and reduce hundreds of millions of people to landless poverty. Survival’s campaign calls the plan the #BigGreenLie.

In many parts of the world a Protected Area is where the local people who called the land home for generations are no longer allowed to live or use the natural environment to feed their families, gather medicinal plants or visit their sacred sites. This follows the model of the United States’ nineteenth century creation of the world’s first national parks on lands stolen from Native Americans. Many US national parks forced the peoples who had created the wildlife-rich “wilderness” landscapes into landlessness and poverty.

This is still happening to indigenous peoples and other communities in Africa and parts of Asia. Local people are pushed out by force, coercion or bribery. They are beaten, tortured and abused by park rangers when they try to hunt to feed their families or just to access their ancestral lands. The best guardians of the land, once self-sufficient and with the lowest carbon footprint of any of us, are reduced to landless impoverishment and often end up adding to urban overcrowding.

Around the world, indigenous peoples are increasingly denouncing the conservation industry as a “source of threats and a source of violation of indigenous rights,” and repeatedly speak out against threats to evict them in the name of conservation.

Insights Invited COB 5/29 – Transformative Conservation in Social-Ecological Systems

Over the past year or so, a small team of us worked on a discussion paper on transformative conservation (click here to view/download) for the 2020 World Conservation Congress (now postponed to January 2021). (We are members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Commission on Ecosystem Management.) The paper will provide the basis for a few events at the Congress, and draws heavily on political ecology as well as resilience thinking.

In the paper we argue that transformative conservation

  • Rethinks the relationships between nature, society, individuals, and risk in light of nature’s contributions to people, equity and justice, and sustainable development goals;
  • Restructures systems to create durable change at large geographic, ecological, political-economic, and demographic scales; and
  • Ultimately conserves biodiversity while justly transitioning to net negative emissions economies and securing the sustainable and regenerative use of natural resources.

By close of business on Friday, May 29, we are inviting anyone interested to comment on the paper and provide insights. We welcome your input!

Read more

Biodiversity and the blind spot of nature conservation policy

By Esther Turnhout, Wageningen University

The IPBES Global Assessment has made clear that the causes of biodiversity loss are located outside of protected areas, yet this remains the focus of much of conservation policy. Addressing this blind spot is challenging, but necessary for effective and just biodiversity governance and nature conservation.

Read full essay

CfP POLLEN20 – ‘Defenders’, atmospheres of violence in conservation, extraction, and ‘sustainable’ development

Session organizers

If you are interested in contributing a paper, please send a title and abstract to Mary Menton ( by 15 November. If you would like to express interest or discuss the session proposal before sending an abstract, please get in touch with Mary, Philippe LeBillon ( and/or Peter Larsen (peter.larsen@unigh.che)

Session description

This session will address the atmospheres and dynamics of violence surrounding conservation and development projects. Global Witness reports have highlighted the murders of ‘environmental and land defenders’, recording 1748 killings since 2002. For every ‘defender’ murdered, thousands more are threatened, criminalised, and suffer attempts to repress their struggles. This session proposal, which complements the ‘Who/what is an environmental defender?’ panel proposal, explores the drivers and wider contexts of these murders, but also the different forms of violence experienced by environmental defenders, by those who fight for land rights, and other groups who fight against the powerful actors who perpetuate violence against them. We invite papers that explore these issues in the context of ‘sustainable’ development, ‘green’ development, conservation, or extractive industries.

CfP POLLEN20 – Prefiguring Indigeneity at Capitalist Frontiers: Conservation-Extractivism and Resource Making in the Age of Climate Change

Third Biennial Conference of the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN 20)
Contested Natures: Power, Possibility, Prefiguration
Brighton, United Kingdom
24-26 June 2020

Session organizers

Melis Ece, British Academy Newton International Fellow, School of Global Studies, Anthropology, University of Sussex, UK (

James Fairhead, Anthropology, University of Sussex, UK (

Madhuri Karak, Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow, Washington D.C., US (

This panel invites contributions of 300-500 words or less from academics and practitioners working in any geographical region. Please email your abstracts to Melis Ece ( and Madhuri Karak ( by November 20, 2019.

Session description

Resource conservation and extractivism increasingly merge in forested frontiers of the Global South as conservation becomes a ‘for profit’ endeavour linked to climate finance and climate commodity markets.  Extractive mining projects claim carbon or biodiversity offsets for ‘landscape restauration’ and, forest carbon conservation projects aim at “revenue-generating” via carbon credits and extractive activities.

