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date: 26 October 2020

Neoliberal Conservation

Abstract and Keywords

Neoliberal conservation describes a dynamic wherein prominent organizations around the world concerned with biodiversity protection have increasingly adopted strategies and mechanisms that seek to reconcile conservation with economic development by harnessing economic markets as putative mechanisms for financing nature conservation. Since the turn of the millennium, a vibrant discussion around this topic has arisen across anthropology, geography, and related fields. Within this discussion, the rise of neoliberal conservation is generally treated as part of more widespread processes of neoliberalization occurring throughout the global economy since the 1980s, promoting a constellation of core principles including privatization, marketization, decentralization, deregulation, and commodification. Neoliberal conservation arose out of a growing concern among prominent conservation organizations to include poverty reduction and economic development within their mandates as well as to capture additional funding via partnerships with wealthy corporations. It is commonly implemented through a series of so-called market-based instruments (MBIs), including ecotourism, payment for environmental services (PES), and biodiversity and wetlands banking, as well as financial mechanisms such as green bonds.

However, evidence suggests that promotion of neoliberal conservation rarely achieves intended outcomes in actual implementation. This has led some researchers to argue that these activities are thus not neoliberal at all, while others defend this characterization within an understanding of neoliberalization as a variegated process. Researchers also point to the rise of right-wing authoritarianism as a potential challenge to neoliberal hegemony, yet the implications of this trend for conservation policy and practice remain little explored. Thus, the important open question is raised of whether neoliberal conservation was the product of a particular political era that is coming to an end, and if so, what will arise in its aftermath.

Keywords: conservation, neoliberalism, markets, privatization, commodification, environment, ecosystem services, natural capital


Since the turn of the 21st century, a vibrant discussion has arisen across anthropology, geography, and related fields concerning a phenomenon now commonly termed “neoliberal conservation.” This refers to a dynamic wherein prominent organizations around the world concerned with biodiversity conservation have increasingly adopted strategies and mechanisms that seek to reconcile conservation with economic development by harnessing economic markets as putative mechanisms for financing nature conservation.This trend is considered part of the more widespread process of neoliberalization occurring throughout the global economy since the 1980s. Such neoliberalization has been identified within environmental policy generally, with researchers assigning it a variety of labels including “neoliberal nature,” “neoliberal environmentalism,” “green neoliberalism,” “green capitalism, and “market environmentalism” (e.g., Heynen et al. 2007). With respect to conservation specifically, in addition to neoliberal conservation, this trend has been ascribed such monikers as “for-profit conservation” (Dempsey 2016; Dempsey and Suarez 2016), “NatureTM Inc” (Arsel and Büscher 2012; Büscher et al. 2014), and “accumulation by conservation” (Büscher and Fletcher 2015; Doane 2012). This article charts the rise of neoliberal conservation as a component of a more general neoliberalization as well as the strategy’s analysis by a growing cadre of researchers in a variety of fields. It then outlines key debates and controversies within this field of analysis before concluding by charting newer developments with potential to serve as the basis for future research.

Origins and Development

The phenomenon of neoliberal conservation is commonly associated with a growing concern among prominent conservation organizations to include poverty reduction and economic development within their mandates around the turn of the millennium (Adams et al. 2004; Corson et al. 2014). Historically, most mainstream conservation organizations have pursued what has been termed a “fortress conservation” strategy, entailing the creation of “protected areas” (PA) from which human occupation and use were largely excluded and whose borders were commonly patrolled by armed guards employing coercive force (Brockington 2002; Ferguson 2006; Peluso 1993). Yet the social costs of such PAs, including displacement and impoverishment of local residents, prompted a growing call to complement this enforcement with so-called community-based conservation (CBC) strategies intended to deliver sustainable livelihood opportunities to people living in PA “buffer zones” and thereby support conservation within PAs (Borgerhoff Mulder and Coppolillo 2005). This shift, part of a wider campaign to promote sustainable development in gestation throughout the world at the time, was first codified in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy, then gradually diffused throughout the global conservation movement (Corson et al. 2014).

Livelihood generation mechanisms promoted via CBC commonly revolved around the putative integration of local people into global markets. Prominent examples include the promotion of agricultural products grown with sustainable methods and the creation of community-based ecotourism businesses. Such ventures were soon connected to larger mechanisms and discourses, which sought to value biodiversity in ways that its preservation would be privileged over extraction based on a simple cost-benefit calculation. Around the turn of the millennium, this strategy of “selling nature to save it” was first presciently highlighted and problematized by McAfee (1999). Subsequently, Chapin (2004) offered a controversial “Challenge to Conservationists” in which he called out prominent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for allegedly abandoning the many indigenous peoples with whom they had briefly allied in pursuit of CBC in favor of a growing set of partnerships with large corporations who were courted for funding. Following this, other researchers who had also been documenting the social consequences of fortress conservation as well as the shift toward CBC for some time began to notice similar dynamics and to highlight their consonance with a more general neoliberalization whereby direct regulatory governance by state agencies was progressively replaced by reliance on “market forces” to allocate resources in an optimal manner (Harvey 2005). This process was increasingly documented within the global environmental movement generally (Heynen et al. 2007), including through reform within international financial institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank (Goldman 2005), and within conservation specifically (Igoe and Brockington 2007a; Igoe and Sullivan 2009; Sullivan 2006), leading to the latter’s designation as “neoliberal conservation,” understood as something of a “third wave” of conservation strategies complementing fortress approaches and CBC (Büscher and Fletcher 2015; Vaccaro et al. 2013). This frame was rapidly adopted by researchers around the world who observed similar trends in their own study sites, cementing it as an important field of investigation with the social scientific analysis of conservation policy and practice more generally (see Büscher et al. 2012 for a useful summary of this early work).

Within this body of research, neoliberal conservation is seen to promote core neoliberal principles of privatization, marketization, decentralization, deregulation (or more commonly re-regulation from state to nonstate actors), and commodification (Büscher et al. 2012; Castree 2008, 2010; Igoe and Brockington 2007b), and to be expressed through a variety of trends. These encompass the growing prominence and power of nonstate actors including big NGOs (termed BINGOs) like The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Conservation International (CI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF); increasing alliances among these BINGOs and private sector firms as well as IFIs like the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to generate funding (Chapin 2004; Levine 2002); the creation of markets for trade in natural resources; privatization of resource control within such markets; commodification of resources to facilitate their trading; the spread of privately owned and operated nature reserves (Langholz 2003); the devolution of resource control to nonstate actors like NGOs; and the consequent decline of state-centered environmental regulation (Brockington 2002). In this way, civil society organizations, both big and small, have been able to position themselves centrally within the growing global conservation movement as an ostensibly more responsive and adaptable alternative to state bureaucracies viewed as cumbersome and rigid within neoliberal discourse.

A key component of neoliberal conservation entails reconceptualizing the biophysical environment as a container of “ecosystem services” and “natural capital” (Fletcher et al. 2019; Sullivan 2013). From this perspective, “Natural capital is another term for the stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources on earth (e.g., plants, animals, air, water, soils, minerals) that combine to yield a flow of benefits or ‘services’ to people” (NCC 2016, 12, emphasis in original). An expansive network of actors and institutions has organized around this approach, coming together in a Natural Capital Coalition (recently rebranded simply the Capitals Coalition) comprising many of the most influential players within the global conservation movement (Fletcher et al. 2019).

Implementation of neoliberal conservation commonly occurs via a series of so-called market-based instruments (MBIs). Ecotourism is likely the most long-standing and widespread of these to date (Duffy 2008; Fletcher 2009, 2014), promoting what Honey (2008, 14) calls a “stakeholder theory,” holding that “people will protect what they receive value from.” A second foundational conservation MBI (that has since largely faded from the scene) is bioprospecting, which seeks to develop “non-timber forest products” (NTFPs) for commercial sale on medicinal or cosmetics markets in order to finance conservation of the surrounding ecosystem (Hayden 2003; McAfee 1999; Neimark 2012). Another popular family of MBIs comprises biodiversity and wetlands banking wherein development threatening an endangered species or ecosystem can be “offset” by investment in preservation of a similar or equivalent entity elsewhere (Pawliczek and Sullivan 2011; Robertson 2006). A related mechanism is “payment for ecosystem services” (PES) in terms of which owners of biodiversity-rich land are paid to keep this land intact rather than converting it to other uses, usually as an offset for destructive development elsewhere (Dempsey and Robertson 2012). PES is often tied up with carbon trading by means of which greenhouse gas emissions can be offset by investment in forest protection, among other activities (Fletcher 2012). A prominent variant of PES involving carbon trading is the REDD+ (Reduced Emissions through Forest Degradation and Avoided Deforestation) mechanism, which grew out of United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) discussions to combine forest conservation with climate change mitigation and has since been operationalized through more than five hundred pilot projects initiated around the world (Sunderlin et al. 2015).

Yet all of these MBIs require direct investment in concrete material space in order to develop the physical infrastructure needed to realize their particular “products” in the form of concrete conservation spaces located in particular places. This limits their capacity to generate significant liquid capital that can be grown directly through investment and trade within global financial markets. Consequently, the neoliberal conservation campaign endeavors to transcend concrete markets in goods and services in favor of direct engagement in global financial markets—what Büscher (2013) calls the pursuit of “liquid nature” (see also Sullivan 2013). This entails abstracting value from investment in concrete projects so that it can become fungible and hence convertible across a greater range of instruments, with the goal of thereby establishing environmental products as a distinct “asset class” within conventional financial markets (Credit Suisse and McKinsey 2016). Within such markets, the aim is then to combine different income streams into a composite instrument, since “few conservation projects today are big enough to be structured as marketable standalone investment products. Thus, aggregating distinct but complementary projects with potentially different structures is required. These aggregators need to be able to bundle a diverse set of cash flows and mold them into a single investment product” (Credit Suisse and McKinsey 2016, 13).

This development have spurred the rise of financial investment firms specifically devoted to consolidating and rendering interchangeable environmental “investment products across a broad range of asset classes” (in Sullivan 2013, 203). Markets are also being developed in such novelties as “weather risk management,” extending “beyond carbon trading to include a whole new spectrum of novel financial instruments designed to price and manage the risks associated with extreme weather events, natural catastrophes and unexpected temperature fluctuations” (Cooper 2010, 170). These novel markets include “catastrophe bonds, securities that manage the risks of improbable but catastrophic natural events, and environmental derivatives, financial instruments that respond to unpredictable fluctuation in the weather” (2010, 175).

A further set of financial instruments gaining increased attention are “green bonds.” Bonds can be considered “green” in two main ways: “either the proceeds of the bond are (supposed to) be ring-fenced for environmentally beneficial projects—called ‘use of proceeds’ bonds; and/or the issuers themselves badge them as ‘green’ with an accompanying narrative—called ‘self-labelled’ bonds” (Bracking 2016, 76). An additional modality, “project bonds,” are “dedicated to a classified green activity, such a solar power” (2016, 76). One innovative form of green bonds are called “index-linked” in which returns are connected to environmental performance (see Sullivan 2013). In a proposed index-linked carbon bond, for instance, “interest payments are linked to the actual greenhouse gas emissions of the issuing country against published targets. An investor in this bond receives an excess return if the issuing country’s emissions are above the government’s published target.”1

As of 2020, however, financial mechanisms like these are still mostly conceptual and anticipatory, with very little actual market transaction actually conducted thus far (Dempsey and Suarez 2016). Moreover, there may be serious obstacles in the face of such mechanisms’ potential future realization.

Key Questions and Debates

As scholarly discussion of neoliberal conservation has proliferated, it has also spawned a number of ongoing questions and debates, the most prominent of which are outlined in this section.

How Neoliberal Is Neoliberal Conservation?

One central issue of contention concerns the nature of the very term “neoliberalism” at the heart of the discussion. This question mirrors a parallel debate concerning the definition of the term more generally. Growing use of “neoliberalism” to describe a general economic transformation throughout the world, beginning in the 1980s, has been countered by claims that the processes described are quite different in different places, and hence that their grouping under a common label is more a fiction created by researchers than an entity in the world (see Barnett 2005; Birch 2015; Castree 2006). Yet this critique has itself been countered by assertions that these are still variants of a common process, and hence that neoliberalization should be understood not as a monolithic entity but rather a “variegated” process, one of the key characteristics of which is its inherent flexibility (e.g., Brenner et al. 2010a, 2010b).

Within discussions of neoliberal conservation, this issue is reflected in an ongoing debate concerning precisely how neoliberal mechanisms commonly associated with the phenomenon actually are. Soon after popularization of the neoliberal conservation frame, researchers began to point out that many of the processes documented as part of this trend did not neatly conform with all of the dimensions of neoliberalism outlined in the literature. With respect to PES, for example, researchers have observed that in practice many programs entail very little actual market activity and are instead largely managed by states via taxation and other forms of direct resource allocation—the very thing that neoliberalism ostensibly seeks to eradicate (Fletcher and Breitling 2012; McAfee and Shapiro 2010; Milne and Adams 2012). This observation, consequently, led some researchers to conclude that PES is not necessarily neoliberal at all (McElwee et al. 2014; Van Hecken et al. 2015). Others, however, assert that PES can still be considered an expression of neoliberalization if understood as a variegated process that materializes differently in specific contexts (Fletcher and Büscher 2017), which has resulted in a running debate (see Fletcher and Büscher 2018; Shapiro-Garza et al. 2020; Van Hecken et al. 2018). Similar discrepancy between the neoliberal “vision” underlying conservation MBIs and their practical “execution” (Büscher and Dressler 2007; Carrier and West 2009) has been identified by Dunlap and Sullivan (2019), who observe a common “fault line” running through biodiversity banking and REDD+ in addition to PES. Despite this common disjuncture, the authors assert that all three mechanisms should still be considered expressions of neoliberalization due to the common intent (if not ability) to enact marketization.

Such disputes may seem merely academic, but they speak to larger questions concerning the implications of pursuing a particular approach to conservation beyond its influence on specific projects and interventions. And this issue relates to overarching analyses concerning the nature of neoliberalism more generally and hence its manifestation within neoliberal conservation. Even among those who agree that neoliberal conservation exists, there remains disagreement concerning how it should be understood. The two most prominent strains of analysis view it from the perspectives of Marxism and poststructuralism, respectively. For Marxists, neoliberalism is most centrally a process of “accumulation by dispossession” whereby members of a “transnational capitalist class” seek to wrest control of valuable resources formally governed as public goods or community commons (Harvey 2005; Igoe et al. 2010; Sklair 2001). In this spirit, Büscher and Fletcher (2015) contend that from a world system perspective (e.g., Arrighi 2009), the global conservation movement can be seen to have moved through three overlapping stages in its function as a component of the capitalist economy facilitating the internalization of environmental conditions as a core element of accumulation (Büscher and Fletcher 2015). This parallels historical shifts in the dominant regime of accumulation within the overarching global economy, which analysts suggest has proceeded, in the postwar era, from “organized” to “disorganized” (Lash and Urry 1987) or from “Fordist” to “post-Fordist” or “flexible” forms (Arrighi 2009; Harvey 1989). In the early decades of the 21st century, moreover, scholars describe a further shift away from commodity production of any sort toward emphasis on pure financialization—what Harvey (1989) calls “fictitious capitalism.” Likewise, Büscher and Fletcher (2015) suggest that the global conservation movement be seen to have progressed through three stages, termed “fortress,” “flexible,” and “fictitious” forms, respectively, corresponding with the historical movement from PA creation through CBC and its attendant income-generation mechanisms to the increasing focus on financialization through market engagement, evident in neoliberal conservation in 2020 (see Table 1).

Table 1. Accumulation by Conservation


Regime of accumulation

Key characteristics

Dominant ideology

Conservation approach

Key mechanisms


Colonial/Fordism/Organized capitalism

Vertical integration; statism; violence


Fortress conservation

Protected areas; state funding; wildlife tourism


Post-Fordism/Disorganized capitalism

Flexible accumulation; decentralization

Rollback neoliberalism

Flexible conservation

CBC; ICDPs; biosphere reserves; ccotourism; bioprospecting

Rollout neoliberalism (1990s forward)

TFCAs; PES Carbon markets; species/wetlands banking; financial derivatives; REDD


Financialization/Casino capitalism

Spectacular accumulation, networks, crisis

Fictitious conservation

Note. Adapted from Büscher and Fletcher (2015).

From this perspective, neoliberal conservation is considered particularly problematic due to its implications within overarching processes of capital accumulation to which it contributes.

Poststructuralists, by contract, commonly follow Foucault (2008) in understanding neoliberalism as a particular “governmentality” that aims to enact processes of marketization not merely within the economy but in all social realms, including within the domestic sphere and state institutions themselves. From this perspective, neoliberalism shapes but is not reducible to a particular form of capitalism. Thus, Fletcher (2010, 173), building on Agrawal (2005), describes a neoliberal “environmentality” expressed via conservation MBIs intended “to create external incentive structures within which individuals, understood as self-interested rational actors, can be motivated to exhibit appropriate behaviors through manipulation of incentives.” This is, essentially, the very “stakeholder theory” embodied in ecotourism and other MBIs, as described by Honey (2008). For poststructuralists, therefore, neoliberal conservation carries the danger of promoting an instrumental approach to human–nature relations grounded in economic valuation that critics fear may “crowd out” other ways of knowing and valuing nonhuman natures existing in places where the approach is implemented.

What Does Neoliberal Conservation Do?

These different theoretical positions inform researchers’ perspectives concerning what neoliberal conservation actually achieves in practice, which, in turn, relates to a larger discussion concerning how successful neoliberal conservation has been in its aims as well as what it may also produce as unintended “instrument-effects” (Foucault 1977). In addition to growing acknowledgment of the common disjuncture between theory and practice across a number of conservation MBIs previously described, there is mounting evidence that despite widespread promotion of neoliberal conservation strategies by an expanding range of actors, very little of the envisioned activity has actually occurred, and even less may be achieving concrete results.

With respect to activity, Dempsey and Suarez (2016, 654) conclude, based on analysis of financial reports, that actual market transactions remain merely “slivers of slivers of slivers” of total global conservation finance. From this perspective, neoliberal conservation should be seen more as a hopeful projection on the part of proponents than an economic agenda widely implemented in the world. This description, indeed, is how Büscher and Fletcher (2015), among others, portrayed it in their analysis of a growing push for “accumulation by conservation” that has proven quite difficult, if not impossible, to widely realize in practice. Dempsey (2016, 255) similarly describes neoliberal conservation as existing “in an entirely paradoxical situation. It is at once a totalizing mainstream discourse and one that exists on the margins of political-economic life, on the outside of many flows of goods, commodities, and state policies.”

In terms of results, available evidence suggests that many conservation MBIs have achieved relatively little of their intended biodiversity preservation thus far. While this evidence remains far from definitive, it is suggestive of a common pattern. While bioprospecting was widely championed in the 1990s, for instance, it quickly became apparent:

that drug discovery from nature is extremely difficult, especially in the highly competitive market of global pharmaceuticals. On the production side alone, firms (mainly located in the US, Europe and Japan) must access biodiversity in distant tropical locations, which are difficult to traverse, while also contending with a host of political barriers (such as regulations and property rights) as well as sporadic local resistance to collecting material.

(Neimark 2012, 424)

Likewise, despite their initial exponential growth (see Fletcher 2012), global carbon markets have since largely stagnated (Bond 2011; Monbiot 2013). With respect to REDD+, an empirical analysis of a cross section of pilot projects published in 2015 found that the majority were also stagnating due to lack of funding, while several had been abandoned altogether (Sunderlin et al. 2015). Going further, an open letter sent by the Rainforest Foundation UK to the World Bank in December 2017 concluded that after more than a decade of REDD+ rollout, “the programme has not yet prevented a single gram of forest carbon from entering the atmosphere.”2 Pledges from Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom to continue to directly fund REDD+ projects to the tune of around USD$5 billion are drastically insufficient to support all existing projects. While the Paris Agreement resulting from UNFCC COP-21 included REDD+ as a component of a larger multidimensional landscape-level forest conservation strategy, the mechanism’s original promise to generate a global market in carbon credits is already effectively finished (Fletcher et al. 2016).

Indeed, the only conservation MBI to achieve demonstrable success in genuinely harnessing in situ resources as a source of economic revenue via actual market transaction on a substantial scale thus far has been ecotourism, which the UNWTO (1998) claims to be expanding approximately 30 percent per year worldwide. Yet ecotourism remains a small portion of the global tourism industry as a whole (Honey 2008), and the substantial growth it has experienced thus far may be approaching limits (Fletcher 2011). In addition, while ecotourism can be an effective force for biodiversity conservation, a growing criticism highlights the industry’s contribution to global warming due to its dependence on long-haul air transport (Carrier and Macleod 2005).

Researchers point out, however, that neoliberal interventions often produce negative social impacts similar to those widely documented with respect to earlier conservation approaches (West et al. 2006), even as they fail to achieve intended outcomes. Summarizing the research available at the time, Holmes and Cavanagh (2016) identify three main categories through which such impacts commonly manifest: (a) introduction of new power relations and forms of subjectivity in line with neoliberal rationality; (b) use of spectacle (Igoe 2010, 2017; Igoe et al. 2010) to commodify resources with consequences for local use and control; and (c) reinforcing and exacerbating “pre-existing social, economic, and political inequalities” (Holmes and Cavanagh 2016, 199).

Similarly, notwithstanding their conclusion that efforts to stimulate conservation finance have produced very little concrete investment thus far, Dempsey and Suarez caution that this promotion may still have important ideological effects, functioning “to re-affirm narrowed, antipolitical explanations of biodiversity loss, to reinforce neoliberal political rationalities among conservationists, and to foreclose alternative and progressive possibilities” (2016, 655). Even as it fails to actually establish markets, in other words, neoliberal conservation still seeks to promote its philosophy for adoption by stakeholders ranging from BINGO executives to local project participants. In their exploration of the potential to develop an asset class in conservation finance, for instance, Credit Suisse and McKinsey (2016) essentially imply that in order to achieve this goal, the global conservation community will need to fundamentally restructure itself to start thinking and acting like the investors it wishes to attract. Meanwhile, on-the-ground implementation of neoliberal conservation projects in many places encourages local people to conceptualize their relationship with the surrounding environment in terms of monetary valuation and benefit-cost calculation in anticipation of promised benefits (see Fletcher et al. 2019).

What Does Neoliberal Conservation Intend to Do?

Whether the limited achievements of neoliberal conservation thus far signify the strategy’s general “failure” is a tricky question, since, as Mosse (2004) points out, “‘success’ and ‘failure’ are policy-oriented judgements that obscure project effects” and hence risk obscuring “how things actually happen” (2004, 662). Yet what all of this controversy surrounding neoliberal conservation’s aims and outcomes amounts to, and what it implies concerning the intentions of the strategy’s main proponents, remains contested among researchers on either side of the theoretical divide previously outlined. For Marxists, neoliberal conservation strategies are considered in large part a smokescreen presenting a veneer of concern for sustainability that conceals a baser self-interest in enclosing and appropriating resources for personal gain, following Harvey’s general characterization of neoliberalism as offering

a benevolent mask full of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities of the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power, locally as well as transnationally, but most particularly in the main financial centres of global capitalism. (2005, 119)

Poststructuralists, however, accept that those promoting neoliberal conservation may actually want to see it succeed but argue that this potential is constrained by the inherent limitations of the approach they seek to implement (e.g., Dempsey 2016; Fletcher 2010, 2013; Sullivan 2013). As Foucault (2008, 116) pointed out some time ago, for neoliberals “[n]othing proves that the market economy is intrinsically defective since everything attributed to it as a defect and as the effect of its defectiveness should really be attributed to the state.” Consequently, ostensive failure can always be explained away by attributing it not to market logic but to improper intervention within the market by state agents.

