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More responses to "A Challenge to Conservationists".

Editor's Note: Following are several additional responses to "A Challenge to Conservationists" (November/December 2004), by Mac Chapin. A number of other letters, which we do not have space to print, can be seen on our website at The three NGOs discussed in the article--Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)--all responded to Dr. Chapin's points in letters that appeared in the January/February issue of World Watch. (The first letter below, from a Nature Conservancy program director, was inadvertently omitted from the initial batch of responses.) In addition, all three have posted lengthier comments on their websites, at,, and, respectively.

Mac Chapin's article raises a number of critical issues for conservation, and I am very happy to take up the challenge to conservationists explicit in his title. A few preliminary points. First, Chapin is to be congratulated for flushing this important topic into the open, where it can be addressed in a transparent manner. Second, it would be idle to deny that there are frequently tensions between conservation organizations and indigenous peoples, and these too should be out in the open where we can study, discuss, and learn from them. Third, it is a matter of record that Chapin and the Native Lands NGO he heads have a distinguished record in promoting conservation in indigenous lands in Central America and elsewhere. I should say that although I do not know Chapin personally, his work in ethnocartography has been a direct practical and intellectual inspiration for The Nature Conservancy's Amazon program, as we struggle to support indigenous peoples and their organizations in their efforts to map and plan natural resource management on their land. I regard him as a natural ally.

It was all the more painful, therefore, to read his article, an incomplete, naive, and overstated caricature of a complex reality. I do not intend to write a rebuttal as such, if only because I agree with his central point: conservation and sustainable development on indigenous lands should be more central to the work of the major international conservation organizations than it is. But the readers of his article deserve an alternative perspective on the issues he raises, painted in the grays of the real world rather than the black and white of Chapin's polemic.

I take three issues to be central to Chapin's critique. First, he is worried that the rapid growth of large international conservation organizations, allied to a biology-driven process of setting priorities, has led them to distance themselves from community conservation, especially in indigenous areas, and focus their energy on competition for resources from funders instead. Secondly, he believes this process has been reinforced by the moral compromises attendant upon their seeking governmental, corporate, and multilateral funding, which reduces their ability and desire to defend human rights, especially land rights. Finally, he has a specific concern that indigenous peoples and indigenous priorities are being excluded from "conservation" as practiced by the large conservation organizations. I will deal with each in turn.

First, the alleged distancing from community conservation. The large international conservation organizations about which Chapin writes are complex transnationals which are not monolithic and do not speak with one voice. They market themselves and their work, as does [Chapin's NGO] Native Lands. They compete for funds. Many people within them like competing for funds. I think there should be a marketplace for ideas. Competition for funding is not a bad thing in itself, nor is it somehow inimical to community conservation; the sharper the competition, the better the conceptual quality of the proposal. Competition for funding has a number of important benefits. It forces conservation organizations to distinguish between themselves and develop alternative approaches. I find Chapin's worries about large international conservation organizations dividing up the globe between them perplexing. The environmental threats we face are enormous and operate over extensive geographies. It makes sense for conservation organizations to separate themselves into different geographical areas, not to avoid conflict, as Chapin suggests, but to ensure there is no duplication of effort. I consciously avoid involving TNC's Amazon program in an area where CI, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), or WWF are active. In a context where vast areas (including large numbers of indigenous groups) receive no external support, there seems little justification for two organizations to be active in the same place.

It is indeed the case that the large international conservation organizations use biology to set their geographical priorities. Ecoregions, hotspots, whatever; frankly, as an anthropologist, I find the detail a little arcane. There is indeed tension, even acrimonious technical debate, fully referenced in Chapin's article, between anthropologists defending the conservation utility of indigenous lands and biologists taking a different position. But this debate is, literally, academic. Well over 20 percent of the Amazon basin is now titled indigenous land; almost equally important swathes of other biodiversity-rich landscapes belong to indigenous peoples. In the Brazilian Amazon alone the indigenous reserve system is larger than the combined land area of California, Texas, and Florida. The very biology-driven priority-setting exercises which make Chapin nervous point to the importance of areas titled to indigenous peoples, as the most cursory glance at the maps of geographical priorities produced by CI, WCS, WWF, and TNC shows. At least in the Amazon, having a conservation program that does not deal with indigenous peoples and indigenous movements is like having a foreign policy that ignores China. Biology reinforces this argument rather than weakens it, and WCS and TNC especially have moved far and fast on this over the several years since the references Chapin cites were published.

