Are Partnerships Passé?


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A recent exchange in the journal Oryx rekindles a long-standing debate about the extent to which local and global interests in conservation can be reconciled.

In their opening essay, Sonja Vermeulen and Douglas Sheil call for conservation agencies to make “a real commitment to partnership” with local communities on both instrumental and ethical grounds. They bemoan the fact that – despite rhetoric about “participation” – most conservation initiatives still use top-down, externally-driven approaches that see local people as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Vermeulen and Sheil argue that local communities themselves value nature, providing significant common ground on which to build partnerships with external organizations. Joint initiatives that prioritize local conservation preferences lead to less conflict and more sustainable interventions. A partnership approach is also more ethical: decisions about conservation should be made democratically, and benefits shared equitably.

Writing from an African perspective, Clapperton Mavhunga responds that such faith in partnership is misplaced, and even dangerous. Suggesting that Vermeulen and Sheil are part of the same problem they describe, he asserts that notions of “partnership” reflect unequal power relations that are a legacy of colonialism. Villagers trying to make a living in non-Western societies do not value nature in the same way conservationists do. Concluding that partnership for conservation is passé, he calls for a “new democracy of knowledge” that opens space for local culture, history, and aspirations to drive conservation initiatives.

In another response, John Robinson similarly chides Vermeulen and Sheil for overemphasizing the common interests of local communities and conservationists. Recent discourse on the congruence of conservation, poverty reduction, and social justice, he writes, is “attractive but short-sighted”. Citing several examples, he argues that to succeed, partnerships must be based on a clear-eyed recognition of the different interests and roles of various participants.

Vermeulen and Sheil believe these two critiques actually support their view that conservation partnerships are worth pursuing. While they agree that the interests of communities and external actors may differ, they also feel that conservationists tend to overestimate such differences. Their call is for a corrective shift in attitude, as pessimism leads to self-fulfilling prophesies of failure. Partnerships founded on “shared visions” and mutual respect are more likely to resolve differences than those that aren’t.

Do you agree?

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Further reading

The articles referred to in this edition of Polex are listed below. For convenience, they have been combined in to one email suitable PDF and are available from Ms. Indah Susilanasari at:

Vermeulen, S. & Sheil, D. 2007. Partnerships for tropical conservation. Oryx. 41, 434-440.

Mavhunga, C. 2007. Even the rider and a horse are a partnership: a response to Vermeulen & Sheil. Oryx, 41, 441-442.

Robinson, J. 2007. Recognizng differences and establishing clear-eyed partnerships: a response to Vermeulen & Sheil. Oryx, 41, 443-444.

Vermeulen, S. & Sheil, D. 2007. The possibility of common ground: a reply to Mavhunga and Robinson. Oryx. 41, 445-446.