Acknowledging that one is born endowed with a certain degree of privilege based on your nationality, gender, race, or socioeconomic status is not something that most are comfortable doing. We want to believe that our accomplishments and decisions in life are entirely our own, rather than a culmination of the many factors that push and pull our lives in one direction or another. Never is more important to be aware of your privilege than when interacting with those who have an inherently different set of privileges. Different worldviews, opportunities, and behaviors will arise from different privileges, and understanding those differences will help to create a smoother and more respectful operation of conservation projects.
The Ethics of Privilege
One thing I always strive to be conscious of when working in African conservation is the ethical implication of coming into an established community and dictating what is and isn’t an acceptable use of their ancestral natural resources. In order to ensure collaboration and long-term success of any conservation plan, it is essential that the local community not feel like control of their natural resources is being usurped. It is a slippery slope between trying to help and taking away ancestral rights. The quote below embodies the uneasiness I feel about privilege and conservation:
“[The conservationists] think they created this World Heritage Site by filling out a bunch of papers and encircling this area on a map. They didn’t create it. This forest and these animals wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t kept others out. We took care of this forest that our ancestors left us. We Karen are responsible for creating the World Heritage Site, not the conservationists.” – Village leader from the Karen people of northern Thailand (quoted in Lynch & Alcorn, 1994, p. 381)
When I use the term privilege, I am speaking of the privilege that comes with being born in a developed nation where all my basic needs and more are met. It is the privilege that drives people like to me to want to make a positive change in the world. But are our good intentions coming off as unethical as we overstep our bounds and barge into a community as self-proclaimed good Samaritans?
It is easy to say ‘conserve!’, ‘don’t poach wildlife!’, or ‘save your natural resources!’ when coming from a position of privilege. When an individual and their family are always one step away from life-threatening problems, it can be easy to ignore ethical considerations in favor of readily available solutions. This is a challenge being repeatedly faced by conservationists around the world. In Africa, illegal poaching is rampant with everything from subsistence bush meat hunting to highly sophisticated operations in pursuit of rhinoceros horns. Survival, money, and circumstances largely beyond my circumstances drive the poachers to these acts, so it would be unfair of me to pretend I can relate. The ethics of privilege and control will follow me throughout my career. I strive to be hyper-aware of these problems and will always do my best to establish equal standing among all parties involved.
A great conservationist from southern Africa once said in a speech that many communities don’t realize they are economically ‘poor’ until outsiders come in and tell them they are. By presenting a new ideal and invalidating the existence of another, it suddenly creates a sense of need that drives men to poach in pursuit of a ‘better’ life. Suddenly their rich cultural heritages, their intimate family time, and their relationship with nature no longer matter as much as having material goods evocative of the western ideal. There must be a recognition that simply because a lifestyle doesn’t look like what you’re used to, does not mean it’s not an equally fulfilling and happy existence. Comparison is the root of unhappiness, and it is better to appreciate these differences than accentuate them. Conservationists should think proactively by better supporting traditional communities and facilitating sustainable development as requested by their people. Preventing a deficit, real or perceived, is the best way to reduce poaching.
Quote Reference: Lynch, Owen J., and Janis B. Alcorn. “Tenurial Rights and Community-Based Conservation.” Ed. Shirley C. Strum. Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based Conservation. Ed. David Western and R. Michael Wright. Washington, D.C.: Island, 1994. 373-91. Print.
Categories: Culture & Nature