A large part of the problem here is a disjunct between Washington, where the senior managers and marketing departments of the major conservation organizations are located, and the field. Chapin talks of this disjunct and cites a number of field programs as models of effective community involvement, including some run by TNC and WCS. But he alleges these programs are atypical and unrepresentative of the crypto-corporate values prevailing in these same organizations in Washington, where he makes vague, unsourced allegations of "drift" from support for indigenous peoples and community conservation in general.

It is a shame that none of the managers and program staff from conservation organizations actually doing the work most relevant to Chapin's concerns participated in the various U.S.-based discussions between foundations and conservation organizations he mentions. These discussions would have taken a very different turn if they had. The question arises of why staff in international conservation organizations doing community conservation continue to do what they do and work where they work, if there really were such drift and moral turpitude in their headquarters. They would be the ones most directly affected by it, after all. An alternative view is that most staff and program managers of conservation organizations in-country feel that there is and has been no such drift, and that the potential for ramping up work with indigenous communities and associations has never been greater. Moreover, given the fact that across the Amazon many indigenous groups are making the difficult transition from struggling for land to managing land they have won, those program managers might even feel there is no better and more appropriate place for someone committed to indigenous rights to be working than a large international conservation organization, which has some of the resources and expertise indigenous cultures are demanding as they develop ways of managing natural resources at the reserve rather than the community level.

Secondly, the issue of large-scale funding from governments, corporations, and multilaterals compromising advocacy for indigenous peoples on the part of organizations like TNC. Again, I find Chapin's position naive. Conservation to scale requires large amounts of money. Large amounts of money tend to come from governments, multilateral banks, and corporations. The issue is the strings attached. With respect to corporate funding, explicit conditionalities--"greenwashing"--would be fatal to the credibility of a large conservation organization in the United States, and Chapin deals in generalities here for a reason. Which "large conservationist NGOs" were providing a "green fig leaf" to ChevronTexaco, in relation to which "indigenous group" in what country "in the Amazon basin" (p. 26)? How did that work, exactly? If he has specific examples, he should name and shame.

With respect to governmental and multilateral funding, this is taxpayer money. It rightly comes with administrative controls, and it is inevitable that the large conservation organizations often act as intermediary pass-throughs, since they have the administrative capacity to document and report spending to the standards required. The onus is on the funding agencies to make their administrative procedures more flexible, and we pressure them to do so. Nothing would please me more than seeing USAID and the like directly funding community groups and in-country NGOs without our involvement. Nevertheless, I am proud that through TNC around 15 community and indigenous organizations in the Brazilian, Peruvian, and Venezuelan Amazon receive government funding from two U.S. federal agencies and two European governments. In doing so, I believe we are responding to the desire of broad public constituencies in the U.S. and Europe to support conservation in the Amazon and elsewhere in the tropics with some of their tax dollars, rather than sliding down a slippery slope where governmental agendas take over from community priorities.

It is in Chapin's questioning of the ability and desire of the conservation organizations to oppose development and engage in advocacy for communities that his naivete is most apparent. Frankly, we are the kiss of death. International conservation organizations, especially those with strong links to the United States, are regarded with suspicion in many countries. If we were to engage in open advocacy, this would immediately be seized upon by nationalist critics to weaken the political position of those we defended. But there are different forms of advocacy. It is a form of advocacy to pay for community patrolling of indigenous areas, as we do. It is a form of advocacy quietly to pass details of egregious abuses to the international press, as we do. It is a form of advocacy to pass inside knowledge to other organizations which do a much more effective job of campaigning than ourselves, as we do. It is a form of advocacy to build the capacity of the indigenous movement in Brazil to lobby for itself, as we do. It is a form of advocacy to do a series of other things which I do not choose to identify publicly for the political reasons cited above. We intentionally keep a low profile, and criticism for pusillanimity by Chapin is one of the prices we pay. He could have paid us the courtesy of actually talking to our indigenous and other partners before going into print, but that would have allowed the facts to spoil his good story.


