top of page

A few quick thoughts on anthropology and biodiversity conservation (part 1)

By CHLOË CHESNEY, a PhD student in Anthropology at ISCTE and NOVA FCSH

Before reading this, you should know:

  1. A few things about me: with a background in biodiversity conservation (and constantly arguing for the ‘social’ side) I am now doing a PhD in anthropology (about local ecological knowledge and biodiversity conservation) (and constantly arguing for the ‘biological’ side). I am learning a lot. For one, the same words in different disciplines elicit entirely different responses and ideas. Also, in thinking I was ‘breaking through disciplinary barriers’ I have become increasingly aware of what is behind each of those ‘boundaries’ and increasingly aware that ‘breaking through’ is not as simple as adopting some methods or collaborating with people from other disciplines… it is in fact bigger than this (was I incredibly naive? Maybe. Was I just being optimistic? Maybe). It is theoretical, political, and much bigger than one person or team. My motivation hasn’t changed, but the challenge has. The (only?) solution = small steps… here is one small step...

  2. This is a ‘blog’ version of a larger body of ongoing work. These ideas, when my own, are subject to change and I am learning and actively looking to build on my understanding. What you read below are some quick, initial thoughts, open to criticism and comment and there to tentatively begin my engagement with this discourse.

The relationship between current concerns of the environment and anthropology.

What is the relationship? What should it be? And, what is ontological anthropology? Well, let me tell you what I know so far (not an exhaustive definition).

Ontological anthropology looks at realities beyond our own. One approach is by categorising the similarities and differences like Phillipe Descola in ‘Beyond Nature and Culture’ (2005)...To cut a long story short, ontological anthropology provides the backdrop for books such as Eduardo Kohn’s (2013) to be titled ‘How Forests Think’ rather than ‘How We Think About Forests’ or even, ‘How They Think About Forests’.

Figure 1: Key books in ontological anthropology - perhaps the relationship with concerns of the environment is clear just by the covers and I need not try to further explain

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (thought of as the first proposer of ontological anthropology with concepts such as Amerindian perspectivism) traces this shift in anthropology, the ‘ontological turn’, to three points in a 2015 talk called ‘Who is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf?’: (1) the crisis of representation which complicated dualisms in anthropology such as ‘human and nonhuman’ and ‘nature and culture’; (2) the rise of science and technology which gave rise to a greater separation between Western modernity and the ‘others’; and (3), the challenge of “ecological catastrophe and its dialectical connection to the economic crisis - the well-known problem of the end of the world versus the end of capitalism (which will come first?)”. This third stimulus has been especially explored by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and team. Go check out their work at Feral Atlas ( - you won’t regret it!

An example

Multinaturalism, a concept central to ontological anthropology, posits that there is one culture, and many natures distinguishing this world view from multiculturalism where there is one nature and many cultures. Multinaturalism can help us develop a more critical view of ourselves, including our impact on the environment, and in the Anthropocene, this is increasingly important for a wide variety of reasons, such as (these are just off the top of my head and I am sure there are many many more examples and offer this list of examples where ontological anthropology may positively intersect with biodiversity conservation in no order of importance and with no research on what has already been done, or indeed, if anything has already been done):

  • the decolonisation of conservation

  • the political implications of a move away from ecomyopia

  • the documentation (with the goal of ‘slowing-down’) of the great acceleration of extinction rates.

Anthropology is not enough for conservation in the Anthropocene. Anthropocene = “a time of human-sponsored environmental crisis”

Figure 2: Reproduced from Hockings and Sousa (2013): “An adult male chimpanzee in Caiquene-Cadique crossing a road that bisects the chimpanzee’s home range” (p.61) in Cantanhez National Park, Guinea-Bissau. Ethnoprimatology as an example

Let’s look at the interface of human-non human primates through the lens of anthropology: ethnoprimatology.

Ethnoprimatology, (like most other areas in environmental anthropology) acknowledges that the mythical (in some very rare cases, historical) type of ‘natural’ nature without anthropogenic interference does not exist (or in said rare cases, no longer exists). Ethnoprimatology embraces the Anthropocene as its core context, acknowledging that studying humans and nonhuman primates in areas of extensive anthropogenic influence is essential for the conservation of primates.

Where ethnoprimatology has been embedded within conservation initiatives there is evidence of much success (e.g. not to toot-my-own-horn but to highlight the continued work of the team in Sierra Leone: the Mobonda Community Conservation Project & also in other members of ConSciences work for example, in Cantanhez National Park [see Fig.2])

I maintain that anthropology (in a traditional, discipline bound, sense) is not enough for the Anthropocene. However, ethnoprimatology, for example, combines anthropological method and practice with fields such as primatology, ecology, conservation science and so on, and in not limiting itself to the focus of one discipline, through ethnoprimatology, and other cross-discipline studies, anthropologists are able to address the context of now, the Anthropocene.

I should make clear, I think no single discipline is enough to address concerns of the Anthropocene. I only state it in this direct way because in conversation with (social) anthropologists, not necessarily in the context of conservation or environmental changes, I often find myself defending the interdisciplinary theory, methods and practice. This is changing though. For example, The Global Climate Change Task Force of the American Anthropological Association state clearly that traditional methods of anthropology (such as ethnography) can be enhanced through integration with new tools and methods. Time will tell…

Inconclusive statement

Before finishing these quick thoughts, I want to add that in stating ‘the Anthropocene’, I offer ‘it’ in ‘its’ spectrum in that I question the term, the political implications, and whether ‘it’ is too much or not enough, ‘its’ failures and successes, the contradictions in ‘its’ repercussions or not, and so on and so on…

But anyway, anthropology is shifting in it, or because of it… and simultaneously, biodiversity conservation is shifting too…

365 views0 comments


bottom of page