What do we mean by decolonizing conservation? A response to Lanjouw 2021

By Mathew Bukhi Mabele (University of Dodoma, Tanzania), Laila Thomaz Sandroni (University of Sao Paulo, Brazil), Y Ariadne Collins (University of St. Andrews, UK) and June Rubis (University of Sydney, Australia)

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder… Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963, p. 36

This piece is the outcome of a collective discussion between a small group of social scientists from the Global South working on conservation issues. This discussion was spurred by our common interest in taking forward ideas on how to decolonize conservation, and our reading of the paper entitled “De-colonizing conservation in a global world“, published recently in the American Journal of Primatology by the renowned primatologist Annette Lanjouw. Upon reading the paper, we became concerned about its use of the term ‘decolonization’, and sought to clarify some specific points related to what decoloniality means and how it could contribute to conservation research and practice.

Although decolonial theories and research practice have been around in the social sciences for about 20 years, their challenge to entrenched societal structures has recently started to gain traction with conservation scientists and practitioners. On one hand, this indicates that the critique offered by decolonial perspectives is becoming more established and that the much-needed re-framing of conservation efforts through truly decolonial frames is gaining traction. On the other hand, this diffusion of ideas comes with the risk of diluting its value and overlooking underlying power structures. In light of these risks, we are interested in advocating for a more careful use of the term and approach. 

In the following section, we hope to demonstrate the ways in which Lanjouw (2021), based on our reading, falls short of the expectations it sets in the mind of the reader through its title.

What Lanjouw advocates

We find much value in Lanjouw’s identification of the need to change the focus audience of conservation education projects from local people to higher-level political power bases, such as investors and government officers. We also agree with her observation that conservation would benefit from a political-economic perspective in order to strengthen understandings of broader, often complex, forces that drive ecosystem decline and related environmental problems. Further still, we concur with her suggestion that analyses on causes and drivers of biodiversity loss should move beyond examination of micro-level structures and process (Fletcher & Toncheva, 2021). The suggested reorientation of conservation education towards the power bases is also important for behavioral change and awareness creation of how macro-level dynamics drive ecosystem change and loss. Therefore, overall, we find Lanjouw’s main argument, reiterated in the paper’s conclusion, quite convincing. Indeed, conservation education that departs from the ‘lack of information’ perspective is something from which conservation practitioners should aim to separate themselves.

In her paper, Lanjouw suggests that decolonizing conservation requires a shift away from a solitary focus on indigenous communities as the main actors in conservation towards a stronger awareness of the different ways in which external actors drive harmful conservation outcomes. We highlight three specific aspects of Lanjouw’s perspective:

First, decolonizing conservation appears to necessitate an expansion of the audience for conservation education, which involves capacity-building for the industry, government and financial institutions in the Global North, on skills and incentives to support them in avoiding causing harm to humans and nonhumans, and on limiting their excessive and destructive consumption and use practices.

Second, it should involve a greater recognition of the role of capitalism in ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss, which involves acknowledgement that “Global markets, trade and finance systems drive the threats to tropical ecosystems and the biodiversity in tropical forests” (p. 2).

Third, it appears to involve the design of participatory conservation projects and co-ownership of conservation interventions, which requires the engagement of local communities and people from the very beginning of conservation planning, i.e. making them part of the design and leadership of conservation efforts.

Change in focus and participation do not necessarily lead to decolonization

Although these are all important points, our reading of Lanjouw’s article indicates that the paper largely fails to address the colonial dynamics involved in conservation projects and efforts. Addressing these dynamics is necessary in any effort to address underlying structures underpinning coloniality of power, knowledge and being (Quijano, 2000; Mignolo, 2003; Maldonado Torres, 2007). Therefore, we disagree with the author’s conceptualization of (de)coloniality in conservation and find that her conclusions are not entirely new. They are, further still and more importantly, certainly not explicitly decolonial in scope.

Tuck and Yang put it bluntly and succinctly in words that need not be paraphrased: “Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation” (Tuck and Yang, 2012, p.3).

Tuck and Yang (2012), in writing these words, were referring to the ways in which decolonization was being adopted as another justice framework, such as racial or environmental justice in settler colonies, such as the United States. They do not mince words when they write that decolonization seeks to unsettle the world by reckoning with its colonial underpinnings. Such is the decolonial horizon.

In calling for transformation of the existing unjust conservation approaches she identifies as colonial, Lanjouw (2021) carries out no such unsettling. Her work shows little awareness of the disruptive potential of decolonization through her lack of engagement with histories of colonialism. In so doing, her work neutralizes, at least partially, the powerful, historic, structural and intended effect of the term.

Decolonizing requires addressing underlying power structures and assumptions

As recognized by the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar (2008), the history of development in colonialist terms limits what can be said and seen in the Global South and, therefore, what could be comprehensible as solutions for difficult problems such as conciliating economic prosperity and sustainability. In his perspective, any move towards sustainability that overlooks these discursive-practical limitations will not be fully representative of a decolonial perspective in relation to any current issue, including global environmental conservation efforts.

