Coercing Conservation

Peluso, Nancy Lee. 1993. “Coercing Conservation?: The Politics of State Resource Control” Global Environmental Change 3(2):199-218.

The premise of Nancy Peluso’s influential article “Coercing Conservation” is that “some state interests appropriate the ideology, legitimacy, and technology of conservation as a means of increasing or appropriating their control over valuable resources and recalcitrant populations” and that international conservation groups are (sometimes negligently) complicit in the resulting dispossession of indigenous peoples with resource claims. Peluso uses the examples of Kenya and Indonesia to show how the maintenance of state territorial control implies the militarization of conservation efforts and the consequent complicity of international conservation advocacy groups.

Peluso points out: “Some states or state interests, however, appropriate the conservation concerns of international environmental groups as a means of eliciting support for their own control over productive natural resources. Indeed, some tropical developing states use conservation ideology to justify coercion in the name of conservation, often by using violence” (199). Conservation itself becomes a state strategy for encroaching upon valued natural resources previously beyond the state’s grasp.

Despite resistance from local inhabitants and resource users of conservation areas, conservation discourses—and the support of international groups—provide hostile state’s with the legitimacy to use force for its claim to govern such spaces.

From the empirical case studies, it’s interesting to note the strange bedfellows that these conservation efforts produce: for instance, repressive state agencies, liberal conservationist, wildlife tourists, and big game hunters against the Maasai in Kenya (203). Peluso notes the discourses that make such militarized enclosures possible: mythic ideologies of people-less nature, improvement of “defective” cultural subjects, economic imperatives, and the moral value of nature to a global society. Such discourses are further sustained by de-historicizing the long-standing presence of residents, who are then cast as invading, encroaching tribesmen and blankly equated with poachers.

Subsistence producers in Indonesia are similarly criminalized by the state. In Indonesia. Too, international conservation groups shore up the state “sustainable” forest management programs that are “secured” and territorialized by state and paramilitary security forces. The “urgency of these groups also fuels the militarization of the resulting programs as quick-and-dirty responses to the urgent cries of environmentalists. Such repressive modes of conservation are entirely elided by certification programs claiming the woods come from “carefully” cultivated “sustainable” forests that are “ecologically beneficial” (214). This same “social forestry” approach is rife where I work—there’s a lot of policy and ideological traffic between here and Indonesia around both teak and oil palm.

Peluso closes by critiquing a report issued by mainstream conservationists calling for greater collaborations with military agencies:

Militaries, paramilitary organizations, and state agencies often create or exacerbate resource-based conflicts by their participation in protective activities, their involvement as actors, or their coercive tactics. It is far from clear, therefore, that the various national military establishments operate for the benefit of their respective nations’ in regard to conservation, as the authors of Conserving the World’s Biodiversity claim. (216)


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