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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.

Win-Win Illusions

July 29, 2008

By Jon Christensen

Illustration ©John Martin/SIS

Like many conservationists, Kent Redford dreams of a world where people and nature thrive side by side. But over and over, he has seen those illusions shattered.

Last fall, at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, indigenous groups threatened to take the stage to broadcast a simple message to the world: that parks and protected areas are fundamentally incompatible with the rights and aspirations of impoverished local communities. Redford feared a public confrontation could drive a wedge deep into the heart of efforts to find common ground between protecting biodiversity and alleviating poverty in those parts of the world where biodiversity is rich and people are poor.

The irony is that Redford played a role in creating this rift. But now he is desperately trying to bridge the growing divide between poor people and protected areas, before it is too late.

As a vice president at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has nearly 300 field projects in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, Redford is in the thick of this debate.

But this is not just about Kent Redford, of course. Redford isn’t the only person in this story, and he isn’t the most important person in the history of this conflict. He’s not even the first author on many of the papers and books that have defined this debate in the literature. He just happens to have been near the center of this conflict as it has unfolded over the past 20 years. His name runs through this story like a thread, and so his is a useful path to follow.

Redford’s career has been influenced by many of the great men of conservation biology: Michael Soulé, who named and helped found the field of conservation biology; E.O. Wilson, who coined the term biodiversity; George Schaller, the grand man of adventuresome wildlife conservation. But this isn’t a history of great men either. This is the story of the second generation of conservation biology. This is the story of what comes next.

The Ecologically Divisive Noble Savage

It was in the Amazon , studying mammals and hunting among the Kayapo Indians in the 1980s, that Redford came upon the first fork in this trail. Everyone was talking about saving the rain forest by recognizing indigenous territories on the one hand, and on the other, establishing “extractive reserves,” areas where people could harvest the forest’s products without destroying the forest. These were to be the perfect marriage of conservation and sustainable development, celebrated with Rainforest Crunch ice cream.

At the time, botanists dominated the biological end of the field, Redford said. They were focused on “how many nuts, how much latex, how much fruit you could collect.” But in many places, hunting was creating an “empty forest” with trees but no large animals (1). It’s easier to harvest plants sustainably than wild animals because, as Redford said, “You can’t cut the back leg off of a monkey and then let it loose and get it again the next year.”

At the height of the world’s romance with the people of the rain forest, Redford dropped a bombshell in this field with an essay entitled “The Ecologically Noble Savage” in Cultural Survival Quarterly (2). People long to believe there is a place where humans live in Rousseau’s ideal of a “natural state,” Redford said. But even before Europeans came to the Amazon, people “had tremendously affected the virgin forest, with ensuing impacts on plant and animal species,” he wrote. “These people behaved as humans do now: they did whatever they had to do to feed themselves.”

In modern times, that means hunting with shotguns and rifles, flashlights and outboard motors. And those methods, Redford wrote, “change completely the interaction between human hunters and their prey.”

Redford laid out an argument that he continues to make and that continues to be misunderstood. Indigenous people have been horribly wronged and their rights to their land should be recognized, Redford argued, but independently of any expected conservation benefits. Because if indigenous people turn around and decide they want income from timber or oil on their lands, as many were doing, they get blamed for not holding up their end of the bargain. And that’s not fair. “They can hardly be faulted for failing to live up to Western expectations of the noble savage,” he wrote.

Redford meant this as a defense of indigenous sovereignty, but his argument was interpreted as an attack on an ideal. It is the only thing he has written that generated hate mail.

Redford reached a tipping point of his own during an Oxford debate with a Maori indigenous rights advocate. The proposition was “indigenous people are conservationists.” Redford won the debate on the facts by going back through the historical record of extinctions of birds to demonstrate that people have always been hard on nature. But he lost the audience. They swarmed his opponent after the debate. Not one person came up to talk to Redford. Being right isn’t enough, Redford realized.

A Bad Marriage

The marriage of conservation and development was sealed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The notion of “integrated conservation and development projects” or “ICDPs” was coined that same year by Katrina Brandon and Michael Wells. In a seminal paper entitled “People and Parks” (3), they set lofty goals for the union. “The only hope for breaking the destructive patterns of resource use,” they wrote, “is to reduce rural poverty, and improve income levels, nutrition, health care and education.”

