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Flora Lu’s “Conservation Catch-22”

by on October 25, 2011

Flora Lu’s article titled “The Conservation Catch-22: Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Change” argues that current theories on development and conservation have left indigenous populations with little room to decide their own fate, in effect creating a Catch-22. The Catch-22 according to Lu is that as we strive to “develop” the people and places outside of Western Culture they are labeled as destroyers of their own land and unable to conserve their local biodiversity and more importantly their culture.  Her focus to support her stance is the Huaorani people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Huaorani are perhaps the most famous of all the Amazonian tribes, known for the fierce protection of their lands and resources.  Not only have their practices proved to be sustainable in the absence of development but they also believe in the spiritual connectedness between humans and nature.  As Lu states, for years the Huaorani way of life allowed the areas they control to maintain high levels of biodiversity due to their low population densities, limited technology and subsistence level production.  Lu also attributes much the Hauorani success to their common property regimes in which the common territories shared by the tribes are outlined and their uses determined. According to Lu this type of system avoided the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ scenario because instead of the land being nobodies it actually belonged to everybody. Unfortunately in more recent times the state of the Huaorani territories has begun to change.

The change to Huaorani way of life is due to the introduction of Western technology and medicine, market level production, and population growth (also known as development).  The introduction to development came in the form of foreign oil companies coming to the Amazon and exploiting the resources but also bringing their technology and employing locals.  It is the processes of development that Lu cites as the cause of conservation problems for the Huaorani, ultimately because conservation would have never been an issue if it wasn’t for Western influence.   A term used by conservation biologists such as Terborgh to describe this  “inevitable process” is technological determinism.  According to conservation biologists the inevitable progression of technology leads to an ecologically destructive lifestyle and that indigenous populations lack the ability to organize creating the need for authoritarian enforcement of protected lands.  According to Lu with the western influence placed on the Hauorani people their way of life changed and before they could learn for themselves what they were doing outsiders are trying to take away their land on grounds that they don’t know how to take care of it.

Lu believes conservation needs to “marry belief and behavior” (Lu 80) meaning we need to account for the previous practices of the Huaorani as well as their spiritual and special beliefs.  Furthermore, conservation efforts should be focused on  “indentifying conditions which foster conservation” (Lu 80).  Ideally Lu would support a holistic, bottom–up approach to conservation, however, with the current status of power conditions in the world (West with all, indigenous with none) she believes that Western culture and their ability for enforcement and control will be the solution to conservation in the Amazon.


1.  I have learned in previous classes on development that in order for one place to become “developed” another must be exploited, is this true?

2.  What kind of justice can be done to restore what has been destroyed in the Amazon, both in terms of physical resources and corruption of cultures?


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  1. alannadore permalink

    1. I think that Lu’s article is good evidence of how one culture is exploited through another’s development. This scenario is all to common in the history of western development, and as the article and the story of the Huaorani people prove, there is still exploitation in order to benefit western gains in the world today. This article was extremely interesting to me because it further proved how detrimental the west has been in affecting the state of other culture’s landscapes in order to further its own interests. The unique success of the Huaorani people is evidence against the all too common western fabrication that many indigenous people are not sustainably and successfully cultivating their land, so western influence is not as harmful to them as it could seem to be. I feel that often, it is argued that indigenous people over-exploit their land or fail to take care of it, however, the catch 22 is that western people are often at the root of that issue, as with this situation described by Lu. I don’t know if it is possible to develop one place while utilizing another without harming it, but I am sure that the majority, if not all of historical western exploitation has harmed other cultures who had previously connected to culture in a way that was different than that of western influence.

  2. Summer Rose W permalink

    For corrupting cultures, it must be very difficult to take it back to before disruption from globalization. The Huaorani in Ecuador went through population growth and started using technology from outside their culture. It is difficult to go back once a population found something to be more efficient (such as firearms). Maybe what we should think about is not how to restore changed communities, but think about how we should not influence the cultures that have not yet been completely changed. This is difficult now because Western culture has had a huge influence on many places around the world. For the remaining people that have not been impacted so greatly, perhaps Western culture should be more cautious and not bring in western influences on those people.

