Wetenschap - 29 november 2001

Noble savage is pragmatist at heart

Noble savage is pragmatist at heart

'Papua New Guineans want a nice house, a car, a video and beer like anyone else'

In the past nature conservation was based on the idea that local people had to be excluded from protected areas. Now though, that idea is seen as morally unacceptable and counter-productive in the management of tropical protected areas. Participation is the buzz-word, and community-based approaches to conservation are in. However, research in Papua New Guinea, a country with vast forests and biodiversity, shows that participation is not necessarily the solution either.

When it comes to nature management, Papua New Guinea holds a special status. The country's constitution recognises the ownership rights to land of local communities. Government has little say in the use of natural resources, and that is not only due to poor or corrupt policies. Those interested in the forests - either commercial forest companies or international nature conservationists - have to deal directly with the communities that live in and use the forest for their daily life.

Private Asian forest companies offer substantial sums of money to buy the right to cut down trees in the forest, so nature conservationists who want to offer an alternative to this also have to come up with an attractive idea. Participation, making a conservation plan together with local communities that has something in it for the local people as well, becomes a necessity. That makes Papua New Guinea a case that casts light on the debate about nature management on the forced exclusion of local people from protected areas, their inclusion through participatory methods, and the development of economic incentives that promote good management.

Sociologist and economist Flip van Helden of the Department of Rural Development Sociology worked in an integrated conservation and development project in Papua New Guinea. He studied the interaction between local people and project staff and the views that local people and staff have of nature, nature management and each other. He found that local communities are not like the stereotype idea of local people upon which conservation policies are based. Local people are not the key threat to the local environment, but neither are they 'noble savages' who are naturally inclined to deal with nature in a respectful way, as field staff were inclined to believe.

Instead, for local communities, participating in the project was a way of securing land rights and territory, thus preventing migrants from entering the area. The promise of economic gains from the project, such as those through income-generating activities and education and health services linked to the nature project, played a role as well. That local people are more eager to secure development than to shoulder the opportunity costs of international concerns about nature, is hardly surprising. Van Helden: "Ask a Papua New Guinean if he wants to live in the subsistence-based economy of his forefathers or whether he wants to earn money and buy his food in a trade store, and he would be eager for the latter. Papua New Guineans want a nice house, a car, a video machine and beer like anybody else."

For projects to be ecologically successful, a long-term plan should be made together with local communities. The problem is, argues Van Helden, that as communities regard land and natural resources as their property, they can decide to change its use to less nature-friendly uses whenever they wish. Though the idea of an opportunistic local community is less romantic than that of the noble savage, it comes closer to reality.

Joris Tielens

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