Fueled by an influx of money that had traditionally gone to development projects, ICDPs quickly became a darling of NGOs and international funding agencies. There were few skeptics, but Redford was one. He wrote a paper with a colleague, Steven Sanderson, that same year entitled “The Brief, Barren Marriage of Biodiversity and Sustainability” (4). But once again, being right didn’t stop the proceedings. And Redford wasn’t the kind to shout “No!” at the wedding. In fact, he hoped he was wrong. But no such luck.

A “deadly combination of wishful thinking, quickly contrived policy poultices, and poor information” led policymakers to simply declare “biodiversity conservation is de facto compatible with sustainable economic development,” Redford and Sanderson wrote. “These concepts were transformed into packaging buzzwords, and took on a life of their own.”

From there, a whole culture developed in which it was not OK to report failures. Instead, ICDPs were reporting success but rotting in the middle, Redford said recently, reflecting back on the decade since.

For more than a decade, Redford had enjoyed a privileged perch from which to survey the scene from the University of Florida’s renowned Program for Studies in Tropical Conservation. But he wanted to be closer to the action. So in 1993, he left academia to work for The Nature Conservancy directing a cooperative program with the U.S. Agency for International Development working to strengthen “parks in peril,” or so-called “paper parks.” The team worked with managers in 60 protected areas covering 30 million hectares in 18 countries from Mexico to Paraguay. The lessons, summed up in the book Parks in Peril (5) are tough and complicated, and they cut right to the heart of the conservation and development dilemma. The main finding was that parks don’t work in isolation. “Parks may be ecological islands,” Redford and his colleagues concluded, “but they are part of the social and political mainland.” Parks have a better chance of succeeding on their own terms as protected areas if they have a respected place in a national agenda for conservation and are recognized as places to visit but not to take anything away from. But when parks are also expected to be a place where economic development goals can be satisfied, conservation tends to play second fiddle.

From Corcovado in Costa Rica to Yan-achaga-Chemillen in Peru, all of the parks fell somewhere between those two poles, most at the more perilous end where serious conflicts over land and resources threatened to undermine their reason for existing. None had achieved a happy balance. “Win-win solutions,” Redford and his colleagues wrote, “do not exist.” It was this conclusion that could not be ignored by conservationists.

And once again, it was a conclusion that put Redford—who moved to the Wildlife Conservation Society, where he was made the director of biodiversity coordination in 1997—at the center of the conflict between preserving biodiversity and helping people.

Whiplashed by Contradictions

A year after the “Parks in Peril” program published its final report in 1998, John Terborgh, published Requiem for Nature (6), a cri de coeur and a call to arms for the position that protecting biodiversity is fundamentally incompatible with economic development of any kind. A renowned ecologist and codirector of the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University, Terborgh based his argument on Manu National Park, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, where he worked for many years. He showed that even the small populations of Machiguenga Indians living in the park were imperiling giant river otters, harpy eagles, and capuchin monkeys.

The message was loud and clear: If even indigenous people are incompatible with conservation, there isn’t much hope for conservation and development. This was a line that seemed to come straight out of the “Ecologically Noble Savage,” reinforced by Parks in Peril, and corroborated by the findings of other colleagues who were increasingly skeptical of the “win-win” happy talk of integrated conservation and development projects, including Michael Wells and Katrina Brandon, who coined the term.

At the same time, there was a growing backlash against protected areas with some indigenous and poor people’s advocates asserting that conservation and development are two sides of the coin of colonialism. Marcus Colchester, an anthropologist and veteran indigenous rights advocate, typified the criticism of protected area conservation, calling it an “old fortress model that excluded people.”

Last year, Colchester was one of the behind-the-scenes organizers of an indigenous caucus for the World Parks Congress in South Africa. Parks are for people, the caucus declared.

This increasingly unavoidable conflict between Terborgh’s and Colchester’s essential visions is what triggered Redford’s fears about the looming confrontation. He knew from experience that a fight with indigenous people at the World Parks Congress would be bad enough. Indigenous people are a highly visible, supercharged symbol of the relationship between people and nature. But Redford knew that a conflict between poverty alleviation and conservation would be even worse in the long run. That was the rift that Redford hoped to find a way to bridge while also trying to head off

open conflict between indigenous people and conservationists.

So Redford trudged off to South Africa to face what easily could have been a nightmare. But this time, he didn’t go as the lone truth teller. He went in search of a way through the complications at the center of his life’s work in conservation. “The theme that I’ve arrived at for myself,” he said, “is there has to be a middle ground between capitulating and what has been termed the fortress approach to conservation.” Redford didn’t find an answer in Durban, but neither did his worst fears become reality. The tensions were not resolved, but they were aired. The indigenous caucus is now being included more deeply in the ongoing implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity that grew out of Rio ’92.

