The necropolitical ecology of conservation: Struggles for land and livelihoods in post-apartheid South Africa
Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a postponement of a series of international conferences and consequently interrupted global environmental politics, the United Nations Environmental Programme declared 2020 a ‘super year for biodiversity conservation’. During the past decades, new paradigms of biodiversity conservation emerged, gained dominance and were discussed with growing urgency in international fora on conservation vis-à-vis global ecological crises and the apparent failure of conventional approaches. Although current discussions within these fora are more complex, they can for analytic purposes be divided into two strands (Büscher/Fletcher 2020). While the new conservation paradigm rejects traditional narratives of nature as pristine wilderness in favor of a ‘rambunctious garden’ that needs to be managed through economic valuation, neo-protectionism seeks to establish a separation between society and nature in order toprevent ecological degradation and collapse. Both paradigms have been widely criticized by political ecologists, who draw attention to inherent conceptual contradictions as well as processes of dispossession, displacement and degradation that are in various ways entangled with the enactments of these paradigms -particularly in the Global South. My PhD project, which is situated within the broader field of political ecology, seeks to critically enquire into potentially conflicting processes of spatial simplification (Dempsey 2016) and the creation of zones of sacrifice linked to the transnational necropolitics/biopolitics(Cavanagh/Himmelfarb, 2015; Povinelli 2016; Cavanagh2018) of biodiversity conservation in post-apartheid South Africa. Spaces that today are targeted by conservation interventions have for a long time been contested and shaped by different and at times conflicting projects which established specific relationships within the web of life (cf. e.g. Nustad 2015). Taking up Lesley Green’s recent proposal for composing a dignity-based ecopolitics (Green 2020), I understand rural-urban struggles for land and livelihoods in South Africa as ways of addressing ecological crises, although they may not explicitly express concerns over biodiversity loss. These struggles point to the ambiguities of modernist discourses and strategies of conservation.