Cross-Cultural Conservation

The Western Snowy Plover is a tiny creature, one that darts along our shorelines and nests in our dunes. It’s also a threatened one, due to habitat fragmentation and lack of protected space, forcing a recovery effort to take aggressive steps to try to protect it, including fencing off nesting areas, monitoring existing populations, and working to designate protected spaces where the birds can safely live, feed, and nest. For those of us who care deeply about the environment, these measures may seem like common sense, natural steps to take to protect a precious species and ensure that it won’t vanish from the face of the Earth as so any others have.

But for communities where Snowy Plover protection has become a priority, the reality is more complicated. While conservationists and bird fans may support these efforts, others are frustrated with what they see as a cooptation of land they think of as ‘theirs.’ Suddenly they are no longer allowed to use vehicles on the sands, for example, or they must follow different paths to get to the beach. They can’t set up picnic blankets where they used to do, nor can they establish themselves on the beach for parties with the same abandon, for fear of disturbing the birds and attracting unwanted attention and possible penalties.

That this fragile, tiny creature can take so much from them seems unfair. It’s just a bird, after all. The lack of cross-cultural exchange, the decision not to give locals something in exchange for what they’re forced to give up to the Snowy Plover, breeds resentment and irritation. Conservationists are often forced to conceal the site of nests and other information, a routine practice for people who want to minimise disturbances of animals they’re protecting, but one of those disturbances isn’t just curious people who want to see the birds for themselves, but rather angry people who wouldn’t mind taking a few off the evolutionary tree.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about cross-cultural conservation strategies this year, especially in terms of the use of animal ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, a practice that the West feels quite free to criticise. The West targets it as controversial, calling it a ‘waste’ and pointing to the tragic deaths of animals like rhinos that are sacrificed so their body parts can be used in various medical products with an ancient and long-established history. Western attitudes create an actively hostile framework for viewing TCM, as something bad and evil conducted by unfeeling, hateful people who have no respect for animals and no desire to conserve natural resources.

Small wonder that many practitioners are reluctant to work with conservationists, as they haven’t been provided with much of an incentive to do so. Why cooperate with people who routinely trash your cultural traditions? Why cooperate with people who have a history of attempting to deconstruct your very society, who want to colonise and take over your minds, bodies, and souls? What are conservationists who demand that TCM practitioners and patients stop using endangered animals offering in exchange?

Cross-cultural conservation isn’t just about treating people with cultural respect and acknowledging their status as human beings. It’s also critical to acknowledge that the traditions, points of view, and cultural practices of other people play an important and valid role in their lives — it’s about presenting alternatives that integrate the points of view of the people affected by conservation policies, and about creating a world in which it makes sense to use these alternatives. In a medical tradition like TCM, which has been practiced for centuries, evolution has constantly occurred, and there is room for more, if conservationists approach it hand-in-hand with practitioners.

TCM has offered concrete benefits to Western medicine, including herbs and other organisms that have turned out to be the basis for pharmaceutical discoveries. Conservationists and others who dismiss it as hokum and insist it’s quackery are doing themselves no favours, and they’re alienating practitioners as well as people who understand the history and context of TCM. While ingredients like rhino horn may have no demonstrated medicinal value, they have a cultural one, and the way to shift attitudes and preserve rhinos is to address that cultural value respectfully and with fairness.

It requires learning about TCM, studying how, where, and why it is practiced, and understanding the fundamentals behind the preparation of various medicines and lines of treatment. Conservationists need to understand why practitioners use ingredients they find objectionable, and they need to be willing to work with teachers and practitioners to develop viable alternatives that fit in with the teachings of TCM without threatening endangered plant and animal species. A cooperative approach could yield a genuine change and a shift, one that resulted in a reduction in demand for animal components, while simply treating TCM like some sort of backwards, ugly, unpleasant thing is unlikely to be an effective long-term campaign.

People with traditions, whether they’re riding ATVs on the sand or practicing medicine or using a space for sacred ceremonies, need a valid cultural reason to change the way they live their lives. Simply saying ‘stop’ and attempting to cut off access isn’t enough, nor is showering them in snide comments about their culture, history, and lived experience. A strong conservation programme must include a cultural awareness aspect and a commitment to cross-cultural exchange and cooperation; whether conservationists agree with the people they are working with or not, they need to respect their cultural traditions in order to understand them and create new cultural patterns that are less environmentally destructive.

Snowy plover photo by Jason Crotty, Flickr.