Thus, Lanjouw does not properly define the idea of decoloniality in conservation. She marginally engages with decolonial thought. Further, she does not reference any of the key decolonial thinkers (see, for example, Quijano, 2000; Mignolo, 2011; Tuck and Yang, 2012; Mbembe, 2016 etc.). For instance, she writes that “Decolonizing the approach to conservation is a necessary step to ensure that conservation programs address conservation threats, are sustainable and focus on both social and environmental justice” (p. 2). Unfortunately, Lanjouw never explains what that means, with her ambiguity forming a questionable stance when we consider Tuck and Yang’s (2012) reminder that decolonization and justice should not be conflated.

Further, Lanjouw does not reflect on recent research on how to decolonize primate conservation (e.g. Chua et al., 2020; Rubis, 2020). In fact, she does not demonstrate how current forms and practices of biodiversity conservation are confronted with colonial structures and characters (e.g. Collins, 2019; Sungusia et al., 2020). In addition, her use of Africa as an example on page 3, in reference to the ways in which large-scale, foreign-owned plantations were common during the colonial period, does not necessarily mean that these practices were themselves colonial. In other words, the connections between her few references to histories and practices that took place during the colonial period were not clearly and robustly connected to colonialism. While it could indeed be argued that “The exploitation and extraction of natural resources in distant countries, with little accommodation for the impact this has on local communities and ecosystem health, is a continuation of colonial practices and inequitable power dynamics.” (p. 2), this should be shown and not just stated.

Moreover, some of Lanjouw’s arguments and citation practices are themselves representative of colonial epistemological structures. For instance, her suggestion of engaging more with local populations neither acknowledges the role of Western science’s legitimacy in decision-making on conservation, nor addresses the practical difficulties of including local perspectives due to power relations. No Global South primatologists were cited. No non-Western approaches to understanding the behavior of primates were introduced or referenced.

These omissions matter. They raise the risk that Lanjouw’s article could be further cited as one that aims to decolonize conservation, without recognizing the origins and struggles associated with the scholarship upon which this knowledge was built. Citing Global South primatologists would form a meaningful step towards creating inclusive spaces for primatology and primate conservation (Blair, 2019). Biased, non-inclusive citation practice and arguments built on colonial epistemological structures which do not recognize and acknowledge diverse voices and authors represent some of the oppressive practices in ecological research and publishing (Trisos et al., 2021).

Unfortunately, Lanjouw does not engage with the well-established social science scholarship that critiques capitalism and its role in loss of biodiversity (e.g. Brockington and Duffy, 2010), and the so-called participatory biodiversity conservation (e.g. Dressler et al., 2010). Some conservation biologists already recognise the critical role of social-science perspectives in interrogating and improving conservation policy and practice (e.g. Mascia et al., 2003; Redford, 2018).

As a further example, Lanjouw cites Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as one of the tools and principles for improving conservation education and decolonizing conservation through its strengthening of participatory designing and co-ownership of conservation projects. While FPIC can indeed be a step in the right direction, it is, first and foremost, not decolonial, and, secondly, at high risk of being easily co-opted by external and powerful actors who know that consent can be coerced or manufactured. FPIC has been found to create social exclusions and divisions, and to reproduce existing power inequalities within communities, casting doubt on the FPIC’s democratic and local justice potential (Costanza, 2015; Fontana & Grugel, 2016). Some indigenous activists themselves are wary of promoting FPIC as a tool for legitimizing externally driven engagements with these communities. Thus, the scholarship shows that FPIC is not a decolonial, straightforward tool for guaranteeing and strengthening local democratic participation when designing and implementing conservation projects.

Our final take: the significance of Decolonizing Conservation

It is important to underscore that Lanjouw’s main statements are not erroneous. They are, however, only vaguely related to the title. Her suggested changes for expanding the audience for conservation do not guarantee or meaningfully move conservation closer to decolonization priorities.

Decolonizing conservation would entail a larger shift in terms of world views that could only be done properly by explicitly recognizing underlying exclusionary perspectives that implicitly advocate for Western science and knowledge as more well-suited or legitimate to decision-making. That is, decolonizing conservation means a lot more than reducing the focus of education on indigenous communities and engaging with external actors who drive harmful conservation outcomes.

Decolonization demands a re-framing of conservation and efforts for nature prosperity in non-Western perspectives. It requires an interrogation of the very frame of thought that underpins some aspects of Lanjouw’s article. Decolonizing conservation requires deep interrogation of the underlying philosophies that drive and shape conservation, conservation approaches and conservation education in tropical ecosystems. Lanjouw’s point on lack of alternatives and choices as being main reasons “why people engage in practices that are destructive of nature” (p. 6) could have been an entry point into offering a nuanced analysis on decolonizing conservation. This is particularly the case when considering how the philosophies such as the ‘protected area philosophy’ restrict livelihood choices of some people and communities. Lanjouw could have underlined that with the point that the higher-level political power bases in the Global North are unaware of the socio-ecological realities for local people who depend on the depleted ecosystems for their survival.

Engaging in decolonial conservation requires a radical shift in focus of conservation efforts towards the myriad of vibrant forms of engaging with and knowing the world around us that have been developed by a multiplicity of peoples and cultures around the globe that have, sadly, been much too often overlooked by Western-centric models of conservation and knowledge.


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