Director, Amazon Program

The Nature Conservancy

Belem, Brazil

Mac Chapin's recent article criticized NGOs for lack of attention to indigenous people and challenged NGOs to change. Considering the animus raised about a lack of coordination between NGOs and Native Americans, it is also important to note the positive relationships between Native American tribes and national conservation organizations.


The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has enjoyed successful conservation partnerships with Native Americans since the mid-1980s. NWF's Tribal Lands Conservation Program has deeply entrenched itself in tribal conservation projects across the nation and is working in many successful partnerships with tribes. We have seen success with conservation projects and how those successes have helped empower Native Americans.

The goal of NWF's Tribal Lands Program is to ensure the well-being of wildlife and habitat on and near tribal lands by working in partnership with tribal governments, organizations, environmental staff, and members, while respecting tribal culture and sovereignty, critical values upon which any such viable partnership must be based. The program promotes environmental and economic justice for Native Americans and seeks empowerment for tribes at the local, state, and national levels. The program aims to influence and implement public policy that ensures Native Americans a voice on major environmental issues.

The program works with tribes on a variety of environmental issues, including threatened and endangered species restoration and protection; wildlife habitat restoration and protection on tribal and public lands; tribal conservation education; national environmental policy training; advocacy training; and capacity building. Tribal-NWF partnerships greatly expand the ability of tribes and NWF to jointly protect wildlife, advance land stewardship, and safeguard water resources.

Natural resource conservation and environmental concerns transcend natural and cultural boundaries and affect many different resources and people. We welcome Chapin's challenge. NWF's Tribal Lands Conservation Program will continue to reinforce and broaden its conservation relationships with Native Americans, and all Americans, for the benefit of current and future generations who value wildlife and habitat.


Tribal Lands Conservation

Program Manager

National Wildlife Federation

We would like to comment on those challenges put forth by Chapin which relate to the interaction between conservationists, scientists, and indigenous people. In most ecoregional planning processes, the main inputs are provided by scientists that have first-hand knowledge of the region's biodiversity. Local perspectives are included once sites have been selected by an error-proof, science-based approach. Local inhabitants are not consulted, on the [grounds] that it would be pointless to work with them at such a large scale.

We believe the above argument is basically flawed, given that expert consultations, especially in areas like the Maya forest that have not been extensively studied, usually involve incomplete information. (For example, many of the recommendations used in the Maya, Zoque, and Olmec forest ecoregional plan were rated by the experts themselves as "best guesses" because the necessary research simply had not been carried out.) Moreover, even with precise information, it is clear that natural systems cannot be fully described by scientific representations due to their intrinsic complexity. What we believe is happening is that, due to the self-righteousness of the scientific community and the one-way flow of information from them to society, some of the actors are imposing their visions, values, beliefs, and strategies, while the rest are excluded from most of the process and then invited at the end to participate in other people's projects.

The Otoch Ma'ax yetel Kooh protected area (best known as Punta Laguna) is one of the few protected areas in Mexico that were created in response to an initiative by the indigenous inhabitants of the area. In order to obtain recognition and support from the government, local leaders requested that the area be declared as a reserve, motivated to protect those natural attractions that tourists from nearby spots in the Caribbean were coming to see. Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan (PPY), one of the local NGOs that participates in the ecoregional plan mentioned above, began a collaborative endeavor with the local communities in 1985, which led to the declaration of the protected area in 2002. Decisions on what to conserve, where, and how, have been taken by the people living in the protected area. PPY has limited its scope to doing research on the spider monkey's habitat needs, improving some of the facilities for tourists, and facilitating local decision-making processes as well as negotiations with state and federal authorities.

The "big three" should not lobby for the "adoption" of their plan by other actors, but rather facilitate an environment in which expert recommendations and action proposals can be understood, criticized, discussed, and modified as openly as possible by all stakeholders. In this perspective, already-existing community-based conservation initiatives become all the more important, as they can serve as examples of local success that could convince other actors to participate and maintain an open attitude toward conservation.


