Toward the anthropology
of professionals in global
University of Oxford, UK; Tallinn University, Estonia
When reading anthropological writings on global nature conservation, one may
wonder: Where are the conservationists? Anthropologists have written nuanced eth-
nographies of how native people encounter and are dispossessed by transnational
environmental NGOs and conservation policies. Yet, anthropologists have neglected
the other side of those worldwide encounters: the conservation practitioners. Instead,
conservationists are sometimes misrepresented as homogenous, impersonal and voice-
less. This is surprising, considering anthropologists’ increasing interest in cultures of
expertise, including that of professionals in international development. This paper
contributes to building the anthropology of professionals in global biodiversity conser-
vation. It locates and reviews disparate material on conservationists from across the
ethnographic literature. It argues for attending to the perspectives and diversity of
conservation professionals and institutions, their transnational social worlds, naturalist
worldviews and emotional lives. A section discusses the key contradictory positionality
of the Global South’s local-national professionals. Lastly, the paper reflects on practical
challenges to fieldwork in ‘Conservationland’.
Biodiversity conservation, Aidland, anthropology of experts, political ecology, biophilia,
naturalist ontology, institutional ethnography, culture and conservation, transnational
Laur Kiik, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.
Critique of Anthropology
2019, Vol. 39(4) 391–419
!The Author(s) 2018
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Over the last two decades, social anthropology has contributed to understanding
global nature conservation by demonstrating why conservation is not deﬁned
solely by biodiversity, natural sciences and technical solutions. Numerous ethnog-
raphies have elucidated how conservation is a social process and a political project,
inevitably imbued with dispossession, power and cultural difference. Yet, reading
this rich anthropological literature, I am often left wondering: Where are the
conservationists? Namely, the anthropology of conservation has usually explored
how native populations experience transnational conservation interventions, but
has not ethnographically studied the conservationists’ project in itself: its social
worlds, institutions, value systems, worldviews, emotions, everyday labour. In
ethnographies of conservation, rarely does one hear the voices of or read about
the lives of the people behind these projects, large and small, that seek to govern
and protect increasing portions of our planet. This article responds to this curious
gap in the literature.
As I ponder this gap in the anthropological literature, I think of parallel advan-
ces in other ﬁelds of anthropology which have shifted increasing attention to
professionals, specialists and experts. The recent few decades have seen ethnogra-
phies about the culture, thinking and life-worlds of scientists, bureaucrats, medics,
lawyers, bankers and so forth, all contributing to the emerging anthropologies of
experts (Carr, 2010) and elites (Abbink and Salverda, 2012). These studies are
closely interrelated with ethnographies of organisations (Wright, 2004), NGOs
(Schuller and Lewis, 2014) and institutions (Hejtmanek, 2016). The anthropology
of development, which links particularly closely with the anthropology of conser-
vation, has begun scrutinising the lives of development-aid workers in the Global
South, rather than only native experiences of development. Consequently, for
some authors, ‘Aidland’ has come to satirically denote the expat and ‘semi-nomad-
ic’ culture of international aid and development workers (Fechter and Hindman,
2011; Mosse, 2011). On the pages of Critique of Anthropology, this recent literature
on aid professionals has been critically reviewed by Harrison (2013) and developed
in a special issue on moral sentiments in ‘Aidland’ (Nouvet and Jakimow, 2016).
Further building on this literature, Autesserre (2014) has written a critical ethnog-
raphy of ‘Peaceland’ – the transnational culture of expat professionals in peace-
building missions across the world’s conﬂict zones.
This article’s ‘Conservationland’ is the transnational social world of nature
conservation, including both expat and local-national professionals. My approach
to the ethnographic study of Conservationland’s culture of expertise aligns with
Boyer’s (2008) urging that ‘we treat experts not solely as rational(ist) creatures of
expertise but rather as desiring, relating, doubting, anxious, contentious,
affective—in other words as human-subjects’. Beyond a contribution to the
anthropology of conservation, studying conservation experts as complex human
subjects may offer interesting comparisons with the people of global Aidland,
too. For example, conservationists offer a contrast to other transnational
392 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
‘professional altruists’, such as development and charity workers, humanitarians
(Ticktin, 2014) and missionaries, because they are motivated by a desire to help not
people but animals and other nonhumans.
This paper thus asks two questions: How are NGO and state professionals
represented in the anthropology of global biodiversity conservation? How to
advance, both analytically and practically, the anthropology of Conservationland?
I wrote this paper to prepare for my doctoral ethnographic ﬁeldwork – which is
about how transnational nature conservation and an ethno-national revolution
movement meet each other in war-torn Burma/Myanmar’s ethnic Kachin region.
My exploration of Conservationland in this paper arose from what I see as a need
in Burma – to take seriously both conservationist interventions and Kachin nation-
alism, and to discuss their tense relations and future visions fairly, accurately and
openly (Kiik, 2016a: 223–226). I also wrote one more paper on the ethnography of
conservation. There, I seek paths toward ‘wild-ing’ the ethnography of conserva-
tion – by writing a self-willed and valuable nature into the story (Kiik, 2018).
The following discussion is structured into four sections. First, I brieﬂy sum-
marise the diverse anthropological literature on ‘conservation encounters’. Second,
I show that this literature has scarcely given sustained ethnographic attention to
the worlds of conservationists. Nonetheless, while there is no full monograph on
conservation professionals, there are discussions and material on conservationists
dispersed across the literature. Thus, the article’s third section maps, aggregates,
and evaluates these existing resources for building an anthropology of
Conservationland. It focuses on conservationist actors and institutions, their
social worlds, cosmologies and emotions, and why we need to understand these
better. While the ﬁrst half of this discussion focuses on conservation professionals
who are transnational, relatively elite and usually Western expats, the following
subsection elaborates on a key scale that has remained somewhat blurry in eth-
nographies about conservation projects in the Global South: the local-national
conservation professionals. Finally, this article’s fourth section turns to practical,
methodological challenges and options when pursuing ﬁeldwork on the culture of
The anthropology of conservation encounters
Conservation biology and sociocultural anthropology increasingly converse
(Brosius, 2006; Orlove and Brush, 1996; Redford, 2011). Similarly to the relation-
ship between development and anthropology, the interactions between conserva-
tion and anthropology can be divided into academic (scholars publishing
ethnographies and critiques of conservation) and applied (practicing anthropolo-
gists who work for and with conservation organisations) (Larsen, 2016). Some
conservation anthropologists traverse between these academic and applied
realms routinely; others do not. While this paper discusses the academic, rather
than applied, kind of conservation anthropology, it simultaneously aims to
advance inter-disciplinary and practical cooperation and integration in the
conservation realm. Within the academic literature, this paper focuses not on
mainly theoretic or historic literature, but on ﬁeldwork-based ethnographies
which analyse NGO and state-run projects of biodiversity conservation, mostly
in the Global South.
The starting point for these anthropological ethnographies is usually a conser-
vation encounter. By a conservation encounter I mean the encounter between any
human community, an area’s living and nonliving nature, and a state’s or NGO’s
nature conservation program. Such encounters are increasingly common across the
world. These encounters sometimes lead to clash, sometimes to cooperation, some-
times to an awkward gap and co-existence. Indeed, the elementary notion of
‘encounter’ is helpful for analysing conservation projects because it prevents
assuming any speciﬁc outcome. The term of ‘encounter’ – cultural, ontological,
and multi-species encounter – moreover helps underline the key role played by the
sociocultural worlds of conservation professionals, which is this article’s goal. Seen
this way, conservation encounters are anthropologically interesting because they
reveal ongoing negotiations over reality, morality and value between some of the
most disparate parts of humankind. Studying these conservation encounters thus
contributes to key anthropological debates on colonial and cross-cultural encoun-
ters (Asad, 1973; Sahlins, 1987), ‘development encounters’ (Escobar, 2011), and
Anthropological ethnographies which investigate how native societies experi-
ence the arrival of outside-led conservation projects have bourgeoned during the
last few decades (Anderson and Berglund, 2003; West et al., 2006). Theoretically,
this literature has drawn variously from previous legacies of environmental, polit-
ical, economic and broader sociocultural anthropology. Often, it is written within
the interdisciplinary, mainly neo-Marxian ﬁeld of political ecology. In my reading,
these ethnographies of conservation’s social effects raise three major themes: dis-
possession, governance and cultural clash.
