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Fleshing out conservation: performative ecologies and embodied practice in Chilean temperate rainforest management
Pratt, Kathryn C. (2012)

Fleshing out conservation: performative ecologies and embodied practice in Chilean temperate rainforest management


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Thesis or Dissertation

This dissertation brings recent theories of embodiment, practice, and performance to bear on community-based conservation in the temperate rainforest region of Southern Chile. The goal of the project is to respond to a problem that conservation scientists often call the “implementation crisis.” Essentially, we have abundant knowledge of conservation models, strategies, and best practices, but yet we still struggle to implement effective community-based projects on the ground. Political ecologists have tried to address this issue by unpacking the cultural politics of conservation, explaining the fate of projects in relation to, for example, competing understandings of community, conflicts around gender and social difference, or clashes between different knowledge systems. Problems occur, it is argued, when conditions on the ground do not conform to pre-given categories, such as when the lines between “local” and “expert” become blurred, or when complex and unbounded social relations contradict our notions of bounded, homogeneous communities. This dissertation works to challenge and extend these critical perspectives by “fleshing out” environmental practices in Chile. I argue that in emphasizing contentious cultural categories, practitioners and scholars alike have tended to neglect the everyday lived experiences of making conservation happen. The dissertation draws on fieldwork conducted with two projects based near the town of Valdivia, Chile: a newly formed private reserve that was partnering with local communities on conservation and development projects and a firewood certification program working with small landholders on sustainable forest management. The focus of my research is on the actual performance of conservation. I start not with cultural categories but with the material interactions that make projects tick. For example, I trace the movements of actors as they negotiate project work, study skills as they are learned and practiced in the field, examine collaborations as they take form, and explore how everyday misadventures can turn into creative solutions. To support my claims, I draw on a growing interdisciplinary body of research that addresses the creative, corporeal, and emergent nature of practice, including non-representational theories in geography, practice theories from sociology and anthropology, theories of embodied cognition from the cognitive sciences, and materialist feminisms. These literatures all contend that social processes are not just the outcome of competing ideas and representations, but also emerge from the actions of people physically engaged in their environment. Each chapter explores a different way in which practice plays a significant role in conservation projects. Chapter 2 presents a re-examination of the environmental politics of vision and representation by showing that vision is much more tied to bodily movement than has previously been assumed. Chapter 3 considers another central area of political ecology critique: the politics of environmental knowledge, especially clashes between “expert” scientific and “local” indigenous knowledge. Political ecologists claim that one of the problems of community-based conservation is that too often it involves imposing scientific modes of understanding on local groups whose indigenous forms of knowledge are not equally valued. I argue that what often gets ignored in these discussions is the role of embodied skill in constituting environmental know-how. Chapter 4 examines how collaboration works in conservation projects. Although there has been considerable discussion of the problematic use of the term community within grassroots conservation initiatives, I argue that these conversations too have tended to neglect the embodied, relational aspects of practice. As an alternative to the logic and counter-logic of community, I suggest developing a performative understanding of togetherness which I call “associating.” While chapters 2-4 all emphasize the novel and serendipitous qualities of conservation practice, Chapter 5 addresses repetition. I show that mundane, routine, and habitual aspects of conservation work are important for instilling the sensitivity and awareness to unspoken aspects of environmental projects. Moreover, I show how such tedium actually contributes to the creative process, rather than, as we might assume, introducing complacency in conservation. I conclude by reflecting on what is gained by developing a more “fleshy” understanding of conservation and environmental management.

Appears in Collection(s)
Dissertations [4662]

University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2012. Major: Geography. Advisor:Dr. Bruce P. Braun. 1 computer file (PDF); ix, 287 pages, appendices A-B.

Suggested Citation
Pratt, Kathryn C.. (2012). Fleshing out conservation: performative ecologies and embodied practice in Chilean temperate rainforest management. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,

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