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Zinngrebe, Y. M. 2016. Conservation narratives in Peru: envisioning biodiversity in sustainable development. Ecology and Society 21(2):35.

Conservation narratives in Peru: envisioning biodiversity in sustainable development

1Department for Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen


In the mega-diverse country Peru, a resource intensive development model collides with the interest of conserving biodiversity. Peruvian biodiversity experts have developed different lines of argumentation as to how to integrate conservation into the sustainable development of their country. Applying grounded theory, I define five groups of conservation narratives based on the analysis of 72 qualitative interviews with experts working in areas of biodiversity conservation. I have labeled them: biodiversity protectionists, biodiversity traditionalists, biodiversity localists, biodiversity pragmatists, and biodiversity capitalists. These groups are each discussed in connection with what they have to say about biodiversity in relation to human life, valuation and knowledge systems, participation and leadership, substitutability of natural capital, and its predominant political strategy. In a second step, a comparative analysis of the dominant and diverging political perspectives is made. I argue that by deconstructing underlying premises and ideologies, common ground and possible opportunities for collaboration can be identified. Moreover, although the presented results can serve as a discussion scaffold to organize conservation debates in Peru, this example demonstrates how the terms biodiversity and sustainability are operationalized in conservation narratives.
Key words: environmental discourses; extractivism; Latin America; natural capital; political ecology; protected areas; sustainability


Solving the global problem of biodiversity loss will largely depend on the ability of countries to adopt sustainable paths of development. Mobilizing support for the conservation of biodiversity is particularly challenging in a developing country such as Peru, whose economy is focused on a neoliberal growth model and the extraction of primary resources (Orihuela and Thorp 2013). Several decades ago, Peru’s President Belaunde Terry highlighted the economic potential of the Amazonia and called for a “colonization of Peru by the Peruvians” (Belaunde Terry 1994). Resource extraction has clearly intensified since that time. Agricultural land has expanded to cover from just over 2 million hectares in 1995 to over 3 million hectares in 2012 and investments in mining projects grew from about one billion US dollars in 2005 to over 8.5 billion dollars in 2012 (INEI 2015). Deforestation and land fragmentation in the Peruvian Amazon are connected to incentive structures linked to agricultural policy (Chavez 2014). Estimates suggest that the expansion of palm oil plantations has contributed to 1.3% of total deforestation in Peru from 2000 to 2010 (Gutiérrez-Vélez et al 2011). Mining projects can pose a particularly significant threat to biodiversity (Finer et al. 2008).

In recent years, the struggle for resources has led to an increase in social-ecological conflicts. The independent governmental organization Defensoría del Pueblo observed an increase of 13 social-ecological conflicts in 2005 to 122 in 2014, which they define as contradicting interests over the use of ecosystems that have the potential to escalate and become violent (Defensoría del Pueblo 2015). In a prominent example of a conflict, in 2009 several thousand local Peruvians gathered in the city of Bagua to protest against intensified oil extraction in the Amazon region and liberal economic reforms of the government of President Alan García (2006—2011). The violent escalation led to 33 deaths and approximately 200 injured civilians and police (Bebbington 2013). Throughout the conflict, García attributed the perro del hortelano (dog in the manger) syndrome to the movement:

It is the old communist, the anti-capitalist of the 19th century, who is disguised as the protectionist of the 20th century and changes outfits in the 21st century pretending to be the environmentalist. But he is always anti-capitalist (El Comercio, 28 October 2007, as cited in Bebbington 2013:34, [Translated from the Spanish]).

The debate in Peru between whether to follow a resource intensive economic development path or to favor environmental protection is often strongly polarized. Peru is party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and has developed a substantive biodiversity policy. The country has an updated National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), a national commission for biodiversity, and protected areas that cover more than 17% of its terrestrial surface area (SERNANP 2016). Local expert knowledge in Peru links biodiversity loss to a variety of direct and indirect causes and effects (Zinngrebe 2016a). Meaning of the political problems of biodiversity loss as well as priorities for political action, however, are defined by the political discourse. Over the past several decades, different conservation movements produced a variety of innovative approaches for incorporating biodiversity conservation into a more sustainable model of development (Zinngrebe 2016b). These movements produce and influence narratives on what biodiversity conservation means in the political context.