First, literature that tackles dispossession and inequity has highlighted the wide-
spread practice of ‘green grabbing’ – the dispossession of local communities from
their lands, rights and resources in the name of nature conservation, especially for
protected areas (Anderson and Berglund, 2003; Brockington et al., 2008; Fairhead
et al., 2012; West et al., 2006). Moreover, many scholars have found that trans-
national conservation organisations and various countries’ conservation policies
have been co-opted by capitalism’s hegemonic cultural logic and expansive prac-
tices, including the radically market-based, individualist and anti-regulatory ide-
ology of ‘neoliberalism’ (Bu
¨scher et al., 2014; Igoe and Brockington, 2007). Instead
of blaming local populations for environmental degradation, such research keeps
reminding conservationists about the larger structural inequity in the global polit-
ical economy: Wealthy consumer societies and the rich upper classes have, grab
and use many more resources than the developing countries’ farmers, labourers or
Second, literature on governance and power has viewed conservation as a par-
ticular governmental vision and plan for how humans and nature should be.
394 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
This literature has shown how nature conservation tries to regulate local societies
and make them manageable, in ways that resemble the Foucaultian notion of state
governmentality (Agrawal, 2005; Bryant, 2002). Indeed, conservation may help a
given state’s elites broaden their power, not least by dominating resistant popula-
tions through military violence (Peluso, 1993). Conservation also tries transform-
ing people’s internal mental worlds and re-doing their subjectivities – to make
people feel inherently responsible for protecting the environment and have them
thus behave accordingly.
The third major theme in the ethnographies – inter-cultural conﬂict in conser-
vation encounters – is usually studied by drawing from social anthropology’s rich
literature on native cosmologies and ways of being-in-the-world. Anthropologists
have thus shown how transnational conservationists bring with them assumptions,
worldviews, and knowledge practices which do not ﬁt into foreign, especially
animist, social worlds. A conservation conﬂict is therefore often a conﬂict of
cosmologies, where the ontological ‘naturalism’ (Descola, 2013) of conservation
and modern science clashes with native understandings of reality, which unlike
‘naturalism’ are commonly not based on the ‘nature/culture’ dichotomy (e.g.
Novellino, 2003; Nustad, 2015). The ethnographies often juxtapose the conserva-
tionist ideas with how various animist peoples ‘regulate’ ritually their local animal
populations, treat some animals as persons, and maintain kinship-like relations
with certain species and landscapes. This literature recommends learning from the
indigenous worldviews, especially amid global warming and other ecological cata-
strophes facing humankind (e.g. Rudiak-Gould, 2012). Authors have also
highlighted the complexity in translating such modern concepts as ‘nature’,
‘environment’, ‘conservation’ and ‘environmentalism’ across the world’s cultures
(e.g. Campbell, 2009, 2013).
These three themes are, of course, not exhaustive. First, they overlap in much of
the literature. For example, ethnographies have shown how conservationist prac-
tice can be enmeshed in the logic of expanding capitalism and thus simultaneously
clash culturally with a native cosmology (West, 2006). Second, there are also other
notable common themes, such as how native populations sometimes perceive
newly arrived conservation projects in historical continuity with previous outside
interventions and dispossessions. Finally, as the above summaries of the ethno-
graphic literature reveal, their common theme is the documenting of conﬂict and
failure, rather than collaboration or success (a notable exception is Cepek (2012)).
Conservationists as the missing ethnographic subjects
A major gap in the ethnographies of conservation encounter has been the tendency
to neglect the social worlds of transnational biodiversity conservation organisa-
tions and the conservationists. Too often, only the native people’s side of the
conservation encounter gets personalised, humanised, and represented within
nuanced stories – while the outside-arrived conservationists remain abstract,
homogenous, and faceless representatives of global ideological regimes and
dominant powers. Rarely, do we enter the conservationists’ ofﬁces or workspaces,
not to mention travel with them back home. In many of the ethnographies, the
conservationists do not speak about their opinions, experiences, visions and dilem-
mas; much less seem they to live human lives of struggle, joy and everyday labour.
Conservationists’ voices and lives are largely absent in even the richest conser-
vation ethnographies (e.g. Campbell, 2013; Heatherington, 2010; Keller, 2015;
West, 2006). Instead, for example, ethnographies have represented the ‘conserva-
tionist ontology’ through the country’s national environmental laws (Novellino,
2003) or through discourses on an NGO’s website (Heatherington, 2010). Most
anthropologists – attempting to reveal and counter dispossession, misrepresenta-
tion and injustice – have focused on representing the views and experiences of
native populations who are encountering conservation. Thus, some of the harshest
critiques are published without presenting conservationists’ counter-arguments
(e.g. Chatty, 2003; Ellis, 2003) or even attempting to consider their basic rationale
(e.g. Duffy, 2010). This representational imbalance can be understood as a reactive
move against how the conservationists’ voices tend to dominate over impoverished
villagers’ voices in front of global audiences.
Sometimes, anthropologists have used quotes from well-known conservationist
advocacy books or public discourse to discuss the conservation world at-large (e.g.
Chatty, 2003; Chernela, 2012; Vivanco, 2007). Such ethnography can end up
representing conservation through the ﬁeld’s boldest or most outrageous ideas,
movements and famous advocates. It can thus turn conservation into a caricature,
or, as Redford (2011: 328) puts it, ‘a misreading that appeals to other like-minded
[social scientists] and becomes self-perpetuating’. When the world of conservation
becomes understood primarily through its advocacy discourse or popular media
representations, we miss, for example, that the conservationists’ economistic rhe-
toric may often be strategic – namely, it tries to ‘sell’ to the public the ideas of
saving animal populations – rather than heartfelt (Holmes, 2018; Rival, 2012;
Takacs, 1996; Toussaint, 2005). We would then mistake Conservationland’s evolv-
ing virtual worlds (Carrier and West, 2009), such as those conjured in its websites
or donor reports that tout targets and successes, for a non-cultural reality.
One noteworthy corollary of this gap in research has been that ethnographers
and other social scientists sometimes misportray transnational conservation
NGOs, states, and environmental policies as if all-powerful – able to quite radically
remake native societies and subjectivities (e.g. Agrawal, 2005). Anthropologists
who have argued most strongly against this tendency include Carrier and West
(2009), Walley (2010), Mathews (2011), and Cepek (2011). Indeed, a central con-
tradiction in the ethnography of nature conservation is that while critical social
scientists have represented conservation organisations as domineering over
deprived rural people, the conservationists themselves generally feel as a weak
minority (Sandbrook, 2017). Namely, conservationists often feel overpowered by
wealthy business people, corrupt governments and militaries, as well as by unsup-
portive publics, perplexing societies and the larger international policy actors – of
development, aid, health – that all prioritise human welfare, not animals or nature.
396 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
Yet, conservation’s relative weakness itself may result in big business succeeding to
co-opt conservation’s ideology and organisations for what critics, including many
anthropologists, decry as the ‘greenwashing’ of environmentally and socially
destructive wealth accumulation.
