CORDIS - EU research results




Central to the constitution of the current ecological crisis are Western environmental views that separate nature from society and which make possible large-scale exploitation and despoliation of natural resources. This ontological separation is also integral to the emergence of modern environmentalism and many attempts to redress the ecological problems that capitalism causes. The tensions surrounding this separation, and attempts to deal with them, are visible in numerous environmental problems, from conflicts between biodiversity conservation and farming, fishing and grazing practices, to the material and symbolic eviction of local groups from conservation-targeted areas. Critical studies of such conflicts contend that, despite promoting new environmental attitudes, most conservation initiatives have failed to question the nature-society separation that underlies ecologically predatory initiatives.

Research on the links between conservation conflicts and the nature-society dichotomy started with the analysis of US National Park model and its connection to a Western rhetoric of wilderness, authenticity and untouched nature, which inspired State-centred conservation models in many other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. These models hinge on the coercive utilisation of State’s force and technologies of government upon territories, resources, and social groups in order to create ‘islands’ of supposedly untouched nature, having its most extreme manifestations been termed ‘fortress conservation’. Although this model seem to have a limited influence on the design of protected areas (PAs) in other geographical areas such as Western Europe, where the historical presence of local inhabitants have been largely acknowledged in conservation plans, critical studies reveal that, in the attempt to define the ‘proper’ place of humans in nature, these PAs have also embodied Western dualist environmental views. PAs across the world have therefore territorialised ideas of nature and society in binary opposition, extending the belief that conservation depends a great deal on limiting the human transformation of natural resources, which has resulted in the production of new natures and environmental subjects.

The quick and profound changes that nature conservation is experiencing nowadays, following the penetration of the neoliberal ideology, redefine this relationship between the State, nature and society that was forged with the expansion of conservation policies and PAs over recent decades. The neoliberal turn that most conservation policies are adopting at present is marked, among other things, by the withdrawal of the State and public disinvestments in conservation, which are replaced by private agents, market-based conservation strategies and the commoditisation of protected natures. These changes in the conservation field are raising concerns about the growing faith in market solutions to environmental problems and their impacts on people and ecosystems. In addition, it is also encouraging a great deal of theoretical work around the production of new neoliberal natures within conservation-targeted areas.

The PAENCE research project aims to trace and identify the new ideas and representations of nature that are both enabling and resulting from the penetration of the neoliberal ideology in the management and government of natural protected areas, while easing their conversion into new spaces for global capital expansion. To do this, it looks at the expansion of the neoliberal ideology in the management of protected areas (PAs) in post-crisis Europe, particularly in Spain and Ireland. European case studies are instrumental to analysing the changing relation between the State, nature and society because conservation efforts in this continent have historically relied on strong State investments, unlike in other geographical contexts where other actors, such as NGOs, have played a more central role. Besides, the recent political upheaval created by the 2008 economic crisis and the imposition of a strict austerity regime provides a timely scenario marked by State disinvestments in conservation and the search of private and market-based conservation strategies.

One of the empirical cornerstones of the PAENCE project is the idea that the State is not a given entity, but the effect of multiple practices of government. As such, I look at the changing role of the State in conservation from the perspective of the practices and discourses of those that have the responsibility of governing protected nature. Research work focuses on the ethnographic study of the complex network of individuals and institutions that manage and govern PAs in Spain and Ireland. The aim is to identify and analyse the relations that these people and institutions establish, the negotiations they engage in, the environmental narratives they articulate, the ideals and interests they have and the influence they exert on political decisions. This provides important information about the power relations, social processes, and the technologies of government used in the transformation of PAs, firstly, from declining farming, grazing, gathering and fishing areas to biodiversity reserves; and secondly, from biodiversity reserves to green commodities, ecosystem services and ecotourism destination.

Research fieldwork focuses on the network of individuals and institutions linked to two different PAs in the Region of Andalusia, Spain (the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park and the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche Natural Park), and one PA in County Galway, Ireland (the Connemara National Park). Taking into account that the complexity behind PA governance requires the inclusion of both local and global actors, different scales of governance and multi-situated interests both in the public and private sector, the network that this project focuses on includes: EU environment, agriculture and development experts and policy-makers such as members of the European Commission, European Environmental Agency and the Environment Directorate-General; national, regional and mixed bureaucracies with responsibilities in environmental conservation, sustainable development and the implementation of EU Common Agriculture Policy at national level; Local Action Groups related to the European Network for Rural Development; international and national conservation NGOs with a record of engaging with these protected areas; park managers; scientists from university departments and research institutions with interests in these areas; and tourism lobbies working in each PA.

This was a 24-month research project, carried out between September 2014 and August 2016 at two different institutions: University of Manchester (9/14-8/15) and University of Sheffield (9/15-8/16). The methodology draws largely on ethnography and uses both participant observation and semi-structured interviews in order to reach an in-depth and multi-level analysis of the interests, social relationships, environmental discourses and practices of selected informants. This is complemented with a thorough review of policies and secondary sources of data.

The main findings of this project are two. Firstly, the economic crisis in countries like Spain and Ireland creates a situation of economic austerity that derives in State disinvestment in several public policy fields, including conservation. This situation forces those State agents and institutions that are responsible for the management and government of natural protected areas to find alternative ways to exert control over them, including the search of private investors and public-private partnerships. To this end, protected natures are either re-valued in monetary terms or reframed and repackaged as ecosystem services, biodiversity offsets or tourist destinations. It can be concluded that State agents not only engage with neoliberal conservation strategies to facilitate the creation of new forms of capital accumulation based on the green economy, but also to regain governmental legitimacy over the territories, resources and social groups that have been targeted by conservation policies.

Secondly, in the abovementioned context the efforts of State agents result in a redefinition of the relationship between the State, nature and society, which is marked by the transition from a protectionist State to a hands-off State. In this transition, nature is crafted as an enterprise; i.e. an entity whose survival depends on its capacity to marketing itself, be attractive to business and competitive in the search of funding. The global biodiversity discourse that dominated the conservation fields over precedent decades, which defined the value of nature and justified the protectionist role of the State, nowadays overlaps and merges with the global neoliberal discourse, which, as Foucault argued, aims to reduce the fabric of the world to an amalgam of individual entities with the shape of an enterprise that are governed by the rules of competition.

Connected to these findings, the PAENCE project has also identified other phenomena. For example, such shift of conservation strategy has several social impacts, some of them rather subtle and hard to quantify but nonetheless extremely relevant. This project has analysed the transformation of lifestyle among amenity migrants, which is a social group that has supported the State’s protectionist role with nature in the past. The disinvestment of the State in conservation and the multiplication of green businesses in natural protected areas affect the livelihood and lifestyles of this social group, who feel displaced and, as a result, develop feelings of disillusionment and discontent with conservation policies, transforming the scenario of conflicts and alliances in PAs.

More information about the project can be found at the website: