Interdisciplinary Crafting of the Conservation Agenda


Saving Forests, Protecting People? Environmental Conservation in Central America . Schelhas, J., and M. J. Pfeffer . 2009 . AltaMira Press , Lanham , MD . Globalization and Environment Series . 330 pp. $34.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-7591-0947-6 .
Participatory Research in Conservation and Rural Livelihoods. Doing Science Together . Fortmann, L. , editor . 2008 . Wiley-Blackwell , West Sussex , U.K. 316 pp. $60 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-4051-7679-8 .
Explaining Human Actions and Environmental Changes . Vayda, A. P. 2009 . AltaMira Press , Lanham , MD . 316 pp. $75 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-7591-0323-8 .

Writing about the December 2011 climate summit in Durban, South Africa, the journal Nature editorialized that climate science and climate policy seem to inhabit parallel universes. The three works I reviewed, in contrast, bridge the two. They focus on science and policy in various settings around the globe, showing how science informs and conflicts with the ways rural peoples transform and conserve their landscapes. The first volume describes how globally disseminated messages about the value of forests may become part of the common sense of poor people working in and around national parks. The second takes the opposite tack and asks how the formulation of local needs by local people might shape the scientific research agenda. The third volume lays out a theoretical argument about how we might analyze the complex causality underlying environmental change.

Subsistence strategies of peasant farmers and poor folks would seem to be shaped primarily by local traditions, yet this assumption bears scrutiny because, in a world of global communication, even the most far-flung locations absorb information from a variety of sources. Authors John Schelhas, a research forester, and Max Pfeffer, a professor of development sociology, take this premise as a starting point for their study of national parks in Central America. They show that what happens on the ground in parks must be understood in terms of a confluence of local, regional, and global influences. Their approach is geared to tease out how a variety of potentially contradictory environmental values are integrated into the minds and activities of poor folks working in and around national parks in Honduras and Costa Rica, and their focus is on the convergence and conflict between the goals of subsistence and conservation.

The authors present the results of comprehensive questionnaires and interviews to address the question of how appeals framed in terms of general global conservation discourse are incorporated or rejected in the consciousness of folks whose livelihoods are strongly associated with nature. They found that, despite their distance from a center of political power and their reliance on the land, rural Central Americans have incorporated global messages as positive values. The authors’ work is careful and scholarly: the theory of cultural models, research method, and the history of park administration in both Honduras and Costa Rica are detailed. Academics may be especially interested in the detailed appendices that contain the questionnaires and interview protocols used in each country.

Although Schelhas and Pfeffer's results show how global conservation messages have trickled down to rural peoples, Fortmann's volume points to the way local knowledge and organization contribute to the formulation of scientific research methods. Fortmann, a professor of natural resource sociology, presents her work as a collaboration of practicing scientists from different fields and local folk, the latter whom she calls “civil scientists.” The book's eight in-depth cases span the globe. Chapters on bean breeding and food security in Honduras, Rwanda, and Kenya are primarily concerned with farmers’ livelihoods. Other chapters describe wetland and watershed restoration efforts among the Cibecue Apache of Arizona (U.S.A.) and of sustainable harvesting of nontimber forest products by itinerant (mostly Central American) workers in Washington State (U.S.A.). Community forest management in northwestern Sweden and Indonesia and tree use, land use, and land tenure in Zimbabwe are the focus of the remaining chapters. Most cases are described from the perspective of professionals and community members, and the chapters authored by each are paired to provide different perspectives. The final chapter is the result of a meeting of 19 of the volume's authors, and it presents the general lessons drawn by participants, including the importance of what they term “interdependent science” for conservation.

Although they represent different perspectives, ranging from plant pathology to forestry and geography, each case is guided by an ethical imperative to produce knowledge that can be used by local peoples. Chapters are written as narrative accounts of the process of collaboration and knowledge production and application, and the ebbs and flows of changing relationships receive as much attention as the final results. Learning can be very fast, and new local knowledge was sometimes acted on rapidly and dynamically shaped the interaction between scientific research and application. Readers interested in the process of collaboration will find fascinating material in each of the chapters, and those who wish to follow up by reviewing the technical literature emerging from the various projects will benefit from the bibliographies.

The author of the third volume, A. Vayda, believes that dogmatic adherence to disciplinary thinking limits environmental research and its application. The thrust of the author's bare-knuckles pragmatism is to push for the same kind of flexible engagement with disciplinary knowledge that Fortmann highlights in the realm of cooperation with local peoples. His aim is to produce a user-friendly guide for those who would “engage in causal explanation and make it a goal of our research,” without a lot of handwringing and self-doubt regarding appropriate disciplinary methods. The author is an emeritus professor of anthropology and ecology, but the chapters are studiously free of the specialized vocabulary of these fields and should be accessible to all those engaged in research, even newcomers.

Vayda takes up a wide array of phenomena—forest fires in Kalimantan, mangrove replanting in the Philippines, the energy budgets of hunters and foresters—to illustrate that, despite their differences, there are practical and conceptual benefits to be gained by framing them in terms of an account of what happens. In other chapters, he takes a bird's eye view of theoretical perspectives, notably political ecology and Darwinian evolutionary ecology and his own early work in cultural ecology, to argue that these fall short of their promise precisely because they evade or misconstrue causal mechanisms. The volume serves its purpose as a useful compendium covering research on environmental change. Some 50 pages of bibliographic references and an exhaustive index allow the reader to follow the trail of subject matter through the stand-alone chapters.

All of the works highlight the interfusion of research and its application and the overlapping worlds of science and policy in the areas of conservation and development. They provide numerous examples of the way rural people digest the messages of science, interpret the actions of scientists, and appraise policies, procedures, and advice proffered with scientific rationales. This is more than a reaction—it changes the terrain of research itself. In its own way, each work represents a perspective on this complexity of human motivations, of interactions between researchers and locals, of the interplay of human and environmental change. Although all of the authors are disciplinary specialists, none appears to have a predilection to massage the complexity they observe into a disciplinary framework.