Relatedly, because ethnographers have usually studied conservation through
the encounters between native rural people and protected area projects, we risk
forgetting that much conservation and many conservation encounters happen
beyond protected areas. For example, many conservation professionals ﬁght
against worldwide wildlife trade by advancing customs and border protection,
developing anti-smuggling laws, or reducing consumers’ demand for endangered
species. They also work widely in farming and privately owned non-protected
landscapes, for example, by planning land use, reforesting water catchment
areas, or reducing hunting, resource harvesting or pesticide use there.
Conservation encounters happen not only when conservation professionals meet
native societies, but also when they meet powerful business people at corporate
boardrooms to try lessen a company’s environmental damage. Conservationists
work at the science departments of zoos, keeping, breeding and researching mem-
bers of endangered species. My paper here, too, overrepresents encounters that
happen at protected areas, rather than elsewhere (Leejiah Dorward, personal com-
munication; Redford, 2011).
Familiarising ourselves with broader conservation realities helps us see hetero-
geneity and speciﬁcity (Larsen and Brockington, 2018; Redford, 2011). Let me
offer some examples. One speciﬁcity which anthropologists have attended to are
the broad historic phases in conservationist ideology and practice, especially
during the last few decades. These phases may be identiﬁed through
enforcement-centred (‘fortress’) conservation, the later rise of community-based
conservation, market-economic strategies, landscape-centred approaches, and so
forth. Yet, some social-scientiﬁc accounts have exaggerated how completely these
phases replace earlier approaches. Actually, the diverse approaches continue to
co-exist while governments and conservation organisations mix and combine them
(Redford, 2011). Relatedly, earlier ethnographies had trouble distinguishing con-
servation from related social phenomena such as environmental activism. Later,
authors began painstakingly emphasising that environmental activism, animal
rights advocacy and nature conservation, and so on, are distinct socio-ecological
projects (Brockington et al., 2008; Carrier and West, 2009; Milton, 2002; West,
2006). A further distinction we still need to tackle ethnographically is between
conservation practitioners and conservation scientists, and their respective ontol-
ogies and social worlds. Further among the practitioners, it is important to observe
that senior management positions are shifting from biologists to people coming
from the private sector, economists and other social scientists (Cleary, 2018).
Another important example of diversity is that conservation has signiﬁcantly
divergent histories in different parts of the world, especially as different regions
experienced different European colonial regimes. Thus, generalisations between
Africa, Asia, the West or Latin America can be tricky. Simultaneously, some
conservation organisations work across the globe, others only in one world region,
and many others only within their home country. Finally, different conservation
organisations – from the big acronyms of WWF, WCS, TNC, and CI to the many
medium-size and smaller ones – have distinct institutional traditions and
approaches, continuously criticised and debated by practitioners and theoreticians.
Redford (2011: 326) thus warns that some social scientists’ over-generalisations
‘obscure’ the debates among conservationists, for example, the key debate
‘between concerns about living diversity in all forms, versus rare or charismatic
species, versus the capacity of ecosystems to supply services to humankind’.
Diversity among individual conservationists, too, abounds. Understanding all
these mentioned and unmentioned variations and distinct groups within
Conservationland requires different studies and treatments. Yet, in the ethnogra-
phies of conservation encounter I have not yet found discussions centring on this
heterogeneity and speciﬁcity neither among conservation NGOs nor among indi-
This current situation in the literature is surprising because ethnographers have
called for more ﬁeldwork on environmental professionals and their social worlds
for more than 10 years. As early as 1992, Dove (1992) suggested that the most
understudied aspect of forestry’s social encounters is the foresters’ belief systems,
especially about native farmers. In 2003, Berglund and Anderson (2003: 4) wrote
that the ethnography of conservation should not study only the economically
unjust effects of environmentalism on marginalised peoples, but also ‘the
lifeworlds of environmentalists themselves, whether they be part of grassroots
campaigns or of international environmental non-governmental organizations’.
Oriented toward critique, MacDonald (2003: 27) urged anthropologists to study
conservation NGOs with a focus on their power relations, domination over com-
munities, and rejection of alternative perspectives: ‘Who consorts with whom, who
listens to whom, how does protocol affect the power of one’s speech, how is
alternative knowledge received, what social rules govern interaction within the
physical locale of the institution, how is dissent or contradiction dealt with?’
Other explicit calls for more institutional ethnography of conservation organisa-
tions remain scattered in the literature (Peterson et al., 2010). By now there has
been signiﬁcant progress in studying grassroots environmentalists, but not the
transnational NGOs and conservationists.
Indeed, as recently as 2016, Larsen (2016) bemoaned what he says is academic
anthropology’s tendency to build ‘essentialist’ and purist narratives about large
conservation NGOs. Anthropologists accuse these NGOs of having ‘bitten the
forbidden fruit’ of cooperation with big corporations and of market-driven
(neoliberal) conservation approaches. Having himself worked within conservation
NGOs, Larsen calls on anthropologists not to remain ‘comfortably radical at a
distance’, but rather look at the NGOs’ real-life practices (beyond policy docu-
ments), donor-driven ﬁnancial constraints, and rapidly evolving strategies, and at
contextual dynamics beyond neoliberalism. In 2018 again, an anthropologically
trained conservationist criticises some social-anthropological writing on
398 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
conservation NGOs for ‘puritanical’ disdain against market engagement and for a
political-economy framework that ﬂattens country-speciﬁc history (Cleary, 2018;
see also Wilkie, 2018). Most emphatically, Redford (2011: 329), also a conserva-
tionist, urges social scientists: ‘Rather than making hasty generalizations about the
conservation community [...], why not study us in our full natural history?’
we need careful and informed attention to the details of conservation practice: to
variation, power, history, social constraints, and the inﬂuence of leaders and how
their success depends on the vagaries of social and ﬁnancial currents; to the role of
ego, competition, jealousy and market positioning; to the difference between what is
written and what is done; to the power of the institutional eminence gris; to prejudice
against one group and favouring of another; to chain migration, happenstance, per-
suasion and storytelling.
Heyman (2009: 186) similarly remarks that he knows of no adequate study of
conservation project staff’s ‘wider socio-cultural worlds: their life experiences,
their households, their perspectives on life’. He ﬁnds that Foucaultian critics
make conservation projects look ‘excessively coherent’, erasing complexity and
unpredictability, as well as ‘the range of actors, with their own concrete interests
and world views, who are both causes and products of such unpredictable
changes’. Project staff, he ﬁnds, are among the major missing actors: ‘Project
staffs of all sorts, expatriate, national and local, appear in many ethnographies,
but usually as a factor to be taken into account rather than as a set of people to be
understood’. To understand why conservation programs often fail, we need
‘what many have called for but few, if any, have done, a careful study of those
organisations themselves [...]’ (Carrier and West, 2009: 20, in reference to
Thus, to explain how different actors shape the conservation encounters, we
need insight into the life-worlds of transnational environmental NGOs and their
staff. We need ethnography where the native people encounter not only the
abstract ideology of environmentalism or conservation, but also ﬂesh-and-bone
individuals and social groups. We need to delve into Conservationland’s everyday
work and social life, as well as conservationists’ professional publications (see also
Beyond analytical reasons, there is an ethical reason for writing more about the
conservationists’ side of these encounters: namely, to spread the ‘revealing’ more
evenly. Most socio-anthropological research is devoted to understanding under-
privileged groups of people. This work may help readers better empathise with
subaltern people, but can potentially also inform enhancing control over them.
Usually, much less is revealed about the internal social worlds of the relatively
powerful and elite, the states or the transnational organisations, including the
conservationists. Providing ethnography about the conservationists, then, could
help slightly reverse this dynamic. It could offer readers from less powerful groups
a roadmap for better analysing whom they are dealing with, as well.