CIIDIR--Unidad Oaxaca, Mexico


University of California,

Santa Cruz, U.S.A.


Universitat Autonoma de

Barcelona, Spain

Of all the letters responding to Mac Chapin's article, I feel that of the American and Bolivian colleagues J. Alcorn and A. Zarzycki gets closest to the point. Their observations take into consideration the two entirely different worldviews and styles of communication. I wonder how many readers will notice their key phrases: the need, on the part of large organizations, for an outlook that "uses different processes than the usual project 'participation' and 'consultation'"; a roundtable "facilitated by an indigenous organization, funded without donor intervention and without imposed deadlines"; and "a sincere effort ... to do this in a different manner driven by indigenous time, perspectives, and processes, rather than the ... Western analytical format." Their recommendation that donors take the risk to support indigenous peoples' own efforts to conserve their lands directly is important.

Traditional and indigenous people tend to keep the span of generations in mind as they consider the future implications of any decision or change. Change usually happens only when consensus among the group has been reached, no matter how long it takes. For hierarchical Westerners, important considerations such as "the good of the people" often get lost in the rush to decide and act--time is money and "progress" seems urgent for the fiscal year. The field representatives of conservation groups who stick around local areas for awhile gain insight into the real needs and long-term concerns of the local peoples, but their message often does not get heard back at corporate headquarters because it doesn't fit their paradigm. When the local people see no real response to their concerns, they lose faith in their contacts.

Can large conservationist groups learn to work with the challenge of indigenous-style consensus and perspective? The benefits of doing so, aside from helping to forestall unneeded or possibly disastrous development, are excellent, because once indigenous people decide their way to do something, they can offer pragmatic solutions and creative conflict-resolution methods, and carry out what they see as their aims with determination.


New York, New York

Thank you to World Watch for contributing to the indigenous people vs. nature protection debate. The article asked pertinent questions but provided few answers, perhaps itself indicative of the difficulty of the issue. The author's rather sensationalist tone also tends to detract from the text. Much hearsay, but few hard facts or statistics, were presented to back up claims of indigenous peoples' "increasingly hostile" attitude to biodiversity-oriented NGOs.

That said, as a long-term conservation volunteer and professional, I admit that our movement does have those who see local people as a problem rather than as an essential part of the solution. Whether they are anything more than a small minority is another matter. Others start optimistic but become disillusioned when progress on the ground is slow or simply fails.

However, the very word "project" is part of the problem: the idea that one can obtain lasting solutions to land use and conservation, and build up local NGOs, over the standard agency funding period of a few years is ludicrous to anyone who has faced the reality out there. This has been recognized for years, but little has improved on the funding side.

Lasting results may only be obtained over several decades. Donors should choose their "hotspots" and stick with them, building up regional expertise both within themselves and the organizations they fund. This would also help retain more experienced workers, who typically leave after a project is finished, taking their knowledge with them.

The "big three" NGOs cited in Mr. Chapin's article are not grass-roots organizations insofar as making a donation does not buy a say in how it is spent.

Arguably, better long-term results in conservation will be achieved by membership-based organizations founding local branches in the target country and building up projects from local premises. But this too is often torturous: injections of money into local NGOs in poor countries frequently breed jealousy and competition, and the societies are sometimes hi-jacked by savvy board members or directors looking to turn them into motors for personal gain. Time is needed, and donor exasperation tends to drive NGOs away from democracy.



BirdLife European Forest Task Force

Helsinki, Finland

In response to Chapin's excellent piece, I write to comment specifically about Conservation International because I am most familiar with that organization, having worked for CI's Guatemala program (called ProPeten) from 1993 to 1999, first as a volunteer and then as paid staff. When planning began in 2002 to legalize ProPeten as an independent Guatemalan NGO, I eagerly accepted the invitation to be a founding member and eventually became president of the board. Little did I imagine the legal and financial nightmare CI would put ProPeten through; USAID/Guatemala officials eventually intervened on ProPeten's behalf in 2003. (Chapin, in fact, alludes to this "bitter fight over resources" in his article.) My letter, however, is not the forum to describe the details of that separation process, nor does it represent the official view of ProPeten (which I am happy to report is now thriving independently of CI). Instead, I want to offer some personal observations about how and why CI changed over the years.

