Conservation and Society

: 2007  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 586--611

Linking Neoprotectionism and Environmental Governance: On the Rapidly Increasing Tensions between Actors in the Environment-Development Nexus

Bram Buscher1, Wolfram Dressler2,  
1 Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; and, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, South Africa.
2 School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland; and, TPARI and Department of Geography, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Correspondence Address:
Bram Buscher
De Boelelaan 1081c-Room Z121, Amsterdam 1081 HV, The Netherlands.


There are rapidly increasing tensions between actors engaged in the governance of environment and natural resources in Africa. This becomes clear when reviewing current trends in the conservation-development debate and combining these insights with trends in environmental governance, most especially the commodification of «SQ»nature«SQ» under pressures of neoliberalism. Our argument starts by showing how the conservation-development debate has become polarised due to increasing criticism of community-based ap­proaches to nature conservation and how these unfold in terms of value and scale. We argue that the strong sense of urgency involved in this neoprotec­tionist turn amongst conservation practitioners has been reciprocated by an equally strong reply from community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) advocates, thereby further straining the choices that must be made with respect to conservation practice. Through a discussion of the current neoliberal turn in environmental governance, we suggest that the potential of actors to promote divergent and ambiguous values in policy and practice across scale has increased over the past decade and will continue to do so. This, in turn, may lead to environmental governance that favours the «SQ»sus­tained«SQ» polarisation of actors«SQ» priorities in research and policy concerning conservation-development. We provide evidence for our case with empirical data from research done on the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) in Southern Africa.

How to cite this article:
Buscher B, Dressler W. Linking Neoprotectionism and Environmental Governance: On the Rapidly Increasing Tensions between Actors in the Environment-Development Nexus.Conservat Soc 2007;5:586-611

How to cite this URL:
Buscher B, Dressler W. Linking Neoprotectionism and Environmental Governance: On the Rapidly Increasing Tensions between Actors in the Environment-Development Nexus. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2007 [cited 2020 Mar 30 ];5:586-611
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IN THE LAST DECADE, the debate over how to bridge conservation and devel­opment has been sharpened by increasing criticism of the dominant interna­tional paradigm of community-based conservation (Kramer et al. 1997; Oates 1999; Terborgh 1999; Terborgh et al. 2002) [1] . The core arguments put forward by these critics involve the incompatibility of people and nature, the necessity of strictly enforced protected areas, biodiversity conservation as a moral im­perative, the myth of ecologically friendly locals, and that the urgency of the loss of biodiversity legitimates drastic measures (Wilshusen et al. 2002; Hutton et al. 2005). The result of this 'neoprotectionism' has been an increas­ingly polemic debate whereby these criticisms are either defended or critiqued within the intellectual confines of scientific perspectives in conservation (Wilshusen et al. 2002; Hutton et al. 2005).

However, if we want to understand the full impact of this trend, we must place it within a framework that involves the processes of 'human organisa­tion' that frame and cut across conservation and development (Brechin et al. 2002). In this article, we aim to investigate the effects of the neoprotectionist upsurge on the policy and practice of environmental governance at the local and regional level in Africa. In fact, the significance of the neoprotectionist upsurge can only be understood in this light, for the apparent human-nature dichotomy sparked by the upsurge is really a dichotomy over how to deal with environment-development choices in practice. Hence, the article starts by ar­guing that examining the environment-development nexus in practice requires greater emphasis on diverging values and diverging preferences for scale rather than whether one side is either 'pro-people' or 'pro-nature'.

Next, the article advances three hypotheses about (global) environmental governance. Our conceptualisation of environmental governance is based on two different yet, we argue, complementary approaches. The first is about the (organisational) form of global governance, for which we draw mostly on Rosenau (1990; 1997; 2003b). Recognising the limits of this work, the second approach is about the neoliberal substance of global governance, that is, how global power constellations and actor behaviour are shaped and disciplined (Cox 1992; Van der Pijl 1998; Ayers 2006; Cammack 2006) and how these subsequently impact the natural environment (McAfee 1999; Liverman 2004; Bnscher & Whande 2007). In brief, we will assert that the following three hy­potheses on environmental governance better frame and situate the influence of neoprotectionism on the links between conservation and development in Africa: (1) (global) environmental governance is a 'mosaic' of 'spheres of au­thority' without any 'red line'; (2) actors within this governance mosaic oper­ate in continuously changing networks and alliances that constantly both integrate and fragment; (3) environmental governance must be seen in a neo­liberal ideological climate with particular emphasis on the widening gap be­tween rhetoric and reality and the increasing commodification of nature.

In essence, we suggest that contemporary environmental governance char­acterised by continuous 'fragmegration' [2] of actor alliances and networks, commodification of nature and a gap between rhetoric and reality, creates an environment wherein the competitive behaviour of actors with diverging val­ues and preferences for scale becomes more intense. This leads us to conclude that there are rapidly increasing tensions between actors dealing with the con­servation and development nexus. We ground this discussion with recent data that illustrates the neoliberal manifestation of conservation-development in Southern Africa.

 The Great Conservation/Development Debate and the Rise of Neoprotectionism

This section lays out the first segment of our argument, namely that the rise of protectionism should be understood as a trend that has significantly dichoto­mised conservation in practice, with emphasis on divergent values and prefer­ences for scale. Grasping the full significance of this statement requires a brief review of the 'great conservation/development debate' and how this re­cently culminated in the rise of protectionism. Historical overviews of the links between conservation and development in Africa abound in the literature (Anderson & Grove 1987; Neumann 1998; Adams & Hulme 2001; Beinhart & McGregor 2003). Many of these reviews describe how colonial fortress con­servation provided the inspiration for early conservation policies in Africa and how such policies remain pervasive today (Adams & Hulme 2001; Brock­ington 2002; Cernea & Schmidt-Soltau 2006). This paradigm sees the man­agement of nature as protectionist and exclusionary, based on the belief that nature conservation and human development are inherently incompatible (Hutton et al. 2005). Thus, fortress conservation led to enclaves of nature [protected areas (PAs)], whereby the local (prohibition of) use of natural re­sources was strictly enforced in a top-down, state-centred fashion. Despite of­ficial rhetoric to the contrary, the wave of African decolonisation did little to redress coercive conservation (Nash 2001). In fact, the financial argument of foreign exchange brought in by western tourists wanting to visit African parks ensured that state-led and later private-sector led (Child 2004) fortress con­servation lingered as de-facto policy in many African states after independ­ence (Brockington 2002). Nevertheless, during the 1970s, a more people­oriented approach to conservation started to emerge. Western donors and African leaders could no longer-at least in rhetoric-keep local people away from the resources they often depended upon for their livelihood (Adams & Hulme 2001). Thus, the seeds of community-based conservation (CBC) were sown.

