Parks as Shibboleths


  • Kent H. Redford,

  • John G. Robinson,

  • William M. Adams

On the morning of 18 May 2005, 14 pickup trucks with about 150 people armed with machetes, pistols, rifles, shotguns, and automatic weapons rolled into a camp in the eastern part of the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre, Guatemala. At 338,000 ha it is the largest national park in Central America and an important RAMSAR site. Their leader announced they came from the village of Nuevo Amanacer and other recent, illegally established, villages within the park. These recent immigrants demanded that their development needs take precedence over conservation and the rights of the indigenous Qeq'chi Indians. To enforce their demands they took over the camp that had been established by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Guatemalan National Park Service as a base for fire control, park management, and wildlife research. After a period of negotiation, the group returned to Nuevo Amanacer, taking with them four hostages and leaving behind some 20 local Qeq'chi. They then called the local WCS field office on their satellite phone and declared that the hostages would be released only when the governor of the state of Péten clarified their land and resource rights within the park.

This situation is more complex than a simple conflict (with clear winners and losers) between local people and conservationists. The immediate winners were certainly the immigrants, who as reward for their act of kidnapping received a promise of a school, provision of technical assistance, and construction of a road into the heart of the park, conceded by the governor of the Péten to secure release of the hostages. The long-term winners will probably be absentee cattle ranchers and their political allies in the Péten, who have encouraged movement of the people of Nuevo Amanacer into the park as a step in a wider, speculative drive for land in the park. The main losers were the Qeq'chi people living in the nearby town of Paso Caballos, whose livelihoods are tied to the park. The Qeq'chi have been attempting to stabilize their rights to land and resources in and around the park in the face of competition from new immigrants from the highlands and speculation by local political and business interests. The WCS staff who were kidnapped were working with the Qeq'chi to document and secure Qeq'chi rights, thus making the conservation staff targets.

Although the violence of this case may be unusual, the complexity of the scenario is not. Complexities, so evident in Laguna del Tigre, are too often ignored in the increasingly simplistic discourse on parks. Indeed, the very term park has become a shibboleth—a richly textured Hebrew concept denoting a saying that is widely used or a belief that is widely held, especially one that interferes with somebody's ability to speak or think about things without preconception. As a shibboleth, the term park is being used by both conservationists and social advocates as a coarsely textured term increasingly devoid of meaning. The discourse on parks is being driven toward brittleness (i.e., lack of resilience)—bad news for both protected areas and people living in and near them.

On their side, conservationists are understandably concerned about threats to protected areas created specifically to conserve biodiversity. They fear empty forests, encroachment on isolated relicts of once extensive ecosystems, money wasted on development that does not deliver poverty reduction, and park outreach schemes that simply increase pressure on parks by attracting people toward them as the only glimmer of opportunity in an ocean of poverty. And, the argument becomes brittle with blanket calls to exclude all people living in parks, except occasionally those engaged in traditional use of resources.

The advocates for rural peoples, for their part, also drive the argument toward brittleness. Much of the empirical evidence of adverse impacts of parks on people comes from in-depth case studies in particular locations. These often do not adequately reflect wider social, political, or economic processes. Terms such as fortress conservation or fences and fines are neat and eye-catching, but they do not reflect a nuanced understanding of social and political patterns and dynamics of rights in land and resources. Social scientists have set out bold and effective criticisms of the social dimensions (and especially social effects) of park creation, and content with their hostile critique they have not often engaged with the issue of policy reform.

This is a dialog of the deaf. In the rush for rhetorical purity, both sides have dismissed, or ignored, the rich conversations that are taking place concerning people and protected areas. These include the redefinition of existing protected areas and the creation of new ones. The World Parks Congress (and its convener, the World Conservation Union) engaged in a process to refine protected area categories, some of which incorporate both people and their active economic management of land (e.g., category 5, Protected Landscapes and Seascapes, and category 6, Managed Resources Protected Areas). Advocates for local people focus much of their scorn on the most exclusive categories 1 and 2 (Strict Nature Reserves, Wilderness Areas, and National Parks). Conservationists, by contrast, focus all their attention on a broader set of categories, seeking to exclude or limit human occupation, seemingly determined to create wilderness, even in places that have had a human presence for a long time, and strictly interpret the trade-off between human use and biodiversity, even when the science is available only by analogy with other areas.

There is not a single definition of “a park.” Rather, parks fit into a variety of categories and incorporate people and their economic endeavors in different ways. Parks set out to achieve different things, and they suit different situations. Parks and the forces that support them can, in some circumstances, help local peoples economically and provide a means for them to secure their indigenous or existing rights to land in the face of rival claims from powerful external actors.

The Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre in Guatemala has the potential to do exactly that. Brockington et al. (this issue) are right to urge more vigorous and effective analysis of the impacts of parks on people and people on parks. Their observations on the complexity of the relationships, and the associated need for careful and subtle research, are extremely important. Such studies are overdue and to many will be novel. Wilkie et al. (2006 [this issue]) demonstrate that in the case of Gabon it can be done. This kind of approach should become a standard and integral part of the planning and monitoring of protected areas.

Protected areas of all types will not survive without people—inside them, using them in sensible ways, or outside them, respecting them and defending them. Protected areas are a type of land use. Their uses are multiple and multiplying. In Madagascar, for example, plans to realize the Durban Vision—the tripling of the area of protected areas announced by President Marc Ravalomanana at the Fifth World Parks Congress in 2003—are broadening existing strict park and reserve categories. New protected areas include land managed by communities and sites of cultural significance. The critical point is that such areas contain features widely judged within Madagascar (and outside) to be of sufficient importance to deserve protection from destruction by external forces.

Carrying on a shrill debate about parks, as if all parks are the same, is mutually destructive. Such arguments deploy what J. P. Brosius (1999. Current Anthropology40:277–309) has called “essentialized images”—ways of creating political value by strategically deploying images that stereotype or flatten the range of contradictions always present in conservation. This might seem to make good tactical sense to passionate point-scoring opponents of parks and advocates. Strategically it is a disaster because this stereotyping is driving the global debates about parks toward brittleness—with our own internal dissent opening up parks to other land uses. Both nature and local peoples could lose in the current struggle.

As the debate becomes more brittle, the complex reality of parks is being lost—the social and political setting within which they are set, the process of their establishment, the way they are managed in response to the changing world around them. Shibboleths emerge from and in turn feed arguments, but they do not provide solutions.