Although they commodify and financialize different ‘bits and pieces of nature’ (McAffee 2015, Sullivan 2013, Leach and Scoones 2015), extractivism and conservation share many similarities. They both create enabling conditions for resource grabbing (Fairhead et al. 2012; Borras et al. 2011; Kelly 2015; Kay 2018). Yet, neither of them can be considered to simply commodify ‘natural’ resources, as both depend greatly on ‘resource-making processes’ that bring together or “assemble” specific governance and market relations and a wide array of actors in the creation and valuing of ‘resources’ (Li 2004; Corson et al. 2019).

Recent work in political ecology has focused on the importance of material qualities of the resource-in-the making (Bakker and Bridge 2006) as well as on the production of ‘socio-natural resource commodities’, shaped by ‘situated histories’ of violent territorialisations, primitive accumulation, and privatization (Peluso 2012).  Less discussed are the ways in which notions of indigeneity, autochthony and belonging are brought into this assemblage, whether in the creation and valuation of resources or dialectically in prefiguring counterstrategies against market-based conservation and extractivism.

Notions of indigeneity (or autochthony) have long been important tropes in the governance of peoples and resources in variegated colonial and postcolonial, national histories and geographies of the Global South. They have played a key role in framing and re-organizing “natural resources,” re-shaping local relations with the natural world and in re(constructing) territorialized conceptions of belonging.  In the era of climate “crisis”, the place of indigeneity has intensified as a central aspect of resource making. Those driving ‘resource making’ in accordance with market prerogatives do not only seek to make the resources legible to capital (Robertson 2006) and to the state (Scott 1998). They also endeavour to render extractive or conservation regimes legitimate and persuasive. In this context, the existence of an ‘indigenous’ community with legitimate claims may help conservation and extractive initiatives claim ‘inclusivity’, drawing the community itself into assemblages that ‘make resources.’ However, indigeneity may also become a sign post around which community counter-claims and counter-strategies are prefigured and enacted.

This panel invites papers to reflect on one or more of the following questions:

  • In what ways has indigeneity and its experience become entangled in resource making processes, assemblages and practices?
  • What new challenges are faced by peoples positioned (cf. Hall 1995, Li 2000) as indigenous/autochthonous when drawn into assemblages that are rendering their environment as a resource.
  • What forms of exclusion, erasure and conflicts are being enacted as a result of indigenous peoples’ recruitment into market-based assemblages of conservation-extractivism?

CfP POLLEN20 – Decolonizing Conservation in Theory and Praxis

The Third Biennial Conference of the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN20)
Contested Natures: Power, Possibility, Prefiguration
Brighton, United Kingdom
24-26 June 2020

Session organizers

Megan Youdelis (University of Guelph) & Justine Townsend (University of Guelph).

Please send abstracts of 250 words or less to Megan Youdelis ( and Justine Townsend ( no later than November 18th. Presenters accepted for the paper session will need to register for the conference and upload their abstracts by November 22nd.

Session description

Conservation enclosures led by states, NGOs, and industry have too often served to expand the territorial control of colonial and modern nation states while alienating and displacing Indigenous communities from their traditional territories (Agrawal and Redford, 2009; Stevens, 2014; West et al., 2006). Such fortress-style enclosures stem from colonial ontologies that understand humans as external to non-human nature with no direct positive role to play within their ecosystems (Adams and Mulligan, 2003; Cronon, 1996). In addition to entrenching poverty and negatively impacting Indigenous cultures and identities, the establishment of protected areas in territories long managed by Indigenous communities has been shown to result in adverse environmental effects, such as increased deforestation and loss of biodiversity (Armitage, 2002; Roth, 2008; West, 2006). As commercial entities, conventional conservation models have also supported an unsustainable capitalist political economy of conservation while foreclosing alternatives (Coulthard, 2014; Youdelis et al., Forthcoming).

Attempts to incorporate Indigenous peoples into conventional management models through either co-management, community-based natural resource management, or market-based approaches to conservation have also been critiqued for replicating colonial power relations and patterns of dispossession (Mabee and Hoberg, 2006; Dressler and Roth, 2011: Sandlos, 2014). In order to foster truly emancipatory sustainabilities, what will be required is nothing short of a foundational shift away from colonial conservation strategies towards conservation models and practice rooted in Indigenous knowledge systems, designed in accordance with Indigenous law and through relationships forged in Ethical Space (see Crowshoe and Ermine, 2014; ICE, 2018).