CBC was based on the philosophy that because local people depended upon and had detailed knowledge of their resource base, granting them the potential to manage and invest in resources would support both livelihoods and conser­vation (Berkes 1989; Western & Wright 1994; Adams & Hulme 2001; Fabri­cius 2004). CBC was also economic: African states did not have the financial capacity to strictly enforce PAs. The bottom line, however, was that historical injustices made 'fences and fines' enforcement of parks morally untenable. The new discourse fitted in well with the new 'development climate' that emerged from the late 1970s with its emphasis on bottom-up approaches, lo­cal participation and ownership, decentralisation of power and 'good govern­ance'. The rapid growth of these approaches paid testament to the inability of centralised conservation to command and control local peoples' access to and use of natural resources adjacent to and inside PAs. As a result, CBC was in­creasingly viewed as a win-win solution: good for people and good for nature. In effect, however, one extreme conservation teleology replaced another. But reality is never ideal and failings of CBC, with respect to both development and conservation, were increasingly noted (Barret & Arcese 1995; Wain­wright & Wehrmeyer 1998; Wunder 2001). According to Barrow and Murphree (2001: 28) this was due to two factors: the unwillingness of African governments to adapt to CBC and decentralise power and the 'core motiva­tional direction behind policy, planning and action' in CBC, which was often still oriented towards fortress conservation. But whereas these critiques mostly came from CBC scholars seeking the limitations of the approach with the aim of improving it in practice, a much more fundamental critique of CBC approaches surfaced during the 1990s. Since then, several scholars have asked themselves whether conservation discourse is going 'back to the barriers' (Wilshusen et al. 2002; Hutton et al. 2005).

Wilshusen et al. (2002) and Hutton et al. (2005) identify five overarching themes in the works of authors advocating for a 'back-to-the-barriers' ap­proach in biodiversity conservation and PAs management. First, and most im­portant, is that biodiversity conservation adheres to moral imperatives: 'nature is worthy of protection for its intrinsic value and for the aesthetic pleasure it can bring to many people' (Oates 1999, xvi). Second, PAs are vital to biodi­versity conservation because these are the last 'safe havens' where human en­croachment cannot be tolerated (Terborgh et al. 2002). The third theme deals with the ineffectiveness of CBC approaches. These approaches have failed to fulfil their promises with regard to conservation as well as development. Neo­protectionists therefore argue that policy and practice need to be realigned to­wards strict preservation of flora and fauna (Terborgh 1999). Closely connected to this argument is the 'eco-friendly local' as a fourth theme. Back-to-the-barriers proponents argue that local and/or indigenous peoples are as driven by gain as others and were never inherently 'conservationist'. Often long engaged in cash economies, many see little reason to conserve nature in their pursuit of shedding poverty, for they too would sacrifice their resource base for development (Van Schaik & Rijksen 2002). All of this builds up to the fifth theme: of the immediacy of the need for strict protection. Many ac­tors proposing top-down and punitively enforced conservation explicitly note that there is a strong urgency to the issue: unless we act now and we do it forcefully and efficiently, it will be too late and most of the biodiversity will be lost to the world forever (Terborgh 1999). This last theme especially will play a major role in the argumentation of this article.

The discussion on the effects of the upsurge in protectionist thinking in the conservation-development debate has only just begun. For one, the recent criticism of the CBC approach involves the return of a polemic debate that on the surface seems to be between nature versus people-oriented conservation. This is clear from one of the earliest reactions to the rise of protectionist thinking by Brechin, Wilshusen, Fortwangler and West (Brechin et al. 2002; Wilshusen et al. 2002). In their articles, the authors discuss the key themes in the work of back-to-the-barriers proponents and then critique them by point­ing out that 'their reasoning is incomplete, not necessarily because of factual oversights but as a result of significant blind spots that overlook the deeply politicised nature of nature protection' (Wilshusen et al. 2002: 18). Paradoxi­cally, however, they then proceed in their second article 'toward a more com­prehensive understanding of biodiversity conservation as a social and political process', to suggest the alternative approach of 'conservation with social jus­tice', which they themselves admit they 'discuss mostly in ideal terms', thus leaving out the crux of politics: exercising power and choice in non-ideal cir­cumstances. Although the authors say they are 'fully cognizant' of this, they defy several fundaments of (environmental) politics and governance that we return to in the next section.

