By Nora Haenn and Birgit Schmook
Around the world, conservation programs appear to be in conflict with local people, but what if this story isn’t quite true? What if local people are contributing to conservation programs but not receiving credit for doing so?
Popular depictions of national parks describe them as under threat from poachers, slash-and-burn-farmers, and other nearby residents. Popular tales often contrast these residents with scientists bent on saving the environment from harm. In our recent article, “Improving Conservation Outcomes with Insights from Local Experts and Bureaucrats,” published in Conservation Biology, we took a closer look at how conservationists and some local people actually interact with one another. Along with our co-authors, we found that people living in an around protected areas not only contribute to conservation programs, some conservation endeavors could not exist without their expertise. For anthropologists, this story is a familiar one. By publishing in an interdisciplinary journal, we hope to reach across disciplinary boundaries and speak to the larger group of conservation researchers and practitioners, some of whom may not affirm the importance of local expertise in their work. In the paper, we call on conservation researchers and practitioners to do a better job of publicly acknowledging the role of local experts and other non-scientists in conservation biology.
The paper uses two examples from the rainforests of southern Mexico to show this hidden contribution to environmental protection and how the work of resident experts gets erased in conservation reporting. In the first example, these experts help Ph.D. biologists train their graduate students. In the rainforests, scientists cannot even begin to research without guides. Between snakebites and the threat of getting lost on meandering paths, the forests are too dangerous for outsiders to venture in alone. So, researchers rely on the in depth knowledge of guides, people who tend to be hunters with significant experience in the woods.
Guides tutor students in detailed ways. Here’s the advice one researcher said he would give to students new to working with guides: “You need to trust this person. You are going to be following him. Learn everything you can from the guide. Ask about everything you see.” Student research often gets translated into academic publications. Despite the guide’s primacy in the research of students and professors alike, they are almost never listed as co-authors, and often are not listed in a paper’s acknowledgements, the section where researchers thank the most important contributors to a study.
The second example shows how the Mexican government itself relies on residents’ expertise to collect information on biodiversity in the region of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, the country’s largest protected area for tropical ecosystems. One Reserve program requested that area communities hire biologists to report on endangered species. These biologists conduct research in the same manner as graduate students: they work with local people whose knowledge gets translated into scientific accounts, this time as demanded by park service reports. The biologist writing the report receives credit for the research.
Why don’t local experts get full credit for their work? We argue this is because resident experts are campesinos, not members of the middle class. They do not have the social and educational pedigree expected in the scientific community. To protect the perceived value of their research findings, and their status in the field, scientists are hesitant to highlight the important role these experts play in data collection and the training of professionals in the field.
By failing to highlight the role of local people in conservation research, observers get a skewed perspective on people’s relationship to conservation efforts. Because locals are not acknowledged as part of the conservation effort, they are perceived as obstacles to conservation. This makes it more difficult to identify partners for conservation efforts, since outsiders are often unaware that locals already play a crucial role in conservation. The failure also makes scientists appear as the only people capable of environmental protection, when, clearly, today’s challenges require the participation of many different social groups.
This failure to fully acknowledge the role of skilled guides also has serious repercussions for the guides themselves. A lack of formal credit in the science community means that these guides don’t get the status – or the salary – that comes with being a recognized expert. Campesinos earn about $10 a day, or half of what would be a middle-class salary in the region.
While our focus was on tropical Mexico, our conclusions are relevant for conservation biologists doing fieldwork around the world. In many places, social hierarchies encourage a separation between conservation practitioners and local people. This means the environmental knowledge that often makes conservation workable goes unrecognized.
Nora Haenn is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at NC State University. Birgit Schmook is Faculty in Conservation and Biodiveristy at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico. The paper’s additional authors include Yol Reyes of ECOSUR and Sophie Calmé of the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada. This article was written with Matt Shipman of NC State University.