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Breaking out of the Fortress: A Biocultural Approach to Conservation

– Te Taiawatea Moko-Mead

“Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to change the way we think about protected areas. In the past they have been seen as islands of protection in an ocean of destruction. We need to learn to look on them as the building blocks of biodiversity in an ocean of sustainable human development, with their benefits extending far beyond their physical boundaries”

Achim Steiner, New Scientist 18 October 2003. p21

Ngāti Awa signing of the deed of settlement, a gateway for indigenous management approaches

Ngāti Awa signing of the deed of settlement, a gateway for indigenous management approaches. Photo contribution: Aroha Mead


Biodiversity is declining worldwide, with current extinction levels rising rapidly (Gorenflo et al., 2012). This decline is co-occurring with the knowledge systems that are interconnected with and have long supported biodiversity (Gorenflo et al., 2012; Maffi & Woodley, 2012; Stephenson et al., 2014). However, when confronting biodiversity conservation, management approaches focus little on addressing both human and biological needs (Gavin et al., 2014). These approaches remain topics of constant debate, and communicates the division between people-orientated and fortress conservation approaches. Fortress conservation seeks to preserve the environment through forceful exclusion of people, including indigenous and local communities whom have relied on the environment for their livelihoods (Brockington, 2002; Wilshusen et al., 2002).

I aim to critiqe the fortress conservation approach mainly because it; silences the rights of indigenous and local communities to their traditional lands and resources (Fabricius et al., 2001; Goetze, 2005; Wadley, 2002), resources are too complex to be governed by a single agency (Berkes, 2009) and hands on resource use and long-term commitment to sustaining resources can produce greater conservation outcomes (Stephenson et al., 2014). An emerging field of biocultural conservation aims to address the injustices encountered by this approach and instead links biophysical and socio-cultural components in a social-ecological system (Gavin et al., 2014), where a more hands on approach to conservation management is used. An example will be examined throughout, focusing on biocultural conservation through work analysed by (Stephenson et al., 2014) in a co-management agreement between indigenous Māori and a Crown agency in New Zealand.

Evaluating the fortress paradigm

So why is this approach used? Wilshusen et al., 2002 has outlined five arguments which form the foundation of the fortress conservation approach, these arguments include that;

  1. Protected areas require strict protection.
  2. Protecting biodiversity is a moral imperative.
  3. Conservation linked to development does not protect biodiversity.
  4. Harmonious, ecologically friendly local communities are myths.
  5. Emergency situations require extreme measures.

Although these arguments have a substantial amount of literature and significant backing behind them, the foundation of these arguments are extremely flawed. Several assumptions are made and they overlook the fact that protection alters social and political landscapes, they mask the fact that ‘conservation for the common good’ refers to the special interests of the elite, it assumes the idea that the government serves the common good of their citizens, it also assumes that local institutions cannot adapt to social change along with many other assumptions (Wilshusen et al., 2002). This approach is supposedly in the good name of conservation but involves methods which are socially unjust and have proven to produce less efficient outcomes, in comparison to bottom-up approaches to conservation (Ostrum, 1990; Wilshusen et al., 2002).

..So what are the alternatives?

The emerging field of biocultural conservation

Biocultural conservation aims to achieve goals which supports human and biological needs, and bridge the gap between scientific biodiversity conservation and local and indigenous values of biodiversity (Gavin et al., 2014; Stephenson et al., 2014). This has recently been defined as;

‘Conservation actions made in the service of sustaining the biophysical and social-cultural components of dynamic, interacting and inter-dependant social-ecological systems’ – (Gavin et al., 2014).

However, can biocultural conservation provide the right framework to address the injustices created by fortress conservation?

(Gavin et al., 2014) has defined ten principles to guide successful biocultural conservation initiatives, some of these principles include;

  1. Acknowledging that conservation can have multiple objectives and stakeholders.
  2. Recognizing that culture and language are dynamic, and that this dynamism shapes resource use and conservation.
  3. Respect that different worldviews shape human-environment interactions, and incorporate these differences into conservation planning.
  4. Prioritize the importance of partnership and relationship building for conservation outcomes.

The ironic thing about biocultural conservation is that, it is already an integral part of resource use and management of indigenous people. As their practices reflect a long history of co-evolving and interdependent social-ecological systems (Gavin et al., 2014; Stephenson et al., 2014). Fortunately, settlements of indigenous rights issues has provided a platform for indigenous management approaches to be applied (Coates, 2009; Stephenson et al., 2014).

