Recognising people

Date: 10 June 2021

Author: Dan Brockington

The original letter and reply from its authors has been published as an e-letter to Science. View the original letter and the reply from its authors.

One of the most contentious aspects of the ‘Half-Earth’ proposals and related '30 by 30' campaign is the role of people in proposed conservation plans. Critics, including myself, are concerned by the lack of consideration of people in these plans. Survival International describe them as ‘the biggest land grab in history’. Advocates insist their proposals will entail inclusive conservation measures.

This is not an easy debate, and the problems are well illustrated in recent letters in ScienceAdvances. In the first letter, Anwesha Dutta and colleagues responded to Eric Dinerstein and colleagues’ plans for a ‘Global Safety Net’, which is one of the more prominent Half-Earth proposals. Dinerstein and colleagues, in a letter lead by Karl Bukart, defended their plans.

There is some agreement in the correspondence about the importance of places used by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities for conservation. But significant differences remain. Specifically, Dutta et al refer to conservation’s ‘on-going legacies’ of injustices. Burkart et al refer to these as a ‘colonial legacy’, ie something of the past, not the present. Similarly Dutta et al note that historical experience of conservation suggests that ‘good intentions can lead to negative outcomes for people’.

Burkart et al fail to acknowledge this possibility. They claim, with respect to the Global Safety Net, that ‘[n]ew conservation projects are more commonly developed through collaborative approaches among civil society groups, subnational governments, and local communities, employing a variety of approaches’. But this claim has no empirical foundation.

This unwillingness to recognise the problems and tensions that can surround conservation efforts is strange. Large-scale conservation planning which seeks to devote more space to nature is bound to create local and national tensions. Dinerstein et al are careful to insist that no current agricultural areas will be altered by the Global Safety Net. But what about future agricultural needs? Other planning exercises show that this is precisely where future conflicts will lie.

But more concerning than all of this, is a deeper obduracy that appears to underpin advocacy of the Global Safety Net. Simply put, this work fails to count the number of people who might be affected by the Net. It would be easy to estimate their number, but the original paper does not do so, nor did it’s predecessor (the ‘Global Deal for Nature’).

Fortunately, calculations of the number of people affected do exist. Judith Schleicher and colleagues have provided some estimates of the number of people which could be caught up in new conservation plans. Their work showed that up to one billion people could be affected by conservation prioritisation exercises. More recent estimates suggest the number could be 1.8 billion people.

But, bizarrely, advocates of the Global Safety Net have not welcomed these contributions. Indeed they strangely chose to use their response to Dutta’s letter to attack Schleicher’s work. This was a weird enough tangent itself. It became odder still when they misrepresented Schleicher’s paper. Burkart et al claimed it ‘assumes that area-based targets would be enacted through a top-down paradigm of “fortress” conservation’. It does no such thing.

Not counting people is a fundamental failure of recognition. Recognition underpins all forms of justice. You cannot win rights, or redress of grievance unless you are recognised to exist. Invisibility is a foundation of injustice.

Whether we are talking about domestic violence, child abuse, institutionalised racism, ageism, glass ceilings or conservation-induced poverty we have to recognise the problems exist, and the people affected by them, before there is any hope of justice. Therefore, unless the people present in places of ‘conservation interest’ are seen, they risk being marginalised, forgotten, overlooked and displaced. This has been one of the enduring themes of conservation history the world over (for more information, see Nature Unboundt, or Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation.

Recognition of where people are and how many might be affected is vital because these large-scale conservation planning exercises are powerful. They use intricate models and big data to shed light on future scenarios. But, like all large data-bases and modelling exercises, they also obscure. Their light creates shadows. Their omissions, blind-spots, assumptions and spatial generalisations can conceal difference. They can make things disappear. We have to be attentive to these omissions before we place any faith in this modelling.

One such blindspot in conservation planning is the failure to count people. Currently Dinerstein, Burkart and their colleagues are in the curious position of insisting that people are important for conservation efforts, but show no interest in documenting how many might be affected by their grand plans. The sooner they resolve this contradiction, the more credible their contributions to conservation planning will become.