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Environmentalists must recognize ‘biases and delusions’ to succeed

As nations from around the world meet at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan to discuss ways to stem the loss of biodiversity worldwide, two prominent researchers argue that environmentalists and conservationists need to consider paradigm shifts if biodiversity is to be preserved, especially in developing countries. Writing in the journal Biotropica, Douglas Sheil and Erik Meijaard argue that some of conservationists’ most deeply held beliefs are actually hurting the cause.

“Conservation needs to change. We need to recognize that pragmatic conservation solutions aren’t about black and white, good and evil, or nature versus non-nature. Long-term conservation solutions have to involve comprises, otherwise we will just be wasting our time,” Erik Meijaard told

Stressing that because conservationists and environmentalists often see ecosystems as either pristine—and therefore worth saving—or degraded—and therefore already lost—they often neglect human-impacted ecosystems that are important for a wide-variety of species. The authors label this the ‘tainted-nature delusion’.

Woman planting in rice paddy in Sualwesi, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

“The tainted-nature delusion is our shorthand for a proposed (subconscious) mental mechanism that makes us dismiss some modified habitats as just too unnatural for us to accept that they have any value,” Douglas Sheil said, adding that “there are real conservation opportunities in modified habitats (obvious in temperate countries but not so widely accepted in the tropics) but so far many are reluctant to engage effectively with these.”

Meijaard, who works in Indonesia with orangutans, and Sheil, who works in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, have both seen firsthand how current conservation attitudes can often ruin partnerships before they start.

“Most of the projects around [Bwindi Impenetrable National Park] relate to foreign concerns to protect the mountain gorillas that tourists can see here,” Sheil says. Local people see some of the benefits of this (tourism etc.), but they are also puzzled that we seem to care so much for the gorillas that they themselves can never afford to see, and that we need them to cooperate despite their striking poverty.”

Sheil adds: “I don’t think people are against conservation, but many are against the type of conservation which we are trying to impose on them.”

Meijaard concurs, telling, “I am battling the tainted-nature delusion in Indonesia on a daily basis. Many conservation-minded people see timber concession and plantations as the great evil, rather than recognizing that these are not just a threat to nature but crucial opportunities to finding lasting solutions.”

Bwindi orphans group performing traditional dances and songs at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Meijaard, like Sheil, says that conservationist’s paradigms often make them enemies of local people, rather than collaborators.

“I have stopped talking about orangutans when working with local people, because too often they have countered me with the question why Western societies want to invest so much into saving the orangutan (i.e., Man of the Forest in Malay), while they (the People of the Forest) are still suffering. That is a fair question. Can we as outsiders judge whether the life of an orangutan baby is more important than the life of a Dayak child?”

Sheil and Meijaard encourage conservationists to study human psychology both to uncover their own prejudices and delusions, as well as to better understand how to approach working with others.

“Conservation is about how we want the world to be,” Sheil says. That reflects many different factors some of which are subconscious and potentially irrational. As we say in the article some of these subconscious factors may be obstacles, but better to understand them and what can be done to address them (or not) than waste time being ineffective.”

Both Sheil and Meijaard see long-term conservation efforts as untenable without better cooperation between conservationists and locals, as well as the private sector. In other words, conservationists need to stop demonizing those they view as responsible for environmental destruction, but instead work closely with everyone who has a stake in the ecosystem. Even more importantly, conservationists must be willing to stomach striking a deal rather than fighting impossibly for a total victory.

“Compromise will be the key to making conservation acceptable and resilient in the context of the world’s emerging democracies. We have to be pragmatic and realize that we can often win more lasting conservation gains by reconciling conservation needs with other human demands,” Sheil says, adding that, “In the long-term we shall need to be more engaged with local motivations and ensure we can find common-ground. Otherwise conservation is simply a new colonialism and is unlikely to be sustainable.”

“I challenge the easy armchair conservationist in the developed world to come out here and try to better understand what conservation really means. Maybe that way we will arrive at more realistic solutions,” Meijaard says.

In the paper they conclude that better self-knowledge among environmentalists and conservationists would go a long way toward aiding the world’s struggling biodiversity.

“By recognizing our biases and delusions we may become more humble, more willing to form alliances, less likely to judge opponents as morally inferior, and ultimately better able to recognize and achieve viable conservation outcomes,” they write.

CITATION: Douglas Sheil and Erik Meijaard. Purity and Prejudice: Deluding Ourselves About Biodiversity Conservation. Biotropica 42(5): 566–568 2010. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2010.00687.x

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