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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Aux Barricades!

July 29, 2008

By Jon Christensen

Fortress conservation is making a come-back. Don’t be fooled by all the happy talk about putting people and communities back at the center of conservation and linking conservation to poverty alleviation—talk you might have read here, among other places.

While talking a friendly line, conservationists have been busy behind the scenes, reinforcing traditional defenses in far-reaching strategic plans that will affect the future of conservation internationally for years to come, says Jon Hutton, former director of ResourceAfrica and current director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Advocates for shoring up barriers around protected areas—to keep people out—are gaining ground at the expense of efforts to integrate conservation into the places where people live. And Hutton is worried.

In an article written before he joined UNEP, Hutton, along with colleagues from the World Conservation Union and Cambridge University, aired his concern that this “back-to-the-barriers” movement is winning the war for control of conservation in the bureaucratic trenches where international strategies are determined (1). “There is a real risk that this focus on exclusion will lead to conservation strategies that so lack democratic legitimacy that they will not endure,” wrote Hutton and colleagues.

To understand the depth of Hutton’s concern, you have to enter into his world: the world of international conservation bureaucrats. Here, acronyms like CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) and GEF (Global Environment Facility) convey decisive influence over what gets done on the ground, and changes in the language of obscure documents can set the course of major policies and funding priorities for decades to come. It is easy for most of us to let our eyes glaze over when someone starts talking about the biodiversity strategy in the 2004-2006 Business Plan for the Third Replenishment introduced to the 21st GEF council meeting in May 2003 (2).

But that document is where Hutton and his colleagues found the smoking gun. “Sustainable use in protected areas and buffer zones had disappeared from amongst the strategic priorities, replaced by the concept of ‘sustainability of protected areas,’ which is very different,” they wrote. As a result of this shift in language, they claimed, funding for community-based natural resource management (CBNRM in the lingo of the bureaucrats) has been pushed aside in favor of funding to fortify protected areas.

Now community-based natural resource management is fraught with problems, too, Hutton concedes. As a former director of Fauna & Flora International, he has seen it all, from unprotected protected areas to unsustainable sustainable-use areas. Still, he believes that for conservation to work in the long run around the world, sustainable use has to be part of the picture in many protected areas and in the surrounding landscape.

But now, instead of running on the same track to the same destination—an integrated landscape of communities and conservation—separate tracks are being laid to the future in the CBD, the international policy framework for future biodiversity conservation, and the GEF, the most important funding agency for international conservation. One track leads through a landscape where people and communities are intimately engaged in conservation. The other leads back to the barricades.

1. Hutton, J., W.M. Adams, and J.C. Murombedzi. 2005. Back to the Barriers? Changing Narratives in Biodiversity Conservation. Forum for Development Studies, No. 2-2005, Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt,

2. Global Environment Facility. 2005. Working draft GEF Biodiversity Strategy, Doc GEF/R.4/Inf.6 August 10, 2005, Meeting on the Fourth Replenishment of the GEF Trust Fund, September 2, 2005. Washington, D.C.

Jon Christensen is a research fellow in the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University.

The Uneasy Chair is named in honor of Bernard DeVoto, who, from 1935 to 1955 wrote “The Editor’s Easy Chair” column for Harper’s magazine-a perch from which he often sallied forth in defense of conservation. Wallace Stegner’s biography of DeVoto was more aptly titled The Uneasy Chair (Doubleday, 1974), from which this column takes its name and its challenge.

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