Case study: biocultural conservation of fisheries in New Zealand  

In New Zealand, Māori (the indigenous peoples) have sought settlements from the Crown to make up for past grievances and confiscation of land and resources in early Colonisation (Linkhorn 2011). These settlements are usually bound with co-management arrangements between Maori and the Crown for protected areas. Fisheries in New Zealand will be used as an example to illustrate this.

There are two main approaches to management of marine reserves; firstly most fish stock in EEZ (Exclusive economic zone) are privatised or allocated under QMS (Quota management system); and secondly the principal approach to conservation is to set marine reserves aside where fishing is prohibited (MPI, 2009; Stephenson et al., 2014). This approach of all or nothing does not match well with the customary approach. According to local iwi (Māori tribal groups) it is neither resulting in more sustainable local fisheries (Stephenson et al., 2014).

Fisheries is a traditional source of economic and cultural wealth for Maori. Although, Māori were not legally able to be involved in fisheries through extensive negotiations and Treaty of Waitangi settlements the crown were forced to create regulations to allow traditional fisheries to be managed by Māori (Coates, 2009). Three management tools were able to be established because of this, these are co-management arrangements between iwi and crown agencies, in this case Ministry for Primary Industries.

These management tools demonstrate a biocultural approach to conservation in New Zealand and include; Taiāpure, Mātaitai and Rāhui (s186 temporary closures).

These reserves are defined by the Ministry for Primary (MPI, 2009) as;

Mātaitai: A gazetted area where tangata whenua establish a reserve on a traditional fishing ground for the purpose of recognising and providing for customary management practices and food gathering. Commercial fishers may not fish in a mätaitai reserve, however recreational fishers can.

Taiāpure: established in an area that has customarily been of special significance to an iwi or hāpu as a source of food or for spiritual or cultural reasons. All fishing (including commercial fishing) can continue in a taiāpure. This tool offers a way for Tāngata Whenua to become involved in the management of both commercial and non-commercial fishing in their area.

Rāhui (s186 temporary closures): Section 186 A (North & Chatham Island) & B (South Island) of the Fisheries Act 1996 allows the Minister of Fisheries or the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Fisheries to temporarily close an area to fishing. The specific purpose is to provide for the use and management practices of Tāngata Whenua in the exercise of their customary rights this approach is otherwise known as a rāhui.

These methods of conservation have proven to be a success, where an example of a Taiapure reserve has had notable success in the Bay of Plenty. A Taiapure committee is set up composed of tribal representatives and local recreational and commercial fishers whom regularly monitor the area. They have also had considerable success in effecting policy changes to support local customary practices(Stephenson et al., 2014).

Area of government established coastal marine reserves compared to the indigenous co-managed mātaitai and taiāpure (Stephenson et al., 2014)

Figure 1. Area of government established coastal marine reserves compared to the indigenous co-managed mātaitai and taiāpure (Stephenson et al., 2014)

It is also noted that since 1994, the number of taiapure and maitaitai reserves have risen exponentially (Figure 1). Not including the two large offshore reserves around the Kermadec and Auckland Islands, the area protected as mātaitai and taiāpure is about twice that of coastal marine reserves (Stephenson et al., 2014).

The management tools offer opportunities for Māori to be more actively engaged in the management of their local fisheries, while also producing efficient conservation outcomes (Stephenson et al., 2014).

The barriers and constraints of biocultural conservation

We still have a long way to go…

(Mulrennan & Scott, 2005) recites a co-management agreement in Australia between Torres Straight Islanders and the government. Where a consultative and advisory structure was established under the Treaty. This involved Islander, central government and industry representatives. The Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority (TSPZJA) represented the top-level fisheries decision-making committee. However through this co-management agreement, indigenous institutions of land and sea tenure, resource management and environmental knowledge had little effect on the management institutions, processes and decisions, where the role of indigenous was simply advisory.

Although the future of biocultural conservation seems promising, there are still many barriers which we need to overcome. These barriers include; significant sharing of power across levels, funding, and a struggle to adjust to the dynamic nature of social-ecological systems(Gavin et al., 2014). Where we lay an emphasis on meaningful power-sharing, as dynamic and polycentric. Taiepa et al., 1997 articuates that the kereru (Figure 2.) shows the potential for developing partnerships and ‘bridge building between the different world views.  Where returning the life essence whakahokia te mauri , self determination rangatiratanga,  guardianship kaitiakitanga and customary law tikanga are just as important in co-management as ecology and ecosystem health.

