Recognition in Biodiversity Conservation

I paste below the presentation I gave today at the British Ecological Society. You can find the accompanying slides here.

The text below includes many (sometimes altered) passages of the article cited below. All the authors of this article deserve credit for the argument and ideas developed here.

Martin, A., Dawson, N., Coolsaet, B., Corbera, E., Fraser, J., Lehmann, I., Rodríguez, I. (2016) Justice and conservation: the need to incorporate recognition. Biological Conservation, 197: 254–261.

Slide 1

Good morning and thanks for being here. I would like to start by acknowledging the financial support of the ESPA program, as well as of the Conservation Ecology group of the British Ecological Society. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Caroline Howe and Dan Brockington from the University of Sheffield for organizing this exciting panel.

The title of my talk today is ‘Incorporating recognition in biodiversity conservation’, which differs slightly from the program’s title. I originally envisioned incorporating the argument and ideas of two recently published articles but when I attempted to do so I realized it was far too much information that did not fit in 15 minutes. Therefore, my talk draws only on the article you see on the screen and therefore all authors deserve credit for what I’m going to say next. From now on, you can choose to ‘switch off’, to read the slides, to ignore the slides and follow my words, or combine the last two as you see fit.

Slide 2

Our argument departs from the premise that making conservation socially just is ethically desirable and it’s conducive to the legitimacy and environmental effectiveness of conservation approaches in the long-term. This premise is grounded on growing evidence that conservation that leads to fair outcomes or involves people in design and implementation results in more sound environmental outcomes. It is also grounded on a shared belief that conservation policy and practice has often placed much more emphasis on distributional and participation concerns, than it has on recognition.

Recognition and conservation are inextricably linked. By recognition, we generally mean the respect to plural social identities and cultural difference, and the extent to which different actors, ideas and cultures are respected and valued in social encounters and public discourse.

Bearing this in mind, the link between recognition and conservation appears evident, for at least three reasons. First, protected areas in their variegated forms are often spatially associated with cultural diversity and with people whose knowledge and environmental governance institutions are vulnerable to being marginalized.

Second, mainstream conservation management strategies are influenced by culturally specific and often disputed ideas about what works and about what counts as evidence of what works.

Third, dominant blueprints about how conservation should be done become a basis for the misrepresentation and misrecognition of indigenous and local people. For example, the ‘Yosemite model’ of conservation, in which nature is conceived as wilderness, has led to the representation of local and indigenous lifestyles as harmful to nature conservation.

We sustain, however, that biodiversity conservation can work constructively with local communities, especially if it embraces the concept of recognition. Where innovative, non-exclusionary models are developed, indigenous and local people can support protected areas as a way to positively promote both their territories and traditions. And, fortunately, there is of course evidence in this regard too.

Slide 3

The language of equity and rights has been present in global conservation discourse since at least the early 1970s. In the 1980s, ideas of inter- and intra-generational equity were foundational to popular narratives of sustainable development. And article 1 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) highlights as one of its three main objectives ‘…the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources’. The Nagoya Protocol in 2010 has aimed to develop further this objective and it has also emphasized ‘the important role of traditional knowledge’.

However, these efforts have led to controversies over recognition. One charge is that the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol are culturally dominating, requiring prospective beneficiaries to assimilate imposed ideas of what is fair and equitable as a condition of benefiting. Additionally, it has also been argued that despite the CBD has acknowledged cultural diversity and the identity of indigenous peoples as both conducive to and key relevant issues to protect in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, the Convention has also endorsed approaches that conflict with traditional ethics of stewardship of nature, notably with regard to the so-called valuation and “marketisation” of nature.

Slide 4

We are not naïve, however. The application of recognition in conservation remains difficult, not least because of contested meanings and approaches. And for this reason, the remaining of this talk focuses on how four schools of thought on recognition have understood the concept and, in doing so, we hope to reveal common concerns that can serve as a basis for progress in conservation policy and practice. To distinguish analytically these schools of thought we employ a simple conceptual framework that decomposes them into four dimensions: subjects, harms, mechanisms and responses.

Subjects refer to the stakeholders or users who are entitled to moral consideration, in other words, those who hold rights and deserve recognition.