Marcus Colchester even had kind words for Redford. Some of the old-timers are “never going to change their spots,” Colchester said. “Kent is a much more self-challenging thinker.”

Redford, however, already had his sights on resolving a much more difficult dilemma. The World Parks Congress, once a bastion for single-minded focus on protected areas, seemed all too eager to take on the burden of poverty alleviation. The theme of the Durban congress reflected the demands of the times: “benefits beyond boundaries.” Claude Martin, the director general of WWF International, made the connection explicit: protected areas are “integral to poverty reduction and national development strategies.”

The Next Generation

As he burrowed into the discussions on poverty and development at the parks congress, Redford realized this was another fork in the road. For the first time, however, he didn’t have an answer at hand. Like everyone else, he is stumbling on this uneasy path.

“We need to reject the current logic,” he said after coming home from Durban, searching as he spoke. “But we can only afford to destroy it if we have something better to offer.”

Call it a midlife crisis for a 48-year-old no longer so sure of himself. But remember, this is not just about Kent Redford. It’s about conservationists of a certain age and, perhaps, conservation itself. Redford’s generation of conservation biologists apprenticed with the fire-breathing preachers of salvation for the pure of heart. But they have lived through enough failures to question whether that is the best approach.

“All we have done is blame and count the dead, instead of engaging with the human community on what we want,” Redford said. “As long as we’re stuck being the professional grievers we will condemn ourselves to irrelevance.”

In a recent editorial in Conservation Biology with M.A. Sanjayan, a colleague at The Nature Conservancy whose career also began in the shadow of the grand men of conservation, Redford recently called for “retiring Cassandra,” the old “crisis discipline” view of the field (7). “To change the fate of the world, conservation biology must provide scenarios balancing human well-being and a world rich in nature, as well as the scientific basis for making the trade-offs,” they argued. “We must also redefine ourselves as the practitioners of this visionary science based on the conviction that we can achieve a world in which humans thrive in the company of a resplendent natural world.”

But how? That is the question. And Redford knows it. Or else this is just another lofty restatement of the win-win illusions that have already proven to be losers.

For now, Redford is calling for a rather simple reformulation of the “integrated conservation and development” formula. Along with John Robinson, a colleague at the Wildlife Conservation Society, he has proposed adding a little more clarity to the necessary tradeoffs and priorities by labeling some “conservation projects with development,” and others “development projects with conservation.” It’s a baby step—recognizing that each side needs to make explicit its interests and demands and negotiate from there. But projects that try to achieve these goals and ignore the trade-offs will end in failure, Redford predicts, with both the poor and biodiversity suffering.

There are not many good examples of success to offer in this field, and at this point, Redford is reluctant to offer examples as models. He’s seen too many applied blindly to people and places where they don’t fit. But he does have one that gives him hope.

Redford’s colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society have gone back to the Chaco of Paraguay, where Redford began his career trapping armadillos. For the past ten years, the organization has been working closely with an indigenous group called the Capitania de Alto y Bajo Izozog , which represents 9,000 Guarani Indians along the Parapati River. Their territory is on the frontier of agricultural development, vast soybean farms and ranching, and natural gas development.

The Capitania was interested in protecting their traditional territory from encroaching settlers, but they were also interested in economic development for their impoverished members. The conservationists were interested in protecting the unique dry forest and the rare and endemic species that live there. Together, through intense negotiations with each other and then lobbying jointly, they came up with a solution that is now being implemented: the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park, to be managed by the Capitania and the Paraguayan national park system. At 3.4 million hectares, it is the largest park in the Americas established at the initiative of an indigenous group. And it is the only national park in the Americas managed jointly by an indigenous group and a national government. The deal also recognizes the Capitania’s indigenous territory, which together with the park covers 5.3 million hectares, an area the size of Costa Rica. And it sets up a US$1.5-million fund, including US$1 million from a gas pipeline trust fund, for permanent management of the park.

What will keep the Kaa-Iya from becoming another paper park in peril? Although there are no absolute guarantees, the park itself is clearly protected, and the indigenous people’s territorial rights and economic development needs were addressed outside of the protected area. So there is hope in this one place, not as a model, but perhaps as an example.

“Both parties succeeded beyond expectations because of the power of their agendas,” said Redford. “It was an agreement to mutually use each other for independent ends within a coherent package.”

