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