Struggles over conservation space: Social justice in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (compilation)


In the past several decades under a growing influence of ecological modernisation, various assumed ‘win-win’ approaches to protected area conservation and poverty alleviation have been introduced all over the world, especially in resource-rich developing countries. Yet protected area conservation is an inherently political process, and the goals are often not achieved. There are concerns about competing social outcomes, as well as debates over contrary epistemologies. Drawing on a constructivist and critical research approach, I discuss the politics of protected area conservation in South Africa, with a focus on social justice. I do this through an analysis of conflicts over conservation space in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (IWP) in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The IWP is a ‘conservation for development’ project and UNESCO World Heritage site, managed by the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority (IWPA) on behalf of the state. The IWPA seeks to combine the conservation of World Heritage with poverty alleviation and local economic development, through private eco-tourism.
My theoretical approach starts off with a view of protected areas as spatial phenomena. I tackle the analysis with inspiration from Henri Lefebvre’s theory on the production of space. Through an examination of top-down political economic processes, I ask whether conflicts over conservation space arise because of conflicting norms that underlie conservation in protected areas. I interrogate the ways in which conservation influences the freedom, or capabilities, of local users and inhabitants, to achieve ‘beings’ and ‘doings’ (Sen 1999), according to their values and norms. Examining bottom-up initiatives from local actors, I focus on reactions to the enclosure of conservation space, in terms of everyday life, agency and resistance.
The findings of my research show that global and national norms of protected area conservation that are imposed upon local lived space, have negative consequences for the freedom of local inhabitants. Enclosure in the IWP plays out in two ways: Firstly, the proclamation of the park by the state has resulted in the consolidation of previously disparate areas of land, into one protected and contested area. Secondly, institutional enclosure has been reinforced through a strengthened legal framework for conservation – and a global impetus for the conservation of World Heritage. There have been both civil and criminal cases taken against conservation transgressors in the IWP.
Ultimately, local inhabitants have been alienated from land, as well as from management practices in the IWP. This juxtaposes efforts to restore local land and resource rights against national and global interest in conservation. The implementation of global conservation through market mechanisms is particularly problematic where there is structural inequality with historical roots, such as in South Africa. Taking a view of protected areas as spatial phenomena allows a nuanced recognition of the relationship between land, the environment and political rights, an important theme in the emerging field of Sustainability Science. Although developed in a South African context, the analytical framework is transferrable to cases elsewhere in the world.


  • Melissa Hansen
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Social Sciences Interdisciplinary


  • Agency, capabilities, human development, the politics of sustainability, the production of space, protected areas, rights and resistance, South Africa, struggles
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
  • Stefan Anderberg, Supervisor
Award date2014 Feb 27
  • Lund University
Print ISBNs978-91-979832-4-2
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2014-02-27 Time: 10:15 Place: Geocentrum II, room Pangea, Sölvegatan 12, Lund External reviewer(s) Name: Nustad, Knut Title: Associate professor Affiliation: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo ---

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