Conservation and Capitalism: A Love Story


Conservation; “The protection, preservation, management, or restoration of wildlife and of natural resources such as forests, soil, and water” The intentions of conservation look good on paper, but we must ask ourselves if conservation is becoming more neoliberal in an ever increasing capitalist world.

Let us look at the methods of philanthropy as a way of driving neoliberalization in the conservation world. The methods include: the need for capitalism to find new ways of creating wealth and the need for conservationists to engage with capitalist activities as one way of achieving their, mainly financial, goals. The objective of this article is to argue that modern conservation has become intricately intertwined with the goals of capitalism, and although the intentions of the drivers are noble, there is always a profiteering objective that over-shadows that initial mission of bettering and conserving our natural environment. This is mainly focusing on a few of the world’s largest and well-known wildlife conservation organisations and not the smaller NGOs.

For many, conservation is being seen as a new market, unchartered territory attracting the public by activating their sympathy- a different kind of opportunity, a new-fangled method of making money.

Companies which label themselves as ‘environmentally friendly’ tend to present connections to people in need, third-world countries and causes mediated through products that they sell. These products may be physical objects, foods, monthly payments and animal adoption programs to name a few. In investing in these products or services, people create, as Igoe et al accurately describes “the romantic illusion that they are adventurously saving the world even as they are consuming it virtually”. This suggests to our inquisitive consumers that one solution to the problems our environment and animals face resides in the consumption and purchase of certain labelled products that are sold through the aforementioned commodities, the kinds of commodities that assisted in producing them in the first place.


As much as conservation needs the legitimacy and capital that multi-million businesses offer, it can be seen to be symbolically and materially advantageous for these alliances to come about, especially for the corporations. An interesting abstract about such a relationship is mentioned in Kenneth Iain MacDonald’s “The Devil is in the Biodiversity” he states that:

“It says on the WWF International website ‘The Panda means business’. But the panda didn’t always mean business. At a point in the not too distant past, the easily recognizable WWF symbol meant the development of effective public engagement in the protection of wildlife habitat. The shift in the meaning of the symbol, indeed its conversion from symbol to legally protected brand, indicates a shift in the recognition of what and who are currently in a position to best contribute the support necessary for the organisation to continue its activities”

This is a clear indication of the relationship in which conservation NGOs tend to have with corporations, or how they are adopting capitalist habits in order to maximise profit. Although this may seem necessary for a growing organisation, what matters is the image perceived by the consumers and donors involved. A sensitive subject that is difficult to keep untarnished.

A good analysis of this perspective is the work of US AID (United States Agency for International Development). In Hassanali Sachedina’ s “Wildlife is Our Oil”, he helps us understand this specific perspective observed within one conservation NGO: the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the fourth largest conservation NGO in sub- Saharan Africa. Patrick Bergin, who was the CEO of the organisation, promoted a very successful relationship with US AID that witnessed its dramatic growth in size. He also re-assessed the organisation’s mission from an East African focus to a pan-African NGO. Disturbingly, however, AWF’s success in finance was not paralleled with its conservation goals on the ground. The organisation became ‘oriented’ to its funders to the extent that the work conducted in the villages, where it was needed the most, was neglected. It is also credible to note that its work may even have hampered the grasp of those goals during the same time as projecting itself in a light that radiated growth and success. USAID and AWF are both equally responsible for the difference in character of this once valuable NGO.


Another example is the case of wildlife management areas in Tanzania. A group of Tanzanian wildlife officials worked with representatives of the AWF to choose certain members of a village to create a group that represent the community. This network scrupulously occupied themselves with reviewing the territories in a fashion that was in agreement to neoliberal requirements that highlighted the commercialisation of nature to promote conservation. The responsibility of this particular group was to USAID, The World Conservation Union, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, (IUCN) as well as the Washington Headquarters of AWF. All the participants of this group had bestowed a great interest in characterising wildlife management as a rewarding mission, even though they did not know each other or even agree on many things. The way they benefitted from their involvement in these networks was through boasting about a ‘conservation success story’ that also reflected in their salaries and travel awards. Despite being widespread, these networks are also very exclusive. Whatever money pours to them- stays within them, be it investments, conservation funding, or multi-lateral loans. In this particular case only a minority of the people at community level noticed any noteworthy benefit, as experienced in many wildlife conservation cases.