According to Forsyth and Walker, “environmental narratives are simplified explanations of environmental cause and effect that emerge in contexts where environmental knowledge and social order are mutually dependent” (2008:17). Different motivations and social and ethical systems produce different narratives that stakeholders apply to frame the situations and problems they perceive as well as their perspectives on possible solutions to those environmental problems. This framing is also politically important because it was shown to influence institutional arrangements for policy implementation (Arts and Buizer 2009). The Foucaultian concept of discourse states that actors in a political arena shape meanings and language of environmental problems according to their power and influence (Hajer 1995). Discourse groups differ in the way they “interpret and frame the relationship between nature and human society,” which leads to “misconceptions, mismatches and conflicts of interest between and within institutional and governance structures and processes” (Apostolopoulou et al 2012:424). Simplifications of environmental discourses can lead to a marginalization of the plurality of different approaches (Nygren 1998). Clearly, there is a need to develop analytical tools that can help with unravelling, systemizing, and discussing the different approaches to biodiversity conservation.

In this article I deliberately avoid the use of the term “discourse” because it does not evaluate how power structures shape meanings over time. Instead, “narrative groups” are identified by analyzing how Peruvian experts working in biodiversity conservation construct perspectives on sustainable development. Dominant sustainable development narratives can be categorized and deconstructed, and relevant political actors, movements, and strategies associated with them can be identified (Nygren 1998, Apostolopoulou 2012). Based on the analysis of qualitative interviews, I present a conceptual scaffold that enables the structural exploration of the political meanings and approaches incorporated into Peruvian biodiversity policy.

The meanings and objectives of political discourses are shaped by the interaction of political stakeholders. I do not categorize political actors nor assess their influence and power in the political arena. Rather, I identify different perspectives and approaches to confronting complex environmental challenges, and relate those perceptions to the social settings they derive from. Analyzing these biodiversity narratives helps paint a picture of the opportunities and obstacles faced by actors trying to implement abstract concepts such as biodiversity and sustainability.


For this study, a qualitative research design was used to analyze the lines of argumentation of different groups of conservationists (see Fig. 1). The collection of empirical material, coding procedures, and theory building were carried out in parallel, following a grounded theory methodology (Cobin and Strauss 1990, Glaser and Strauss 2009). Five identified narratives were contrasted with four key themes identified in the analytical process.

Seventy-two semistructured interviews were conducted in Spanish by the author from 2012 to 2014 with key actors within the Peruvian biodiversity policy process (Table 1). The interviews were recorded and transcribed. Interviewees’ statements were coded and categorized into five different narrative groups (Glaser and Strauss 2009; see Table 2). Initially, participants of the national Commission for Biodiversity, who served as gatekeepers for access to other actors, were interviewed. Respondents were asked to indicate other possible interviewees. With the aim of capturing a “maximal structural variation” in perspectives, the selection of interviewees was spread across institutions and political levels applying a theoretical sampling strategy (Froschauer and Lueger 2003, Flick 2007).

An open initial question asked the interviewee to explain her own professional perspective about the biodiversity conservation. In the semistructured interview, respondents were asked to state their perspective on the problem of biodiversity loss, involved stakeholders, knowledge systems, and possible political strategies.

From the recorded interviews, statements were labelled using MaxQDA software. Using axial coding, specific key aspects were identified to distinguish different lines of argumentation among the conservationists. After evaluating the first interviews, a draft for the categorization was established. This categorization was further tested and adapted through additional interviews, until the point was reached that the interview contents consistently confirmed the categories already identified (presented in Table 2). In a selective coding process, categorized narratives were characterized according to key aspects (presented in Table 3).

Generally, narratives were consistent. Only occasionally were some different argumentations taken up in an interview. I translated the included citations from Spanish into English with a focus on contextual messages. The translation was proofread by a native English speaker who is also fluent in Spanish.