Fortunately, we have some indications of what such Indigenous-led conservation mechanisms might look like, as Indigenous communities around the world assert their sovereignty and care for their territories in ways that restore and protect ecological diversity and cultural identity. Indigenous nations around the world have been declaring Indigenous-led conservation areas in ways that challenge the colonial politics of recognition (Coulthard, 2014; Godden and Cowell, 2016; ICCA Consortium, n.d.; Murray and King, 2012). These spaces are declarations of sovereignty and may facilitate language and cultural revitalization, conservation of cultural keystone species, protection of the land for future generations, and the creation of reciprocal conservation economies.

In this session we invite papers that interrogate what decolonizing conservation will entail, both theoretically and materially. We also invite explorations into, and examples of, cross-cultural and decolonial collaborations, and expressions of allyship in support of Indigenous-led conservation. Finally, we invite critical analysis on the rise of Indigenous-led conservation within the broader colonial/capitalist political economy.

  • Relevant topics include, but are not limited to:
  • Case studies of decolonial conservation
  • Decolonial ontologies of conservation
  • Reconciliation through conservation
  • Indigenous nationhood, sovereignty, and leadership
  • Indigenous-led governance models
  • Biocultural conservation and outcomes
  • Conservation as resistance
  • Conservation economies
  • Settler allyship
  • Legislation and policy
  • Challenges to, and opportunities for, implementation
  • Indigenous law and knowledge systems


Adams,W. M., and M. Mulligan, Decolonizing nature strategies for conservation in a postcolonial era. London; Sterling, VA: Earthscan Publications, 2003.

Agrawal, A., and K. Redford, “Conservation and displacement: An overview,” Conserv. Soc., vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 1–10, 2009.

Armitage, D., “Socio-institutional dynamics and the political ecology of mangrove forest conservation in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia,” Glob. Environ. Chang., vol. 12, pp. 203–217, 2002.

Coulthard, G., Red skin, white masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Cronon, W., Uncommon ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. W.W. Norton & Co, 1996.

Crowshoe, R., and Ermine, “Honoring our knowledge gifts: Aboriginal research symposium,” in Ethical space as ceremony: Between worldviews (keynote address), 2014, p. November 14.

Dressler, W., and R. Roth, “The Good, the Bad, and the Contradictory: Neoliberal Conservation Governance in Rural Southeast Asia,” World Dev., vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 851–862, 2011.

Godden, L. and S. Cowell, “Conservation planning and Indigenous governance in Australia’s Indigenous Protected Areas,” Restoration Ecology, vol. 24, no. 5, pp. 692–697, 2016.

“ICC A Consortium.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Oct-2019].

Indigenous Circles of Experts (ICE), We Rise Together: Achieving Pathway to Canada Target 1 through the creation of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in the Spirit of Practice of Reconciliation. The Indigenous Circle of Experts’ Report and Recommendations., no. March. 2018.

Little Bear, L., E. Carlson, T. Tatsey, H. Augere, P. Fox, and K. Aune, “Innii Initiative: ‘Blackfoot and Buffalo’ – Ecosystem Restoration and Cultural Repatriation.” 2014. 50.

Mabee, H. S., and G. Hoberg, “Equal partners? Assessing comanagement of forest resources in clayoquot sound,” Soc. Nat. Resour., vol. 19, no. 10, pp. 875–888, Nov. 2006.

Murray, G. and L. King, “First Nations values in protected area governance: Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks and Pacific Rim National Park Reserve,” Hum. Ecol., vol. 40, pp. 385–395, 2012.

Roth, R., “‘Fixing’ the forest: The spatiality of conservation conflict in Thailand,” Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr., vol. 98, no. 2, pp. 373–391, 2008.

Sandlos, J., “National Parks in the Canadian north: Comanagement or colonialism revisited? Indigneous peoples, national parks, and protected areas,” in Indigneous Peoples, National Parks, and Protected Areas, S. Stevens, Ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014, pp. 133–149.

Stevens, S., Indigenous peoples, national parks, and protected areas. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014.

West, P., Conservation is our government now: The politics of ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

West, P., J. Igoe, and D. Brockington, “Parks and peoples: The social impact of protected areas,” Annu. Rev. Anthropol., vol. 35, no. 2006, pp. 251–277, 2006.

Youdelis, M., R. Nakoochee, C. O’neil, L. Lunstrum, and R. Roth, “Wilderness revisited: Is Canadian park management moving beyond the wilderness ethic?,” The Canadian Geographer, Forthcoming.