So far, the argument has been that wildlife conservation NGOs play a vital part in the conservationist mode of production which interlocks wildlife and biodiversity conservation with capitalism. These NGOs are not only raising money, they are integrating wildlife and nature into a broader capitalist system by creating images that mediates the relationship between nature and people. Why is wildlife conservation different to other types of commodities such as oil and minerals? For one, game populations are not essentially worn-out by capitalist exploitation. If we look at mineral extraction we see that although there might be an abundance of them to which extraordinary wealth is generated from, there is always an end, there is a day looming in the future where the veins or pipes will soon run dry. If we look at animals, on the other hand, they offer the prospect of creating wealth through their consistent existence. This is through non-consumptive photographic tourism and safaris, to name examples. To quote Elizabeth Garland in “The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa” (2008) she very relevantly states that:

“Wild African animals generate the most globally relevant value when they are exploited in ways that have virtually nothing to do with their immediate material use. Instead, what is crucial to the symbolic and economic capital produced by conserving African wildlife is the image of Africa as emblematic of all that is wild and natural”

In Garland’s work in Tanzania (2001-2) she also notes the situation on the ground; she noticed that the local Tanzanian conservationists struggled with the personal inequalities they faced between them and their expatriate colleagues, many of whom transformed their involvement with wildlife into wealth through courses that remained indecipherable to the Tanzanians, and thus, she was not surprised by the resenting attitudes.


I cannot conclude this article without at least revisiting the biggest player in the conservation industry that has been involved in what critics have been accusing as ‘selling its soul’ to wealthy businesses. This in non-other than the famous World Wide Fund for Nature, or as it is most commonly referred to- the WWF. In 2012, Wilfried Huismann released his ground-breaking book ‘The Silence of the Pandas’. This book was previously banned from sale in Britain but after more than a year’s worth of court cases the book was finally revised, translated and released as “Pandaleaks”. He accused the Geneva-based organisation of accepting millions of dollars from global corporations such as Shell, HSBC, Coca-Cola, Monsanto and BP to name a few. This relationship also existed with governments as well. Huismann states that the nature in which the WWF operates is becoming too reliant on corporate funding and is not fulfilling the duties of a conservation organisation.  He claims that:

“WWF is a willing service provider to the giants of the food and energy sectors, supplying industry with a green, progressive image … On the one hand it protects the forest; on the other it helps corporations lay claim to land not previously in their grasp. WWF helps sell the idea of voluntary resettlement to indigenous peoples,”

This is just one of the many accusations made by Pandaleaks, but the most relevant one arises from what can only be seen as a conspiracy theory. The book argues that WWF runs a club of 1,001 people who happen to be the most wealthy and powerful in the world, a bunch of terribly influential men that have strong connections with corporate and global powers. A convenient club for an organisation that has access to land in mineral-rich countries, this club is very originally named ‘The 1001 Club’.

On a personal note, I have to say that I myself have fallen victim to the charm that is a WWF marketer. On a typical rainy day in London, I received a call and shortly after was showered with compliments of how generous my voice sounded. Very odd, I know, but ashamedly it worked. Ten minutes later I found myself setting up a direct debit donation and adopted a Bengal tiger. I received a stuffed toy weeks later and occasionally received updates and stickers on the status of my tiger. Even though the animal had passed away, I still continue to give to the organisation. And for some reason, I have not cancelled my monthly subscription (which I eventually plan to do so). There must be a speck of doubt under all these accusations of the WWF, the speck of doubt that weighs more than all the corrupt allegations thrown at it. The speck of doubt that has been held by the millions of people whom refuse to believe that they have been deceived by an organisation that promised to protect our most endangered animals. But alas, money talks.


The relationship between conservation and capitalism exists and are both dependent on one another, just like a tragic love story. We know that in order to create capital the animals must thrive in the same way as imagined by the people who pay to visit or protect them. The question at hand pushed me to look at the major NGOs and how they have become more like their corporate sponsors, I did not examine the smaller scale ones that have no tie with large corporations and therefore have minimal influence from profiteering companies. Africa’s reliability on international control, influence and funds eerily echoes with a time when colonization was active; this relationship should not be revived when it comes to the conservation of wildlife. What we know for certain is that intentions to create a more sustainable and thriving environment exists, it is just a matter of effective implementation and continuous sustainability rather than false representation to an audience with good will.

By: Dalia Alireza (Y4AW 2015 intern)

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