Meet . . . Dan Brockington

CONDJUST brings together two aspects of my research which I treasure most.

First it is about justice, about fair conservation. I have been writing about, researching, and lobbying for, this since my PhD days. Then I was studying the effects of eviction on pastoralists who had been moved from the Mkomazi Game Reserve (now National Park) in northern Tanzania. I traced the history of settlement and occupation (and desertion) of the plains over the previous two centuries. Rich archival records and oral histories showed how the European rulers had struggled to understand the fluid ethnic dynamics in the region. They had forced people into categories and then decreed that same belonged to the area and others did not. The residents subverted the categories, moving between them as they moved across the rangelands, turning instruments of rule to their purposes.

But after decades of playing with and bending government rules, pastoralists were moved evicted from the reserve in the late 1980s. My work showed how damaging that had been for their livelihoods, how it altered gender dynamics within families, and how it harmed regional economies which had thrived on the local cattle markets pastoralists had sustained. There was no compensation from growing tourist economies because there were no tourists there.

The evictions, I argued were unjust. The Tanzanian courts were to declare that they were unlawfully executed. With Kathy Homewood I argued that any ecological imperative to move pastoralists was tenuous at best. It was hard to tell what difference pastoralists’ presence, or absence, made for biodiversity. Environmental histories showed no evidence of degradation. The clearance of Mkomazi caused much social harm for questionable ecological gain. Tragically this is a story that is now being repeated in Loliondo and Ngorongoro.

But what is most striking about Mkomazi is how irrelevant these perspectives can be to some of the protagonists involved. The histories of use are irrelevant, because Mkomazi is, to its fans, a wilderness restored. The claims of people whose livelihoods were lost are rendered less significant because these people were ‘not indigenous’ to the area. The archival records of human presence are denied. And none of these errors made any difference to the successful representation of Mkomazi internationally to willing donors.

That research was written up into The book Fortress Conservation, a now well cited (if not so often read 😉 piece which examines how conservation injustice can be sustained. I have pursued that issue across numerous projects, including exploring the injustices of community conservation, the work of celebrity representation in conservation and in trying to understand the make up and work of the conservation NG0 sector in Sub-Saharan Africa. It drives my support and engagement with NGOs such as Micaia and Dakshin. CONDJUST continues over 25 years of pursuing just conservation.

The second unifying theme is my long interest in data. I have a rather nerdy interest in spreadsheets and their constitution. I love what they can tell us about the world, I love more knowing what they can conceal. It was through spreadsheets that we were able to document the decline of cattle-markets around Mkomazi, digitising records that had only been kept in district archives. I’ve created other ‘megalists’ too, of all the conservation NGOs we could find in sub-Saharan Africa (with Katy Scholfield) or of all the UK-based development NGOs (with Niki Banks). When I began writing children’s literature I wanted to see how many other stories for and about African upper middle graders were written in English by people of my positionality, or similar. So I put

together a list of all the publications I could find.

And putting together such lists lays bare the assumptions and biases that structure then. How does one define a ‘development’ NGO, or a ‘conservation’ group. What are the boundaries of upper-middle grade? When I began working on early versions of the World Database of Protected Areas it became particularly clear how the omissions from such lists can conceal as much as they shed light.

A few years ago I completed a research project with Christine Noe in Tanzania that explored long term changes in rural livelihood. It was a large collaborative effort involving many researchers with decades of experience of working in the country. What we found surprised us. People were much more prosperous than we had anticipated. Poverty line data for the county showed persistent rural poverty, not the investment in farms, businesses and houses that was so clear in our data. But then it emerged that

poverty line data, based on weekly consumption diaries, do not record real investment in assets. These are sound economic reasons for doing so, but nonetheless it omits the things which count most to rural people. Official records can mask important change. Data can tell us about the world. And its errors, if systematically engrained in them, can conceal as well.

CONJUSDT’s task is to explore the errors, biases and omissions that can lead to

systematic distortions in modelling and prioritization used in conservation work. We hope to contribute to a growing body of work on Data Justice, that is becoming ever more important as large data care to guide our decision-making. We are part a

growing network of scholars working in this field. The joy and challenge of the next for years will be to work effectively with collaborate, partners and diverse colleagues to devise ways in which the systematic errors of conservation data cause fewer harms to people and biodiversity.

Dan Brockington