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Paul Robbins on the Contradictions of Conservation

I just got back from an excellent talk by Paul Robbins, who is probably the brightest star in contemporary political ecology. His basic theme was that trying to protect nature by separating it from humans is doomed to failure. He focused on a nature reserve in India, where santions against encroachment by people living nearby have recently been stepped up. He argued that, while throwing the reserve open to be turned into farms would be detrimental to the ecosystem, so would completely closing it off from people. The best situation would be one more like what prevailed up until a few years ago, in which the reserve existed, but people frequently broke the official rules.

There were two major ways that human-nature interaction turned out to be good for nature. First, human use of the forest created a beneficial frequent low-level disturbance. This idea has been widely recognized, for example by ecologists in the resilience field, so I won't go into more detail. Second, he described how animals crossing the park boundary was beneficial for nature. He compared the population numbers of several species of animals, and found that the ones that were doing well, or even increasing in number, were the ones that frequently encroached on the surrounding villages. For example, panthers often eat sheep, while nilgai (a cowlike animal) are a constant threat to cornfields. In effect, those species that have done well are those that have adapted to human presence and learned to extract a sort of subsidy from the "unnatural" human lands outside the reserve. He hypothesized that wolves (which also eat sheep) have not done as well as the panthers because they hunt in packs, and are therefore easier for humans to deter.

Robbins made an off-hand suggestion which I think actually makes some sense. He said that perhaps the farmers and herders whose crops and animals are subsidizing wildlife (and who may be tipped into starvation if they get hit hard by the panthers or nilgai) should be compensated for the damage done by wild animals. This fits with the growing idea that owners of less "developed" land should be paid for the ecosystem services that they provide. Their human use of the land is providing a benefit to nature.


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