Transforming the Frontier: Peace Parks and the Politics of Neoliberal Conservation in Southern Africa

Transforming the Frontier takes readers into the complex reality of transnational and cross-border conservation initiatives in southern Africa. Peace parks are heralded in development, conservation, and even diplomatic circuits as a triumph of southern African diplomacy, good will, biodiversity conservation, and human development. Bram Büscher challenges the simplistic view that peace parks are the solution for all of South Africa’s conservation woes.  His nuanced analysis examines issues of power, (anti)politics, race as well as commodification.  He also examines the imagery that too often accompanies the neoliberal agenda promoting peace parks. He critically discusses the history and outcomes of these new forms of conservation taking hold in southern Africa. Büscher’s ethnography draws from political ecology and critical theory to analyze the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project, a peace park, in Lesotho and South Africa.  Büscher organizes his analysis around three key components of neoliberal transfrontier conservation, namely 1) consensus, 2) antipolitics, and 3) marketing. These three “modes of political conduct,” (p. 18) allow Büscher to explore the complex spheres that underlie the façade of how remarkable peace parks appear to be. He acknowledges that these modes of political conduct are not innately neoliberal in and of themselves, and they present the possibility of varying outcomes while being deeply embedded in the fabric of peace parks in southern Africa.

The seeds for the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project began in the 1950s in an effort by South Africa to protect a watershed in Lesotho that fed the city of Pretoria. An early agreement between the two countries to protect the watershed was later expanded to include the entire mountain ecosystem that housed the catchment area, under the rubric of biodiversity conservation and an unsubstantiated perception of ecosystem degradation. In the 1980s, efforts to expand the area’s conservation under a park system was led by a single South African working for the state’s water and forestry department. This charismatic individual would become a significant champion of the transfrontier project. A lack of funding for years stalled the process of creating a transfrontier park, until the 1990s when the European Union invested in the project. Eventually the World Bank and Global Environment Fund (GEF) became the project’s lead financial backers. By the late 1990s-early 2000s, the concept of transfrontier conservation and peace parks had gained traction and popularity internationally, and supporters of the Maloti-Drakensburg played up the idea of creating a collaborative, peace-building project with global benefits. Three critical factors shaped the transfrontier process, the conceptualization behind it, and its legitimization: 1) concerns for water conservation and biodiversity; 2) international discourses of sustainable development and community-based conservation; and 3) key actors from South Africa with a substantial political foundation and the Basotho reaction to their actions.

Büscher’s three modes of political conduct are explored and expanded and woven throughout the ethnography. Büscher reveals how the discourse of consensus was used to construct specific forms of representation in both conservation and development spheres and shows how this has played out in Maloti-Drakensberg. Büscher contends that the presentation of inclusiveness and consensus by conservation managers and in guidelines for management has actually suppressed democratic processes and political debate and therefore revealing the strategies and outcomes of antipolitics. Büscher heavily engages with politics and anti-politicking, which he summarizes as the “political act of doing away with politics”(p. 21), where politics are defined as, “the mediation and contestation of different interests and power struggles” (p. 20). Büscher returns to the southern African roots of Ferguson’s anti-politics, or the removal of the political in the “ ‘development’ apparatus” that subtly reinserts politics through enacting an agenda of expanding state power, an expansion that is implemented unnoticed (Ferguson 1990: xv). Büscher explains that the tools of antipolitics, or the demonizing politics using rationality and technocracy, strengthen the status quos of conservation and neoliberalism. Finally, Büscher takes an interesting look at the role of marketing (and to some extent public relations) through which organizations attempt to secure legitimacy while in the process (either knowingly or not) commodifying conservation.  Büscher does not intend to argue that transfrontier peace parks can only be understood through a simplified model of neoliberal political conduct, however he contends that neoliberal processes and policies help frame the broader context from which the creation and implementation of the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project stemmed. Finally, crucial to his analysis are the differences between neoliberalism itself as a “mode of political conduct” and as a “mode of devolved governance” (p. 220). In heeding these differences, Büscher’s arguments rest on the fact that this duality of neoliberalism presents a situation rife with contradictions (p. 220).

Büscher’s ethnography begins with the colonial and post-colonial history of southern African conservation and concludes with the present day implementation and management of peace parks as a “new” model for conservation in southern Africa. He draws on this historical and post-colonial past and present to explore conservation’s link to the neoliberalization of southern African economies and states. He links complex social relationships, race, post-apartheid politics, and the trans-boundary power dynamics between South Africa and Lesotho.  Büscher uses historical and institutional analyses as well as ethnographic methods to show how these links exist in the ideals and grounded realities of peace parks.  Büscher also demonstrates the power of distinct persons and personalities in planning and implementing the Maloti-Drakensburg.