Brechin et al. define their 'conservation with social justice' very close to accepted CBC premises, which suggests that they fail to go beyond their own accusation of neoprotectionists 'frame(ing) the debate in terms that rely on a false dichotomy' of pro-nature against pro-people (Brechin et al. 2002: 45, 51). Yet, the fact that the dichotomy in the back-to-the-barriers upsurge in es­sence is not about pro-people versus pro-nature cannot be overemphasised. Rather, it is about politics; about the 'human organisational' or governance process that frames and cuts across conservation, and most conservation bi­ologists and CBC proponents agree with this (Johns 2003). The crux, how­ever, lies in the next steps: how to understand governance and politics and how to link this understanding with conserving biodiversity in practice. Here, clear differences arise between the two approaches. Where CBC advocates want the majority of stakeholders involved in the management of biodiversity protection in a specific location for the well-being and benefits of those involved, Fortress Conservation (FC) proponents want 'stakeholders' to step away from the governance of biodiversity protection and leave it up to spe­cialised experts (park managers, conservation biologists, etc.) for the well be­ing of global human and non-human life. Hence, this is a problem of scale (see Berkes 2004; Cash et al. 2006). Moreover, while CBC proponents see it as (historically) just to include (local) people's needs and knowledge in the process of conservation even if this would produce negative environmental outcomes, neoprotectionists see it as just to nature and the global human community to exclude (local) people in conservation even if this would pro­duce negative social outcomes for resource reliant people. This is a problem of value. In short, the real dichotomy in the conservation-development debate thus lies in different approaches to the `how' of the governance process, with particular emphasis on practical conservation-development choices related to value and scale [3] .

A brief empirical note might illustrate this statement. One significant reac­tion to the new protectionist upsurge has been a heated discussion, mainly in Southern Africa but also elsewhere, on whether CBNRM, more common in Southern Africa, and often considered broader in scope than CBC, is now in a crisis [4] . In 2004, a detailed email debate among CBNRM practitioners in Southern Africa revealed that on the whole, there is a rather bleak view on the prospects and promises of CBNRM. This was not so much due to whether lo­cal communities can take care of their resources or not. Most debaters have a pro-poor stance and faith that communities can and do manage their natural affairs to greater or lesser extent, provided that land and forest-based econo­mies are valued and maintained [5] . Rather, the core of the debate was on whether there is significant place and attention for CBNRM within Southern Africa's current political-economic constellation. This was made clear by an outcry about when `do we cease to be applied social scientists and become po­litical activists?' [6] Or the conclusion by Turner (2004) that CBNRM is not so much in a crisis, but rather the enabling supporting structures within which CBNRM takes place: local governance and the support this gets from higher governance structures (see also Ribot 2002). Interestingly, this is no different from how neoprotectionists view the current conservation-development pre­dicament. When Johns (2003) talks of having to make `new alliances' in order to win the `battle', he mentions that `certainly not all biologists want to be en­gaged in politics, but many are (...) engaged by choice or circumstances, and some have become quite good at it' (Johns 2003: 1235). In sum, the illustra­tion emphasises a strong desire for arbitration of conservation-development values and the appropriate scales of action. Again, we are talking about the vi­tal importance of the politics of environmental governance.

Obviously, this conclusion is not new. Many have probed the links between politics, governance and the environment before. Yet, it has often been la­mented that political science and governance studies are not sufficiently inte­grated with issues of biodiversity conservation (Bryant & Bailey 1997; Keil et al. 1998). In fact, Agrawal and Ostrom (2006) only recently portrayed the re­lation between political science and conservation biology a 'dialog of the deaf'. They state that 'ultimately biodiversity conservation requires concerted effort at multiple levels. Local actors are critical in the protection of ecologi­cal resources, both in the short and long run. The same is true of subnational units of governance. Without acute political analyses that take incentives and actions of multiple actors at different scales into account, there is no effective policy making or governance related to biodiversity and, consequently, no protecting biodiversity' (Agrawal & Ostrom 2006: 682). Although the latter statement is true, we argue that the nature of environmental governance poses severe challenges to 'taking incentives and actions of multiple actors at dif­ferent scales into account'. This is especially the case when those incentives and actions are divergent and subject to high pressures of urgency through the rise of neoprotectionism.

 On the Political Nature of Environmental Governance

We now turn to the three environmental governance hypotheses outlined above that, we suggest, offer what the current debate on conservation­development demands: acute analysis of scale and value in political terms. By conjoining insights from the above named literatures on the form and neoli­beral substance of global environmental governance, we have come to three hypotheses for discussion. The first two emphasise the multitude of continu­ously integrating and fragmenting spheres of authority in environmental gov­ernance. The third and most important hypothesis asserts that environmental governance must be seen in a neoliberal framework with emphasis on a wid­ened gap between rhetoric and reality and the commodification of nature. The fact that the first two hypotheses focus more on the general governance forms or process between actors, while the third hypothesis links this to power con­stellations or the behaviour of actors vis-a-vis each other and the object(s) of governance (both 'nature' and people) shows their complementarity. In other words, the first two hypotheses are about dynamics across and within scale, while the latter is a statement on which values matter when it comes to deal­ing with the link between 'nature' and people. As such, the three hypotheses will form the basis with which to empirically illustrate the real significance of the neoprotectionist surge.

(Global) Environmental Governance: A 'Mosaic' of 'Spheres of Authority' Without Any 'Red Line'

'Global environmental governance' has become one of the most important buzzwords of our era of globalisation, but is actually a 'contradictio in ter­minis'. It gives false impressions of spatial all-inclusiveness, effective organisation over a variety of scales and an overall 'red line' through all global gov­ernance activities. Perhaps the concept serves to relax the human conscious­ness with respect to possibilities for global order and stability, but is not at all realistic (Paterson et al. 2003), especially not in Africa (Ferguson 2006). This line of thinking relates to Rosenau's (2001: 1) definition of governance as the activity of every individual or collective that both through formal and infor­mal means tries to create steering mechanisms, set goals, frame demands and develop policy with the intent of bringing these into practice [7] . Central to his notion of governance is continuous relocation of authority, leading to a mo­saic of 'spheres of authority' [8] , whereby no one single actor has the overarch­ing say in what transpires in reality (Rosenau 1997; 2003b). In a related development, the central position of the nation-state has been put up for dis­cussion, but more critical literature was quick to denounce this tendency (Van der Pijl 1998; Cammack 2006) [9] . Our point here is not to state that governmen­tal organisations have become 'just one of the actors' in the overall global governance process, but rather to emphasise the increasing relative visibility of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private companies, powerful in­dividuals, communities, etc., in global governance, something which is also generally accepted for (global) environmental governance (Paterson et al. 2003; Biermann & Dingwerth 2004).

