Local Perceptions of Animals – to hear the gibbons sing again

I am reading a fascinating article from the open access Journal of Primatology called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Perceptions of Wildlife In Tombali (Guinea-Bissau, West Africa).  The study presented here was meant to explore whether chimpanzees should be a flagship species for conservation in Tombali, and this depended upon local attitudes and perceptions towards chimps in relation to other wildlife.  The research findings led to the following conclusions:

“Chimpanzees in this local context may not be a good model for a conservation “flagship” species. Encounter rate might be seen as negative since respondents who met these primates very often might be experiencing crop-raiding in their farms or be frightened when walking in the forest. On the other hand, being perceived as similar to humans might be a form of protection against hunting, and also made chimpanzees rate highly as inedible. Chimpanzees were also aesthetically ugly. Among Balanta people (non-Muslim), chimpanzees are viewed as ancestors that were punished by God due to their misbehaviour, and hence they are both ugly and “human”, in addition to being inedible. However, even such potentially negative perceptions might assist in their conservation since the consumption of chimpanzee meat seems to be a taboo. On the other hand, the chimpanzee tendency to raid the farms makes them vulnerable to hostility from villagers. Most villagers grow subsistence crops along with some cash crops such as fruit essential for trading. Raiding species–especially primates–create negative perceptions, active hostility, lack of willingness to engage with conservation for these species, and even lethal acts (see for example: [5763]). Chimpanzee raiding potentially puts them at risk of direct hostile action by farmers [64]… Attitudes towards chimpanzees are uniformly ambivalent and thus its conservation status cannot be assured by local community based initiatives.”

The importance of such studies cannot be over-emphasised, and could mean the difference between the success or failure of national or regional conservation projects to protect chimpanzees and other species.  “Western” or Northern conservation may well be imposed upon non-Western contexts without consideration of existing local values.  The method of conservation more generally also may be problematic due to the particularities of place (national parks as ghettos of  conservation in the middle of development continuing apace).  I encountered these problems when researching conservation in biosphere reserves in Brazil and Mexico, but certainly in the case of the Guaraquecaba Biosphere Reserve in Brazil (which contains national parks, private reserves, etc), conservation initiatives that derived from national policies (and beyond that, the Convention on Biological Diversity) had the potential to fail to acknowledge and adequately incorporate local values and particularities.

Biodiversity has been defined and valued by both Brazilian and Mexican environmental policies in natural capital and ecosystem function terms, which proves problematic. As natural capital, organisms are reduced to “cash”, price-tagged, and this conversion denies the particularities and complexities of their ecological existences in the world.  A functional view of biodiversity also reduces organisms, slotting them into a system as potentially replaceable kinds; once again, uniqueness and evolutionary histories disappear.  Not only are the independent lives of nonhuman organisms (including their various relationships) denied, but it is important to mention here that so are other ways in which human beings value biodiversity.  Rosalind Aveling, director of Fauna and Flora International, provides a fitting example of a different and deeper kind of value:

“When we asked a Vietnamese villager what he personally considered the best result of the forest protection project, we thought he would comment on the increased income to his household from tourism, the improvement in his crops from soil retention…’to hear the gibbons sing again’ was, therefore, a surprise, but it should not have been.  People linked to the land but living in poverty the world over often put a higher value on retaining aspects of their culture than on more immediately obvious livelihood gains.  This can include a commitment to the wildlife (both faunal and floral) in their local environments.”[1]

Agnes Kiss, ecologist at the World Bank, alternatively concludes that, “even when people are taught the value of biodiversity, they will always choose today’s meal over possible future pay-backs from conservation”.[2]  The notion that national governments and international agencies know best and must educate poor local people concerning the importance and value of biodiversity appears misguided.  As in the case of the Vietnamese villager, indigenous people in Brazil and Mexico no doubt already value biodiversity and may not need the World Bank’s lessons, which involve the conversion of organisms into capital and functioning parts in ecosystems.  Their experience of life’s diversity may be deeply felt and cherished in a way that cannot be quantified.