Mapping paths to Conservationland
The following discussion maps what has been done and could be done to include
conservationist worlds, actors and institutions into the ethnographies of conserva-
tion encounter. Overall, most anthropologists have responded to this challenge by
mainly doing classic village-based ﬁeldwork, but adding to it some limited research
on the conservationists. Existing writings thus offer disparate, but important,
examples and paths toward the anthropology of ‘Conservationland’.
Several authors have written about individual conservationists. For instance,
Theodossopoulos (2003) has described conservationists’ worldviews in general
terms and in contrast to native views. Carrier (2004) has described the worlds of
a few expat non-professional conservationist individuals. Hathaway (2013) has
told the personal stories of native biologists-turned-conservationists, as well as a
few transnational Western conservationists. He was consequently able to describe
these people’s encounters and mutual negotiations with villagers and the state.
Several scholars have experimented with short-term team-based ethnography at
large international conservation meetings (Brosius and Campbell, 2010; Campbell
et al., 2014). Ellis (2003) has presented a matter-of-fact, yet grotesque description
of the high-consumption lifestyle of some transnational conservation
The edited volume by Carrier and West (2009) addresses perhaps most directly
the conservation organisations as institutions. While the volume’s main point is
that critics have overstated the powerful capabilities of these organisations, as
mentioned, it is also notable for including much reﬂection on the internal logic
of conservation organisations and this logic’s pitfalls. In the volume’s conclusion,
Heyman (2009) offers a series of useful starting points for studying a conservation
organisation, its transnational hierarchical structure, and logic of ‘micromanage-
ment’. He calls for attention to how plans and goals get translated and trans-
formed up-and-down an NGO’s hierarchic structures – from its First World
headquarters, to its country ofﬁces where a mixture of expatriate and local-
national middle managers work, and down to the various ﬁeld staff.
´n (2013) has investigated how people at such disparate hierarchical levels
of a large global conservation organisation – from international, national and ﬁeld
ofﬁces to local communities – interact in ways that make conservation projects
have unintended outcomes. For example, she ﬁnds that while the often-viliﬁed
‘donors may seek to facilitate innovative change and encourage reﬂection’, the
national level managers may instead pressure their staff to produce images of
success only. Budget constraints and the pragmatic need to stay near government
decision makers may prevent these national level managers from ever visiting some
local ofﬁces or engaging with the country broadly. Instead, the managers live
mostly in the country’s capital in what one of Wahle
´n’s (2013: 59) interlocutors
400 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
describes as a ‘conservation clique: you live, work with, play with your expat
conservation community, very intense, intellectually and emotionally’. Thus,
´n claims, they ‘avoid addressing ﬁeld complexities’ that would contradict
their own idealised or unrealistic visions about native people and the organisation’s
projects. Expat managers may furthermore communicate with local-national
junior staff without considering their mutual hierarchy disparity and cultural dif-
ference – those junior staff may avoid informing seniors about problems but rather
‘tell them what they want to hear’. In one example, Wahle
´n describes an NGO
workshop where urban capital staff sidelined local staff opinions. Such social dis-
tance also means that sometimes ﬁeld staff do not know why they are doing certain
everyday tasks and what the NGO’s worldwide objectives are.
There is some institutional ethnography dispersed elsewhere across the litera-
ture, too. For example, Vivanco (2007) documented the tensions and differing
interests between Westerners and native peasants within conservation organisa-
tions and projects. His ethnography moreover featured Western biologists’ voices
and emotions when seeing a deforested landscape (51), a biologist’s sense of per-
sonal obligation that led to an informal solution to a conservation conﬂict (Ch 4),
and extended discussion of how a local organisation struggled with ﬁnance, inter-
national publics’ moods, managing a massive territory and local backlash. Walley
(2010: 190) elucidated the inner workings of a National Park as ‘a constellation of
social processes organized in and around bureaucracies’ wherein various actors
struggled over power, made alliances and sought beneﬁts through patron–client
relations. Kockelman (2016) described the ofﬁce of a local conservation and
ecotourism NGO, its busy atmospheres, and employees’ characters. West (2006)
discussed details of a transnational NGO project’s funding and donors. Yearley
(1993) has pointed out how a background in natural sciences inﬂuences conserva-
tion organisations’ members. He suggests, for example, that unlike environmental
groups, conservation groups tend to emphasise research over lobbying, because
they ‘feel more at ease in acquiring reserves than in mounting campaigns’ (65).
Relatedly, the potential of taking a Science and Technology Studies (STS)
approach to the discipline of Conservation Biology is underexplored (Goldman
et al., 2011: 14). Lowe (2006) has notably combined STS and post-colonial theory
to discuss the status disparities, different social motivations and practical relation-
ships between the Global North’s and Global South’s conservation biologists.
Vivanco (2007) and Haenn (2005) have also documented the social and discursive
practices of ﬁeld biologists in protected areas. Attending to conservation sciences
as world-making practices can help us elucidate conservation encounters as cul-
tural – or, ontological – encounters, as suggested above.
Indeed, if conservation conﬂicts stem at least partly from cultural and ontolog-
ical clashes, then we need to investigate the conservationists’ personal theories of
reality. Otherwise we erase the original motivations and worldviews of a central
group of human subjects that co-make these studied encounters. Supposedly, these
people’s ontologies are highly ‘naturalist’ – they assume that, in the reality, there is
a single unifying nature and a multiplicity of cultures (Descola, 2013). If so, we
need to explore how these people live the ontology of naturalism. There is indeed a
broader lack of ethnographies of how ‘naturalist’ people relate to their environ-
ments. Carrier (2003, 2004), for example, has in response to the ‘ontological turn’
and the resurgent literature on animist cosmologies called for the ethnography of
‘naturalists’ that would, among other things, show diversity ‘among Western
people and within Western individuals’ (see also Candea and Alcayna-Stevens,
2012). Some conservation ethnographies have begun fulﬁlling this task by docu-
menting, based on empirical research, some individual naturalists’ theories of real-
ity and visions of nature (Carrier, 2004; Carrier and West, 2009; Hathaway, 2013;
Keller, 2015; Lowe, 2006; Theodossopoulos, 2004). Foale (Foale, 2001; Foale
et al., 2016) has delved into one important reason why conservationists’ naturalist
concepts and values often contradict native people’s worldviews. Namely, conser-
vationists think that ‘biodiversity’ is inherently valuable because it took billions of
years for the contemporary life-species to evolve – but nature’s evolution is an alien
and implausible idea to most people who understand nature and species’ origins
instead through various religions.
‘Naturalist’ worldviews – which separate everything human-made from the
legitimately ‘natural’ – mesh well with anti-political worldviews (Ferguson,
1994). Namely, a widespread self-perception and self-representation among con-
servationists, similarly to many other transnational expert workers, is that oneself
is an apolitical technical expert offering apolitical technical guidance to a foreign
country, while that country is as if legitimately represented only by its central
government. Difﬁcult, pragmatic choices may drive this anti-politics – ‘if we
want to beneﬁt this nature (and these people), we must work with who has
power here’. Doane (2012) documents, for example, how a large global conserva-
tion organisation and its Western donor institution stopped cooperating with a
native pro-farmer NGO because a new right-wing government opposed that
NGO’s advocacy for peasants’ land rights. In order to get a nature reserve des-
ignated, the conservationists and donors allied pragmatically with the region’s
authoritarian government agents against the ‘overly loud and political’ NGO,
thus shoring up an entrenched system which favoured state interests over lower-
class communities. Conservation organisations may also treat non-state ethnic
nationalisms as if inherently illegitimate and irrelevant, and instead align with
an oppressive government – while misconstruing this politically consequential
choice and ensuing activities that clash against a nationalism as if neutral and
apolitical. They would thus do what I propose calling ‘anti-ethno-politics’
Yet, this issue of worldviews raises important questions about how conserva-
tion’s personal and institutional realms diverge and intersect (Wahle
´n, 2013). In
my experience, individual conservationists are sometimes quite aware of the polit-
ical and social complexities of their organisation’s projects and ﬁeldsites, while
these often cannot be expressed through that organisation’s ofﬁcial (anti-political)
discourse. Not merely technocrats, these people and groups of people may hold
sophisticated views on indigenous rights, moral cosmopolitanism, ethnic
402 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
nationalism, or the global green movement. They may act pragmatically and dis-
creetly. Sometimes, to avoid backlash to their organisations’ activities, they help
human and indigenous rights groups secretly behind the scenes (Larsen, 2016).