But there are ways to also interpret this situation that mediate to a degree these different perspectives, framing neoliberal conservation discourse as intended to sell the program’s success, notwithstanding its actual outcomes. In part, this outlook is a function of basic organizational survival in that framing interventions as successful regardless of their actual performance, on the part of BINGO and others, is often necessary to keep finances flowing from donors discouraged by stories of failure. In this way, savvy marketing can form the basis of value creation in its own right regardless of how projects function in practice (Büscher 2014). From this perspective, neoliberal conservation can be understood primarily as a symbolic exchange, a traffic in spectacular images that circulate within a “global economy of appearances” that becomes increasingly disconnected from the material referents (concrete conservation projects) that form the ostensive basis of the value thereby generated (Igoe 2010, 2017). This perspective of course reinforces the description of neoliberal conservation as “fictitious,” noted earlier.

Yet this approach still tends to assume that actors promoting neoliberal conservation are largely aware of the disjuncture between the marketing of success and the less-than-successful outcomes such marketing spins. Taking a poststructuralist perspective further, however, one can argue that one of the main things neoliberal conservation discourse achieves is to conceal potential evidence of project failure from proponents themselves. Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis to complement Foucauldian poststructuralism, for instance, Fletcher suggests that neoliberal conservation can be understood as a fantasy structure that offers a compelling vision of future success once the proper mechanisms have been designed and implemented and thereby allows any current deficiencies to be explained away as merely bumps on the road to eventually “getting the market right” (Fletcher 2013). From this perspective, selling (future) success may be less of an effort to spin outcomes for marketing purposes than a built-in dimension of neoliberal conservation discourse functioning to shield itself from recognition of its essential impossibility.

While neoliberal conservation has been enthusiastically embraced by many of the most influential organizations and actors in the global conservation movement, however, the approach has also long been met with skepticism by a minority of conservationists themselves. As early as 1988, Ehrenfeld cautioned, “In the long run, basing our conservation strategy on the economic value of diversity will only make things worse, because it keeps us from coping with the root cause of the loss of diversity” (1988, 214). In the new millennium, McCauley asserted that “market-based mechanisms for conservation are not a panacea for our current conservation ills. If we mean to make significant and long-lasting gains in conservation, we must strongly assert the primacy of ethics and aesthetics in conservation” (2006, 27). The rest of the decade saw similarly critical assessments of MBIs published by other prominent mainstream voices in core conservation media (e.g., Ehrenfeld 2008; Redford and Adams 2009).

More generally, Sandbrook and colleagues (2013) describe an attitude of “cautious pragmatism” among rank-and-file members of many prominent conservation organizations, skeptical about the capacity of market mechanisms to deliver conservation benefits yet unsure how else to proceed in a world where funding from sources other than the market or corporate partners is becoming increasingly scarce. The authors find their small sample of skeptics divided roughly into two broad camps: one displaying “outcome focused enthusiasm” concerning the potential for markets to deliver substantial gains; the other evincing more “ideological skepticism” concerning the market-based approach in general. Hence, Sandbrook et al. highlight “a likely dissonance between the values held by individual employees of large conservation organisations and the official positions adopted by the organisations themselves” (2013, 238). A follow-up study has found similar dynamics among a larger cross section of respondents (Holmes et al. 2017). Even proponents of natural capital valuation are often themselves conflicted about the potential of this approach (Dempsey 2016).

Yet within the overarching public discussion such “critical messages are often ignored by mainstream organizations and media, and if they are acknowledged, often denied or twisted to suit particular neoliberal objectives” (Büscher et al. 2012, 22). In this way, paradoxically, “alternative viewpoints do not always need to be actively suppressed in order to be disciplined. Indeed, they can perversely be stimulated as some kind of catharsis, without impacting on the broader hegemonic system” (Büscher et al. 2012, 22). In the face of such internal dissent, consequently, the leadership of organizations, including IUCN, TNC, CI, and WWF, have solidified their endorsement of neoliberal conservation and entrenchment within a global network pushing its promotion.

Are We Moving Beyond Neoliberalism?

