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In recent decades, human development by means of industrialisation and colonisation has acted as a catalyst for global environmental destruction. By recognising the undesirable effects produced by various human activities, questions surrounding conserving elements of the environment have arisen. The following essay will analyse the ways in which cultural assumptions held by differing societies are intertwined within conservation efforts and management plans. Through exploring ‘wilderness’, ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’, this essay will demonstrate that humans continue their efforts of attempting to conserve both species and landscapes based on the intrinsic value they provide. Focus will also be given to the ways in which cultural assumptions surrounding these terms are influencing regional and national practices, goals and future results. Reference will be made to various contemporary conservation goals and practices – including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning project, Integrated conservation and development projects in the Philippines, and, Australia’s Environment protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). Overall, this essay will argue that the cultural assumptions of specific societies are instrumental in affecting global conservation goals and practices, furthermore, will suggest that traditional Indigenous knowledge surrounding animism and totemism should be implemented within conservation efforts, to maximise the preservation of elements of the environment.
Efforts to conserve the environment have continually put emphasis on the need to protect wilderness areas, which conjures up meanings of remote natural areas, unbridled by humans. Neumann (1998) states that these wilderness areas are considered by society to represent true and pure nature, unharmed by colonisation and modernisation. Originally, these unbounded zones are utilised on a small-scale by Indigenous and traditional groups, providing natural and cultural resources to sustain their livelihood. However, the formation of the first Wilderness Act, prescribed in the United States, caused a shift in global wilderness conservation, whereby a separation was formed between nature and culture, in the aim to preserve native forests. Although, the cultural assumptions first associated with the conservation of wilderness sought to protect aesthetically pleasing and untouched landscapes from human extraction, wilderness conservation sites have been increasingly commodified and transformed into protected national parks, for human economic gain. Runte (1987) suggests that wilderness areas were previously categorised as economically unviable landscapes, conserved for their natural wonders and scenery, however, have recently been commodified through the tourism industry. Wilderness areas are universally valued for their aesthetics and are continuously seen as a source of pleasure, whilst nowadays, are valued by states and elite populations for the provision of economic capital, caused by tourism. For example, “geo-tourism” has been deployed to reconfigure the visitor experience at Yosemite National Park. Whilst the geo-tourism approach is argued to centre around environmental protection, reality highlights how environmental sustainability, biodiversity encouragement and wildlife management is not prioritised. Through visitor congestion and the destruction of land for the construction of tourist attractions, Yosemite’s geo-tourism initiative holds little promise of significantly encouraging environmental and wilderness protection. Overall, the assumptions affecting contemporary wilderness conservation plans, are heavily associated with the global tourism industry, who attempt to commodify the natural resources provided by wild natural environments for economic gain.
Although, the neoliberal conservation of wilderness imposed by postcolonial governments, transforms protected areas into areas of profit for society, its process of capital accumulation excludes vulnerable Indigenous communities; furthermore, neglects to recognise Indigenous cultural assumptions surrounding conservation practices. The failed recognition of Indigenous people can be traditionally linked to post-colonial theory whereby western discourses – still rooted within colonialism – speak for the subaltern, from a universal perspective. This postcolonial elitist action is noted to still exist, as governments express and conduct wilderness conservation efforts without recognising the views of vulnerable stakeholders. Martin, Akol and Gross-Camp, further exemplify this by claiming that the conservation of wilderness areas fails to address social injustices, and that “local cultural norms are forcefully displaced”. Through the analysis of the construction of Yosemite National Park, academics have been able to recognise this victimhood of vulnerable human communities. State managers and government officials are noted to have favoured the protection of wilderness areas over Indigenous individuals that have inhabited and managed the land for centuries: generating millions of displaced refugees. Therefore, even though indigenous people have effectively retained considerable biodiversity for many years without capitalist companies and governmental involvement, conservation methods of the west are favoured. Consequently, the influential cultural assumptions implicit in practices that specifically aim to conserve wilderness landscapes, are those of the capitalist power holders. Wresting power away from weaker Indigenous stakeholders therefore, highlights the way in which the cultural assumptions of vulnerable populations have not shaped the goals, practices and outcomes of wilderness conservation efforts. Even though larger governmental conservation projects are attempting to include community-based strategies, by developing Integrated conservation and development projects (West and Brockington 2006, p. 612), vulnerable Indigenous populations are still negatively affected. For example, community-based marine conservation projects in the Philippines which hoped to increase the inclusion of local people into managing marine species, caused the malnutrition of children as traditional fishing areas became subject to fines and penalties. Therefore, even though the goals of conservation practices aim to include the cultural assumptions of Indigenous communities surrounding the preservation of environments and landscapes, the outcome of these efforts still marginalise and oppress neglected communities.