Other times, individual conservationists may even act publicly against state
authorities, as Walley (2010: 209) describes of an individual expat conservationist
who ‘fought endless political battles to actively include [native] residents in
decision-making processes and to make the reality of “participation” more than
Studying such intersections between personal and institutional and between
private and public spheres helps us counter the danger of caricaturising conserva-
tionists or environmentalists, as noted above. Brosius (1997: 54, fn. 16) cautions us
– in a footnote to his critique of environmentalists’ misrepresentations of indige-
nous knowledge – that the environmentalists’ organisations are more aware than
may appear from their simple campaign rhetoric:
The process by which campaigns develop is extremely complex, particularly with
respect to the relationship between the initial analysis of a particular context, deci-
sions about how to proceed in a campaign, and the representations that are ultimately
produced and deployed. Most environmental and indigenous rights organizations are
self-consciously aware of the contrast between the images they purvey and the realities
of a given situation, but they must also necessarily provide persuasive images. In any
event, it is a mistake to equate the often bold simplicity of campaign images with the
processes of analysis and debate that both precede and follow their deployment.
In the realm of the personal, a curiously absent topic in the ethnographies has been
the conservationists’ love for nature – their supposedly advanced ‘biophilia’
(Kellert and Wilson, 1995). Indeed, Milton (2002) suggests that anthropologists
exaggerate the impact of culture, while nature protectionists themselves ‘frequently
speak of their feelings for nature, their enjoyment of it, their distress at its destruc-
tion, their fears for its future’. She therefore explores how direct experiences of
spending time in nature, often during childhood, lead some Western people to feel
for, value and identify with animals and nature and become conservationists. For
example, Milton (2002: 56–57) recounts how casual corridor conversations at con-
servation organisations’ meetings often turn to people’s stories of enjoying nature:
A fox had crossed someone’s garden that morning, someone else had stopped on the
way to check on a peregrine’s nest in a nearby quarry, the ﬁrst swallows of the spring
were returning, a bank of primroses was in full bloom. [Other stories] are more dra-
matic encounters with the rare, the spectacular and the simply beautiful; a Himalayan
sunset, whales off the coast of British Columbia, a golden eagle in Scotland last
summer. [...] The disclosure that someone is going whale-watching in Alaska or
birdwatching in Thailand elicits expressions of envy and interest in what they hope
to see. [...] Time spent in nature is seen as intrinsically worthwhile; no excuse is
required for it. In contrast, time spent away from nature is assumed to be impov-
erished and, to some extent, wasted.
Indeed, beyond the professional, bureaucratic, and scientiﬁc discourses, many a
conservationist will name love for nature as their core driver (Takacs, 1996). For
example, discussing conservation biologists’ evolving philosophical and ethical
justiﬁcations for nature protection, Vivanco (2007: 54–59) recounts one biologist’s
reﬂections on why scientists become involved in formal conservation: ‘Biologists
generally have profound emotional connections to their study sites. [...] Because
biologists are nature lovers, we’re doing something we really enjoy. We work in
beautiful places and we love nature, [...] and we don’t want to see it disappear’.
West (2006) has noted that some conservation programs stem, rather arbitrarily,
from an individual’s attraction to a particular species. Carrier (2004: 128) describes
the emotionality of a few Western individuals who were important in setting up
protected marine areas in Jamaica. He explores how, for these people, ‘those
waters were both space and place, construed in terms of both abstract science
and personal engagement’.
Conservationists are not trained to reﬂect on their emotions, bodily experiences
and motivations. Yet, when probed, they may talk about battling parasites and
diseases from ﬁeldwork in off-the-beaten-path landscapes, about emerging from
childhood fascination with animals, and about seeking personal challenges in
roaming wilderness or faraway lands – all while feeling morally justiﬁed by helping
save at least some life on this ‘burning planet’. Conservation does not usually offer
big money-making prospects or a path to upper class status in one’s home society;
beginners must often do unpaid volunteering, while jobs are increasingly hard to
ﬁnd. Yet, love of nature gives intrinsic joy to conservationist work – in ways that
both resemble and differ from, for example, humanitarian or development work.
Conservation professionals live complex emotional lives in a ﬁeld where the joy of
loving nature mixes with despair over one’s powerlessness to stop the planet’s
devastation, as discussed above. This love and despair also allow commercial
developers, politicians and others sometimes to dismiss conservationists for
being ‘too emotional’ about nature, prompting conservation organisations to
offer decision makers more ‘rational’ and ‘calm’ discourse (Milton, 2002: 4).
(Many of the above points emerged in conversations with members of Oxford
University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science.)
Can anthropology take these emotions seriously – as seriously as native ani-
mism? How might conservation practitioners’ relationships with animals and envi-
ronment be as meaningful as those of indigenous peoples? Addressing these
questions may well mean showing how little the conservationist love matters or
how diluted it becomes in institutional cultures. Or indeed, how contingent it is
upon class formations (Tsing, 2005: Ch4). We may well end up with comparisons
to the moral and emotional anxieties of Aidland’s professionals about how
detached their work’s everyday realities can be from the ideal images that they
hold about their professions (Mosse, 2011). But at least an engagement with these
404 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
affects and human–nature relations is important, if our ethnography of conserva-
tion encounters is to engage conservationists ethnographically – that means, by
foregrounding their own terms. It is also vital, if we are to answer Redford’s (2011)
and Rival’s (2012) calls to attend to the debates among conservationist circles
about what is nature’s value (Milton, 1999; Toussaint, 2005). I return to these
cleavages about nature’s value at some length in another article (Kiik, 2018).
Here, we might merely ﬂag emotions and values as an anthropological research
question: How do conservationists get inspired? How do they develop their love of
nature? Herein, we may also consider how the forces of people’s social governance,
economy, or culture combine with the agency of nature and animals themselves.
Green forest, blue sea, winds, smells, the wet eyes of animal babies – all these can
impact and ‘interpellate’ people into ‘loving’ or feeling awe.
To probe at the interaction between emotions and disparate human worlds in
conservation encounters, one may also ask how the native people view outside-
arrived conservationists’ exotic appreciation for ‘natural’ worlds. For example,
Cepek (2011) discusses how an indigenous people observed and became convinced
that some Western conservationists ‘really love’ the forest. Sodikoff (2012: 75)
describes how, from a Malagasy perspective, the ‘juridical taboos’ imposed by
nature conservation are moral strictures that deﬁne the moral selfhood of
Westerners. However, ethnographies have also shown that people in protected
areas may feel moral outrage over the outsiders seeming to ‘care more for animals
than for us’ (Godfrey and Rasoazanabary, 2011; Hathaway, 2013; Jalais, 2014).
This is particularly likely in situations of deep poverty, war and social injustice.
