Selling the 'Wild': Challenges Facing Volunteer Based Conservation Projects

By Eve R. Hill
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 1/2 |

Volunteer is a rapidly growing sub-sector of eco-tourism where fee-paying volunteers travel to developing countries to actively engage in conservation work (Cousins et al 2009b). As volunteers provide the labor and funding for these projects, organizations vie for the attention and capital of volunteers through . Consequently, conservation work has become a marketable commodity in a competitive neoliberal market that is increasingly dominated by private companies (Cousins et al 2009b; Lorimer 2010). To ‘sell’ conservation, volunteer organizations thus construct specific representations of nature that are designed to appeal to volunteers’ values and cultural preferences regarding conservation (Brooks 2005; Cousins et al 2009a).

Building on a constructivist epistemology this essay seeks to map these constructions of nature and consider their wider political implications. There follows an initial discussion that draws on an analysis of secondary materials from volunteer conservation websites to identify recurring elements in these constructions, and in doing so develop an idea of the aesthetic, emotive and ecological values that comprise them. To lend focus to the discussion secondary data will be centered on the key actors in the sector: Projects Abroad (TPA), Global Vision International (GVI), i-to-i, Frontier and Earthwatch Institute Europe (EIE). The first three of these are private organizations while the latter two are non-profit charities; a sample that roughly reflects the composition of the sector (Cousins 2007). Secondly, the relations of power and knowledge embedded within these constructions will be examined to discern the ecological and social implications for both conservation and wider society.

Constructing Nature for Conservation

‘Nature’ is notoriously hard to define. Famously described by Williams (1983: 219) as ‘perhaps the most complicated word in the [English] language’, it is a source of considerable confusion in discourses pertaining to the social construction and commodification of nature (Demeritt 2002; Castree 2003). This essay does not attempt to define nature per se but instead recognizes a multiplicity of meanings, each a product of the social and cultural values implicit in their construction. Furthermore, to clarify the subsequent discussion it should be noted that while the idiom ‘the social construction of nature’ has been applied to a variety of understandings of nature and knowledge, it is taken here to broadly mean ‘the construction of our concepts of nature’ (Demeritt 2002: 767).

To create these particular constructions of nature, volunteer organizations utilize a mixture of visual and linguistic tools. A preliminary review of the five organizations’ websites revealed visual imagery to be initially more emotively powerful; however verbal descriptions added far greater depth and detail to the visualization of individual projects. Two categories appear to dominate both visual and linguistic advertising; these are fauna and environment, a deduction supported by Cousins (2007) and Lorimer (2009; 2010).

Species-specific projects are extremely popular with volunteers, accounting for 68% of the 324 conservation projects reviewed by Lorimer (2009) in 2007. Charismatic megafauna, such as big cats, primates, elephants, rhinos and turtles are the target of the majority of these projects, however the single most popular species is the lion (Lorimer 2009; 2010). These partialities towards certain taxa are unmistakably reflected in the selection of fauna chosen to advertise volunteer projects. Frontier, GVI and i-to-i all display photographs of lions on either the main homepages or successive pages designated for African projects, while the websites of all five organizations contain numerous images of the charismatic megafauna listed above. Comparatively little can be seen of non-charismatic species, creating an extremely narrow depiction of the biodiversity encompassed by conservation projects.

It is not uncommon for charismatic megafauna to be framed as the target of conservation projects that actually include other species research. For instance ‘Jaguar and Puma Research in Mexico’ also involves monitoring local bird populations (GVI 2011), just as ‘Cheetah Conservation in Namibia’ encompasses a number of other wildlife surveys and a livestock guarding dog program (EIE 2011). In these projects Jaguars, Pumas and Cheetahs act as flagship species, defined by Leader-Williams and Dublin (2000) as species strategically chosen for their popularity and ability to raise awareness of, and promote conservation goals to the public. Although attention is focused on a single species, through an umbrella effect it is hoped that the protection of the flagship species in situ will result in the further conservation of the wider ecosystem’s flora and fauna (Dietz et al 1994). That said the result is that the constructions of nature portrayed by volunteer organizations omit familiar and non-charismatic species, perpetuating the popularity of charismatic megafauna.

Much of the animal photography used to illustrate the conservation projects depicts volunteers holding or touching fauna, alluding to the possibility of interaction (see figs. 1, 2, & 3).

Volunteer Conservationism Images

Cousins (2007: 1021) notes that there has been a ‘growing public demand for close encounters with wildlife’ which Lorimer (2010) states has permeated through to the marketing of conservation projects. Volunteer organizations thus intentionally promote the idea of interaction as part of their constructions of nature in a bid to attract volunteers.

Environments are the second main component used by volunteer organizations to create constructions of nature. These are generally depicted through either the scenic locations of projects or the specific habitats targeted by projects. Photographs of coastal and tropical biomes are particularly visible (see figs. 4 + 5) reflecting the high proportion of projects based in these areas (Cousins 2007). There is however a far greater diversity in the environmental imagery utilized compared to that of fauna.

Environment Images

Aside from the odd volunteer, most of the images portraying landscapes, such as figs. 4, 5 and 6, lack any signs of people or human input. This creates the notion that humanity is separate and distinct from nature, a dualism that is at the center of constructivist and realist debates (Proctor 1998). Although there are extremely few landscapes completely unaffected by human existence, constructing nature as external to humanity has proved to be a popular way of recasting environments for purposes of tourism (Neumann 2003; Brooks 2005). In the case of volunteer organizations, it portrays a very selective and skewed image of the conservation projects, most of which are run with the assistance or employment of local peoples (Wearing 2001; Brightsmith et al 2008). Furthermore, constructing nature in opposition to fosters the idea that it cannot be experienced or consumed at home. Instead it is cast as a physical place existing outside of society, which can be accessed through these conservation projects.

The visual imagery used on the websites of the five volunteer organizations is clearly selected to be aesthetically pleasing (refer to figs. 4, 5 + 6), however it has the additional function of creating romanticized constructions of nature. The text accompanying project information is similarly quixotic but provides greater detail:

‘Immerse yourself in a remote tropical paradise that is one of the world’s few remaining truly pristine environments.’ (GVI 2011)

‘The Research Centre area is famous for its breathtaking mountain vistas, pristine wilderness, and a remarkable diversity of plants and animals.’ (EIE 2011)

‘Projects Abroad's private reserve Reserva Ecologica Taricaya is a slice of unspoilt, untouched Amazon rainforest.’ (PA 2011)

These romanticized constructions of nature commonly employ language such as ‘untouched’, ‘pristine’ and ‘unspoilt’, which draws on the constructed externality of nature to create an idea of wilderness (Cronon 1996). Wilderness has been the subject of considerable academic discussion; however it is not the existence of wilderness per se that is debated, but the production and subsequent application of the concept of wilderness (Proctor 1998). Cronon (1996) in particular has critiqued it as a distraction that acts to prioritize some aspects of nature over others. These beautiful, romanticized constructions of nature are also often simplified and obscure the complex realities of the environments they depict (Brooks 2005; Cousins et al 2009a). For instance fig. 6, taken by a volunteer, is simply entitled ‘untouched wilderness.’

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