Conservation, Environmental Justice and Cooperation in Developing Countries

By Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin, University of East Anglia, introduced the work of the Global Environmental Justice group at UEA, identifying some of the links to the conference theme and to the links between the session papers. In particular, current global processes of resource use and commodification are resulting in struggles over environmental justice around the world, for example over access to water, land and sinks. These are local, place bound struggles but are also connected at other scales via the broader processes of accumulation that shape new commodity frontiers, and the connections between struggles evident in mobilisations for environmental justice.

Nicole Gross-Camp (UEA) presented on issues of equality and justice that arise from current moves towards market-based approaches to environmental governance and in particular payments for ecosystem services. Her talk used empirical evidence from a PES trial in Rwanda to demonstrate that local conceptions of fairness and justice did not always equate with those that are evident in dominant approaches to PES design. For example, PES theory tends to advocate opportunity cost as the fair and efficient approach to aligning costs and benefits and for assuring distributional equity. But this is in fact the least preferred basis for distribution for local communities and is also considered politically inacceptable by relevant government authorities.

Discussion of this paper included questions about the scale at which local PES interventions, and conservation more broadly, seek to resolve equity issues. The bigger issues of inequities in the global economy that drive environmental change are not addressed.

Iokine Rodriguez, Venezuela Institute of Scientific Research and UEA, presented a case of the Pemon people in the Canaima National Park in Venezuela. The overarching justice issue for the Pemon people was more discursive than distributional. In particular, a prevailing narrative characterised the Pemon has having over time created a progressively savannah dominated landscape through use of fire. The Pemon considered this product of the colonial and post-colonial gaze to be an inaccurate socio-ecological history that needed to be redressed if sustainable development is to be pursued and if their relationship with the environment is to be properly understood. Intensive work has now been done to triangulate Pemon version of environmental history with historical sources and climate data, clearly showing, for example, that intense fire events that turned forest to savannah actually arose as a result of  outside events that prevented the Pemon’s traditional fire management systems.

Discussion included the value of participatory  research and the role of knowledge claims as a major source of inequality and groups’ experience of environmental injustice.

Bereket Kebede’s presentation focused on the contribution that experimental economic games can make to understanding environmental behaviour, including contexts of fairness. In particular his talk gave examples from a public goods game that is designed to shed light on issues of common pool resources such as forests that are (in part at least) governed by community institutions. In a game played in Rwanda, player behaviour showed that initial conditions of inequality lead to lower levels of contribution to public goods overall, driven by lower contributions by ‘the poor’ who begin the game with lower endowments, but partly offset by higher contributions by the rich. In an example from Tanzania, it could be seen that some players exercise norms against free-riding, seeking to ‘punish’ low contributing players, presumably in an effort to bring about more cooperative behaviour through sanctions.

Discussion included points about how the results of these games can be understood in more sociological terms – how can we know the real motivations of players when they make financial choices within the games, and how then can the games be complimentary to more qualitative forms of enquiry.

Adrian Martin made some overview observations about the different forms of justice that these talks identified as well as the connecting theme that inequality and injustice appears important from both a normative and an instrumental/positive perspective. The Rwandan case highlighted that local communities and governments are sensitive to the justice design components  of conservation interventions. Failure to be aware of this will lead to inappropriate and unworkable design. The Venezuela case highlighted the role of dominant knowledges in subjugating a people to a particular way of knowing environmental problems, and in this case, producing poor scientific understanding as a result. The experimental games highlight that individual behaviour is justice sensitive, for example where percpetions of inequality effect willingness to cooperate in managing a public environmental good.

Adrian Martin is a social scientist with a background in human geography and now specialising in interdisciplinary research to inform the management of natural resources in developing countries.