Finally, to understand the mutual emotional, institutional and cosmological
encounters which nature conservation entails requires anthropology to focus not
only on how groups of people are impinged upon by external forces such as con-
servation, but also on how relations are made and maintained between native
populations and the conservationists. Tsing (2005: 13) has urged anthropologists
to learn more about how conservation ‘inspires collaborations among scientists,
business, forest dwellers, state regulators, the public and nonhumans’, while these
actors all have different goals. She suggests thereby moving ‘discussion beyond the
eternal standoff between opposing interest groups (e.g., the south and the north;
the rich and the poor), but not because it assumes that compromise is always
imminent’. Indeed, the dearth and failure of compromise, negotiation and connec-
tion is itself a worthwhile topic of study. In her two-sited ethnography, Keller
(2015) shows how some Swiss and Malagasy understandings of each other and
of conservation have no common ground at all. Clearly, anthropology can trace
how Conservationland lives and works through a wide range of everyday condi-
tions of possibility, hope, awkward engagement, cooperation, dispossession, clash
and disconnect. To understand how such various everyday relations between
native populations and Conservationland are made, we need to turn our attention
from transnational conservationists to the much more numerous local-national
Local-national professionals at conservation’s heart
A scale of actors in ‘Conservationland’ that needs special attention to complicate
the picture of homogeneous global conservationists are the local-national profes-
sionals, particularly in Global South locations. Some ethnographies of conserva-
tion have tended to somewhat blur out this numerous and key mediating group of
people, presenting instead a more puriﬁed clash of ‘the West/capitalism’ versus an
on-the-ground rural society. Anthropologists have also felt more comfortable
criticising Western expatriate actors, rather than developing countries’ conserva-
tion practitioners. Lowe (2006: ix) readily admits having felt uneasy when
Indonesian conservationists considered her criticism of conservation a typical
In her ethnography of a conservation encounter in Indonesia, Lowe (2006)
points out that when she ﬁrst began ﬁeldwork there in the mid-1990s, the local
WWF ofﬁces were run by Western expatriates. Three years later, all the ofﬁces had
Indonesian leaders. Indeed, at any place in the world, most staff – from country
ofﬁce managers to park wardens – are people of the local nationality. Lowe
thus consciously and elaborately showed that the urbanite Indonesian staff have
patriotic loyalties that complicate their visions, practices and the very shape of
transnational conservation on-the-ground. This point can hardly be overstated.
It is much harder for native-national staff to sidestep issues of nationalism or
religion, for example, than it may be for foreign, transnational and globe-
Differentiating between native and foreign staff allows us to investigate the
everyday cooperations and contestations between elite Global North and various
Global South actors across Conservationland’s organisational hierarchies, as
noted above. West (2016) has argued that Western conservationists and
development consultants monopolise large donor funds and project leadership
from the Global South’s local-national specialists by using belittling rhetoric
about local people’s cultural inferiority and ‘lack of capacity’. Hathaway’s
(2013) ethnography features the interactions, suspicions and ‘transnational work’
between a state, foreign donors, a transnational NGO, various levels of staff,
scientists and native villagers. Differentiating between native and foreign staff
reminds us moreover that a fuller ethnography of Conservationland needs to
include the social worlds of those numerous conservationists who work not in
the Global South, but in the world’s richest societies – including, in their own
Beyond differentiating between local-national and foreign conservation profes-
sionals, we need to map the class and geographic variation among a country’s
native staff, too. Local-national staff may rank relatively high, middle or low;
they may work in the city or in rural protected areas. Thus, as with the expat
professionals, the relatively higher or middle level local-national employees’ urban
social worlds or professional transnationalism may disconnect them signiﬁcantly
406 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
from farming people in rural conservation areas. Heyman (2009: 185) describes
such professionals’ middle-class positionality:
They regularly interact with expatriate managers, consultants and moneyraisers, as
well as with their own states and various local populations. They move to follow their
employment, like many (but not all) educated middle classes, but an interesting con-
sequence is that they are often just as much strangers in project ﬁeld sites within their
own country as expatriate advisers and staffs are.
Nonetheless, these people are often expected to mediate between the program and
the native population, making them into awkward key actors in global conserva-
tion encounters, clashes and cooperations. For example, West (2006, 2016)
remarks that, even though most Papua New Guinean urbanite conservation
staff have no social science backgrounds, they are assumed to understand a distinct
rural ethnic society simply because they are that country’s citizens, too.
A few conservation ethnographies have elaborated on this social gap and prej-
udice between people who are native to a protected area and the local-national
staff who are not. For example, Jalais (2014: 118) writes how low-caste people near
a West Bengal protected area resent the privilege and ‘foreign-ness’ of forest ofﬁ-
cials who usually come from nearby urban classes. She moreover highlights dis-
connect and prejudice on a cosmological level. Namely, while the native people
worship a particular forest-related goddess and get protection against tigers from
specialised tiger-charmers, the forest ofﬁcials who came from the city mock this as
‘superstition’ and worship more mainstream Hindu goddesses. Even more intense-
ly, Walley (2010) documents how a country’s conservation authorities – who came
from a religious majority’s urban and educated elites – maltreated a protected
area’s minority native people and actively barred empowering them.
Godfrey and Rasoazanabary (2011) summarise a telling case from their
Malagasy ﬁeldsite. There, people support the local protected area because they
hope that Westerners will bring goods, school funding for children, employment
and medical assistance. In contrast, because these people inherited the local land
cosmologically from their ancestors, they view the national government’s conser-
vation claims onto the land as illegitimate. In protest, they have killed animals and
felled trees. They moreover consider the local-national conservationists to be
potential users of witchcraft. Most importantly, Godfrey and Rasoazanabary
(2011: 185) write: ‘It matters not that the director, scientiﬁc director, and university
students at [the Park] are Malagasy. They are not from the local Mahafaly ethnic
group. Reserve directors are considered foreigners with no right to the land. In
fact, nonlocal Malagasy are less welcome than nonnationals’.
Of course, class differences and urban–rural differences create important gaps
even among those conservationists and native populations who share ethnicity or
birthplace. For example, Frost and Wrangham (2003) discuss activists and
intellectuals who are native to a protected area and thus feel as existentially
authentic spokespeople for both an ‘indigenous’ identity politics and a strict
nature conservationism. Yet, having moved away to the city, they have unavoid-
ably become distant from the area’s farming society (see also Shah, 2010).
To understand such elite people’s disconnects as subjective life-worlds, Lowe
(2006: 104) takes an empathising approach. She does criticise Indonesian urbanite
conservation scientists for holding exoticist prejudices against a minority native
people. However, she also reminds us that similarly to those native people, the
Southern scientists, too, are ‘under the weight of accusation’ of reasoning less
valuably than First World scientists do. Thus, Lowe cautions us, ‘it is not surpris-
ing that Indonesian scientists might sometimes become caught up in a mode of
understanding [the native] people as extraterrestrial others. To hold this in our
minds without judgement is to understand the concept of subjectivity’.