The continuous shifting of authority has created enormous possibilities for and diffusion of environmental governance among actors and across scales and as a result tremendously increased its complexity (Sonnenfeld & Mol 2002; Cash et al. 2006). Many individuals, NGOs, private companies and transnational institutions regularly cross boundaries to influence the govern­ance of environmental affairs in a variety of localities. But not only can all these actors intervene elsewhere, they often feel entitled to do so, morally, economically or politically (Dietz 1996). Of course, this has shown to be true in Africa for over centuries already, but at the moment is taking on a whole different magnitude and pace. Constantly increasing population sizes and thus actors or 'stakeholders' to take into account coupled with an information, communication and technology revolution in the last decades makes it diffi­cult, if not impossible to align actors in global governance to such a degree that they cooperate in the pursuance of one common goal, for instance that of 'environmental sustainability' [10] . Already from this perspective, leaving out the issue of value, Rosenau (2003a: 27-28), concludes with respect to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in 2002:

For the agreements reached in Johannesburg to be translated into ef­fective authority that inches the world toward sustainability, a wide va­riety of numerous actors, both individuals and collectivities, have to be coordinated and their differences at least minimally subordinated to the interests of their great grandchildren. More than that, given the bound­ary-spanning nature of environmental dynamics, all concerned have to recognize that people everywhere have an interest in your grandchil­dren as well as their own. The chances of such mobius webs being fash­ioned as effective rule systems seem very slim indeed.

Then again, even if this rather neutral-sounding analysis would be accepted: the whole environmental governance debate needs to be seen in an even wider political-economic context where environmental values are often not a prior­ity, as they are often effectively assuaged by other interests and values (to which will come back below; see also: Hartwick & Peet 2003; Bnscher & Whande 2007).

Actors within this Governance Mosaic, Operate in Continuously Changing Networks and Alliances That Constantly Both Integrate and Fragment

In pursuing their goals, actors align themselves with other actors in order to gain more critical mass (Hajer & Wagenaar 2003) [11] But these alliances or networks are heavily subject to change (Rosenau 1997). Sometimes it seems as though a critical mass of actors agrees on the pursuing of one goal, for in­stance as with the epitome of all 'mobilising metaphors' (Mosse 2005), 'sus­tainable development', at the 1992 world summit in Rio. But when it comes to how to operationalise the common goal (f.i. sustainable development) and how to bring it into practice, opinions and actors fragment again or appeared never to have been coherent in the first place. This process of integration and fragmentation does not only work in strict sequences, however. Actors and in­terests are constantly both integrating and fragmenting in the pursuance of their respective goals. Rosenau invented the term 'fragmegration' to capture these constantly diverging and converging dynamics in global (environ­mental) governance [12] . What is important is that fragmegration occurs 'multi­level' or across scale. According to influential International Relations (IR) scholars such as Hooghe and Marks (2003) and Rosenau (2003b), authority, and therefore governance, seems to increasingly focus around 'shared values' (Rosenau 2003b: 400) or 'functions' and 'tasks' (Hooghe & Marks 2003: 13) rather than a particular scale (spatial, institutional, jurisdictional).

A number of far-reaching consequences may be noted. A noticeable point is the seemingly unproblematic linking of very different actors into 'partner­ships' for environmental governance, so desired by donors and multilateral agencies. Some authors hold that 'the speed, diversity, and legitimacy of global networks and partnerships hold great potential for effective govern­ance' (Ivanova 2003: 24), albeit with some regulating help from national gov­ernments to get the instrumentalities right. Other scholars are more sceptical. Poncelet (2001: 22) for instance notes that partnerships are often conceptual­ised as non-confrontational, which, he argues, may lead to less attention for important yet 'inherently contentious issues' and, more importantly, 'may en­courage the delegitimiation of conflictual approaches to environmental action'. This latter point is especially poignant for organisations that 'devoted considerable time towards and achieved considerable success in developing skills and strategies based on adversarial modes of relations' as 'the suppres­sion of conflictual behaviors in the partnership setting (…) places such orga­nizations at greater risk of co-optation and domination by more powerful business and governmental actors' (Poncelet 2001: 22). 'Partnerships' between widely different actors are thus often promoted without giving due regard to differences in power base, resources, connections and networks, ideas and values, scale, expectations and knowledge systems (see also Spierenburg et al. 2006). This perhaps makes the idea of fragmegration all the more convincing, but certainly does not aid a 'red line' in (global) environmental governance.

Many, however, are aware of this and have tried to come up with 'solu­tions' to the fragmegration problem. Often advocated in conservation­development circles is the idea of finding 'best practices' and 'institutionalis­ing' them. This seems to be a logical effect of the renewed attention within political science given to the importance of institutions (Keman 1998; George & Bache 2001), which in itself was a reaction against the 'behavioralist' movement in political science circles in the 1950s in the United States. Be­havioralists pointed towards the importance of the actions of actors in order to understand political processes and understood institutions to be neutral. 'New institutionalists', however, subsequently pointed out that institutions- understood as formal and informal rules, habits, policy networks, etc.,- are not neutral and have over time even become actors in their own right. They argued for a 'historical institutionalism' that puts emphasis on the effects of institutions over longer periods of time. The most well known concept from this movement is 'path dependency', which holds that "once one decision was made it tended to block off some potential avenues for development of policy and made it more likely the policy would continue to develop in the same di­rection" (George & Bache 2001: 22). What this comes down to is that frag­megration is not solved by 'institutionalising' 'best practices', because both best practices and institutions are themselves inherently fragmegrative. All of this makes environmental governance incredibly complex, which, logically, has given rise to calls for acknowledging and incorporating complexity in dealing with the conservation-development nexus (Berkes 2004; Cash et al. 2006). However, although this seems like a justified progression in thinking, the current governance climate can not adhere to fragmegrative complexity. This is because its underlying ideology is based on neoliberal values.

