The Politics of Environmental Conservation:

A Study in Civil Society, Corruption, and Scales of Influence in Panama.

Elizabeth Dougherty, PhD


This dissertation explores the role that environmental conservation organizations play in the development of civil society, specifically in Panama.  Development institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and political theorists have lauded “civil society” as a key actor in the establishment of democratic norms.  However, the essence, existence and functioning of any civil society must be understood to be geo-historically dependent. 


Panama is an excellent example of why this is so.  Panama’s own long-term history is tied to its political and economic servicing of other nations’ interests, most recently epitomized by the Panama Canal, the Colón Free Trade Zone, the off-shore banking industry as well as the unofficial money laundering, drug and arms trade industries.  Panama’s service history cannot be separated from the rhetorical and/or practical efforts now being made by international and national governmental and nongovernmental to strengthen democratic structures by way of cohering civil participatory organizations into an actual “civil society”.  The challenges associated with the coherence of individual organizations into a wider societal web, which draws not only from the lower, rural class, but also from the participation of all sectors and classes of society, is the subject of this dissertation.  I draw on the rhetoric and practices centrally organized by the establishment of and functioning relationships specific to the FIDECO environmental trust fund.  This fund exists through the combined efforts of the government of Panama, USAID, the Nature Conservancy and, now, Fundación NATURA.  By focusing on the FIDECO Trust Fund, the issues of formal and informal relationships, scales of influence, economic and political power struggles, long-term international relations and corruption are each foregrounded as key facets to understanding the identity and possibilities for civil society in Panama.


Civil society, a key term in national and international development circles, refers to organized social and political public forces able to influence the development and maintenance of democracy and good governance.  Proponents of democracy of both the political left and the liberal right currently conceive of civil society as a network of organizations primarily constituted  “of the people” and emerging “from below,” meaning from outside of elite power structures associated with states.  In the case of environmental development projects, civil society’s primary locus of organization, particularly in “the developing world”, is among the poor and rural classes.  This conceptualization of civil society as tied to lower and often rural classes is especially strong and the “capacity-building” of the rural poor to build civil society is therefore a regular feature of governmental and nongovernmental organizations implementing these projects. 


Just as anthropologists have come to terms with their participation in a politically-biased social agenda of romanticizing the lower, rural classes, the same process is pertinent for academics, political theorists, development experts and activists who are participating in the establishment of a political agenda by similarly romanticizing the capacity of the lower classes and NGOs for civil society development.  The proposition that under the guidance of NGOs civil society will erupt from below to create a political force which challenges and balances the hegemonic power of the state and elite class interests is an oversimplification of the dynamic processes involved in the constitution of civil society.  In fact, this view of civil society enables hegemonic processes by which international and national elite classes maintain a veneer of democracy while constructing webs of power that undermine the potential for an active civil society.  


Based on the variety of actors and interests that have contributed to the nascent focus on environmental conservation initiatives in Panama, the environmental trust fund FIDECO is a privileged site for examining how and why social groups and coalitions do or do not form, and the social, political, economic, and environmental processes involved.  The processes of civil society development in Panama demonstrate that, rather than fulfilling the romantic notion that civil society is erupting from below, a wide array of national and international class interests are mediating its form and function.  Therefore, invoking the notion of a bounded community of the rural lower classes undermines the democratic potential of civil society by misrepresenting the need to coordinate the actors and interests represented within and between all classes as well as the necessary participation of all classes in addressing power differentials in extant.


Rather than re-enforcing the reification and categorization of imaginary bounded folk communities once held by anthropologists and now recreated in the rhetoric of development organizations, I focus on processes by which social groups form and maintain themselves.  Utilizing a “process” orientation serves to unearth the ways in which the structures of power, large and small, are maintained and challenged internally and externally by social groups and networks in Panama – whether the contestation arises from American economic and political pressure, from middle-class NGO and state agency employees or from small rural community organizations.


This dissertation examines the processes of emergence and reproduction of practices related to civil society.  It also examines how societal patterns and traditions in Panama are linked to its history as well as current economic, social and political structures.  I document and analyze the day-to-day practices vital to the process of the creation and control of the arena of civil society.  These practices are manifested and enacted in written reports, contractual agreements, seminars and public meetings; in how NGO personnel interact with rural community members; and how US donor agency personnel interact with an NGO that they have been instrumental in creating.  My approach exhibits how the formal and the informal intertwine on various levels of society – how individual actions create processes that solidify, challenge and alter structures of social, political and economic interactions, thus shifting the nature of the society overall.