Neoliberal conservation: commoditisation, media and celebrity

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With industry expanding at a rapid rate, such as the pictured stone quarry (Pune Maharashtra, India) and a change in the way we value the environment, how will local livelihoods and the environment be affected? Photo courtesy of Oxfam Australia/flickr

BOGOR, Indonesia (27 April, 2011)_Is it possible to “eat one’s conservation cake and eat development desert too”? Food for thought indeed. Scholars Jim Igoe and Dan Brockington, well known for their extensive critiques of contemporary conservation, question the premise of such win-win scenarios and suggest that the increasing “neoliberalisation” of conservation is leading to the re-regulation of nature through increasing forms of commoditisation.

In a paper first published in the Conservation and Society in 2007 which remains one of the journal’s most downloaded and cited, Igoe and Brockington define neoliberalisation as “a restructuring of society of enable the spread of free markets”.

Proponents of neoliberalisation assert that this approach will automatically benefit local livelihoods and the environment. However, the result of placing monetary values on biodiversity, ecosystems and their goods and services, argue Igoe and Brockington, results in new types of “hybrid environmental governance” in  which states, the private sector, NGOs and communities share responsibility for conservation action.

Ultimately, they assert, this leads to greater livelihood and environmental loss as the environment is carved up and appropriated by these hybrid institutions. Although published four years ago, the issue still resonates as we grapple with the complexities of valuing ecosystem services and the on-going implementation of equitable payments for environmental services (PES) and reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) initiatives.

Although the authors admit that “the term neoliberalism is at risk of becoming nothing more than a vehicle for academics who like to criticize things they do not like about the world”, Igoe and Brockington provide an interesting perspective on current conservation practice; particularly pertinent as seemingly ever elusive win-win outcomes for both conservation and development continue to be pursued.

In more recent papers related to neoliberal conservation by both authors, these arguments are further elaborated. Dan Brockington in his essay, “Powerful environmentalisms: conservation, celebrity and capitalism” provides an eloquent and compelling discussion about the disconnection between how those in the developed world view nature compared to those actually affected by its protection. Of particular interest is his dissection of the growth and power of the conservation NGO’s, “conflicting environmentalisms” and the celebrity endorsement of environmental causes.

Brockington describes two types of environmentalism. The first represented by the conservation interests of wealthy people in the developed world who fund the work of the big conservation NGO’s (or BINGO’s). He asserts that the global growth of protected areas is driven by the demand for the pristine nature they provide. Such environments provide the “authentic unspoilt nature [people] wish to consume on their holidays”.

The second environmentalism Brockington describes is rooted in the services such environments provide to the rural poor: the harvest of wild foods, fuelwood collection, building materials etc. He suggests these two environmentalisms are in conflict, as evidenced by the on-going creation of protected areas, often driven by the agenda of the BINGO’s, which can lead to physical and/or economic displacement.

Brockington asserts that the “Western wilderness ethic, which values pristine lands untouched and uninfluenced by people is not compatible with local environmentalisms”. The inequitable power relations between the local environmentalisms of the South and the well-financed Northern BINGOs often result in the marginalization of the former.

That there is a strong patronage of environmental causes by celebrities is undeniable and Brockington cleverly contextualizes how the growth of celebrity involvement in conservation causes provides a connection between unseen nature and the capitalist urban world. In short, people relate to celebrity and this can be used to bring nature to the living room of the potential supporter of the BINGOs. Whether the representation of nature is accurate or not, the results are undoubtedly effective, argues Brockington.

In a subsequent essay, Jim Igoe touches on these issues further. He opens his paper with the statement that “biodiversity conservation, traditionally portrayed as a bulwark against the environmental ills of capitalist expansion, is now thoroughly implicated in its reproduction”. Close alliances between the BINGOs and corporate donors underpin much of this transition. Such partnerships further emphasise the commodification of nature through compensation schemes such as PES and REDD.

The embracing of capitalism by the BINGOs in particular has been enhanced by media representation of nature, usually with celebrity hosts supporting noble causes. As such, Igoe argues, the corporate approach usually the domain of for-profit companies adopted by conservation organisations means they are now able to generate substantial funding.

The development of social networking has surpassed the passive media absorption of information into one of increasing interaction where potential individual donors can “join the conservation community”. Thus potential supporters are influenced into providing financial support for conservation interventions but based on a “reality” presented to them using compelling and sometimes distorted versions of that reality, asserts Igoe.

Both Brockington, and to a lesser extent, Igoe, refer to the phenomenon of the “celebrity conservationist” who have achieved a level of fame based on their “stance and representations of nature”. Brockington argues that the celebrity status of some conservationists represents a further link between environmentalism and business with the concomitant need for self-promotion, public appearances and financial recompense; they themselves become commodities. The noble causes such people espouse are consumed by the armchair conservationist, who lives vicariously in the same world by connecting with the version of nature they see in the media, guided by a recognised expert.

This short summary does not do justice to the complexity of the arguments of Igoe and Brockington and a closer read of their work would be highly recommended.

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