Environmental Governance Must Be Seen in a Neoliberal Framework Which Emphasises a Widening Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality and the Increasing Commodification of Nature

The only way then, or so it seems, to obtain a shadow of a 'red line' in envi­ronmental governance is to create a standard to which widely different actors-consciously or sub-consciously-conform their actions or decisions. In political science literature this is also often referred to as the 'third face' of power (Lukes 1974) or 'discursive power' (Arts 2003). This has certainly been tried in the past decades and it seems at least for issues of development and environment that there exists some kind of coherent global environment­development governance agenda with well-known buzzwords, such as sus­tainable development, participation, good governance, ownership, public­ private partnerships, etc. (Mosse 2004, 2005) [13]. While the existence of certain notions might seem understandable from a historical point of view-for example, the emphasis on participation is based on a just analysis of the fact that local people often did not participate mean­ingfully in the planning and shaping of their 'conservation' or 'develop­ment'-their subsequent implementation in practice almost never works out as hoped, planned or theorised, often because of the fact that political realities are left out of the equation (Ferguson 1994; Bebbington 2005). Why then, if 'conceptual and discursive systems link up with social institutions and proc­esses without even approximately determining the form or defining the logic of the outcome' (Ferguson 1994: 275), are we increasingly laying greater em­phasis on this whole discursive process? Ferguson himself provides part of the answer by arguing that it makes bureaucratic and institutional sense from a development institution's point of view to leave out political realities during implementation of a development project, but that this necessarily leads to more emphasis on the bureaucratic process instead of what is happening 'on the ground' [14] . The logical consequence is a widening gap between rhetoric and reality in (global) environmental governance. This point, however, must be taken still further.

Combining the superficial legitimising consensus in the development­conservation donor discourse and the pressures donors exert to comply with this 'consensus' (if only often discursively) with Ferguson's argument, we suggest that rhetoric has become such a 'layer of discursive blur', that it makes sense that many people are not able, do not want to or do not have to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. If information and communica­tion or the third face of discursive power is the most important source of power in our global marketing era (Klein 2000), it is logical that people com­pete with each other within this reality of the 'layer of discursive blur', and so staying far away from other more grounded realities. It thus becomes less im­portant whether something is correct in grounded reality, as long as it makes sense to the discursive reality that many of us are in (see Mosse 2005 [15] ) . Hence, from this perspective it also makes sense that more energy is spent by donors, NGOs and individuals in conservation-development on producing documents that try to 'institutionalise best practices' with each other rather than creating solutions for complex realities 'on the ground'.

But many actors realise that when the gap between rhetoric and reality grows, it also leaves more space for them to try to 'govern' part of the public sphere according to their own values, thereby often influencing material reali­ties in contentious ways (Bnscher & Dietz 2005; Ayers 2006). Here we get to the essence of this hypothesis: contemporary environmental governance has become yet another neoliberal project. With no 'red line' in (global) environ­mental governance and constantly fragmegrating actor networks across scale, it is clear that there is no centrally regulating governance system in place (in Africa or globally). In fact, dominant global actors such as western donors, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have consistently promoted the self-regulatory system of governance of neoliberalism, with its emphasis on market and competition as regulatory principles for behaviour (Sonnenfeld & Mol 2002; Harvey 2005) [16] . But, according to Harvey (2005: 165), 'to presume that markets and market signals can best determine all allo­cative decisions is to presume that everything can in principle be treated as a commodity. Commodification presumes the existence of property rights over processes, things, and social relations, that a price can be put on them, and that they can be traded subject to legal contract'. Hence, neoliberalism has turned land, fauna and flora into natural resources whereby their principle value and right to existence lies in what the market is willing to pay for them in monetary terms (McAfee 1999). According to Liverman (2004: 734), 'this move to commodify nature and market its services is a massive transformation of the human environment relationship and of the political economy of re­gions and landscapes'. Three of the many effects of this transformation lie in the issues of value, scale and urgency.

Regarding value, commodification of nature means the preference of the economic value of nature above other values (cultural, social, intrinsic, etc.) (McAfee 1999). Most poignant here is the downgrading of the value of 'natu­ral' life support functions to 'environmental services', in fact stating that the purpose of life is economic transaction. Regarding scale, commodification of nature is likely to lead to a preference for continuous increase or 'growth' of scale. This means two seemingly contradictory things: the increasing scale of our 'consumption' of nature (i.e., the amount of resources that we need in or­der to keep our economies growing) and grandiose conservation schemes, such as transfrontier conservation areas and bioregions to 'save' nature from being consumed. What this enlarging of scale means is that the externalis­ations of these endeavours also become grander, especially in terms of the consumption of nature for the privileged few and the ensuing social and cul­tural deprivation (Neumann 1997).

In turn, the paradox between use and conservation of 'natural resources' further stimulates the urgency so characteristic of neoprotectionists. As stated before, many neoprotectionists, both in theory and in practice, agree that there is little time left to save biodiversity (Kramer et al. 1997; Terborgh 1999; Oates 1999). They would argue that what is left in terms of biodiversity must be saved before it falls prey to extractive consumption. Johns for instance states that 'we know that the next 5 to 10 years are critical' (Johns 2003:1233-1234). The conservation agency 'African Parks Foundation' declares that 'most of Africa's national parks are in rapid decline and, within a few years, they will be lost to Africa and the world forever. We work with a strong sense of urgency that something must be done now, before it is too late'. [17] Thus, what neoprotectionists have effectively done is to place the political choices over environmental scales and values at the crossroads of time: the 'right' choices must be made, and they must be made now.

 Linking Neoprotectionism and Environmental Governance: Scale, Value and Urgency in Transfrontier Conservation

How, then, does the neoprotectionist turn in the conservation-development debate in Africa and the three environmental governance hypotheses conjoin in practice? As is clear from the foregoing discussion, the central connecting issues can be found in the concepts of scale, value and urgency. The recent trend of transfrontier conservation in Africa illustrates this well. In particular, the case-study of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) between Mo­zambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa shows how actors (and their values) within the GLTP seems to be diverging across scales, while the 'official' or dominant environmental governance values are converging around the commodification of nature through tourism. In addition, the GLTP shows how neoprotectionist urgency further fragmegrates values and scales, thereby fuelling polarisation between actors.

