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Conservation, decentralization, democratization: Overlapping environmental governance across scales

Type: Paper
Theme: Ethnonationalism and Exclusion Around the World
Sponsor Groups:
Organizers: Phurwa Gurung, Shruthi Jagadeesh
Chairs: Mara Goldman


Conservation has long been an exclusive project associated with enclosures and coercions. Political ecologists have raised questions about displacement, coercion, exclusion, and other implications of protected areas on people who have long inhabited them (e.g. Neumann 1996; 1998; Peluso 1993; 1992; West 2006). Since the 1980s, there have been increasing discussions around participatory conservation as nations across the world have implemented neoliberal reform policies centered around the language of decentralization (Larson and Ribot 2004; Ribot, Agrawal, and Larson 2006). Such policies have often emphasized local knowledge and participation in governance as integral to achieving conservation goals, and that has shaped the design principles of many so-called community-based projects (Berkes, Folke, and Colding 1998; Ostrom 1990). A host of global and local institutions have emerged in the wake of these shifts in environmental governance that continue to intercept already existing/shifting common-property management systems, and the everyday lives of differently situated social groups who are directly affected most by these policies (Nightingale 2011). However, case studies reveal that devolution of power rarely occurs on the ground, that central governments often actively obstructs devolution (Ribot, Agrawal, and Larson 2006; Larson and Ribot 2004; Lund, Rutt, and Ribot 2018), that knowledge-power dynamics are not always decentralized (Goldman 2003, 2011), and that reified ideas of what ‘common property natural resource management’ is and should be are often at the center of projects (Turner 2017; 1999; Nightingale 2019). Others have emphasized how “win-win” projects combining decentralization, participation, and a focus on the commons are reshaping governance and reconfiguring power between land users, NGOs, corporations, and the state (e.g. Little 2014; Li, 2018). Thus, while the language of decentralization, participatory conservation, and common property management present the potential for both merits and disadvantages (Zimmerer 2006, 255), the practice of “getting the institutions right” is often based upon idealized conceptions of relations and power (Tacconi 2007; Nightingale 2019b), while also intersecting with larger national politics including processes of democratization (Sundberg 2003; Nightingale et al. 2019; 2018). The papers in this panel examine the everyday and historical unfolding of decentralizations at the interfaces of overlapping forms of governance and (re)articulations of power across local, national, and global scales--including practices and performances of decentralization, recentralization, state restructuring, neoliberalization, and commoning.


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Goldman, Mara. 2003. “Partitioned Nature, Privileged Knowledge: Community-Based Conservation in Tanzania.” Development and Change 34 (5): 833–62.

Goldman, Mara. 2011. “Strangers in Their Own Land: Maasai and Wildlife Conservation in Northern Tanzania.” Conservation and Society 9 (1): 65.

Larson, Anne M, and Jesse C Ribot. 2004. “Democratic Decentralisation through a Natural Resource Lens: An Introduction.” The European Journal of Development Research 16 (1): 1–25.

Li, Tania M. “Commons, co-ops and corporations : Indonesia’s 21st century land reform”
POLITERS : Les POlitiques de la TERre au Sud : entre Etat, marchés et dispositifs coutumiers, 2 July 2018, MSH Sud, site Saint-Charles 2, Montpellier, France. Accessed 13 November, 2019

Little, Peter D. 2014. Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives. Indiana University Press.

Lund, Jens Friis, Rebecca Leigh Rutt, and Jesse Ribot. 2018. “Trends in Research on Forestry Decentralization Policies.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 32 (June): 17–22.

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———. 1998. Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa. California Studies in Critical Human Geography 4. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nightingale, Andrea. 2019a. “Commoning for Inclusion? Commons, Exclusion, Property and Socio-Natural Becomings.” International Journal of the Commons 13 (1): 16–35.

———. 2019b. “Commoning for Inclusion? Commons, Exclusion, Property and Socio-Natural Becomings.” International Journal of the Commons 13 (1): 16–35.

Nightingale, Andrea J. 2011. “Bounding Difference: Intersectionality and the Material Production of Gender, Caste, Class and Environment in Nepal.” Geoforum 42 (2): 153–62.

Nightingale, Andrea J., Anil Bhattarai, Hemant R. Ojha, Tulasi Sharan Sigdel, and Katharine N. Rankin. 2018. “Fragmented Public Authority and State Un/Making in the ‘New’ Republic of Nepal.” Modern Asian Studies 52 (03): 849–82.

Nightingale, Andrea J., Lutgart Lenaerts, Ankita Shrestha, Pema Norbu Lama ‘Tsumpa,’ and Hemant R. Ojha. 2019. “The Material Politics of Citizenship: Struggles over Resources, Authority and Belonging in the New Federal Republic of Nepal.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, August, 1–17.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions Forcollective Action. The Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Peluso, Nancy Lee. 1992. Rich Forests, Poor People : Resource Control and Resistance in Java. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 1993. “Coercing Conservation?” Global Environmental Change 3 (2): 199–217.

Ribot, Jesse C., Arun Agrawal, and Anne M. Larson. 2006. “Recentralizing While Decentralizing: How National Governments Reappropriate Forest Resources.” World Development 34 (11): 1864–86.

Sundberg, Juanita. 2003. “Conservation and Democratization: Constituting Citizenship in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala.” Political Geography 22 (7): 715–40.

Tacconi, Luca. 2007. “Decentralization, Forests and Livelihoods: Theory and Narrative.” Global Environmental Change 17 (3–4): 338–48.

Turner, Matthew D. 1999. “Conflict, Environmental Change, and Social Institutions in Dryland Africa: Limitations of the Community Resource Management Approach.” Society & Natural Resources 12 (7): 643–57.

———. 2017. “Political Ecology III: The Commons and Commoning.” Progress in Human Geography 41 (6): 795–802.

West, Paige. 2006. Conservation Is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Edited by Arturo Escobar and Dianne Rocheleau. Duke University Press.

Zimmerer, Karl S., ed. 2006. Globalization & New Geographies of Conservation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Shruthi Jagadeesh*, University of Colorado, Boulder, Everyday life in a South Indian tiger reserve 15 12:00 AM
Presenter Ryan Unks*, University of Lyon, Fences without fences: Institutions and subjectivity in Ilkisongo Maasai pastoralist commons of southern Kenya 15 12:00 AM
Presenter Phurwa D. Gurung*, University of Colorado Boulder, Indigenous environmental governance between conservation and democracy 15 12:00 AM
Presenter Prakriti Mukerjee*, , Community Forest Management Institutions in Uttarakhand, India 15 12:00 AM
Discussant Andrea Nightingale Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences 15 12:00 AM

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