Special Section: Political ecologies of extinction, edited by Bram Büscher

Biodiversity Economy and conservation territorialization: a pyrrhic strategy in Kwazulu-Natal



Post-apartheid Kwazulu-Natal is in the midst of ecological and social crises related to land ownership, resource control, minerals extraction, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. The environs of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park are a violent environment, where the immediate violence of an anti-poaching 'war' waged over fears of Rhinoceros extinction, is counter-posed to the slow violence permeating the lives of marginal rural residents affected by the externalities of coal mining. A range of struggles are waged against these challenges, but a hegemonic 'Biodiversity Economy' intervention has arisen, attended by projects aimed at territorializing conservation space and multiple-win scenarios. Based on four years of intermittent research in the area, this article critiques the territorialization of conservation, project outcomes, and commercialization efforts within the Umfozi Biodiversity Economy Node (UBEN). I contend that a biodiversity economy nodal approach extends neoliberal conservation strategies, and functions as a spatial aggregator to reterritorialize conservation land use over space and time. However, the findings suggest that, despite years of energy and investment there have only been limited individual successes in the UBEN, and a range of frustrations, compounded by COVID-19 complications. The analysis also highlights further costs and externalities of the initiative: as the UBEN exacerbates underlying tensions in Kwazulu-Natal's uneven conservation geography, and it aligns with problematic and often unrepresentative traditional authority structures and related accumulation networks. It is also complicit with the production of sacrificial spaces at the conservation-extraction nexus.In this context, I argue the UBEN is pyrrhic; that is, an outcome or goal strived for/achieved at too little reward and too high a cost. The article extends political-ecological critique of neoliberal conservation and the green economy to incorporate the framing and implementation of biodiversity economy nodal approaches – and their uneven and pyrrhic effects – in contested, crisis-ridden conservation contexts.

Keywords: crisis conservation, biodiversity economy, territorialization, Pyrrhic intervention, sacrifice

How to Cite: Nel, A. (2021) “Biodiversity Economy and conservation territorialization: a pyrrhic strategy in Kwazulu-Natal”, Journal of Political Ecology. 28(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/jpe.4744