Mark Infield is the Director of Cultural Values and Conservation Programme, Fauna & Flora International.
As a child I grew up exploring the fields and woodlands, ponds and streams where I lived. This was the starting point for a life-long engagement with nature and its conservation. My interest in nature and commitment to its conservation is not driven by financial considerations, economic analyses or even by scientific interest. It is emotional and personal. I imagine many of you reading this feel similarly.
The modern conservation started in the 19th century based on such emotions, values and feelings; they are largely absent from conservation today. Arguments for conserving nature are couched in economic terms, and, outside of fundraising appeals aimed at the general public, feelings for nature are rarely mentioned or reflected in policies and practices. Yet we all know that connections to nature and place are profound and can have real influence on how people think and behave toward the natural world.
I am concerned about depending on economic arguments for conservation. They are, in my experience, hard to demonstrate in practice, especially on the ground amongst communities whose support we need. And they are a double edged sword that can equally create arguments against conservation.
Emphasising economic arguments undermines other values people hold in nature linked to historical associations with place and use, local knowledge, and to the culture and institutions of communities.
Ironically, conservation often weakens people’s connections to nature. If we need the support of people, and that seems to be one of the few things that conservationists agree on, when economic arguments don’t add up, bridges built on culture and values can be strong, stronger indeed than often over-blown financial benefits.
By reminding ourselves of what we, as individuals, value in nature, we can engage with people based on their connections to nature. These may be very different from our own, but powerful nonetheless. We can begin to exploring conservation through a cultural lens and look for ways to integrate the values of others into conservation initiatives.
We have worked hard to engage with communities but have rarely asked them what is important to them culturally in the land they call their own.
The irony of this dawned on me when, after several years explaining to the Bahima, a pastoralist people of Uganda, why Lake Mburo National Park was important, I learned that their name for their homeland was ‘The Beautiful Land.’ And in The Beautiful Land, they grazed Beautiful Cows, bred over centuries to be beautiful. These cows provide a powerful connection between the Bahima and the land and define what it means to be Bahima. But the park excluded these values.
Since 2005 FFI and the Uganda Wildlife Authority have been working to develop a cultural values approach to managing the park and integrate the Bahima’s values into the park through the Culture, Values and Conservation Project.
Economics drivers are important to our behaviour, but once basic needs are met, cultural values become equally important. The idea that only economics matters to people these day is given the lie by the fact that over 80% of the world’s people hold that religion is important in their daily lives. Whatever we may think about religion, this definitely suggests that beliefs and values continue to be important in how people think and behave.
During the Victorian era, with the industrial revolution at its zenith, Oscar Wilde famously described a cynic as someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. In this period of market dominated thinking, I wonder whether we have slipped into cynicism and now see nature only as something to be bought and sold.
The conservation endeavour is not succeeding under current management. There are victories; species clawed back from the brink of extinction; special places saved from the roar of engines spelling the end for somebody’s or some species’ home. But nature is in retreat, as much in the UK, where official figures show a quarter of species identified as conservation priorities are declining, as elsewhere. Market approaches are not working. We need to be true to ourselves as conservationists, remember our beginnings, and bring feelings back to the conservation endeavour.
Mark Infield is the Director of Cultural Values and Conservation Programme, Fauna & Flora International.[registration_form]