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park

The showpiece of Southern African transfrontier conservation is undoubtedly the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The GLTP links up Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa, Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou National Park, Manjinji Pan Sanctuary and Malipati Safari Area in Zimbabwe, as well as the interconnecting areas between Kruger and Gonarezhou: the Makuleke region in South Africa and Sengwe communal corridor in Zimbabwe. Together, the transfrontier park encompasses some 35,000 km², while the larger transfrontier conservation area adds a staggering 100,000 km² [18] [Figure 1].

Like all transfrontier conservation areas, the GLTPs objectives are to con­serve nature, stimulate (local) economic development through nature-based tourism and bring forth international peace and cooperation. Major actors in the GLTP are various departments of the three governments [19] ; donors such as the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through Kreditanstalt fur Wiederaufbau (KfW); NGOs such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Netherlands, the African Wildlife Foundation, Peace Parks Foundation and the Rufford Maurice Laing Foundation; private companies such as Novamedia, the Dutch National Postcode Lottery, Deutsche Bank, Southern Africa Initiative of German Business (SAFRI) and DaimlerChrysler ( ) and the local communities living next to or inside the transfrontier park.

The Great Limpopo and Scale: Divergence or Convergence?

Due to the enormous size of the Great Limpopo, the historically contested na­ture of many of the parks involved and the power struggles between many of the actors involved, the results of the aforementioned objectives so far have been mixed at best (Van Amerom & Bnscher 2005; Van Amerom 2005; Bnscher & Dietz 2005). Although conservation objectives have certainly been given a boost by the Transfrontier Park (TFP), international cooperation has been characterised by as much conflict as cooperation (Van Amerom 2005); local communities have been inadequately consulted (University of the Witswatersrand 2002; Grossman Interview 2003), have received few eco­nomic benefits (Van Amerom & Bnscher 2005; Spierenburg et al. 2006) and several are even threatened with eviction from the transfrontier park's Mo­zambican section (Huggins et al. 2003; Spierenburg et al. 2006); tourism revenues are highly skewed due to South Africa's superior tourism infrastruc­ture and the involvement of Zimbabwe is highly erratic due to political tur­moil in that country (Wolmer 2003).

Despite these challenges, the GLTP remains the flagship Transfrontier Con­servation Area (TFCA) and 'make it or break it case' in the region (Collins Interview 2003). As a result, many actors have exerted considerable pressure to ensure a faster pace of development of the GLTP. Recently, for instance, former South African Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism Valli Moosa, wanted to see the GLTP come to fruition before the end of his term in 2004. In 2000, he demanded that the GLTP International Technical Commit­tee prepare a draft conceptual plan, a draft action plan and a draft trilateral agreement for the Great Limpopo within a year. The International Technical Committee, however, had proposed a minimum of 2 years for proper stake­holder consultation, especially with the many local communities in and around the proposed transfrontier park (Grossman Interview 2003; Braack In­terview 2003). Although the Zimbabwean and Mozambican ministers ac­cepted Moosa's demand, technical issues around border security and control led to the signing of the international treaty for the official establishment of the GLTP only on 9 December 2002, at Xai-Xai, Mozambique. Currently, the fixation on transfrontier conservation as South Africa's main strategy to dis­tribute benefits of the 2010 Soccer World Cup to the wider Southern African region adds even more to the already existing immense pressure on the TFP.

While the Great Limpopo was being established, changes in South Africa's governance strategy with respect to its portion of the GLTP, the KNP, greatly influenced future developments in terms of scale and value. This boils down to how policies of decentralisation and privatisation have supported changes in conservation policies at KNP and the GLTP. The idea was to horizontally scale out governance responsibility for KNP to the private sector and to verti­cally scale down governance responsibilities to local communities. We argue that this led to an overall environmental governance strategy that is increas­ingly geared towards service sector industries (i.e., tourism) under the guise of CBNRM.

In 2000, tourism infrastructure in Kruger, largely owned and operated by the then South African National (SAN) Parks Board [20] , was transferred to the private sector. The takeover unfolded because 'private operators were consid­ered to be more qualified and equipped to run … facilities than SANParks' (Spencely 2005: 13). SANParks' commercialisation process offered conces­sionaire's rights to use land and infrastructure for tourism inside the park, and revenue from tourism concessions would fund economic empowerment and conservation objectives at the local level (Spencely 2005: 13). However, as Kruger staff themselves wrote, these opportunities are a far cry from the 'genuine' empowerment (Moore & Masuku van Damme nd: 70). Commercial concessions injected revenue back into tertiary markets and short-term jobs for maintaining tourism infrastructure (Moore & Masuku van Damme nd: 70). CBNRM programmes, however, received limited funds for strengthening the land-based economy.

How, then, did state agencies and managers use tourism as a near-substitute for CBNRM within the management frameworks of Kruger and the GLTP? Some answers to this question are found in how Kruger's policy trajectory in­tersects with the GLTPs management, since the transfrontier park encom­passes and works toward dove-tailing CBNRM policy with Kruger. Hence, the CBNRM policies of both PAs (and associated departments) influence one another to some degree, and most importantly in regard to private sector in­vestment. For example, one of the GLTPs main management objectives paral­lels Kruger's earlier management shift: `frameworks and strategies whereby local communities can participate in and tangibly benefit from the manage­ment and sustainable use of natural resources within the GLTP' (GLTP 2002, emphasis added). Could CBNRM-based tourism development fulfil this last objective?