Analysis of the interviews resulted in the identification and characterization of five narrative groups that were labelled the following: Biodiversity Protectionists, Biodiversity Traditionalists, Biodiversity Localists, Biodiversity Pragmatists, and Biodiversity Capitalists (see Table 2 and Appendix 1). The different narrative groups are discussed according to four key aspects (A to D) that were identified in the research process (see Table 3). Narrative themes found in Peru are then linked to global scientific debates.

(A) Conceptualizing biodiversity

According to the CBD, biodiversity is defined as the “variability among living organisms [...] and the ecological complexes of which they are part” (United Nations 1992:article 2). This wide definition allows actors to set priorities and to differ in the way they connect biodiversity to human life. Mace et al. (2012: 19) describe the variety of functions or “ecosystem services” attached to biodiversity in relation to human life as threefold: “as a regulator of underpinning ecosystem processes, as a final ecosystem service and as a good that is subject to valuation, economic or otherwise.” Ecological complexity is further increased by the social construction of human nature interactions in local, cultural settings around the world. For example, biodiversity was described as a fundamental part of collective ethnic identities in the Colombian Pacific, or as linked to six “faces” of traditional ecological knowledge of Canadian First Nations (e.g., Escobar 1998, Houde 2007). These concepts of biodiversity lead to different interests regarding the application of biodiversity policies and political instruments. For instance, the “parks and people” debate emphasizes how concepts of biodiversity leads to differing claims concerning how best to manage protected areas and to improve the resilience of social-ecological systems (West et al. 2006, Berghoefer et al. 2010).

The analysis also sheds light on the different objectives that narrative groups pursue. Traditionalists mainly emphasize the importance of biodiversity as an essential part of cultural and social-ecological systems. Many proponents of this perspective work with indigenous federations and local organizations and highlight the economic, cultural, and spiritual interdependencies and rights that link populations to the ecosystems in which they live.

Localists see both biodiversity and protected areas as part of their landscape and as necessary for providing food and resources, and enabling ecosystems to function sustainably. Representatives either work for regional governments or other organizations engaged in projects that have to plan and coordinate conservation with other land-use interests.

Protectionists emphasize the intrinsic and scientific value of biological diversity and call for the conservation of its beauty and potential in separated parks. In contrast to the grassroots perspectives of traditionalists and localists, protectionists justify their perspective with international scientific concepts and refer to the potential of international conservation funds that national NGOs have been using for conservation projects since the 1980s.

Capitalists on the other hand, emphasize ecosystem services as a foundation for economic growth. This concept derives from international political and scientific debates around ecosystem services and is used to convince a growth-oriented political economy of the (economic) value of biodiversity.

Pragmatists work on specific conservation projects focused on reaching specific, and often different, biodiversity targets. They often criticize the absence of precise biodiversity objectives.

The different concepts of biodiversity appeared in different conservation movements that framed biodiversity in relation to the political developments of the time (for background on conservation movements see Zinngrebe 2016b). Narrative groups implicitly refer to specific objectives and conservation strategies. A transparent process is needed to reflect on objectives, opportunities, and limitations of the stakeholders and their diverging conservation strategies. This transparency is needed to enable a legitimate, societal process of defining political biodiversity targets. In situ conservation, for instance, enables the conservation of the genetic variety of a crop, but might not be an adequate strategy to conserve landscape beauty or ecological integrity of a biome in an ecosystem approach. A constructive political debate on conservation requires stakeholders to specify their definitions and also acknowledge the existence of other perspectives and conservation priorities.

(B) Role of stakeholders

Narrative groups vary in the way they regard the role of different stakeholders in the governance process. “Governance” is here understood as “rules, processes, and behavior that affect the way in which powers are exercised” (Jasanoff and Long Martello 2004:8). Actors within the conservation debate tend to blame biodiversity loss on certain stakeholder groups and also give the responsibilities for leadership in conservation action to certain groups. However, as Forsyth and Walker pointed out, the “distinction between forest guardians and forest destroyers is unproductive and socially unjust” (2008:25). Moreover, already rhetorical practises defining “biodiversity guardians or destroyers” are likely to create polarized and opposing positions, such as global versus local, or economic growth versus green communism, as illustrated by Alan Garcia’s statement quoted in the introduction (Jasanoff and Long Martello 2004). In contrast, a closer look at the different positions can help us to unravel an often oversimplified and ideological conflict.

