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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 468-471

Book Review 4

Independent Researcher, B 1/179 Janakpuri, New Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Sudha Vasan
Independent Researcher, B 1/179 Janakpuri, New Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication18-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Vasan S. Book Review 4. Conservat Soc 2004;2:468-71

How to cite this URL:
Vasan S. Book Review 4. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2004 [cited 2023 Jun 6];2:468-71. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2004/2/2/468/55828

Arun Agrawal and Clark C. Gibson (eds), Communities and the Environment: Ethnicity, Gender, and the State in Community-based Conservation. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2001, 232 pp., $23. ISBN: 081352914X.

Three features of community that have formed the cornerstones of the literature supporting community-based conservation policy.community as a small spatial unit, as a homogeneous social structure, and as common interests and shared norms.are systematically deconstructed in the book under review. The editors of the collection, Arun Agrawal and Clark Gibson, trace the conceptual genealogy of .community. going back to the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They argue that the emergence of community as a panacea for conservation policy rests on a history of revisionism, where images of pristine and innocent primitives give way to despoiling communities, which in recent times have emerged as conservation champions. Challenging the uncritical and romantic images of community in conservation policy circles, the editors argue the need for a focus instead on actors, processes and institutions.

The construction or the imagining of community in state policy is an important theme in several chapters. Melanie Hughes McDermott discusses how the state creates a particular form of community through a resource management policy. The Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC) policy in the Philippines defined community as a homogenous unit, territorially and socially bound, that has always existed in an ecologically harmonious balance. The state policy created an incentive for groups of co-residents in Kayasan to define themselves in this way, and convert the symbolic resource of indigenous identity into material and political resources. In spite of the differences between state definitions of community and existing reality, McDermott concludes that community does matter. The factors constraining CADC efforts have more to do with the lack of change in relations of resource access and control than merely how community is defined. Bettina Ng.wena also highlights the importance of agency in strategic claims to different identities and community. A discussion of land inheritance disputes among the Digo of Kenya brings out the overlapping nature of divisions within a community. Kinship and gender relations, categorisation and identification of people and communities are dynamically constructed and reconstructed, supported variously through reference to competing systems of law such as customary, Islamic and statutory. 'The ever changing nature of community belonging,' she argues, 'necessitates a fluid concept of community rather than a concept that tries to tie communities down to specific forms. (p. 133).

Sara Singleton's discussion of Pacific north-west salmon fisheries again shows the 'crosscutting nature of social identity and the dynamic process through which social identities are formed and reconstituted. (p. 152). The unique nature of the large trans-boundary ecosystem managed here, the diversity of interests and stakeholders involved, and the dynamic relationships of conflict and cooperation between them throws up diverse challenges to community management of common resources. Both state and local groups bring their particular strengths and weaknesses in this case, and both conflict and cooperation are perennial features of the process through which groups attempt to manage these resources.

Tanya Li's 'boundary work' is another essay on the construction of community that implicates both governments and local people in the creation of this rhetoric. The lingsos, she argues, was created among the Lauje people of Sulawesi as a new form of community at a conjuncture when official planners and mountain dwellers saw their respective interests served by increased cooperation under the rubric of 'development'. Significantly, all four essays implicate local people along with the state, although to varying degrees, in the creation or sustenance of particular images of community.

A second focus of the book is on unequal relations and exploitation within functioning .communities.. Hsain Ilahiane provides an illustration of an ethnically stratified community in Morocco that manages communal irrigation through the exploitation of labour of one group based on traditional ethnic hierarchies. A combination of force and hegemony allows Berber and Arab members to control and exploit Haratine labour for managing irrigation works of little benefit to the Haratine themselves. Community institutions, this study shows, can be and are built on unequal power relations.

Unequal gender relations in communities is an issue that has received much attention in literature if not in conservation practice. However, the one chapter in this book, by Ruth Meinzen-Dick and Margreet Zwarteveen, that focuses exclusively on gender dimensions is a sweeping and general overview of the situation in South Asia. It also ends up ignoring or taking a simplistic and reductionist view of the rich literature on gender and resource management, lacking critical understanding of gender relations in the region, and repeating recommendations made in this literature for over two decades.

The last chapter by Bonnie McCay, while interesting and perceptive, appeals more as a foreword or introduction rather than a conclusion emerging from the essays in this collection. McCay refers again to the romanticising of the .commons. and of the .traditional', and to dichotomies such as local/government or indigenous/ modern in the literature, and criticises the 'convenient, attractive, and possibly very misleading 'blinders. that political ecologists, communitarians and neoclassical economists can all be suspected of wearing. (p. 188). Her closing message is a call for empathy, respect and humility for the lives of people studied/observed, clarity about what we are trying to explain, and a critical openness to the very idea of community.

This collection of articles has much to offer to the general reader and those interested in resource conservation policy. It should be essential reading for those involved in conservation policy in all capacities. All the chapters in the book are framed within a critique of the way community is used in the conservation policy literature of the last decade. The particular set of works influencing current policy that this book addresses has seen community as a somewhat homogenous, unified, geographically specified, small-scale, sustainably living group of people who are unique and always capable of sustainably managing natural resources. In response to this, each of the authors in this book shows how community around the world is a dynamic entity whose boundaries or membership cannot be defined exactly or in perpetuity. Communities are also groups full of conflict, unequal power relations and sometimes unsustainable resource use practices. The book makes this point forcefully supported by case studies from around the world. However, what this book does less effectively is question the politics of this conservation policy literature.

Why is community, which is a vague and misunderstood concept, so popular in policy making today? Undoubtedly, individual authors, particularly McDermott and Li, raise this question. However, the book begins with the assumption of a causality:

Poor conservation outcomes have forced policy makers and scholars to bring community into the conservation dialogue. Yet it is notable that the elements that are neglected in this conservation literature' gender, class, ethnicity, race, class, intra- and inter-community inequities and conflicts, linkages with state and market.are precisely the core of social science research since its emergence. How and why do policy makers and scholars working on conservation policy ignore or neglect this existing knowledge? While states, governments, policies and local people are implicated in negative and positive conservation outcomes in this book, the dilemma of the vast literature that creates, establishes and supports particular images of community remains unaddressed. Without falling into conspiracy theories, perhaps there is scope for further dialogue here on community-based conservation discourse as a variety of the .antipolitics machine. (Ferguson 1990) that seeks to divert attention from age-old resource distribution questions.[1]

   References Top

1.Ferguson, James (1990), The Anti-politics Machine: Development, Depolitisization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Back to cited text no. 1      


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