Human Relations at the Heart of Environmental Conservation


While doing fieldwork in Panama, I addressed an undergraduate field biology class visiting from Princeton University.  We discussed the interrelationships between governmental and nongovernmental organizations involved in a large environmental trust fund.  I wanted these aspiring tropical biologists to see that environmental conservation takes more than good science and appropriate policies.  It necessitates understanding formal and informal human relationships at the core of environmental conservation.  Sustainable environmental conservation is dependent on sustainable human relations.


Later that week I ran into the professor overseeing the class, who said that several of his students had expressed concern about my presentation.  “They said it just sounded like a bunch of gossip.” This reminded me of a conversation I had with a Panamanian woman working at the US Embassy in Panama.  She told me that she had initially been hired to keep track of economic statistics but that her job had changed to introducing visiting American officials to the “right” people in Panama.  “The most important thing for me to know is not the breakdown of our GDP, but who is sleeping with who in Panama.” 


Through her humor, I understood her point.  The informal ties and relations in Panama are a key factor in how deals are made and what gets accomplished.  This is certainly not news to anthropologists.  However, when addressing the world of policy makers and natural scientists influential in conservation organizations, an anthropological approach can serve to reveal what policies and scientific inquiry do not.   The importance of this in Latin America, where so many riches are natural and so many environmental agencies are intervening, cannot be underestimated.


In Panama I studied two NGOs implementing agroforestry programs as forms of forest conservation.  Both organizations included mestizo and indigenous farmers in their training programs.  During one NGO’s training seminar, an indigenous man questioned information about when a particular crop should be planted.  “But this should be planted during the new moon, right?”  The mestizo instructor laughed.  “Look, here we are teaching science.  Leave your superstitions at home.”  All the mestizo farmers in the class laughed with the instructor.  The man sat down and did not ask any more questions.  


Soon after, I attended a seminar taught by the other NGO.  As if the fieldwork gods were smiling upon me, when the issue of planting arose, another indigenous man stood and asked the very same question.  A mestizo instructor answered.  “If that’s what you believe, then take the information and make it work for you.  Let’s see what happens.”  The mestizo and indigenous farmers, traditionally leery of one another, worked cooperatively in this setting and grew in respect for one another.


I later visited the indigenous man from the first seminar.  He asked if I could help him find other NGO with whom the people in his town could work.  He said, “I know that this NGO has been holding out on us. Because they think we are lazy, they are withholding the coffee seed they promised.”  Having heard from a field technician from that NGO that they had received poor quality seed from their supplier and there fore did not have enough good seed, it appeared that this man’s impression was inaccurate.  However, based on his experiences, I understood his assumption. This incident served as one of many indicators as to why the relationship between the villagers and this NGO was deteriorating while the other NGO was having increasing success with farmers in their project.  In one instance, the NGO is not accomplishing its goals for forest conservation, while in the other case, agroforestry is becoming a vibrant alternative to slash and burn agriculture.


This is just one layer of these conservation efforts.  Understanding that formal and informal relations are also occurring at the level of USAID, the Nature Conservancy and the government of Panama, who together manage the trust fund from which the two smaller NGOs receive their funding, hints at the political, social and economic complexities involved in seemingly straight-forward conservation efforts.


No amount of hard science will identify nor address these sorts of relations, nor will clearly written policies. Anthropologist’s expertise has been a missing layer in environmental conservation. It is time for us to remedy this.