The kereru, a symbol of meaningful co-management in New Zealand (Taiepa et al., 1997)

Figure 2. The kereru, a symbol of meaningful co-management in New Zealand (Taiepa et al., 1997)


As biocultural conservation is an emerging field, the success of these areas in achieving goals of supporting Indigenous peoples and their rights, and aiding sustainabilty and increasing the species and environments within their territories, is yet to be decided (Gavin et al., 2014; Stephenson et al., 2014). But the opportunities for communities involved is significant; greater participation of local people, greater recognition of knowledge systems intertwined with conservation and a greater role in the decision-making. Where, locally driven approaches may be the best hope for long-term conservation(Stephenson et al., 2014). This enables a bottom-up approach to conservation where communities and indigenous peoples are involved in hands on sustainable resource management.

In conclusion, conservation should aim to recognise the dense web of social and political processes along with conservation to provide socially just methods of conservation, where restoring human interaction should also be prioritised (Maffi & Woodley, 2012). We should not build a fortress around the environment and simply turn a blind eye to the implications. Instead we should focus on breaking down the fortress and interacting with the communities, indigenous peoples and the environment of which we have co-evolved with. We need to get past power and control in conservation and remember that people and nature have successfully co-existed for generations. Conservation does not need to be a trade-off.


Aroha Mead: Chair of IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, IUCN Councillor, Māori Business Director (Victoria University of Wellington)

Kim Turrell: Honours candidate Victoria University of Wellington


Berkes, F. (2009). Evolution of co-management: Role of knowledge generation, bridging organizations and social learning. Journal of Environmental Management, 90(5), 1692-1702. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.12.001

Brockington, D. (2002). Fortress conservation: the preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania: Indiana University Press.

Coates, N. (2009). Joint-management agreements in New Zealand: simply empty promises. Journal of South Pacific Law, 13(1), 32-39.

Fabricius, C., Koch, E., & Magome, H. (2001). Towards strengthening collaborative ecosystem management: lessons from environmental conflict and political change in southern Africa. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 31(4), 831-844.

Gavin, M., McCarter, J., Mead, A., Berkes, F., Stepp, J., Peterson, D., & Tang, R. (2014). Defining Biocultural Approaches to Conservation. manuscript to be published.

Goetze, T. C. (2005). Empowered Co-Management: Towards Power-Sharing and Indigenous Rights in Clayoquot Sound, BC. Anthropologica, 47(2), 247-265. doi: 10.2307/25606239

Gorenflo, L. J., Romaine, S., Mittermeier, R. A., & Walker-Painemilla, K. (2012). Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(21), 8032-8037.

Maffi, L., & Woodley, E. (2012). Biocultural diversity conservation: a global sourcebook: Routledge.

MPI. (2009). Customary Management from http://www.fish.govt.nz/en-nz/Maori/Management/default.htm

Mulrennan, M. E., & Scott, C. H. (2005). Co-management – An Attainable Partnership? Two Cases from James Bay, Northern Quebec and Torres Strait, Northern Queensland. Anthropologica, 47(2), 197-213.

Ostrum, E. (1990). Governing the commons. Cambridge University-Press, Cambridge.

Stephenson, J., Berkes, F., Turner, N., & Dick, J. (2014). Biocultural conservation of marine ecosystems: Examples from New Zealand and Canada Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 13(2), 257-265.

Taiepa, T., Lyver, P., Horsley, P., Davis, J., Bragg, M., & Moller, H. (1997). Co-management of New-Zealand’s conservation estate by Maori and Pakeha: a review. Environmental Conservation, 24(3), 236-250.

Wadley, R. L. (2002). The history of displacement and forced settlement in West Kalimantan, Indonesia – implications for co-managing Danau Sentarum Wildlife Reserve.

Wilshusen, P. R., Brechin, S. R., Fortwangler, C. L., & West, P. C. (2002). Reinventing a square wheel: Critique of a resurgent” protection paradigm” in international biodiversity conservation. Society &Natural Resources, 15(1), 17-40.

About the author:

IMG_3260Kia ora koutou, my name is Te Taiawatea Moko-Mead.  I am from Aotearoa, New Zealand, my iwi (tribal groups) are; Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa and Tainui. I am a student at Victoria University of Wellington, studying a Master of Conservation Biology degree. I have previously studied a BSc in Marine Biology, minors in Environmental Studies and Statistics. My areas of interests are in; co-management, customary practices, strengthening self capability of environmental and resource management in indigenous communities, and relationship building in conservation.