    • Your comment was really insightful, and Lu point out, that these populations are experiencing population growth, creating a substantial need for, “modern medicines and the availability to aircraft to evacuate medical emergencies…”(5). These populations as Nancy pointed out, are not against modernization, as technologies like that of medicine, would minimize the death rate of beloved friends or family member from problems that are easily cured with the application of modern medicine. While some western influences can be utilized, I also believe that western cultures should not directly interfere with the communities, influencing their natural progression of development. Today, Globalization makes this very difficult, as the western influence plays a dominant role in the world arena. The influence should remain just that, an influence; describing the capacity to have an effect on something. Western cultures should remain minimally influential, instead of actively interfering with communities.

  3. amygraceaustin permalink

    My initial response is that systems need to be created to ensure that indigenous peoples can be left alone to once again make decisions over and govern their own land. It is such a catch-22 in and of itself when Western people say that they want to balance conservation while also helping develop the local populations. I believe that many of the reasons that things have gotten so out of hand is due to intense foreign involvement.

    However, Summer’s post reminds me that this is a very idealized perspective and one that is inherently impossible. Now, in an era of vast globalization, there is no such thing as complete Western removal. Therefore, this article is important in terms of shedding light on the issues. My question now is what is the next step?

  4. janellekramer permalink

    I would say that for the most part, when cultures development, it does mean that another is exploited. We can make things, materials, out of nowhere, they must come from somewhere else on the planet. When we build houses, we borrow from the forest or run factories that increase carbon emissions. Especially now that to develop means to become more industrialized, we have to use a lot of energy and the Earth’s resources to get the types of products we want. I don’t want to get preachy about global warming, but when it comes to development, at this point, it is detrimental to the whole world. Every sea-side culture will be affected if they are not already because soon enough, people will have to move to higher land.

  5. The process of development involves the strengthening of an economy; the economy depends on industrialization to do so. In the way the system has grown, populations and land inside and outside of a developing area are exploited.

  6. To answer your first question, I have also learned that in order for one place to become or maintain the level of development, another must be exploited. Lu attributes exploitation to conservation awareness, by illustrating that it is a social process that arises, “when people exert pressure on resources and recognize the potential for overexploitation- conditions concurrent with population growth, adaption of western technologies, and market production”(1). I think through the example of the Huarani, Lu exemplifies the question through the Catch 22. “Western culture and all its trappings are considered both the problem and the solution, and as indigenous communities broaden their economic activities and technologies for survival in changing circumstances, this is taken as evidence they have lost their “natural conservationist” tendencies” (6). In order to survive in a globalized world, the growing population of Huarani people, must adhere to economic incentives, in their case, the Amazonian natural resources. Developed countries seek these resources to maintain their national standard of living, thus exploiting these “developing” nations. My question is, as we move into the Decarbonization Era, and nations invest further into alternative energies, will this cycle still exist?

  7. Benjamin N. permalink

    In response to the first question, development and exploitation are deeply linked with each other. I agree that in order for one place to be developed, another must be exploited, usually by way of exploiting natural resources. We must not forget that the place that’s being developed is also being exploited and used as a means to an end.

  8. This article really hit home with me, because I grew up in a small town in a different country, and the native people did have a hard time with having their own say in what exactly should happen in regards to development or conservation or both. It seems that at the end of the day, their options are going to harm them either way. People think that Westernization is such a wonderful thing, and in many cases it is, but when the people who have been living in a place sustainably for so long and are then forced to change their ways, is Westernization then really so great? I have always thought it ironic that people from the West go into these third-world countries with the idea to create something good for an environment, even though the environment was probably ok to begin with. So, now, the people who were trying to help out the natives have in fact turned their lives upside down and potentially harmed the area, which was the exact opposite of their intent. I have no solution to this problem, since there are times when Westernization can help the environment, but I think that there is much to be said about people like us going into other countries and dictating what we think is correct. Sometimes, I think that a little lesson from the natives could be helpful, instead of forcing them into a situation where they really have no freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something that we’re implementing.

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