Mind your Language!

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Anthropologists and Conservationists on the challenge of communicating bird conservation in Malta

In November 2013, Diogo Verissimo and Brian Campbell returned from fieldwork rather tired, but thankfully intact. During the previous months they had been studying the rapidly escalating conflict between bird hunters and environmentalists on the island of Malta.

On one side are Malta’s Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (ENGOs). Concerned about the sustainability and morality of hunting, they are also irritated by the hunting lobby’s ability to secure privileges they consider detrimental to the general Maltese population. Frustrated by their lack of progress, the ENGOs have adopted military discourse and practices: ‘valiant’ ‘bird-guards’ are organising complex field-operations, deploying ‘patrols’ and drones to ‘escort’ ‘innocent birds’ against ‘blood-thirsty’ hunters and poachers. Additionally, the ENGO launched a campaign for a referendum to abolish spring hunting. They were successful in turning hunting into a national issue, and the Maltese will be going to the polls on 11th of April to decide the fate of spring hunting.

DSC_0857Pitted against the ENGOs are Malta’s 14,000 hunters, who have responded by presenting themselves as a ‘cultural minority’ whose traditions and passions (which, they argue, are central to notions of Maltese identity) are misunderstood and undervalued. Hunters have also started denying access to their hunting grounds and deliberately targeting protected species out of protest.

Caught in the cross-fire: the Police, who have called out the army to help them maintain order when tensions between hunters and environmentalists turn into violent scuffles; State consultation platforms deserted by both NGOs and hunters; one conservation biologist and one social anthropologist…

But said conservationist and anthropologist are now happy to announce that their first publication is now out! Entitled ‘Black Stork Down: Military Metaphors in Bird Conservation in Malta this paper describes how the military metaphors used by ENGOs to communicate their field efforts has shifted their goals from bird conservation to the welfare of individual birds. This approach has severely limited the grounds for compromise with hunters, fuelling the expensive and destructive conflict they should be instead mitigating and undermining conservation efforts in the long run.

DSC_0910These results have also been shared with the wider public through a well-read piece on the Conversation, an article on the popular Birding magazine (with a reach of 12,000 readers!) and a TV-Spot on Maltese evening news (ps. It’s in Maltese)! Two more articles are currently in review, so watch this space!

In addition, on  12th  March, Brian and Diogo chaired a workshop at the School of Anthropology and Conservation. Their introductory presentation outlining the project was followed by an hour-long discussion revolving around central issues in conservation as well as the value of multi-disciplinary approaches and research. Missed this awesome event? Fear not: here’s the podcast!

This project (and the publications and workshops it generated) strengthens SAC’s position as a site of high-impact research that harmoniously brings together Conservation Biology, Social Anthropology and Human Ecology. Conservation’s concern with environmental governance sharpens Anthropology’s models of discourse, metaphor and conflict. Similarly, anthropological perspectives and methods help conservationists understand social conflict, rather than slip into it!

DSC_0905Diogo and Brian would like to thank SAC for funding this project through its ‘Collaborative Research Fund’. Thanks also go to those many staff members and students who participated in the March Workshop (you have unwittingly written their funding grant for them). Caroline Bennett, thanks for recording the event and taking many cool pictures which now decorate this blog entry!

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