Focusing on the Conservationland’s lower-ranking ﬁeld staff, too, reveals lim-
inal positionalities – which show that the border between Conservationland and
native society is ambiguous, porous, and changing. For example, Vasan (2002:
4126) provides an earliest ‘ethnography of the forest guard’, detailing how such
rural subordinate ofﬁcials navigate ‘in a twilight zone, torn between the demands
of the state for which they work, and those of the society, in which they live and
socialise’ as fellow villagers. Poppe (2012), too, shows how native wardens can
have key mediating capabilities that make conservation enforceable – because
these individuals are positioned ‘ambiguously’ as both moneyed and ‘lenient’
insiders to the community as well as surveilling and ‘traitorous’ agents of external
state power. Haenn (2016) foregrounds low-ranking local conservation staff who
can easily lose their jobs and fall from a middle-class status – and who therefore
keep disavowing that they are deeply intertwined with the peasants. She points out
that Conservationland expects all its members to dissociate somewhat from native
identity – even while lower-ranking staff, such as wardens, are nonetheless usually
not recognised as truly conservationists either. Perhaps most lower-ranking staff
indeed do not easily self-identify with transnational conservationist values. Yet,
Haenn suggests that ethnographers have consequently exaggerated the gaps
between native peasants versus elite city people and international actors. While
these groups may emphasise their identity differences during public clashes, they
may also be sharing and cooperating for power and resources when offstage
This danger of exaggerating gaps between native societies and the people of
Conservationland cautions us against overdoing the structural analysis of
Conservationland. Indeed, Wahle
´n (2013: 87–88) ﬁnds that individual professio-
nals’ disparate approaches to conservation ‘result from the individuals [...] rather
than from a structural reason at national or local levels’. Thus, to understand
conservation projects, Wahle
´n suggests, we need more ‘analysis on the back-
ground, experience and factors’ that inﬂuence individual conservationists toward
408 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
Finally, compared to other structural layers of Conservationland’s society, we
have even less ethnographic data about the higher-ranking state agents of conser-
vation. Many ethnographies have established that conservation programs can
work as state-building vehicles or as state-sponsored capture of territories and
populations (Haenn, 2005; Lowe, 2006; Novellino, 2003; Ogden, 2011; Peluso,
1993; Vaccaro et al., 2013). Yet, the social worlds of state conservation professio-
nals – including within the government ministries of forestry, environment or
ﬁsheries – remain ethnographically almost unknown. Valuably, Mathews (2011)
has explored a state forestry bureaucracy ‘as performance, as a public ﬁction’,
wherein high-level ofﬁcials of weak state institutions speak authoritatively about
environmental knowledge and regulation, yet must actually collaborate with native
publics to accommodate routine rule breaking and local concealments (see also
Vasan, 2002). State agents do also appear in scenes in the ethnographies of
Hathaway (2013) and Lowe (2006). Nonetheless, I have not come across a descrip-
tion of life at a state environmental ofﬁce. In situations where the state is secretive
or repressive, studying ‘up’ and doing participant observation at government
departments or even local-level state environmental agencies is quite unimaginable.
However, even if any deeper look into the internal worlds of an environmental
ministry cannot be attained, it is important to keep such actors and that gap in our
knowledge in mind.
Such gaps in our ethnographic literature lead to broader and practical questions
about how ethnographers could approach ﬁeld research about conservation
Fieldwork in Conservationland
Why has progress on the ethnographic study of conservationists been so hard to
achieve? MacDonald (2003: 33) suggests that we do not consider conservation
organisations ‘foreign’ enough and consequently ‘assume an understanding that
we do not really have’. Heyman (2009: 186), too, asks whether anthropologists lose
sight of conservation professionals because these people are ‘too close to us’:
Anthropologists, both as applied social scientists and as academics, are often in close
touch with such national and local whitecollar workers. Are they too close to us? Too
much like us? Too often our students, sharing our disciplinary training? With the
reﬂexive turn in anthropology there is, honestly, no excuse for not understanding this
broad, global socio-cultural stratum of which we are a part and in which we partic-
ipate. (see also Haenn, 2016)
Likely, a more important methodological reason for why we have so little ethnog-
raphy about conservationists is that gaining access to study people’s lives inside
large transnational organisations or state agencies is difﬁcult. Not least, anony-
mous reviewers of my manuscript noted that for ethnographers to get funding to
study experts, such as conservationists, can still be hard. One reviewer also
suggested that large transnational conservation organisations may likely reject
anthropologists who apply for research in their ofﬁces. MacDonald (2003: 33),
too, points to the general difﬁculty of ethnographers ‘studying up’. He suggests
that in transnational organisations, anthropologists would lose privileges such as
(white) race, relative wealth and education, which may often help them gain access
in poor villages, and instead meet people who are well-off, highly educated and do
not need them instrumentally.
Yet, getting ﬁeldwork access to NGOs’ ofﬁces is usually at least easier than
getting access to the ofﬁces of secretive resource extraction companies or govern-
´n (2013: xiii) conﬁrms my own experience that conservationists at
least often welcome our research interviews, if not long-term participant observa-
tion within their organisation:
Reviewers who read my [PhD] project proposals were skeptical that I would have
access to individuals within conservation organizations. In contrast, my experience
was overwhelmingly positive. [...] I was well received by individuals within conser-
vation organizations and government departments, with many participants sharing
their experiences long past our allotted time and asking for follow up appointments to
continue our discussions. [...] I believe this interest stems, at least in part, from the
limited time environmental managers have for critical reﬂection in their daily work,
despite an expressed desire for such thinking. [...] One jokingly referred to our dis-
cussions as conservation therapy and asked if he could have regular sessions.
Understandably, organisation leaders and employees can give an ethnographer
access only if they are convinced of potential beneﬁt and of no harm to their
activities. Indeed, what conservationists usually expect from social scientists is
quite practical, utilitarian and thus different from detached ethnographic commen-
tary. In my experience, they usually hope that anthropologists and area studies
scholars can explain how to approach a given culture tactically to convince local
populations to value nature and to support conservation (see also West, 2005). On
one hand, this is ﬁne – participant observation, including among relatively elite
professionals, should involve letting people guide and socialise the researcher on
their own terms. On the other hand, social anthropologists often have primary
personal and ethical commitments to native interlocutors. Some form of common
understanding about the goals and results of ethnographic research thus needs to
be negotiated, in order to avoid personal and ethical conﬂicts.
Another major reason is that the exploration of ‘Conservationland’ would mean
a time commitment away from what is usually the anthropologist’s long-term
research focus on a native region and society. It is difﬁcult to extend in-depth,
immersive ethnographic ﬁeldwork to the globe-trotting cosmopolitan social circles
of transnational biodiversity conservationists and NGOs. If the ethnographer
leaves, say, a researched village or forest community to follow the conservationists
– to their ofﬁces, work days, careers, pubs, dreams and temporary homes in bigger
towns, or to their international conferences and organisation headquarters abroad
410 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
– some of the richness and depth of one-sited and more sharply focused ﬁeldwork
is bound to be compromised on.
In a book review, Cepek (2010: 134) reﬂects on the difﬁculty of this
ethnographic challenge. He, too, highlights the need to study all actors in a con-
If ‘classical’ ethnographers understand how difﬁcult it is to produce an account of just
one ‘people’ [...], what kind of work must we do to understand the interpretive frames
that structure interactions between the myriad social groups that factor into any
conservation situation? Even if we restrict attention to the actual staff of conservation
organizations, compellingly thick ethnographic analyses are hard to come by. [...]If
we do not have a holistic understanding of even one link in the phenomenal chain of
conservation action, how can we claim to know why projects fail—or what might
allow them to succeed? In short, studying encounters in their full socio-cultural com-
plexity should demand in-depth ethnographic work on the backgrounds of all actors
involved. That, however, is a tall order, and we are often left with ‘thin’ portrayals of
the true depth of nearly unbridgeable divides.
How might, then, a student of conservationist worlds and encounters approach
ﬁeldwork – practically?
It may sometimes be unrealistic to pursue full-scale institutional ethnography or
a fulsome portrayal of conservationists’ life-worlds. Nonetheless ideally, one
would try giving the conservationists’ side in any conservation encounter a simi-
larly open-minded and nuanced ethnographic treatment as anthropologists would
try giving the native societies in protected areas. Minimally, when studying a par-
ticular conservation encounter, one might investigate the biographies of the given
conservation project’s key managers, the institutional background of involved
organisations and agencies, and this project’s relative place within the global diver-
sity of conservationist strategies, ideologies and institutions.
In contrast, a maximal ethnography of conservation encounters would require
spending time both where conservationists, native societies, state agents, animals,
natural landscapes and other actors encounter each other, as well as where these
actors live separate lives. Such ambitious ethnography about the many sides of a
conservation encounter would demand untraditional team efforts whereby several
ethnographers cooperate by focusing on different actors and contexts (while nota-
bly rare, recent examples of anthropological team projects include Choy et al.