Traditionalists see local people as bearers of traditional biodiversity conservation knowledge, which they have integrated into their cultural practises. They blame international corporations, globalized markets, and extractive industries for negatively altering social-ecological equilibria and thereby have aligned with powerful actors resisting governmental extraction projects in the past, such as the above-mentioned example of Bagua. Traditionalists see conservation as a means to secure social objectives, such as securing rights and economic possibilities for indigenous and local people.

Protectionists critically highlight threats to ecological systems posed by the expansion of the population and accompanying land-use changes. They favor a separation of conservation and economic activities, which can lead to further conflicts as conservation projects compete more and more for land with urbanization and other land-use interests. In contrast to the traditionalists, who tend to reject international involvement, protectionists often come from outside social-ecological systems and seek to implement conservation projects financed primarily by national and international donors. Locally, this has contributed to the population’s impression that international interests and the rule of money dominate local land-use decisions.

Biodiversity capitalists argue for raising the awareness of local and economic actors through demonstrations of the economic value of ecosystem services. This rhetoric is primarily targeted at powerful policy makers and economic actors, to convince them to incorporate conservation into their decisions and practices. Public investment projects (PIP) that fund governmental projects on all political levels are allocated according to cost-benefit analyses by the powerful Ministry for Economy and Finance (MEF).

Localists argue that participative land-use management can stimulate leadership in conservation among the local population. They highlight that if concessions and rights for exploitation are distributed on the national level without local consultations, those decisions are unlikely to find understanding among local citizens. Regional governments that have limited capacities to enforce their policies depend, after all, on support by local communities and local organizations.

Pragmatists point to the necessity of developing institutions that allow for the participation of the distinct roles of stakeholders in policy and planning processes. The different narrative groups highlight the different functions of actors in processes of conservation and the destruction of biodiversity. Past analyses of environmental conflicts point to the necessity of creating political spaces for the coordination of efforts as a fundamental step toward democratization and institutional innovation in solving ecological conflicts (Bebbington 2013). Following only one terminology might lead to the marginalization of certain minorities. For example, assessing biodiversity as the monetary benefits of ecosystem services might marginalize the interests and conservation practises of the poor (Martinez Alier 2010). In the process of institutional development in Peru, the particular practises and expectations of stakeholders should be acknowledged and incorporated into the governance process to encourage leadership and engagement in conservation activities.

(C) Value and knowledge systems and sustainability

Valuation and knowledge systems provide norms and measures that are used to define conservation objectives and to decide on trade-offs. The economic debate on sustainability differentiates valuation systems by the level they allow for the substitution of ecological qualities by other (social or economic) dimensions of human development (Neumayer 2003). A strong sustainability paradigm aims at the independent conservation of ecological properties within ecological limits, pointing to tipping points and the risk of losing unique properties of nature. In contrast, a weak paradigm allows for ecological assets to be substituted by other forms of development, as long as the overall capital stock is at least maintained. By measuring natural capital in monetary terms, the weak sustainability paradigm offers the advantage of comparability of costs and benefits in the decision-making process on conservation policies. Inspired by mega projects such as the Stern Report, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, or the work on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), many recent international and national political discourses adopt this paradigm. Outside of the economic debate, anthropological studies for instance have revealed locally dependent value and knowledge systems that define conservation priorities and perceptions of ecological risk in culturally dependent language and measures (e.g., Escobar 1998, Kilbane Gockel and Gray 2009).

In the light of societal pressure toward economic growth and investments, biodiversity capitalists use valuation schemes for ecosystem services to convince different stakeholders, such as the Ministry for Economy and Finance (MEF), or potential donors at the international level, of the economic benefits of conserving biodiversity. This corresponds to a weak sustainability perspective.

Opposing this, protectionists adopt a strong sustainability perspective and aim at conserving biodiversity independently from other aspects of development. They call for more biological assessments of biodiversity conditions and trends. Both narrative groups rely on accumulated indicators that allow visibility of ecological changes at the national or international levels. Outside of the weak versus strong sustainability scale, pragmatists assess advances in the performance of policy and governance mechanisms and their capacity to confront biodiversity loss.