Harms are the kinds of injustices suffered by moral subjects that can vary according to the dimension of environmental justice. Distributive injustice is more likely to result in objective material harm such as impoverishment whilst misrecognition tends to be linked with harms to subjective wellbeing, such as reduced self-esteem.

Mechanisms, in turn, refer to the institutional and structural explanations for such harms. This involves asking the question: “how can we explain how similar injustices appear repeatedly, in different places and times?” In this regard, recognition theories argue that misrecognition arises from the realms of ideas and culture, or from economic structures of society, or from a combination of both.

Finally, it is inevitable that schools of thought that identify different harms and mechanisms will also propose different solution frameworks. For some, responses can start with individual efforts at self-development, such as recognizing one’s connectedness to the rest of nature. For others, a more political project is required, such as extending participatory democracy, or redefining national constitutions to allow plural notions of citizenship, among others.

Let me turn now to provide a bit more detail on each of these four schools of thought and to lay out the implications of taking into account their ideas and arguments for conservation.

Slide 5

Georg Hegel is considered the founder of the continental European ethics of recognition. He conceived the struggle against injustice in terms of an essential need to be recognized and respected by others. Recognition is essential because it is the basis of individual freedom. In turn, human freedom cannot be achieved unilaterally but only through social relationships of a psychological nature. Such relationships can be described as ‘inter-subjective’ interactions that inevitably occur between persons who are more and less powerful.

In such interactions, a person can only really value their own life if they see that others value such a life. It is not possible to have high self-esteem if you perceive that others treat you with contempt. For Hegel the mechanism of subjugation was thus psychological and the required response was to move relations towards more reciprocal recognition.

The implications of adopting this reasoning in conservation are twofold. First, it is clearly a call for understanding individuals’ sentiments in conservation contexts, a need to make sure that their feelings and values are listened to and embraced. Second, it is a call for conservationists to be aware of the historical legacy and imprint of certain conservation approaches on local and indigenous peoples’ histories and cultures, which in turn implies being sensitive to the latter’s needs related to resource use, livelihoods, and development more generally.

Slide 6

A critical theory approach to recognition does not differ from a Hegelian account of recognition in terms of the subjects of justice, but differs in terms of the nature of harms, the mechanisms by which these are produced, and the suggested solution frameworks. Nancy Fraser, one of the most important and contemporary critical theorists, argues that societies develop hierarchies of cultural values that degrade the status of some groups of people, thereby culturally subordinating them and denying equality of social interaction. Such injustices are reproduced through formal institutions, such as property laws that discriminate against indigenous forms of tenure, or against women, but also through informal institutions including cultural norms and prejudices. Injustices also arise out of a combination of economic exploitation and cultural subordination, neither of which can be analytically subsumed under the other. Gender inequality for example has connected roots in both culture and economic arrangements, such as local rules of resource access.

Responses to these harms need to be multi-dimensional. As with Hegelian thinking, there is a need for affirmative efforts to tackle cultural misrecognition. However, to achieve parity of participation, there is also a need to transform the institutions that define distribution and political representation.

Such combined focus on recognition and distribution appears fruitful for thinking about conservation. First, economic inequalities are often considered to be drivers of biodiversity loss, both through mechanisms of impoverishment of some groups that undermine sustainable practices, and through the corresponding enrichment of others who fuel profligate consumption. Second, however, this is only part of the story because conservationists need to be aware that their material practices are entwined with status inequalities and political marginalization that should be acknowledged and reworked if necessary.

Slide 7

Decolonial thinking has roots in both Hegelianism and critical theory, emphasising forms of social, cultural and political subordination that deny freedom and opportunity to some groups. However, it is distinct for its focus on the global South and for identifying mechanisms of subordination in Eurocentric scientific and political worldviews. This dominating European culture is institutionalized through education, the media, state-sanctioned languages and behavioural norms. Thus, coloniality is a mechanism of recognition injustice that creates structural oppression over marginalised sectors of society whose alternative worldviews become devalued and stigmatised. This school of thought is inspired by indigenous peoples’ movements and their struggles against modernity and it therefore has links with indigenous cosmogonies, leading to conceptions of justice subjects that emphasise community over individuals and includes moral responsibilities towards mother nature and intangible beings such as spirits.