Büscher contends that there is also a paradox within the “complex realities” (p. 170) of selling a project or in terms of endorsing behavioral change. He explains that the marketing of the Maloti-Drakensburg through the use of images, language, and discourses of conservation, is used not just to sell an idea, but also to “reconstitute the area in neoliberal terms” (p. 170). The institutional ties to the World Bank (and the Global Environmental Facility, GEF) facilitate instilling the Maloti-Drakensberg, and the phenomenon of peace parks, into neoliberal processes, outcomes, and ideologies, “win-win ideals” that are imbued with neoliberal conceptions of nature, development, and markets. This dominant picture however only emerges through “dominant voices” or “those in positions of access”(p. 194) and power that are able to legitimate neoliberal epistemologies (p. 230) and representations. Selling and actuating idealized realities of conservation creates what Büscher astutely terms, a “bubble of neoliberal conservation” (p. 225) which exacerbate the differences between reality and representation (p. 226). Büscher calls for political ecologists (both anthropologists and geographers) to expand their critical lenses through lessons learned from political science and international relations. In order to do so, political ecologists should clearly define and conceptualize politics, power, and governance (p. 229) while engaging in the ethnographic, for example through multi-level analysis (p. 229).

Thus, this ethnography delves into an institutional and stakeholder centered analysis (of the conservation organizations, funders, governing bodies) and as such, Büscher reveals the role that these ethnographic subjects have in wielding or in being impacted by neoliberal power and influence, crucial elements in the process of and implementation of the peace park. Büscher also calls for practitioners of conservation and development, as well as scholars of these topics to “engage” in political economies such that “critical realities” (p. 231) are revealed. Büscher contends that  first, “realities matter” (p. 231) including environmental degradation and inequality. Second, scholars and practitioners should be “critical” with the underlying purpose of revealing the “critical understanding[s]” (as coined by Ufford, Giri, and Mosse, 2003) of the tensions and truths that exist in constructed realities.

One key strength of this ethnography is Büscher’s institutional analysis, which explores several modes of antipolitics in governing institutions of conservation and the uneven field of power and capacity across states (Lesotho and SA) in southern Africa. Büscher’s approach to evaluating neoliberalism’s influence in conservation and development is often nuanced and detailed and takes the reader through neoliberalism as a continuing complex and negotiated process. Yet, Büscher sometimes falls into a “neoliberalism” trope, almost essentializing neoliberalism by repeating how influential and pervasive it is to his subject. Though the power of neoliberalism is not being disputed here, his riff on neoliberal influence and power in conservation, while presented with compelling empirical and ethnographic data,  can, on occasion, be a bit redundant.

Another strength of this ethnography, is Büscher’s ability to bring a new critical lens to southern African conservation history. The evaluation brings out the embedded aspects of politics and anti-politicking and neoliberal discourses of conservation throughout southern Africa’s trajectory from colonial conservation to community-based natural resource management (and community-based conservation) to transfrontier projects. These various initiatives coincided with global periods of neoliberal economic and governance (decentralization) reforms and legitimizations. Büscher’s three modes of political conduct as an explanatory framework is a novel approach and effectively draws out these historical and contemporary processes and their impacts. He clearly links these components to modes of economic and governance reforms while bringing in the cross-state tensions between South Africa and Lesotho around conservation and development. All the while, he asks the reader to think about how this mode of transfrontier conservation claims, preserves, rationalizes and legitimizes spaces and how these spaces (which are inhabited by conservation organizations and park managers) interact with southern African peoples.

Some of the cleverness and creativity of Büscher’s analysis stems from his exploration of understudied, yet powerful and pervasive influences in neoliberal driven economies and governmentalities, that is, how heavily marketing and public relations tie into the commodification of conservation and nature. Additionally, he explores how marketing promotes and drives forward public acceptance and support of neoliberal conservation schemes. It is a fascinating approach to analyzing the power, pervasiveness, and subtlety (and hence the antipolitical nature) of neoliberal influence in conservation and development projects. Moving beyond other approaches, Büscher points to the strategic, calculated and purposeful process that goes into “selling” Peace Parks to international donors, governments, conservationists, and the public. Marketing thus plays a key role in creating and selling an ideal form of conservation and development that not only protects biodiversity and benefits communities but also builds links diplomatically and economically across borders.

Transforming the Frontier offers a rich political ecology and a fascinating look not only at how the real and material are both discursive and nondiscursive categories but Büscher also clearly points to how these lines are blurring as conservation and development delve further and further into neoliberal arenas. It is where reality clashes with representation that the struggle of development and conservation can and should be revealed and acknowledged. Transforming the Frontier clearly draws out some of these “critical realities” of conservation and development and is definitely worth reading carefully.

Alicia Davis, University of Colorado, Boulder

Büscher, Bram. Transforming the Frontier:  Peace Parks and the Politics of Neoliberal Conservation in Southern Africa. Duke University Press, 2013. Read more at Duke University Press.

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