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The Development of Conservation in Theory and Practice

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The Development of Conservation in Theory and Practice

In considering the issue of wildlife conservation, a link to development rises quickly to the surface. After all, the animals seemingly considered the most prized by the collective popular consciousness, such as primates, occur predominantly in tropical areas of the world considered by most to be "underdeveloped." According to the United Nations Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the rate of growth in developed countries, mostly those located in Europe and America, between 2005 and 2050 is expected to remain relatively minimal, while the population of the developing world is projected to substantially increase, from 5.3 billion to 7.8 billion, over the same period of time (United Nations Population Division 2005, vi). This includes a more drastic increase in the world's 50 least developed country (mostly located in Africa and Asia), where the number of inhabitants is projected to swell from 0.8 billion to 1.7 billion over the same period. As such, in putting together a theory for development more broadly and conservation more specifically, it is crucial that the link between societal growth and natural resource and wildlife degradation be explored.

In the following discussion, I hope to accomplish a few things. First, I will consider development theory broadly, looking at its evolution through time and some popular contemporary critiques. Though development theory (as it stands today) does not always explicitly relate to conservation, it is crucial to have a broad understanding of it since any conservation strategies will be placed in the context of greater development goals, if not as an explicit part of them. Second, I will look more closely at the place of environmental conservation within the development discourse, focusing primarily on legacy of the 1987 Brundtland Report which, among other things, brought the term "sustainable development" into our respective vocabularies. Finally, I will look at a pair of case studies to see how the evolution of conservation within development has and continues to be played out in practice, linking these studies to primates in particular, because of the iconic value they have as a tool for conservation. Ultimately, I think that while we see a more pointed consideration of cultural specificity within development as a whole, conservation lags behind, with ideas such as "community-based conservation" ultimately failing to achieve crucial goals because of a lack of actionable steps.

The Trajectory of Development

Development theory, of which conservation must necessarily come to be considered an integral part, has come under attack throughout the years for its alleged cultural blind spot and materialistic leanings. However, development as a theory has come a long way in the past half-century. It began as little more than a theoretical justification for the Marshall Plan, but has become an involved mix of ideas, individuals and institutions as it has evolved, spawning such entities as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a multilateral source of grant assistance for half a century, which now cooperates with over 500 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), working in the development field. Online daily newspapers such as EuropaWorld are among many publications offering non-specialized coverage of international development issues.

Accordingly, one obvious success of development theory is that many of its ideas have become a part of the mainstream consciousness, largely because of increased media representations of development. Policymakers are beginning to see that while free trade, globalization, and development are part of the same debate, they are not synonymous. Even the most ardent proponents of globalization are beginning to take cues from development thought. However, "development" has shown itself to be woefully inadequate in practice. There has been a spike in the number of development-related NGOs, for example, yet the gap between the world's richest and poorest has not disappeared. Furthermore, as areas of the world have developed and "modernized," environmental strains have only been heightened.

A recipe for sustainable development, and similarly, effective conservation, is elusive because it is complex. However, there are numerous reasons to be optimistic about development as a field. As Amartya Sen has written, the "growth fetish" of 1950s and 1960s development economists has begun to pass (Sen 1999). The growth fetish refers to the tendency among early development theorists to ignore cultural patterns and historical particularity and the prejudice towards maximizing gross domestic product instead of quality of life. However, it has not disappeared completely.

Among the strongest critiques of development came from Indian activist and journalist Palagummi Sainath, who wrote that:

Development is the strategy of evasion. When you can't give people land reform, give them hybrid cows. When you can't send children to school, try non-formal education. When you can't provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. Can't give them jobs? Not to worry, just redefine the words 'employment opportunities'. Don't want to do away with using children as a form of slave labour? Never mind. Talk of 'improving the conditions of child labour!' It sounds good. You can even make money out of it (Sainath 1996, 421).

Sainath's attack can similarly be extended to conservation, which as I stated previously, should be taken given as a part of an ultimately ideal conception of development. After the 1987 Brundtland Report, words like "sustainable development" began to be thrown around policymaking and eventually popular discourse, often without any tangible results. This will be a focus of the final half of this discussion.

In its 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, the United Nations General Assembly declared that "the right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all people are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised" (UN 1986, 1). In 1987, a group of developing countries formed the South Commission to represent their views, defining development much more broadly as a process which enables human beings to realize their full potential and lead lives of dignity and fulfillment. In short, development as an ideal would simply level the playing field. The interplay between these two sides comes into full focus when addressing conservation,

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