Call him romantic. Or call him pragmatic. Despite the long and sometimes bitter history of failed marriages between conservation and development, Redford still believes a good marriage based on mutual respect can survive. In fact, he believes it’s the only way biodiversity inmuch of the world will survive.


Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) are intuitively appealing. They offer something for everyone. They promise to defuse the major threats to biodiversity, create better opportunities for people to earn a decent living and gain access to basic services, and equitably address the rights and interests of everyone who uses land and resources in and around protected areas. No wonder ICDPs have proven so easy to sell to a broad range of interests, from park managers and conservation organizations, to local communities, development agencies, and governments.

So what went wrong? In short, the myth of “win-win” solutions created a culture in which overly ambitious projects proliferated based on weak assumptions and little evidence. There is no doubt that poverty alleviation and conservation of biodiversity must work hand-in-hand in today’s world. But there are trade-offs that must be recognized, and mistakes that need to be avoided, for ICDPs to work in the future.

1. ICDPs have been based on naïve assumptions. Poverty can cause environmental degradation, and poor people deserve opportunities to improve their lives. However, beyond a few rare cases, there is little evidence that improving the lot of people in and around protected areas translates directly into more effective biodiversity conservation. There is even evidence that increasing local incomes close to ecologically valuable areas can accelerate clearing for agriculture.

2. ICDPs have unconvincing notions of local participation. The idealized concept of a “local community” in most project planning bears little resemblance to the real world. One seasoned observer defines “community” as “a figment of the imagination of project managers and donors seeking quick fixes.” In reality, the community is made up of people with wildly divergent interests in protected areas and their surrounding lands.

3. ICDPs have often targeted the wrong threats. Most projects have focused on containing the threat of small-scale farming and hunting activities. But these activities are often less of a threat than mining, road building, dam construction, irrigation schemes, resettlement programs, plantations, logging, market hunting and other large-scale threats. But it is much more difficult to confront these powerful, often politically connected interests, so important threats are often left unaddressed by ICDPs.

4. ICDPs have pie-in-the-sky goals for financial sustainability. Many ICDPs were funded with the hope that they would become self-supporting. In practice, most require ongoing support or they collapse. In reality, the ability of most protected areas to generate revenues sufficient to cover operating costs and also benefit local populations is limited.

5. ICDPs don’t generate enough benefits to provide incentives for conservation. ICDPs usually do not provide adequate incentives to discourage activities that threaten protected areas. This does not mean that ICDPs won’t work. But it does mean that the ability of ICDPs to generate livelihoods for local residents will rarely be sufficient to assure the preservation of protected areas.

Despite this rather demoralizing list of problems, the rationale for ICDPs has not disappeared. Biodiversity simply cannot be conserved in much of the world if people’s needs and aspirations are not taken into account. To succeed in the future ICDPs will need to be based on explicit testable assumptions, clearly stated objectives, and measurable conservation targets. They should promote simple and adaptive conservation and development initiatives that are consistent with strengthening protected areas. ICDPs need to identify and address diverse stakeholder interests, and they must work in partnerships to address larger problems that defy local solutions.

By Michael Wells, Thomas O. McShane, Holly T. Dublin, Sheila O’Connor, and Kent H. Redford

Adapted from: Wells, M. et al. 2004. The future of integrated conservation and development projects: Building on what works. In McShane, T. and M. Wells eds. Getting Biodiversity Projects to Work: Towards More Effective Conservation and Development . Columbia University Press, New York.

Literature Cited

1. Redford, K.H., 1992. The empty forest. BioScience. 42(6):412-422.

2. Redford, K.H. 1991. The ecologically noble savage. Cultural Survival Quarterly 15(1):46-48.

3. Wells, M. and K. Brandon. 1992. People and parks: Linking protected area management with local communities. The World Bank, Washington, DC.

4. Redford, K.H. and S.E. Sanderson. 1992. The brief, barren marriage of biodiversity and sustainability. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 73(1):36-39.

5. Brandon, K., K.H. Redford, and S.E. Sanderson. 1998. Parks in Peril: People, Politics, and Protected Areas. Island Press, Washington, DC.

6. Terborgh, J. 1999. Requiem for Nature. Island Press, Washington, DC.

7. Redford, K. and M.A. Sanjayan. 2003. Retiring Cassandra. Conservation Biology 17(6):1473-1474.

About the Author

Jon Christensen is editor-at-large for Conservation In Practice.

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