Probably not, as in South Africa, grand economic plans rooted out wildlife for tourism development in support of regional and local economies-an ob­jective paralleling the management agendas of KNP and the GLTP. With the KNPs CBNRM platform overhauled for private sector investment, the GLTPs official plan of using tourism for conservation and development reached out further to the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) agenda of economic reform and regional development. Neither of the two neoliberal economic policies was conducive to land-based livelihoods. A regional over­view of 'people-oriented' conservation projects, further from or near the buffer zone of Kruger and the GLTP, offers evidence of how private sector initiatives shaped CBNRM objectives. From 2003-2005, an inventory of sev­enty-five projects near both PAs shows that 79 per cent (fifty-nine of seventy­five) are tourism-based in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. [21] Few of these projects support reinvestments in natural assets (goats, pigs, land, fu­elwood, etc) that reduce livelihood vulnerability. In this way, the potential of private sector investments begin to override CBNRM policies and strategies that directly support rural livelihoods.

Given this background, it is clear that there is a big gap between the rhe­torical objectives of the GLTP and the realities on the ground, and that the environmental governance values and incentives across local, national and re­gional scales are diverging within the GLTP. Both points are further strength­ened by the way in which CBNRM projects associated with the GLTP skirt around supporting the livelihoods of resource-reliant households.

The Great Limpopo and Value: Commodification of Nature in Welverdiend

The case of Welverdiend village in South Africa offers local evidence of how decentralised environmental governance and private-sector investments in commercial 'ventures' support a version of CBNRM that incorporates rural people into service sectors even though many depend on natural resources. We suggest that as the private sector supports CBNRM in the form of micro­enterprises based in the service sector economies of the South African elite, rural people are less likely to actively use and reinvest in common property resources. By attempting to pull people off the land and into tourism, new spaces are opened up and commodified as landscapes for consumption.

Located in Bushbuckridge, Limpopo Province, the community of Welverdi­end receives a deluge of programmes and projects that aim to support various local ventures, from cultural villages to weaving mats for tourists. Flanked by KNP and game reserves to the east and agribusinesses to the west, the com­munity has become a practitioner-project 'gate way'. Numerous donors have sponsored programmes and projects involving CBNRM in and around the western edge of the GLTP and Welverdiend in particular. Most projects that have come and gone claim to support some version of CBNRM, but most es­pecially projects that involve tourism activities. Many of the projects that claim to be resource based, however, only brush sides with the type of capital households need to reduce livelihood vulnerability.

Divided among government and NGO sector initiatives, the number of pro­jects that involved local users in CBNRM was relatively low given the com­munity's population and diverse resource needs. Of the 172 households surveyed, only twelve household heads had participated in the sole CBNRM project funded by the transfrontier conservation initiative. Funded by the USAIDs 'Transboundary Natural Resource Management' initiative in 2001­2002, the project introduced Shangaan (Tsonga) women to 'resource-based, small-scale enterprise development'. Known as the Tipfuxeni Women's Em­powerment Project, the project came under the purview of the NGO Devel­opment Alternatives Incorporated/ Resource Africa and sought to enhance the value of natural and financial capital already in use by households. One other resource-based project was funded by USAID, Wealth from Waste, but fell short of meeting its objectives of livelihood support. No other GLTP-funded projects focused on enhancing the use of natural capital (or any other type) in Welverdiend or Limpopo province. The most prevalent projects were public­private sector investments in cultural and ecological tourism packaged and promoted as local development nodes. Tourism facilities jointly funded by government and private resources sat on the periphery of community habita­tions or within the nature rserves. By occupying the edge of reserve land, many tourism facilities remain peripheral to the community's centre and/or are managed by local elites who already know reserve owners. Unfortunately, few tourists travel into communities similar to Welverdiend and, if they do, it is infrequent or with a prearranged tour.

The so-called 'Spatial Development Initiatives' (SDIs) further support the development of tourism facilities in small economic hubs outside Welverdi­end. The Phalabora SDI (Norton & Associates 1999) slightly further north, for example, placed emphasis on investing in tourism in economic hubs in a way that would allow the revenues from nature-based and cultural tourism to ex­tend horizontally to the economies of rural communities such as Welverdiend (horizontal economic scales). Rather than have revenue 'trickle out' to com­munities, the tendency is that most revenue simply flows back to centres of economic dominance (see Hughes 2005). By scaling upwards, one finds Inte­grated Rural Development Programmes supporting the use of SDIs as tool for stimulating the growth of tourism infrastructure further way from 'homeland' villages. In short, because rural communities generally have poor infrastruc­ture, 'public-private partnerships' often sponsor small-scale tourism near 'modern' infrastructure far from the poverty of the mixed-economies of rural areas. Regional conservation and service based sectors have thus bridged neo­liberal forms of 'conservation and development' under the tenets of CBNRM and devolved governance.

Projects that attempt to pull local users into tourism development do so with the objective of offering alternative livelihoods under the assumption that rural people do not desire or should not use local natural resources. Un­derpinning such assumptions is that local 'dependencies' on natural resources are supposedly reduced as villagers become guides and rangers for tourists who paradoxically consume local natural resources (directly and indirectly). However, reality suggests otherwise. Rural black South Africans living around the GTLP depend on a vast array of natural resources for livelihoods that cash from tourism will probably only supplement (see Cousins 1999; Dovie et al. 2002; Shackleton & Shackleton 2004).

All in all, tourism as the 'commodifier of nature' that ought to have com­bined rural livelihoods with conservation of nature simply worked in parallel with dominant economic structures to further pull local resource users into asymmetrical economic (and political) relations. This once again emphasises our suggestion of different values across scales within the GLTP, while mak­ing clear that certain values (such as land-based CBNRM activities) are clearly subservient to environmental governance values that commodify land­scapes through tourism investments.

