Evaluating the Contemporary Relevance of Fortress Conservation Approach to Biodiversity Protection

Evaluating the Contemporary Relevance of Fortress Conservation Approach to Biodiversity Protection

Underpinning the fortress conservation approach to biodiversity protection is the false dichotomy of man versus nature (Brechen et al., 2002). The perceived incompatibly of humans and the environment has led to the rigid understanding that in order to conserve biodiversity, it must be isolated from human interaction. This has led to the emergence of fortress conservation in the late 19th Century exemplified and solidified in the creation of the world’s first national park in 1872, Yellowstone (Kothari et al., 1995). The expulsion of Native American tribes, their mistreatment through a deceiving treaty and the violent clashes that ensued set the tone for fortress conservation over the following century. Biodiversity is no doubt in need of urgent attention throughout the world; however the relevance of fortress conservation in addressing this is diminishing. The rise in the area of national park coverage around the world does not appear to be associated with the maintenance of biodiversity. In fact, on average biodiversity loss is still increasing globally with accelerating rates of species extinction and even faster rates of subpopulation extinctions being recorded (Rands et al., 2010: 1299). Despite current fortress approaches to biodiversity protection, biodiversity pressures are still mounting on the environment from human activity. In this essay we will discuss why this approach is unsustainable and how alternative approaches that recognise the interconnectedness of man and nature may be more relevant in today’s economically thriving climate.

Biodiversity protection is maintaining the variation of species within ecosystems which facilitate ecosystem processes that are essential to human survival (Rands et al., 2010: 1298). Ecosystem services include examples such as water purification, crop pollination, providing resources as well as cultural services. These, along with many other ecosystem services provide the foundation on which man survives and thrives on Earth. This brings us to the key idea of man’s interconnectivity with the environment; that is the way in which processes of man and nature intersect and influence each other. Particularly over the last century however, the development of a global market system has changed mans perceived relationship with nature. Mass extraction of resources and manufacturing of goods has created a production line that has increasingly disjointed man and his reliance on the environment. Once hunter gatherers living with nature, man has now become the consumer living in manmade urban areas. Gradually this has led to the illusion that man is a separate entity to nature when in actual fact man is one of the components that makes up the environment. Fortress conservation embodies this false dichotomy by structuring the protection of nature around its isolation from man. Society today and its attempts to conserve biodiversity in small pockets of ‘wilderness’ that exclude people have failed to acknowledge the wider causes of biodiversity decline (Kothari et al., 1995: 190). This was evident in the report ‘Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010’ by Rands and others (2010). Within the report they noted a 2.5 percent rise yearly in the total area of land being given protected area status; conversely however biodiversity loss was not recorded to be slowing. This is because regardless of the protection of biodiversity in small localities, human induced pressures on biodiversity are continuing to rise on a more general level (Rands et al., 2010: 1299). Brechin and others argue that biodiversity conservation should be thought of as a social process because the principal threat to biodiversity loss is the predominant western structure of the urban industrial economy (Brechen et al., 2002 and Kothari et al., 1995). The key to reducing these threats in order to protect biodiversity is first understanding that coexistence is necessary for a sustainable future; this is what the fortress approach to conservation fails to acknowledge.

The perceived duality between man and nature is underpinned by small scale attempts to exclude people, often indigenous from their land. We will consider evictions that have occurred in both India and Uganda; in both countries fortress conservation has been based on cutting out the human issue in order to achieve local success. This small scale success is often celebrated whilst the disregard for local peoples’ role in maintaining biodiversity is symbolic of man not taking responsibility for his involvement with and influence on the environment. India has seen the full effect of economic development in its sharp decline of biological diversity; during the 20th Century over half of its natural forest had been removed (Kothari et al., 1995: 188). One of the measures the government introduced to protect remaining biodiversity was the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972. Following this a multitude of protected areas were set up which had considerable success in preventing development and resource extraction. A proposed hotel complex was halted at the Balukhand Sanctuary created in 1984 in Orissa whilst a hydroelectric project set for the Silent Valley rainforest in Kerala was prevented by the establishment of a national park in 1980 (Kothari et al., 1995: 189). However have these national parks prevented or only displaced such threats to the environment? Demand for electricity and tourism will still prevail, having the potential to disrupt biodiversity whether they are obtained from the rainforest habitats of Bengal tigers or on the outskirts of Mumbai. The broader social issues of economic and political structures that threaten biodiversity are not being addressed by fortress conservation.

The Wild Life Act of India has also been commended for its role in saving a number of critically endangered species including the Asiatic lion, the brow antlered deer and the one-horned rhinoceros. These successes however are questionable in their sustainability and dealings with people within the parks. Under the Wild Life Act, no human activity is permitted in national parks unless it is to the benefit of the wildlife; this has led to the government forcibly evicting tribal people from their land and attempting to assimilate them into modern society (Kothari et al., 1995: 189). The impact broader society has had on the environment has extended onto indigenous people; their presence is assumed to aggravate environmental systems rather than play a role within them. Western notions of biodiversity protection have deemed conservation the domain of ecologists and naturalists, ignoring the wealth of experience and knowledge local populations have in surviving with the environment. Fortress conservation has typically ignored the need for and potential of community based approaches to conservation which work on a basis of coexistence.

This was evident in the Bharatpur Sanctuary, a wetland habitat that was upgraded to national park status in 1980 meaning that livestock grazing was banned within its boundaries. This move from the government prompted a protest in which several villagers were killed in violent clashes (Kothari et al., 1995: 191). However it was revealed in a long term study by the Bombay Natural History Society that buffalo grazing was a crucial part of maintaining the habitat by preventing grasslands from encroaching on the wetlands (Kothari et al., 1995: 191). It can be seen that traditional practices preserved by local tribes often do not disturb but in fact aid their environment. It must also be noted however, that the encroachment of urban consumer values has led to tribal life being altered, often focussing more around tradable goods leading to felling of trees and poaching by locals. This indicates how socio-economic influences may extend across the boundaries of national parks and reserves; not only consumer demand but outside issues of global warming influence areas rich in biodiversity whether they are protected by fortress conservation or not (Dawson et al., 2011). The health of the people and the health of the environment are interdependent. Eviction for fortress conservation removes the aspect of poverty induced environmental degradation only to displace it elsewhere. In addition it ignores the larger issues of societies growing unsustainability (Rands et al., 2010: 1298). Fortress conservation does not take a holistic approach to biodiversity protection.

Fortress conservation undoubtedly succeeds in saving small populations from extinction and reduces immediate effects that man can have on his environment; however these efforts are remarkably disproportionate to massing threat of the global economic climate. Fundamental shifts are needed in how societies develop and use their resources, policy is needed to regulate the power of economic demand and the need for coexistence through sustainability needs to be realised. This is a more holistic social approach to biodiversity protection rather than isolating few patches of wilderness from man’s activities. On the small scale, the knowledge of local people and their role in the environment needs to be acknowledged.


the failures of a conventional approach

fortress conservation Tanzania

(Brechen et al., 2002) (Kothari et al., 1995) (Rands et al., 2010)