When the first conservation efforts were undertaken, it was often to create reserves that restricted or even banned access for local people. Then over the decades a new focus emerged that held development and conservation as twin goals, and local people were included and consulted. In the neoliberal 90s new market-based approaches to conservation took hold too, where nature was priced and made available to buyers in the form of certified products or offsets.
Through all of this, argues conservation professor Adrian Martin, issues of social justice have been on the back burner. Even people-centric conservation can be unjust. It might include local communities in economic benefits, but deprive them of cultural traditions or of historic ownership rights. Some might take the utilitarian view and suggest that some local inconvenience is worth it for the greater good, but Martin argues that socially just conservation is more effective.
“My motive for writing this book has been to argue that we should combine conservation with justice” Martin writes, “and, moreover, that we can successfully combine these two objectives.”
There are a number of reasons why socially just conservation can be more effective. The most important one is that if a conservation policy is perceived as unjust, it won’t be considered legitimate. Local people will resist or undermine it. That in turn makes it more expensive to enforce, and resources end up being diverted into managing conflict.
Instead, projects are more likely to be seen as legitimate if they ensure a share of benefits, include community management structures, and respect local culture. There is a mounting pile of evidence that conservation works best when it values people, and the book has many examples from across Africa and Asia. There are detailed case studies that explore issues such as reforestation in China, or land rights in Bolivia. I particularly appreciated the detailed section on participatory forest management in Tanzania, which gives a voice to African villagers and grounds the theory in the real and complicated world.
Just Conservation: Biodiversity, wellbeing and sustainability is an overview of the question of justice in conservation – different types of injustice and how they can occur, ways of mitigating them, and the challenges of measuring success. It’s a fairly academic text and not for everyone, but if you work in conservation, this is a perspective worth exploring. Martin’s multi-dimensional view of justice is particularly helpful.