The Great Limpopo and Urgency: The Rise of Neoprotectionism in the Guise of Community-based Conservation

The preceding sections have already demonstrated a great sense of urgency involved in the GLTP due to political opportunism and the pressures to capi­talise on the 2010 World Soccer tournament [22] . It is clear that the initiative of the GLTP to capitalise on the World Cup in 2010 to draw tourists further demonstrates how planners rely on private sector ideals in tourism to promote regional conservation and development. A recent strategy paper regarding TFCAs illustrates this well (DEAT 2005: 12):

If Southern Africa is to compete as a global tourism destination, a new approach to tourism development is a requirement. It is believed that through the development of TFP's and TFCA's, the competitive advan­tage required to deliver growth can be achieved. The extent to which TFP's and TFCA's have been prioritised at national and international levels across a diversity of countries in the region demonstrates the de­termination of the involved countries to succeed. The vision of a "TFCA route" for Southern Africa can provide the necessary critical mass to deliver a premiere international tourism destination. With the exposure that Africa has, and will continue to receive through the host­ing of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the time to act is now. The 2010 World Cup bid is not just about South Africa, it is about Africa as a whole. The opportunities available must be capitalised upon if the vi­sion for Africa is to be realised.

Neoprotectionists easily align themselves with these pressures since 'enhanc­ing the critical mass' through 'international tourism' can easily enhance the commercial value of regional (and local) landscapes for and through appar­ently 'non-consumptive' activities. Funding from World Cup induced tourism development could facilitate the conversion of communal areas into green spaces adjacent to the GLTPs spatial extent. Moreover, it is clear that other sources of urgency with respect to the GLTP come from actors with values close to that of neoprotectionists.

Regarding the GLTP, the most important organisation is an NGO called the 'Peace Parks Foundation' (PPF), founded to stimulate the development of TFCAs in the Southern African region. Although its public relations suggest that its values are aligned with accepted CBNRM premises, its actions actu­ally convey a more neoprotectionist vision of biodiversity conservation and protected areas management, something which they are able to push through in the management of the GLTP. This is most evident by the PPFs backing of the removal of the local communities from Mozambique's part of the GLTP (Spierenburg et al. 2006), but also in its other less publicised communications. For example, in a presentation about TFCAs to the Dutch Embassy in Preto­ria, South Africa in March 2005, Prof. van Riet, PPFs chairman, began by proclaiming that 'after a while you find out that people are more important than the environment', while the remaining presentation spoke of issues of veterinary diseases and translocations of animals. In fact, when talking about future priorities, van Riet mentioned that veterinary deceases, especially within the GLTP, will become the most important issue in the coming decade for the PPF. Other examples abound (Tanner 2003).

More important, however, is that the PPF can use its enormous financial re­sources and fund-raising capabilities to translate its sentiments into direct ac­tion. Having direct access to state leaders and international private sector barons and its funding of 'TFCA staff members' within Southern African ministries of environment and tourism, few question the aspirations of the PPF. By consolidating its patron-base, the PPF further consolidates the neo­protectionist practice under the guise of CBC through its influential role in the TFCA movement in the Southern African region (Buscher & Dietz 2005). To say that this has led to strained relations between key actors in the GLTP, such as communities, states, private sector agencies and NGOs, is an under­statement.

Again, the key to understanding this latter statement is to look at how re­gional development projects in the GLTP area are used to 'modernise' rural areas en masse. The state's rhetoric of using spatial economic development initiatives to employ the poor is a hard sell, for most rural people still remain disenfranchised and partly dependent on using natural resources to supple­ment cash incomes (Dzingirai 2004). In this sense, the speed at which the markets of the tertiary sector employ people will probably not outpace rural population growth and the 'reliance' on natural resources for livelihoods.


This paper attempted to analytically bring together and empirically illustrate current trends in the conservation-development debate in Africa and environ­mental governance more broadly. An overview of the conservation­development debate emphasised the recent trend of neoprotectionism. This re­surgence of 'back-to-the-barriers' thinking, we argued, has led to a growing dichotomy between protectionist and community-based conservationists, al­beit not in terms of 'pro-people' versus 'pro-nature' but with respect to con­servation values and scale. Furthermore, neoprotectionism has brought forth a renewed sense of urgency to the debate, increasing pressure on the choices that have to be made in practice with respect to conservation scales and val­ues. This led us to posit three hypotheses on environmental governance that aim to reflect the trends in the current practice of making these choices. We argued that due to the diffusion of authority in all directions, there is no 'red line' in environmental governance (hypothesis one), which is further exacer­bated by the continuous cross-scale integration and fragmenting of alliances and networks (hypothesis two). In turn, we stated that this self-regulatory and therefore extremely complex reality of environmental governance has stimu­lated a retreat to discourse: whereas governance realities become more com­plex each day, consensus over governance rhetoric seems to be growing (hypothesis three).

This, however, does not mean that all environmental governance is com­plete chaos. Part of hypothesis three was that environmental governance must be seen in a neoliberal framework: the self-regulatory governance philosophy that emphasises markets and competition as regulatory principles. The conse­quence has been the commodification of nature through tourism as the pre­ferred solution to reconcile the objectives of conservation and development. This is not to say that all neoprotectionists want to resort to market logic and profit as the means to 'save' nature. It is often the only politically acceptable way. Our case-study of the GLTP has shown, however, that the commodifica­tion of nature also did not turn out to be the great solution to bridging rhetoric and reality. If anything, rhetoric and reality in the GLTP are growing apart ever faster. As a consequence, actors with a neoprotectionist leaning have been given more space to implement their policies in practice, while planners seem to retreat into a 'layer of discursive blur' that more than anything seems to function as a 'policy haze' that offers greater levels of security than com­plex regional and local issues.

The GLTPs case further exemplified the ways in which divergent conserva­tion-development values unfold at various scales of governance, from interna­tional planning down to local users in Welverdiend. Yet, despite this, the pressure on the GLTP remains high and the urgency with which it is imple­mented acute; even further increasing the space between rhetoric and reality. It is this space that allows the competitive behaviour of actors in conservation and development to expand and become ever more intense. This, in turn, may lead to an overall configuration of environmental governance that favours 'sustained' polarisation between actors engaged in research and policy con­cerning conservation-development.


We would like to thank Bernhard Venema, Marja Spierenburg, Harry Wels and Jim Igoe for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.[82]


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