Politics and Practice of
Sea Turtle Conservation


While my research interests and projects have expanded over the past several years, the politics and practice of sea turtle conservation continues to be a compelling theme in my work.

I completed my PhD in the Geography Department at the University of Cambridge. In my dissertation research (funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), I used the case of marine turtle conservation to examine changing wildlife conservation policies. These have shifted over the past 20 years, away from a traditional narrative that defines the problem as "too many poor people using or competing with wildlife" and proscribes exclusion of people and prohibition of resource use in parks and protected areas, to a counter-narrative that argues for the sustainable use of wildlife and community-based conservation. Community-based conservation responds to increasing calls for local participation in both conservation and development (see Campbell and Vainio-Matilla 2003). It aims to secure community support by promoting participation in and (sometimes) control over conservation schemes. The premise of sustainable use is that in order for resources to be protected, they must be valuable. 'Using' can provide income (and thus conservation incentives) to local communities and funds for conservation. Ecotourism, a form of non-consumptive use, is increasingly tied to the sustainable use concept and is popular among conservationists, in spite of long-standing concerns about ecotourism in practice (see Meletis and Campbell 2007, Campbell 2002). The popularity of ecotourism is such that we might consider it a kind of conservation and development meta-narrative (see Campbell et al 2008).

My PhD research specifically focused on how the counter-narrative of sustainable use and community-based conservation has been received in the Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) of the IUCN. The biological challenges for using long-lived, migratory species, such as marine turtles, are many and yet there are numerous unknowns in marine turtle biology that allow for wide interpretation of their implications for conservation. To understand these varying interpretations, I evaluated how marine turtle biologists make trade-offs between science and other values (see Campbell 2002a), and between conservation and development goals (see Campbell 2000). Understanding these two sets of tensions, and how experts resolve and/or prioritize them, is critical to assessing the strength and resilience of particular narratives. It also illustrates the role of and interaction between knowledge and power in policy making, a theme of more general interest to political ecology and that informs my continuing work on the marine turtle case.

In Costa Rica, research at several sites where sea turtles are protected provided the empirical basis on which to evaluate how conservation narratives were being implemented through the national and at the local level. Ostional, Costa Rica, was my main field site. Ostional is home to a unique conservation project, where olive ridley sea turlte eggs are collected and sold through a community cooperative (see Campbell 1998, 1999, Campbell et al 2007). The Ostional case provides many interesting contrasts with other sea turtles conservation projects that rely primarily on ecotourism, and is the exception to the rules of conservation in Costa Rica (see Campbell 2002, 2002b, 2007).