Making Sense of Society: Ruben Schneider

For the last two years the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has held a writing competition to encourage and recognize the writing skills of ESRC-funded students. Winners for the 2016 round were honored March 21 at a ceremony in London. Social Science Space will publish the winning essays, runners-up and eight shortlisted pieces in the next few weeks; here we present the shortlisted essay, “Listen to the Local: Social Experiences of Conservation Interventions in sub-Saharan Africa,” from Ruben Schneider of the University of Aberdeen.

For more on the competition, click here.

Listen to the Local: Social Experiences of Conservation Interventions in sub-Saharan Africa

Ruben Schneider
Ruben Schneider

By Ruben Schneider
Imagine the glorious landscapes of Africa’s protected areas. A pristine Eden for wildlife where elephants and lions roam freely, unsullied by human hands. The magnificence of this vast wilderness is breath-taking, its harmony is deeply appealing and comforting. In this vision, protected areas offer a refuge from modernity – a beacon of hope for a better world in the here and now.

Enter ‘the local’. A man. In the people-free wilderness. Who is he? Is he a ‘native’, a guardian of nature who can be incorporated into our romanticised vision? Or could he be a villager who is illegally trespassing and hunting for subsistence? A poacher, shattering our utopia? Perhaps he was incentivised by an organised criminal group to track elephants, kill them, and cut off their tusks in order to sell them, fuelling the escalating illegal wildlife trade (IWT)? He could even be a terrorist! A member of a rebel group or a notorious terrorist organisation like al-Shabaab or the Lord’s Resistance Army, trading ivory for weapons and contributing to the destabilisation of entire regions.

He is dead. An enemy-combatant in the ‘war for biodiversity’. We will never know who he really was or what story he may have told, because his fate was decided the moment he was spotted by the anti-poaching team. More and more countries in sub-Saharan Africa adopt shoot-on-sight policies in protected areas to deter people from decimating wildlife, whatever their motivation. Nature is being militarised.

The boundaries between subsistence hunters and commercial poachers are often fluid. The arbitrary categorisations are informed by processes of cultural production and subject making. For example, while ‘locals’ considered culturally unique or ‘valuable’, like Maasai or Pygmy peoples, may complement ‘Western’ notions of African nature and even increase the value of landscapes for their cultural tourism potential, other locals who hunt illegally are criminalised and marginalised.

The various identities are imposed upon the local by Western society. The social engineers at work are governments, conservation organisations, as well as the tourism industry and media. Yet, processes of social boundary-making and its delineations between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, ‘Us’ and the unknown ‘Other’, only work because we buy into it. It is part of our identity too. Since when is an illegal hunter a terrorist? Since television documentaries like ‘Rhino Wars’ or ‘Warlords of Ivory’ turn into a spectacle what should rather be seen through a sober and sceptical lens.

Along with boundary-making, spectacularisation is one of a number of discursive techniques which enable and reproduce cultural productions. Their emergence is related to the neoliberalisation of nature. Today, nature has to pay its way. As a land-use strategy, conservation has to be as competitive as agriculture or extractive industries if it is to survive. Natural resources, such as wildlife, are increasingly rendered a commodity with different actors, from governments to communities, trying to re-establish their control, ownership, and access. A constant struggle between centralisation, decentralisation, and privatisation.

Another closely associated technique is securitisation. Poaching and IWT have been politicised and rendered a security issue at the highest intergovernmental fora, e.g. the United Nations Security Council. People like Hillary Clinton and Prince William are beating the drum to rally support for combating IWT. What could be more popular than saving elephants and fighting terrorism at the same time?

However, cultural productions, securitisation, and spectacularisation have material effects. They often form part of political projects, such as international stabilisation, national territorialisation, and processes of capital accumulation and dispossession. They legitimate and normalise violence. For example, securitisation is driving the militarisation of conservation. Apart from governments, there is a growing number of civil society organisations which employ military personnel, technologies, and partnerships in conservation. On their websites these organisations convey images of heroic rangers fighting evil poachers, while ‘like’, ‘share’, and ‘donate’ buttons are strategically placed. We are made complicit in militarisation, individually and actively by consumption.

My research aims to make sense of this mess. I am ethnographically exploring the interactions of ‘global’ conservation alliances and local communities. I am particularly interested in new partnerships that engage local people to participate in joint ranger patrols and provide intelligence. There are concerns about negative social impacts, such as instrumentalising communities for enforcement, at the expense of their security and well-being. Therefore, my focus lies on exploring individual experiences of militarised conservation. Experiences are inherently unpredictable due to the diversity and complexity of local contexts. By studying global-local interactions from a bottom-up perspective I am providing guidance to help all stakeholders overcome frictions for themselves. This will contribute to enable more locally resonant and, thus, sustainable interventions in conservation, development, and beyond.

Sometimes I wish I could escape into our vision of African wilderness, but for me it is a myth, for I know ‘the local’ and the structures of power and domination at play.


“Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual” |Wilhelmiina Toivo, University of Glasgow

“Living and looking for lavatories” | Lauren White, University of Sheffield


“Marginal money, mainstream economy”| Max Gallien, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow” | Elo Luik, University of Oxford


“Better healthcare with deep data” | Alison Harper, University of Exeter

“Child labour: making childhood work” |Sophie Hedges, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

“What future while living in uncertainty?” | Vanessa Hughes, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Ensuring a sweeter future” | Siobhan Maderson, Aberystwyth University

Understanding the forgotten decade” | David Pollard, University of Birmingham

“Schools, funding and donor power” | Ruth Puttick, Newcastle University

“Fostering inclusion in the face of division” | Caoimhe Ryan, University of St Andrews

“Listen to the local” | Ruben Schneider, University of Aberdeen

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