A fourth key point of debate concerns what has happened to neoliberal conservation, and neoliberalism more generally, in the time since the 2008 global economic crisis. During the height of the crisis, many pundits pronounced this the end of neoliberalism (e.g., Peters 2008; Stiglitz 2008), yet it quickly became clear that neoliberal tendencies continued or even intensified in many places in subsequent years. What this meant became a subject of contention. Some pronounced the resurrection of a “zombie neoliberalism” lurching forward in undead form (Arsel and Büscher 2012; Fine 2009; Peck 2010a). Hendrikse and Sidaway (2010), however, described the rise of “neoliberalism 3.0” characterized by further cuts in state expenditure, marketization of remaining state assets, and consolidation of broader alliances across the political spectrum. Jessop (2013) labeled this same shift a novel “blowback” neoliberalism, playing off of Peck and Tickell’s (2002) famous distinction between “roll-back” and “roll-out” neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively.

At the same time, other researchers asserted that in a number of societies, particularly within Latin America, progressive regimes had arisen to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy entirely in pursuit of a “post-neoliberalism” characterized by the resurgence of state-led developmentalism (Grugel and Riggirozzi 2012; Yates and Bakker 2014). In this spirit, Mendoza (2018) asserts that ecotourism in Argentinian Patagonia under the Kirchner regime, for instance, should be understood not as a neoliberal but rather post-neoliberal conservation strategy.

The ascent of authoritarian right-wing regimes in a number of societies in the 2010s (see, e.g., Brown 2019), including some previously considered post-neoliberal, has further complicated this picture. While some characterize this development as the rise of “authoritarian neoliberalism” entailing the “the intertwinement of authoritarian statisms and neoliberal reforms” (Bruff and Tansel 2019, 233), others see it as signaling a novel transcendence of neoliberalism altogether. This latter perspective views Donald Trump (United States), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Rodrigo Duterte (The Philippines), and others as representing a novel political-economic force bolstered by popular backlash against the ravages of austerity policies previously imposed as part of neoliberal reforms (e.g., Jacques 2016; Peters 2018; C. West 2016). The implications of this view for analysis of contemporary conservation policy remains to be explored. Bolsonaro’s frontal assault on environmentalists in the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, has promoted prominent conservation organizations to question whether the relatively soft approach championed via neoliberal policies is sufficient to counter this bold new threat. China’s promotion of an aggressive environmental agenda under the banner of its newfound “ecological civilization” campaign (see, e.g., Gare 2012), meanwhile, may be understood as an expression of a novel authoritarian neoliberal conservation approach in its own right. At the time of this writing (2020), however, all of this activity remains to be systematically documented and analyzed.

Neoliberal Conservation in Ruins?

Looking back on four decades of neoliberal conservation activity from a vantage point deep within the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis, it is tempting to speculate concerning what all these issues portend concerning the phenomenon’s future prospects. Does the fact that so many MBIs have been faltering mean that the strategy’s overarching efficacy will be widely called into question (cf. Fletcher et al. 2016)? Will the heavy-handed anti-environmental tactics employed by right-wing authoritarian states further undermine the strategy’s perceived legitimacy (cf. Büscher and Fletcher 2020)?

Thus far, neoliberal conservation’s advance has proven remarkably resilient in the face of obstacles and critiques that may otherwise be seen to fundamentally compromise it (Fletcher 2013). This is in line with Peck’s (2010b, 6) characterization of the neoliberal project in general as perennially “failing forward” in the sense that “repeated manifest inadequacies have—so far anyway—repeatedly animated further rounds of neoliberal intervention.” Likewise, Macdonald (2009) relates from the midst of the 2008 crisis that while “markets were crashing around the world, spreading panic and doubt about the wisdom of unbridled free market economics . . . the conservationists, corporate CEOs, billionaire philanthropists, and heads of state and royal houses don’t seem to have heard the news . . . the conversation centered on how environmental groups must become even more like corporations”—a tendency that only increased in subsequent years (Fletcher 2014).

Yet the authoritarian backlash may present unprecedented challenges to this dynamic. Indeed, one could argue that this backlash is itself in large part a response to the failure of neoliberal mechanisms, in conservation as elsewhere, to achieve their envisioned aims (Brown 2019). The inability of conservation to establish itself as a viable foundation for sustainable capital accumulation on a global scale (Büscher and Fletcher 2015), in other words, may have provoked a return to intensified resource extraction—what Arsel et al. (2016) call an “extractive imperative”—to restore this accumulation in the wake of the 2008 crisis, as well as necessitating coercive suppression of resistance to this activity on the part of environmental defenders of the type we have witnessed in Brazil and elsewhere under authoritarian rule (Global Witness 2019).

