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Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.

Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.

Mark Dowie MIT, ISBN: 9780262012614, pp. 376, 2009

The parks vs. people debate continues to garner attention in scholarly, policy, and activist circles. Conservation Refugees is Mark Dowie's welcome addition to this forum. From international conferences and the boardrooms of the largest conservation NGOs, to the patch of grazing land on the Serengeti, Conservation Refugees provides an accessible and informative overview of the displacement of indigenous peoples (both in terms of forced eviction and indirect forms) around the world for the purposes of biodiversity conservation. Not only does Dowie outline the history of this debate from the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone up until today, but he also argues for a new conservation paradigm whereby indigenous peoples and powerful conservation interests work together to balance the protection of nature and culture. This paradigm is one where indigenous peoples participate fully in conservation and the management of protected areas not as stakeholders, "but as rights-holders and equal players." (1)

Dowie organizes the book by alternating chapters focused on case studies of specific indigenous groups--from North and South America, Asia, Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa--and their experience with biodiversity conservation, with thematic chapters concerned with the social construction of "nature" and "wilderness", the political economy of conservation, scientific vs. traditional ecological knowledge, among others. This provides an assortment of empirical examples in addition to an overview of many topics that one would find in an introduction to the political ecology of conservation. With the wide range of case studies based largely on his own investigative journalism and supported by the work of others, Dowie does sacrifice depth for breadth. As a result he may miss some nuance in certain places. However, the vast amount of ground that is covered allows Dowie to highlight the scale of conservation-induced displacement, the myriad of forms that it takes, and the similarities that connect them all. People may also rightly point out that the book lacks theoretical rigor. However, as a journalist, not an academic, and in conjunction with his ability to outline the issues in an accessible way that has the potential to bring the issues at hand to new audiences, Dowie may be forgiven.

In the first line, Dowie sets the book up as a "good guy vs. good guy story" with international conservation pitted against indigenous peoples. (2) His reason for not labeling international conservation as the bad guy is because the big conservation actors "should not be assigned the same 'bad guy' status as 'extractive corporados' and others who push native people around and compromise ecosystems in their avaricious quest for resources and profits." 3 He adds to this by pointing out that big conservation is also doing some good by protecting biodiversity. It is a noble goal to move away from a narrow good guy vs. bad guy or David vs. Goliath narrative, but the 270 pages that follow the first line of the book tend to fall into it nonetheless. At times it is actually difficult to see how international conservation and the extractive bad guys are wholly separate because Dowie himself details how the two have partnered in many instances. This often makes extractive activities possible in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas while indigenous peoples are excluded from the same spaces. Furthermore, his arguments concerning the political economy of conservation highlight how the separation of "nature" and people is in part tied to the quest for money on the part of conservation NGOs as well. Perhaps most damaging to the "good guy" status of big conservation are the words of indigenous groups themselves to make the point that conservation, not the extractive industry, "has become the number one threat to indigenous territories." (4)

It is difficult to critique Dowie for portraying big conservation as the bad guy, even though he said he would not. Indeed the actions of organizations like the IUCN and Conservation International that the book details largely speak for themselves. It is conceivable, however, that he refrains from wanting to call international conservation the bad guy because a new conservation paradigm that takes the rights and conservation capacity of indigenous peoples seriously depends "very much on the compassion and understanding of global conservationists." (5) He does point to several areas of progress in this regard and has hope for the future, a hope that depends on international conservation--as well as governments--coming to its senses and doing the right thing.

Where Dowie might be most vulnerable is in his glorification of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) and its status compared to fortress conservation. Indeed, he is rather quick to the conclude, "There can be no question that the Mataven [CBNRM] model of conservation is gradually displacing the Yosemite/Yellowstone model." (6) While he does admit that this is occurring "perhaps too slowly", (7) I wonder how we can reconcile this with the expansion of traditional forms of fortress conservation such as new national parks, but also with different manifestations such as private reserves and examples of green grabbing, all of which continue to exclude and even expel indigenous and local communities. Furthermore, Dowie seems somewhat reluctant to admit the failures and problematic aspects of CBNRM itself. Referring to his hope that CBNRM will take hold over fortress conservation in Gabon, Dowie argues "previous chapters attest that community-based conservation is a tried and proven method." (8) Yes, he does give examples of CBNRM successes, but he also leaves out the numerous critiques of CBNRM--including those put forward by scholars he routinely references (9)--and the many initiatives that have failed on both ecological and socio-economic and cultural terms. While I am on Dowie's side that community-based conservation is where we should be headed, it still does deserve to be critically analyzed. A chapter dedicated to this would be a welcome addition. With that said, we, and especially the conservationists among us, should heed his argument that "people who will help you most in conservation are those who depend on the environment for their livelihood." (10)

Dowie provides an excellent introductory foray into the people vs. parks debate and the political ecology of conservation more generally. For anyone looking for an indepth analysis of particular cases, you would probably be better served by going to many of the outstanding sources that Dowie references including works by Dan Brockington, Rod Neumann, and Jim Igoe, among others. With that said, Conservation Refugees is a welcome addition to any bookshelf and is especially useful for the uninitiated, but not only. To be sure, one of the most important contributions of the book is simply in its framing of those being displaced for the purposes of conservation as "refugees". While elaborating on what is meant by the term refugee could have strengthened this framing--for example, why is it not in the chapter "A Word about Terms"?--it is a bold step to use the concept of conservation refugee. I would also argue that it is a step in the right direction of bringing the issue of conservation-induced displacement into broader conversations concerning forced-displacement and refugee studies. Indeed, the figure of the conservation refugee should not only be of interest to political ecologists or those of us interested in conservation, but should also be the purview of those interested in displacement and "refugeeism" more broadly.


(1.) Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 250.

(2.) Ibid., ix.

(3.) Ibid., x.

(4.) Ibid., xviii.

(5.) Ibid., 254.

(6.) Ibid., 239.

(7.) Ibid., 239.

(8.) Ibid., 260.

(9.) See, for example, Daniel Brockington, Fortress Conservation: The Preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania. Indiana University Press, 2002 and Wolfram Dressier, and Bram Buscher. "Market Triumphalism and the CBNRM 'Crises' at the South African Section of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park," Geoforum 39, no. 1 (2008): 452-65.

(10.) Dowie, Conservation Refugees, 221.
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Author:Masse, Francis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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