Biocultural perspectives on conservation planning

Dr. Eleanor Sterling is the Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  She recently spoke in the Howard Woodin Colloquium of the Program in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.  Her presentation on how biocultural perspectives influence conservation strategies is well worth watching, and can be viewed in its entirety here.

The main thrust of her argument, as I see it, is that the practice of conservation is not strictly a natural science.  Because conservation is imagined and implemented (or not) by people embedded within distinct cultures with distinct histories, the design of conservation strategies requires consideration of those cultures and histories.  In short, the people who will ultimately responsible for implementing the strategies must be equitably included in the design process.  The alternative is to risk failure.

Her example of how failure to consider the importance of an animal’s color to ethical perceptions of whether or not they are acceptable as food is an instant classic.  A strategy to provide rabbits  to villagers in Madagascar as an alternative to endangered lemurs as a food source failed … because the rabbits provided were black, and the villagers have a cultural proscription against eating black animals.

She further develops her argument through the lens of systems analysis, which shows that conservation problems (such as an endangered species) cannot be understood or solved by focusing on only one level, such as a local village.  Local actions are influenced by conditions and policies at higher levels and larger spatial extents, such as regions, nations, and international communities.

I like this message for two reasons.  First, it reminds us that conservation anywhere involves the responsibility of people everywhere.  We are all a part of a global system of social, cultural, and ecological interactions, and it is simply not defensible to claim that we are not connected to the root causes of every conservation challenge.  Second, it reminds me of reason I am uncomfortable with the tendency of many of my colleagues to view “conservation biology” as synonymous with “conservation.”  If conservation strategies get reduced to being just the application of biology, it’s easy to ignore the role of culture and society in making conservation work.  And as Eleanor Sterling so eloquently points out, we ignore this at our peril.

What I still find challenging in thinking about biocultural perspectives is not how they can help implement successful strategies.  It’s what happens when cultural perceptions of what matters irreconcilably clash.  At some level, all human-defined goals are reflections of human-defined values, and not all values can be promoted simultaneously.  If a natural resource extraction industry values profit over the persistence of a species, how can a path forward be shaped that does not fundamentally require that one or the other biocultural perspective be devalued?

And when unconstrained economic growth is increasingly held as the preeminent global paradigm, how can conservation succeed?

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