In the future, we may therefore look back on neoliberal conservation as the peculiar product of a particular era—one in which moderate forces on the political left and right in a number of societies converged around promotion of a “progressive neoliberalism” (Fraser 2016) as part of a “Third Way” political program more generally (Büscher and Fletcher 2020; Corson 2010). Yet the growing power of more extreme right-wing forces may have shattered this erstwhile consensus, pulling the center of global political momentum further to the right in the process.

Indeed, in the face of the widespread failure of MBIs to achieve environmental protection, we are instead witnessing a dramatic escalation of violence in relation to environmental governance in many parts of the world. This violence takes several forms. Southern and Eastern Africa have witnessed a surge of “green militarization” (Lunstrum 2014) whereby increased poaching of endangered megafauna such as elephants and rhinos has been met with a resurgence of state-sponsored—often lethal—violence to police PAs (see also Fletcher and Büscher 2018). In Latin America and Southeast Asia, meanwhile, we have seen an exponential increase in violence directed against those opposing development projects, particularly extractive enterprises, on environmental grounds (Arsel et al. 2016; Global Witness 2019).

While seemingly quite different, both forms of violence may be collectively explained relative to the dynamics outlined in this analysis. A common failure of neoliberal mechanisms to achieve both conservation and development appears to have forced recourse to intensified forms of fortress protection, in the case of southern Africa, and aggressive suppression of resistance to expansion of the raw material extraction that was intended to be replaced by global market integration grounded in higher-tech production (Arsel et al. 2016), in the case of Latin America and Southeast Asia.

It is intriguing to consider extrapolating from this situation to suggest a more general historical pattern in the relationship between neoliberalism and violence. Introduction of neoliberalism in the initial rollback period, after all, was frequently accompanied by violence needed to force through unpopular reforms and quell protests against these (McNally 2006; Springer 2016). This was most pronounced in Chile under Pinochet but occurred in many other places as well. In the transition from rollback to rollout phases (Peck and Tickell 2002), this violence was intended to give way to the creation of new neoliberal institutions and instruments able to deliver both development and conservation benefits sufficient to compel voluntary acceptance of the process. Following widespread failure of these efforts, augmented by the 2008 economic crisis, it seems that a more general recourse to intensified forms of violence has sought to force through what neoliberal reforms could not. In this way, one of the main characteristics of the “authoritarian neoliberalism” proliferating since the 2008 crisis may in fact be its mobilization of unprecedented forms of violence to achieve its ends, a resurgence of sovereign governance with a vengeance to keep a zombie political program staggering forward.

Foreshadowing exactly this scenario, Gray indeed observed some time ago:

The connection between free markets and “law and order” policies has never been inadvertent. As intermediary social institutions and the informal social controls of community life are weakened by market-driven economic change the disciplinary functions of the state are strengthened. The endpoint of this development comes when the sanctions of the criminal law become the principle remaining support of social order. (1998, 32)

Or as Graeber (2015, 31) warns more bluntly, “Whenever someone starts talking about the ‘free market,’ it’s a good idea to look around for the man with the gun.”

The Future of Neoliberal Conservation

Notwithstanding the proliferation of research outlined in this article, there remain a variety of fruitful potential avenues for future investigation. Despite the widespread failure of neoliberal conservation to establish functional markets for trade in natural capital thus far, for instance, quite a lot of money has still been circulated and accumulated by diverse intermediaries involved in the process of attempting to develop these markets, from state officials to carbon market brokers to countless consultants of every variety to local recipients of project funds (Lund et al. 2017). One may therefore term this a paradoxical process of “accumulation without commodification” wherein efforts to actually profit from trade in natural resources largely fail, yet the process of trying to commodify them still facilitates the flow of funding and allows for substantial wealth to be amassed by some actors for as long as this seed money flows. The European Commission (2018), for instance, reports that between 2008 and 2015, €17.2 billion in direct public funding was invested in REDD+ worldwide, the vast majority of which has been siphoned off by implementing states and their intermediaries rather than reaching the local stakeholders whose conservation efforts it was intended to support. Via dynamics such as this, not merely despite but actually through its overarching failure, neoliberal conservation may still have important (if unintended and paradoxical) effects in both ideological and material registers. Such dynamics call out for further exploration.

Despite their obvious importance to the dynamics of neoliberal conservation, aspects of intersectionality have scarcely been addressed thus far either. Notwithstanding a long-standing discussion of gender relations within political ecology more generally (e.g., Harcourt and Nelson 2015), for example, the gender dimensions of neoliberal conservation remain remarkably little discussed. Similarly, despite wider attention to “racial capitalism” and its implications for environmental justice (e.g., Pulido 2017), treatments of racial dynamics within neoliberal conservation are largely absent (but see P. West 2016 for an important initial exploration in this direction). This is also true of dynamics of class, sexuality, and ableism. In these and the other dimensions outlined previously, therefore, neoliberal conservation continues to provide rich substance for analysis by anthropologists and others.


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