The most important implication of such thinking for what brings us here today is acknowledging that conservation practice and its associated knowledge forms part of a dominant form of knowledge production (western science), institutionalised within bodies such as the CBD, which has at times marginalized local forms of knowledge. Therefore, responding to conservation injustices must include democratizing science itself by creating opportunities for inter-cultural dialogues as part of the knowledge production process.

Slide 8

Finally, the capabilities ‘school’ does not by itself develop a theory of ‘recognition’, but offers a comprehensive view of the conditions needed for a good life that incorporates aspects of recognition, participation and distribution. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, two of its most prominent representatives, argue that what is relevant for justice is whether individual persons have the freedom to realize the objectives they have in life. In other words, the ‘good’ to which justice aspires is defined in terms of a person’s opportunities or ‘capabilities’ rather than their actual achievements. Such capabilities are clearly dependent on a range of conditions, including economic distribution and cultural recognition.

Generally speaking, a person who has fewer capabilities or opportunities to accomplish what they reasonably value for whichever reasons would be regarded as less well-off than others. In that sense, injustice is the denial of choice and, particularly, the denial of some things that are universally essential for a dignified life, such as food and water, or key resources four sustaining or pursuing the desired living. Overall, critical theorists agree that injustice arises from forms of governance and political organisation that lead to a reduction in the available options that one’s has to pursue her own needs and interests.

Such thinking is an everyday confrontation for the conservation sector because maintaining biodiversity and ecological processes is entwined with, and can often conflict with, valued ways of life. Such awareness should, in turn, lead towards a very careful understanding and negotiation of individuals and communities’ needs and aspirations, in order to avoid precluding their access to basic needs and hampering their capabilities.

Slide 9

To conclude, where do all these reflections take us? Why did I think it was important to bring them forward in a setting like this?

On the one hand, to share with you the breadth of knowledge that political philosophers can offer to conservation scholars and practitioners. This knowledge can help us thinking more critically about our own research and implementation agendas, and how we contribute to reduce or enhance recognition injustices. On the other hand, these four schools of thought indirectly put the responsibility of realizing a more ‘just conservation’ on our shoulders, since we undoubtedly belong to those who hold a position of power in social encounters of conservation.

Finally, the four schools of thought taken together offer at least four practical ways of incorporating recognition in biodiversity conservation. First, we need to move beyond a distributive model of thinking about the social benefits and costs of conservation. This model is important, but the theories of recognition presented also reveal the limitations of a distributive model and, in doing so, invite us to identify social categories of concern that require additional coverage in conservation research and practice, including non-right holders, women, trans-gender, caste, migrants, and so on.

Second, recognition theories allow us to reflect on the fact that the social impacts of conservation are in large part relational, whether this is taken in a Hegelian sense that inequitable relationships constitute the harm itself, or more in line with feminist, critical and decolonial scholars, that this is part of a broader structuring of social relations that produces low status for some groups.

Third, as we develop practices that attend to these relational concerns, we can be guided by the concerns over the status of peasant cultures and knowledge worldwide. Whilst the CBD is committed to recognising different knowledge, it is clear that ways of working across alternative ways of perceiving and valuing nature are still not widely effective in many parts and sites of the world. Improving recognition should thus be about acknowledging that conservation can produce these kinds of harms as well as providing opportunities for their alleviation. We should also change power relations and move towards relationships of more equal influence.

This brings us to the fourth possible action, namely to become aware that equitable influence over decision-making will rarely be served by use of pre-defined blueprints for biodiversity conservation, whether it be models for protected areas or market-based instruments. Such blueprints, such as the ‘ecosystem services’ model that we might be discussing here today, are themselves institutionalisations of particular western ways of knowing and valuing nature, which can act as barriers that prevent consideration of alternative knowledge and values.

I realize that acknowledging this might represent real challenges for field level conservation, in terms of resource constraints, methods and training, and in some cases political constraints. But if we are serious about the commitment for conservation to be socially just, then engaging with issues of recognition is a necessary step to take.

Thank you for your attention.

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