(2009) and Miller et al. (2016)).
There are many sites of conservation encounter. Participant observation could
be done at the public and private negotiations between conservationists, native
social leaders, and state ofﬁcials, for example, with an eye on these people’s nego-
tiations over what matters (axiology) and what exists (ontology). Participating in
the everyday work and activities of park wardens – who themselves are sometimes
local villagers and knowledgeable hunters – may elucidate the on-the-ground medi-
ations between transnational conservation and diverse village actors. Indeed, by
obstructing or allowing hunting, picking, farming, logging or mining, the wardens
eventually make protected areas happen and not happen (Poppe, 2012). Another
site of encounters are the ﬁeld trips which conservation authorities and professio-
nals make for researching, monitoring and ‘awareness-raising’ in the protected
areas. Importantly, participating in the ﬁeld activities of wardens, researchers
and other conservation professionals helps the ethnographer to immerse oneself
in the landscapes and ecology, while noticing and exploring the more-than-human
worlds of animals, plants and other nature (Kiik, 2018).
Fieldwork on conservation professionals would certainly involve observing and
participating in the working and social life of a conservation organisation’s ofﬁce.
This requires engaging the employees’ everyday challenges, debates and long-term
planning. Activities include designing countrywide policy, applying for transna-
tional donor funding, competing and cooperating with other organisations, and
negotiating with state authorities. Only by long-term ﬁeldwork in the ofﬁce can
one learn ‘from those whispered conversations in the canteen, the formal declara-
tions in ofﬁcial meetings, and the strategic board room chats’ (MacDonald, 2003:
4). Usually located in a central city, the ofﬁce is a place where the conservation
areas themselves and their native societies may feel distant – sometimes known
more through maps, reports, and stories, rather than long-term observing or
participating. This distance opens up ethnographic questions about how the
city-based expat and local-national professionals’ imaginaries, conceptualisations
and cultural cosmologies impact conservation encounters.
Last but not least, ﬁeldwork would involve exploring the life-worlds of conser-
vationists outside of the ofﬁce – in the city beyond. How do these individuals, for
example, negotiate personally between their love of nature, professional career,
transnational mobility and personal life? As discussed above, the ethnography of
conservation has generally not investigated the implications of what kind of per-
sonal lives transnational conservation practitioners live in their temporary homes
abroad. However, to understand the informal work of how conservationists come
to understand and relate to, say, a given country or the conservation area’s rural
society, one needs to understand how they intermingle with or stand apart from
other transnational expert workers, such as those of Development, Consultancy
and Academia. We need to situate foreign conservationists, in particular, within
the given country’s expat social worlds and ‘semi-nomadic culture’ of ‘Aidland’.
Thus too, while I have not found ethnographies of conservationists to draw from
here, as discussed above, one can draw from the ethnographies of other kinds of
professionals and experts to study ‘Conservationland’ comparatively.
Conservationland has a global project. It seeks to shape people, animals, land-
scapes, and the planet in speciﬁc and future-oriented ways. As it intervenes,
recruits and institutionalises in places across the globe, it encounters other projects:
people’s and communities’ life projects, land rights movements, ethnic nationalism,
412 Critique of Anthropology 39(4)
or state-making, resource extracting, corporations’ wealth-making and interna-
tional development. These are conservation encounters, increasingly widespread
and everyday. Most patriots of Conservationland are not driven by money
making. They are rather driven by a sense of morally right and practically smart
resistance to existential catastrophe. Conservationland’s professionals make spe-
ciﬁc, sometimes contradictory ontological assumptions and value judgements
about social and ecological realities, often based on their own love of nature,
planet-scale naturalist cosmological models, funding and institutional constraints
and anti-political modes of organisational operation. They design ambitious gov-
ernmental and material interventions into landscapes, societies and animals’ lives,
but struggle with social complexity and seemingly unbeatable ecological demise.
As ethnographers, taking conservationism seriously means engaging not only its
transnational social worlds, but also the value of nature, the world’s animals and
life-forms and the life sciences (Kiik, 2018).
‘Conservationland’ – a ‘land’ where people who do certain jobs live – is a met-
aphor for particular, limited and playful use. It encourages viewing conservation
professionals as a distinct human population – and thus as cultural and as proper
matter for ethnographic study. It should not be read to imply a coherent, unchang-
ing or clearly bounded global conservationist culture. Indeed, my paper did not
even answer what is or is not conservation. For example, are a society’s traditional
rules that protect nature also conservation, even if those rules are not intended for
protecting nature? Or, how does a conservationist resemble with or differ from an
environmentalist? In practice, we seem to use the term ‘conservationist’ to denote
when ideology and moral commitment – of conservationism – overlap with one’s
profession. Is, then, a conservation NGO’s ofﬁce clerk a conservationist? Is a non-
environmentally-minded park warden? A community forestry specialist? An ama-
teur naturalist? Or a farmer who participates in a community conservation project?
The notion of ‘Conservationland’ raised questions about who is and who is not a
conservationist, to what extent, and how people choose to engage conserva-
Thus, this paper foregrounded how diverse and dispersed the professionals in
formal global conservation are at various scales. Focusing on diversity, dispersion
and scales showed us that we can conceptualise Conservationland only with grad-
ual, changing and porous boundaries. Indeed, many people who may not self-
identify as conservationists or whom others might not recognise as conservation-
ists nonetheless live in and contribute to worldwide nature conservation’s broader
social world – its institutions, networks, practices, philosophies. People migrate
into and out from and within Conservationland, seeking jobs, opportunities and
meaning; they are variously committed to and variously integrated into worldwide
nature conservation – both as ideology and as profession. They have various
motives, experiences and specialisations. When we try mapping the actors who
make up the social world of any single conservation project, we ﬁnd not a ‘land’
– a territory – but people living, moving and relating across the world.
‘Conservationland’, then, is merely a metaphor for noticing that a unique culture
and social structure repeats itself and connects internally across the planet’s many
This paper contributed to the anthropology of conservation by framing the
social worlds of conservation professionals as proper matter for sustained ethno-
graphic inquiry. It did not argue that studying native experiences of conservation
interventions, often unjust and hidden, is any less important. Instead, this paper
argued that our understanding of conservation encounters will be improved
by shining light onto the other side of those encounters – the realms of
Conservationland – as well. This article thus highlighted how, similarly to and
overlapping with Aidland, Peaceland, and other transnational expert communities,
Conservationland is a globe-spanning, semi-nomadic culture with diverse position-
alities, institutions, emotions, philosophies and scales of human and other-than-
human actors. The paper particularly foregrounded positional differences between
transnational and local-national conservation professionals, as well as the cultural,
geographic and class variation among local-national professionals – and the
resulting contradictions within Conservationland. The paper also asked: if
Conservationland stretches everywhere where conservationists meet others –
from boardrooms to farm-plots to ocean creatures’ homes at different ends of
the planet, and back – then how does one study it ethnographically? Reviewing
existing ethnographies of conservation, this paper showed that there are analytical
and methodological paths toward having conservation professionals become eth-
nographic characters who encounter, dispossess and empower, govern and misun-
derstand, protect and imagine, contest and create more-than-human worlds on
I am grateful for the guidance by Karin Dean, Mark Grindley, Coll Hutchison, Sahil
Nijhawan, Fahad Rahman, Laura Rival, members of Oxford University’s
Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, and three anonymous reviewers. All
mistakes are mine.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.
Laur Kiik http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2552-8971
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Laur Kiik is a doctoral student in Anthropology at Oxford University. Since 2010,
he researches nature, nationalism, and religion in Burma’s war-torn Kachin region.
He has published on the anti-ethno-political logic of China’s foreign development-
investment and on popular Christian nationalist worldviews in Myanmar’s