Another game-changing aspect can be found in the local dependence on biodiversity as highlighted by the traditionalist and localist narratives. Traditionalists point to the cultural importance of biodiversity to communities; this makes it critical to preserve traditional knowledge and practises as well as local identities. There is little discussion within this community about ecological limits. Localists call for equilibrium of production and conservation in all local geographies based on the “capacities” of the land, as revealed by land-use planning processes. The way a group argues for conservation based on knowledge and valuation systems sheds light on the primary target group that they are addressing with their argumentation.

As earlier analyses have shown, presenting environmental problems in simplified, positivistic cause-effect relations runs the risk of marginalizing the perceptions of certain stakeholders (Forsyth and Walker 2008), which presents issues of legitimacy and representation. Instead of arguing for a predominant sustainability paradigm, different valuation and knowledge systems can inform the policy process at different stages. In the process of policy design and implementation, “input-legitimacy” requires that conservation objectives and indicators allow for the complexity of stakeholders’ concerns and interests to be expressed and negotiated in a transparent and participatory way (Kvarda and Nordbeck 2012). The complexity of language and valuation systems should be elaborated in a way that meets the complexity of narratives present in the political arena and makes as transparent as possible the trade-offs between ecological qualities and other assets of development (Hirsch et al. 2011). Without consciously confronting the issue of trade-offs, biodiversity policies can fail to produce positive environmental effects (Campbell 2002, Campbell et al. 2010). Therefore, a sensitive participatory process that includes different value and knowledge systems in the policy design and evaluation process seems to be a prerequisite for both input and output-legitimacy as well as effectiveness of the implementation process.

(D) Political strategies

Biodiversity governance can incorporate a variety of policy instruments and other measures that interact to conserve biodiversity. Literature on environmental policy instruments points to the fact that no instrument is in general superior; all have to be adapted to respective problem conditions (e.g., Goulder and Parry 2008). Moreover, often individual projects, traditional practices, and private initiatives promoting sustainable production can take over important functions in biodiversity governance (Berhoefer et al. 2010, Campbell et al. 2010). Local participation and capacity building as part of a decentralization process consistently appear as requirements for effective biodiversity conservation policies (Lutz and Caldecott 1996).

Biodiversity capitalists believe that biodiversity can only be conserved against economic interests, if given an economic value. By pursuing a rather technical approach to developing valorization schemes of ecosystem services and by creating markets for biodiversity products, both local and large producers and political decision makers may be convinced of the economic benefit in conserving biodiversity.

Protectionists are convinced of the necessity of strictly regulating and enforcing the conservation of biodiversity in protected areas. Nevertheless, they have taken up part of the capitalists’ logic by promoting alternative development, e.g., with ecotourism or alternative forms of production, with the goal of reducing human impacts in and around conservation areas.

This logic avoids the confrontation of two important preoccupations raised by the other groups. First, the benefits generated by alternative development schemes are unlikely to compete with the revenue generated by mining and hydrocarbon extraction or industrial projects (Bebbington 2013). Traditionalists confront this problem by claiming that economic interests from investors from the national or international level decide on the use of their territory.

Second, localists point to the limitation of different uses that can be given to a finite territory. They propose a strict land-use planning and governance process (ordenamiento territorial, OT) that balances economic, social, and ecological considerations. In this regard, localists call for a strong OT process that defines (scientifically) “appropriate” land uses and implements them in territorial policies. It remains to be clarified, however, to what extent “appropriateness” of a land use can be (legitimately) defined by a technical process. OT appears to be a very sensitive issue and the different narrative groups have highly diverging opinions regarding the importance that should be given to this process. To date, all efforts of providing a solid legal framework that defines the responsibilities and political weight of OT have been rejected by the national parliament. Picking up on this issue, pragmatists call for stronger institutions and improved clarification of responsibilities and competencies in the policy implementation process. In the process of decentralization of Peru’s multilevel governance system, responsibilities are not sufficiently clarified and institutions are under construction (Bertel 2013).