Equally, there is now an increasing amount of criticism held against the traditional humanist anthropocentric worldview, that centres conservation practices and goals around capitalist power holders and their ability to generate copious amounts of profit through the commodification of the environment. Australia’s cultural relationship to the environment has been historically based on the colonial commodification and domestication of landscapes for wider economic purposes. However, due to a cultural shift in the rejection of colonial actions and a rise in the deep ecology perspective, environmental movements have swiftly risen to challenge these dominant cultural views: that decimating the environment is vital for producing economic and social wealth for a nation. Environmentalist frameworks equally seek to combat anthropocentrism, by recognising that human existence is established through relations to species and landscapes. For example, the ethnographic research of Locke (2017, p. 362) insists that there is a mutual relationship between humans and elephants in Nepal, as both species create synergy, build rapport and facilitate obedience together. Similar advocates for this movement have included Australian Aboriginal societies who contend that the environment is part of a wide social system, interconnected with socio-physical human relationships and identity formation. Similarly, whilst referencing the academic work of Görg, Sanders (2014) exemplifies Aboriginal animalism, through stating that the environment and society are never ontologically divided entities, both are invariably subject to a continuing exchange process. An example of this Indigenous cultural view is conveyed through the ontology of totemism, whereby individuals and tribes are said to have mystical, kinship relations with non-human species. A totemic relationship can be seen between several Yolngu clans who trace their identity and development to Mäna: an ancestral whale shark. Therefore, believers in totemism, argue that the conservation of many non-human species is vital as it upholds cosmological connections and influences the identity of Aboriginal communities. In turn, the intimate correspondence between human and non-human species has played a significant role in the conservation of environmental biodiversity globally, through the restriction of human access to commodify landscapes and species for economic gain. Although, there is limited academic writing on totemism’s influence on environmental conservation policies within Australia, several national management legislations and policies that promote conserving the environment, recognise the importance of Aboriginal people’s cosmological connectedness to species. For example, Aboriginal heritage values contribute to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act (1975) and the Environment protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). Therefore, Australian Indigenous cultural assumptions surrounding human existence and its relation to certain species, are implicit within national conservation efforts and practices.
Conservation practitioners are increasingly faced with the dilemma that the cost of preserving nature’s biodiversity far exceeds accessible governmental funding. James et al. (1999) states that within the late twentieth century, only US$6 billion was awarded each year globally to protect nature. Therefore, maintaining various species within the environment is now incoherently linked to the costs and benefits that they provide to humans, as limited conservation funding is available. Policy makers are hence allocating available funds and resources to the highest valued species and the private benefits they produce through recreation, consumption and commercialisation. For example, the commercial use of rare, exotic plant species is maintained through preservation projects, as they are viewed as potential pharmaceutical products, able of treating life-threatening diseases. Brown and Shogren (1998) highlight examples of these conserved plants, including the Pacific yew tree, whereby taxol is extracted and utilised within ovarian cancer treatment medicine. On the contrary, the conservation of certain species such as invertebrates, is often overlooked, as many societies hold hostile views surrounding their association with disease and agricultural damage. Therefore, contemporary cultural assumptions implicit in the conservation of species within nature are based on government expenditures allocated to biodiversity projects and to the value endangered species provide to human society. These factors influencing species preservation has led to the use of systematic conservation planning globally. This method is a priority-setting process, that focuses on locating and developing “protected areas that comprehensively represent the biodiversity of regions”, while minimising societal costs. One of the best-known examples of systematic conservation planning is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning project which provided the Australian Parliament in 2004, with a structured process to manage marine biodiversity and the intense political and social negotiation around the inclusion and modification of commercial and recreational fishing zones. Although this approach can leave certain natural habitats with little protection from human destruction, a practical system for prioritising various components of nature must be developed, to combat the endangerment of economically and commercially valued species.
The cultural assumptions first associated with the conservation of environments sought to aim to protect untouched landscapes and species from human engagement and destruction, however by analysing wilderness conservation sites and the protection of certain species, it is evident that cultural assumptions revolving around governmental budgets, perceived human ascendency and the generation of economic capital are implicit within conservation schemes. This essay also highlights the intersectional nature of a few national conservation practices with both the cultural assumptions of capitalist governments and Indigenous communities. For example, it is evident that governmental policies constructed to retain the biodiversity of nature, recognise an interdependent connection between humans and non-humans, exemplified by Aboriginal animism and totemism. However, in this context, it is considered that future governmental policies, practices and goals regarding the conservation of aspects of the environment and various species must involve the cultural assumptions of Indigenous populations who will be largely affected by outcomes. Even though certain Indigenous communities reap economic and social benefits from conservation plans, their cultural values are still not prioritised alongside the benefits awarded to western society. Therefore, as long as national governments are driven by economic concerns and the need for acquiring economic capital, marginal indigenous communities have little chance of becoming equal partners in any environmental conservation practice
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