Ten years ago, CI was a decentralized and disorganized outfit--but also fun and effective. They hired and delegated authority to talented local people and fostered successful projects in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru, and Papua New Guinea, among other countries. And money began to flow in.

Instead of investing those funds in field projects, CI hired more headquarters staff, especially desk-bound biologists and business people, and shifted decisionmaking from the field to CI's new internal think tanks in Washington, D.C. Headquarters staff pulled in the reins of field directors and demanded more reports, more budget requisitions, more complicated planning frameworks. Communications became increasingly one-way. Field programs rarely had a chance to learn from each other and discuss the challenges of community-based conservation.

In search of more multilateral funding, around 1999 CI began to reorganize its work along transnational corridors, which brought them strange bedfellows. Take the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which is uncomfortably linked to the Puebla-to-Panama Plan (PPP). Opposed by hundreds of civil society organizations across Central America, the PPP is a $10-billion program backed by the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB). It proposes a network of roads, hydroelectric dams, energy grids, natural gas pipelines, and other mega-development projects that threaten Central America's remaining forests. Although more than 95 percent of PPP funding is destined for infrastructure projects, the PPP marketing team effectively greenwashed the package by earmarking a mere 5 percent of the budget to support conservation and ecotourism. Last year CI won the IDB/PPP ecotourism contract, even after CI had abandoned its Peten ecotourism initiatives to bankruptcy in 2002.

I have just returned from two years of living amongst Q'eqchi' communities in the Guatemalan and Belizean lowlands. My research indicates that the PPP will likely increase landlessness among the Q'eqchi' and they will be left with no other option but to invade protected areas. Yet, as described by Chapin, the international conservationists blame the Q'eqchi' people for deforestation, rather than recognizing their own complicity with development banks and other forces of corporate globalization that compel poor and indigenous peoples to destroy their own forests for survival.

Perhaps that is why CI is now calling for strict preservationism. Frustrated with the messiness of integrated conservation and development programs, CI now advocates what it calls "direct" conservation, i.e., purchasing concessions from third-world governments. The colonial rhetoric of CI's resource economists, who push these "conservation incentives," would make Cecil Rhodes proud. I recall how at a conference in 2002 a senior CI economist whipped out a calculator, punched in a few numbers, and declared to the audience that buying up a 45,000-hectare timber concession in Bolivia would be "less than the cost of a house in my neighborhood."

Buying up Third World land might be cheap enough--but what happens with the thorny issue of policing those areas? CI recently published a report on "Strategies for Improving the Enforcement of Environmental Laws Globally." Nowhere in this 34-page document do the authors worry about aligning themselves with the military dictatorships governing most of CI's "hotspots." In fact, not once in their case study of Chiapas do the authors even mention the Zapatista revolt. While CI may claim to be apolitical in such matters, in places as politicized as Chiapas, silence is, indeed, very political.

As this example illustrates, there is a Machiavellian logic underlying CI's conservation style: to save biodiversity at whatever the human cost. Because it lacks accountability to local people, this strategy may ultimately backfire. I would suggest a better gamble for donors is to invest in local people and organizations which understand that, without justice and equity, conservation doesn't stand a chance.


Ph.D. candidate,

Department of Anthropology

University of California, Berkeley

While I agree with Chapin (World Watch November/December) that the gap between the financial capabilities of large NGOs and local communities weighs heavily against effective partnering, the relationship between indigenous peoples and NGOs is too necessary to all parties to be abandoned. Effort is needed to improve the relationship.

I attempt here to identify factors that drive outcomes by exploring the partnership in territorial surveillance between Conservation International, one of the world's largest NGOs, and the indigenous Kayapo in Brazil. I briefly describe the project, based largely upon observation and interviews, and then consider why I think it works.

Kayapo reservations total 10,905,175 hectares in the southern portion of the Amazon basin. Among them, the 3,284,005-ha Area Indigena Kayapo (AIK) encompasses one of the world's largest continuous blocks of pristine, closed-canopy rainforest. It is also site of the northern limit of Brazil's savannic cerrado, one of the least understood habitats in the Americas.