The different narrative groups present a range of different political strategies regarding biodiversity conservation. Existing experiences show that through exploring and evaluating approaches to policy implementation, governance systems can learn and adapt to the uncertainties that may occur along the way (Pressman and Wildavsky 1984). Accordingly, instead of applying one policy strategy as a silver bullet to all resource users on all levels, the governance process can learn from the plurality of conservation approaches that exist and adopt solutions to meet local needs and conditions. A strengthened institutional basis with defined competencies could provide the needed platforms to effectively implement biodiversity policy and coordinate conservation efforts.


As highlighted in the introduction, drawing a simplified, polarized picture between conservation and economic development is likely to result in misunderstandings and conflicts, as well as a marginalization of biodiversity conservation through the dominance of the economic growth model of development. The strategic plan of the CBD requires member states to raise awareness for biodiversity (Aichi target 1), integrate biodiversity values into national and local development strategies (Aichi target 2), and involve different stakeholder groups in developing approaches to sustainable production (Aichi target 3). Reaching these targets will require more than a top-down articulation of objectives in a terminology developed in international negotiations. Instead it will require understanding local actor groups and their value systems as well as allowing for local approaches to sustainable development to be incorporated into biodiversity governance.

Looking at the example of Peru, I show how currently predominant biodiversity narratives can be identified and deconstructed. By drawing from the experience of experts working in conservation, I present a unique scaffold for identifying and comparing different perspectives on biodiversity conservation. This can sensitize scientists, practitioners, and other stakeholders to the existence of different mechanisms, values, meanings, and knowledge systems in biodiversity governance as well as illuminate important obstacles and opportunities for improvement. Additionally, this scaffold can be used as a theoretical framework for analyzing political lines of argumentation appearing in Peruvian discourses or documents.

In this paper I identify four essential aspects that ought to be taken into account by conservation policy design. First, different narratives focus on specific, varying aspects of what is referred to as biodiversity. Consciously confronting this issue and transparently specifying those aspects can help to facilitate negotiations and avoid misunderstandings. Second, as recent history has shown, marginalization of certain stakeholder groups inevitably leads to conflict. Transparent institutional mechanisms of participation can help to clarify misunderstandings and identify perceived risks. Third, different value and knowledge systems should be acknowledged, incorporated, and potentially related to other systems to legitimately and effectively define conservation objectives and evaluate their progress. And finally, instead of calling for one-size-fits-all solutions to biodiversity loss, the different approaches present an amplified toolbox for conservation activities that can be adapted to local specificities. Although the different conservation narratives derive from different stakeholder groups at different levels, they are likely to complement each other in a policy process that involves all levels from global to local.

By definition, “effectiveness” of a political process can only be achieved and evaluated in relation to its performance in reaching specified targets. All analyzed narrative groups except for traditionalists pursue a rather technical approach, applying a terminology of “appropriate land use” and assuming the “correctness” of their knowledge system. Instead of insisting on a rational logic behind the need for political action, the results demonstrate the divergence of different approaches and objectives in biodiversity policy. Although the technocratic language might seek to avoid confrontation with the economic growth ideology, eventually only participative democratic decision-making processes can give legitimacy to biodiversity objectives. Such participative processes need conceptual analyses that reveal critical aspects to inform decision processes.


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I want to acknowledge the useful feedback I received at “The International Conference for Sustainable Development Practice” (at Columbia University, New York) and “Qualitative Research Forum” (at Georg August University, Göttingen) prior to submission. I would like to express my gratitude to all the Peruvian conservation experts for sharing their immense experience with me. I would also like to thank the unknown reviewers, Miranda Schreurs, Niels Dreber, Thomas Tyrell, Kaiti Tasker, Ulrike Zeigermann, Stefan Schüler, Christine Rumpf, Rebekah Nahai, and Susanne Rewitzer for their useful comments at different working stages of this paper. The research process was funded by Heinrich-Boell-Foundation. I acknowledge the support of the Open Access Publication Fund provided by Göttingen University and the German Research Foundation.


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Address of Correspondent:
Yves M. Zinngrebe
Department for Agricultural Economics and Rural Development
Platz der Göttinger Sieben 5
37073 Goettingen, Niedersachsen
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