CfP POLLEN 20 – Papers, procedures, and plants: Expanding the political ecology of bureaucracy

Session organizers

Scott Freeman (American University) and Raquel Machaqueiro (George Washington University). Please, send your abstract (250 words) by October 25 to Scott Freeman ( and Raquel Machaqueiro (

Session description

Interdisciplinary political ecology has exposed environmental conservation efforts as a domain in which multiple conceptualizations of space, time, and nature intersect and are forged (Neumann 1998; Hughes 2005; West 2006). The institutions involved in these intersections are broad and varied: states, multi-laterals, non-governmental actors, grassroots organizations and combinations therein all contribute to the broad effects of conservation practice. What unites much of conservation practice, regardless of the organizations involved, is the negotiation and continuous deployment of bureaucracy.

In this panel, we interrogate the bureaucratic practices within conservation, and the social worlds that are produced as a result. Bureaucracies do not neutrally encounter an objective world, but interpret and create, defining problems and making them amenable to bureaucratic intervention (Barnett and Finnemore 2004). Accordingly, bureaucracies are machines for the production of documents, inscriptions which are then used to stabilize particular problematizations and interpretations of the world (Gupta 2012, Hull 2012). Such practices produce their own authority through regularity and repetition that may include the mundane filing of forms, ticking of boxes, or writing of formulaic reports according to standardized templates (Feldman 2008). In doing so, bureaucracies respond to calls for transparency, audit, or fiscal discipline, but may simultaneously produce social exclusion and precarity (Bear and Mathur 2015, Hetherington 2011). Rather than producing visibility, they may propagate secrecy and ignorances about the world (Weber 1973, Sanders and West 2003).

As bureaucracy comes to bare on conservation practice, new forms of environmental governance emerge and new social realms are produced. The needs of populations and their environmental problems are defined through environmental regulatory regimes (Goldman 2001). Yet the implementation of conservation through states is rarely monolithic. Environmental projects and policies are often faced with the “mundane set of everyday failures by local government” (Brockington 2007: 845), whose practices illuminate the inherent contradictory nature of state bureaucracies (Neumann 2001). In examining environmental bureaucracy, even the role of policy is limited, as bureaucratic forms like the project become far more important for implementers (Li 2016).

This panel explores both the many facets of bureaucracy and the conflicts, contestations, and negotiations that occur as bureaucratic governance unfolds. We hope to examine the way in which documents as well as soils and forests become sites for negotiation, and how practitioners as well as beneficiaries navigate projects. We are equally intrigued by the ways that time and space are forged through bureaucratic practices. In particular, we will address the following questions:

  • What kinds of powers, possibilities, and prefigurations are produced by bureaucracy within environmental conservation?
  • What types of ignorance, injustices, and irrationalities are produced by environmental bureaucracies?
  • What is the role of bureaucracy in the construction of “successful” environmental interventions?
  • How are space and time produced through the demands of documentation and measurement of conservation projects?
  • How are bureaucracies negotiated from within and outside of conservation organizations?

Papers may also address:

  • Bureaucratic expert knowledge (and its deployment)
  • Participation/enrollment of different stakeholders (practitioners, donors, local authorities, beneficiaries) in bureaucratic procedures
  • Forms of power/authority produced by bureaucratic procedures (including funding)
  • Intersection of bureaucracies and the role of market-based instruments in environmental governance
  • Audits and measurement in conservation practice


Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore. 2004. Rules for the World – International Organizations in Global Politics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Bear, Laura, and Nayanika Mathur. 2015. Introduction: Remaking the Public Good: A New Anthropology of Bureaucracy. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 33(1).

Brockington, Dan. 2007. “Forests, Community Conservation, and Local Government Performance: The Village Forest Reserves of Tanzania.” Society & Natural Resources 20 (9): 835–48.

Feldman, Ilana. 2008. Governing Gaza – Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine – “Development”, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Goldman, Michael. 2001. “Constructing an Environmental State: Eco-Governmentality and Other Transnational Practices of a ‘Green’ World Bank.” Social Problems 48 (4): 499–523.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2011.Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hughes, David McDermott. 2005. “Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area.” Cultural Anthropology 20 (2): 157–84.

Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of Paper – The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Li, Tania Murray. 2016. “Governing Rural Indonesia: Convergence on the Project System.” Critical Policy Studies 10 (1): 79–94.

Neumann, Roderick P. 2001. Africa’s ‘Last Wilderness’: Reordering Space for Political and Economic Control in Colonial Tanzania. Africa 71(04): 641–665.

Neumann, Roderick P. 1998. Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Weber, Max. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Gerth and Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

West, Harry G., and Todd Sanders. 2003. Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

West, Paige. 2006. Conservation Is Our Government Now – The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham and London: Duke University Press.