It would be valuable to understand cultural details of place, in order to challenge the assumption that money is (just about) everything.  In Brazilian folklore, for instance, stories are told of various creatures whose roles in the culture reflect respect for biodiversity.  The Curupira, a boy with reversed feet, protects flora and fauna, and “will lead hunters and other invaders of his domain astray”.[3]   The Boitata, or fire-snake, has a similar role, but will punish or kill anyone who shows disrespect for nature.[4]   So, in certain regions of Brazil, there already exists an understanding and experience of biodiversity surpassing what is promoted from above by national governments and international agencies (and accords).

Conservation in Superagui National Park and Salto Morato private reserve in Brazil, both part of the Guaraquecaba Biosphere Reserve, appears to be less defined by economic concerns and more by ecosystem-oriented ecological concerns.  But various problems can be pinpointed upon closer examination.  First, in the case of Superagui, external pressures (beyond the bounds of the park), associated with the region’s economic depression, mean that the park transforms into an “island of protection in a sea of destruction”.  Organisms within the protected area may also drift beyond its bounds or are targeted from without, as is the case in all such areas.  Quammen rightly states that “nature can’t be compartmentalized” and “isn’t convenient”.[5]  He also believes that national parks are “nature’s dead end”, since “islands are all too often, where species and populations die”[6].

Superagui has appeared to be an island of protection in the midst of destructive pressures, a compartmentalization of “nature”, setting aside certain habitats while development elsewhere continues relatively rapidly.  This does not discount the committed attempts by local NGos to conserve indigenous species in the region, such as the Institute for Ecological Research’s (IPE) Black Faced Lion Tamarin Conservation Programme, but it highlights competing agendas and perspectives and challenges faced.  The relationship between human beings and other organisms that begins to dominate worldwide, based on national and international imperatives that forefront economic valuations of “nature” and ecosystem services, fails to be informed by or rest on evolutionary ecology, or Darwin’s insights (allowing for diversification).  And if we consider Frankel’s evolutionary ethic and McClintock’s “feeling for the organism”, such an approach continues to appear inadequate for conservation.

[1] Aveling, 2004, pp. 12-13

[3] According to Sheila Thomson, “In the state of Sao Paulo, the curupira is the official symbolic protector of the forests and all the animals that live in them”.  www.maria-brazil.org/myths.htm  Brazilian Folklore:  Myths and Fantastic Creatures.  See also references to myths by Egler, 2002, p. 217

[4] Sua Pesquisa, Mitos e Lendas do Brasil (Myths and Legends of Brazil), translation, http://www.suapesquisa.com/folclorebrasileiro/

[5] Quammen, David, 1996, p. 2

[6] Ibid


6 thoughts on “Local Perceptions of Animals – to hear the gibbons sing again”

  1. I think this is an important thing for us to remember – that other peoples have other priorities, and we can’t expect them to respond to our priorities. I like the gibbons singing metaphor: it encapsulates one of the many non-commercial values of biodiversity, one that westerners often forget about.

    And thanks for the likes on our blog. 🙂

    1. Hi Alison, Thanks very much for the comments! I was glad to find your blog – the posts on biodiversity ethics really resonated with me. Good to see the work that your group in Adelaide is doing. I’ll continue to read 🙂

      1. I had to come back and read this again, just because I need to remind myself now and again of the glories of the natural world that economics derides as ‘externalities’. I think we’re so detached from nature that it’s hard for many people to understand what it’s like for those who live closer to it, like that Vietnamese farmer.

  2. Hi Alison, thanks for returning to this post. Yes, it is sometimes hard to imagine that kind of close relationship, considering the lives that we lead, which are most often dominated by economic relations (a relating that is often just accepted and assumed to be pervasive). That was really the point of my thesis work, to try to argue for a different kind of relating with other organisms (in the “West”), and thus a different kind of conservation. Thanks for your posts on biodiversity, informative and thought-provoking!

  3. Dear Allison,
    Thank you so much for your nice comments on my work. Giving voice to locals is a good way to start a conservation programme.
    Susana Costa

  4. Hi Susana,
    Thanks very much for your comment! I’m not sure if you are writing to me (Elizabeth), as the website creator/writer, or to Alison who commented on this post – but we both were expressing appreciation for your work, which seems to put local communities at its heart. Do you have other work that I could highlight on this website?
    All best,

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