In the absence of conservation safeguards at local, state, and federal levels, the Kayapo play a critical role in preserving the region's biodiversity. The 4,500 Kayapo practice low-intensive land-use methods, combining cultivation with hunting, fishing, and foraging. As a result of scant population, low-impact utilization, and protective surveillance by the Kayapo, uninterrupted cover is sufficient to maintain reproductive populations of plant and animal species driven elsewhere to local extinction.

The degree of preservation is remarkable given the relentless pressure from mining, logging, ranching, and agrobusiness. The absence of these interests inside the reserve is due to border surveillance by the Kayapo through two principal strategies: overflights and border posts. The latter are settlements placed along the reserve's 1,600-kilometer border to inhibit invasion.

Kayapo wealth is contained in the forests in which they live. Yet there are costs associated with its protection, including fuel and maintenance for the collectively owned airplane. Kayapo also need revenue for other purposes. Both the Kayapo and CI are aware that selling forest remains a means of obtaining income.

CI's involvement with the Kayapo, like that of so many others, has origins in the 1980s when Kayapo leaders campaigned to stop a hydroelectric project that would have flooded 7.6 million hectares, 85 percent of which belonged to indigenous peoples. The leaders, Paiaka and Kube'I, had been invited by me in 1987 to speak at a conference on rainforest conservation. NGO representatives later facilitated meetings for the two with relevant entities, including executive directors of the World Bank. That David-and-Goliath effort launched an international campaign that halted a megaproject that, beforehand, appeared inevitable. It demonstrated the potential in indigenous/NGO collaboration, catalyzing a number of alliances and programs in its wake.

The present case is but one example of many projects that directly or indirectly evolved from that historic collaboration. While campaigning in Canada, Paiaka met ecologist Barbara Zimmerman and invited her to A'ukre. It was Paiaka who proposed the idea of an absolute preservation zone within the AIK. Zimmerman recognized the opportunity for a research station. With funding from CI and the Suzuki Foundation, Zimmerman, Paiaka, and the people of A'ukre established the Pinkaiti Reserve and Ecological Station in 1992.

In 2001 CI expanded its involvement in the AIK to border surveillance. CI's role is to provide 1) supplies to guardposts, such as boats, motors, gasoline, and radios (accounting for about 73 percent of budget); 2) GPS and satellite data (about 15 percent of budget); and 3) training and meeting expenses (about 12 percent of budget). Total annual operating expenses for surveillance, training, and meetings do not exceed $200,000.

Although it is still new, I believe this project is a model in a number of ways. First, goals and strategies of the project were initiated by the Kayapo. The partnership builds upon existing Kayapo practices that coincide with conservationist goals. In 2000 the Kayapo had 16 surveillance posts in place. Today, with CI provisions, there are 22. Second, the project is inclusive, allowing any village to join. Third, Kayapo leaders maintain high-profile roles in decision-making. CI enables leaders from different villages to convene to discuss general concerns as well as project strategies. In three meetings between 2000 and 2003, Kayapo and CI representatives set out the terms of their partnership. Transferable lessons from this project include maximizing participation and benefit, ensuring transparency, and sharing decision-making.

While many NGOs recognize the importance of "listening" to the voices of indigenous peoples, resources invested in this activity are typically limited. Zimmerman, who serves as mediator between CI and the Kayapo, has worked over 10 years as an ecologist among them. She understands Kayapo and initiated her son in the village. Several children are named after Pinkaiti researchers, including one who bears the name of distinguished conservation biologist Carlos Peres.

Zimmerman (and by extension, CI) have fallen, however inadvertently, into a "participatory" mode of interaction. This is a methodology not regularly or consciously employed by environmental NGOs who may regard as sufficient five or fewer days for an "on-site" analysis. Yet inclusion and partnering are complex processes, carrying potential for mutual misunderstanding. While NGOs cannot be expected to invest years before evaluating a project's appropriateness, greater investment can, and should, be made in the "listening" process.


Department of Anthropology

University of Maryland, College Park

Member, Commission on South

American Indigenous Peoples of the American Anthropological Association

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Title Annotation:FROM READERS
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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