Millions of dollars are spent globally on biodiversity conservation each year. Despite prolonged financial and institutional support, biodiversity decline continues at a rapid rate. Catherine Corson’s Corridors of Power: The Politics of Environmental Aid to Madagascar helps explain the complex social, political, economic, and discursive drivers of conservation failure in one of the world’s most treasured biodiversity hotspots: Madagascar.
Corridors of Power provides a deep dive into the history and inner workings of transnational environmental politics. It is an ideal read for graduate students and scholars interested in conservation governance, international aid, and the role of science in policy-making. While the book focuses specifically on Madagascar, it highlights power dynamics and processes endemic to most international conservation and development efforts. Corson digs into the dynamics of who is invited to the policy-making table, who benefits most from decisions made at the table, and who builds the table—that is, who frames the problem being addressed.
The title’s double entendre draws attention to how the size and location of protected areas in key ecological corridors in Madagascar (forested areas with high concentrations of biodiversity) stem directly from high-level negotiations and decision-making occurring at international conferences and the headquarters of conservation organizations. By highlighting this connection, Corson argues that throughout Madagascar’s history, foreign interests and ideas have shaped how resources have been used, as well as who benefits most from their use.
Corson brings insider status to this work, having held positions at the White House, State Department, and USAID. This perspective allows her to trace the formal and informal processes that shifted environmental management away from comprehensive integrated conservation and development to a more narrow focus on biodiversity research and the establishment of protected areas. This narrowing of the conservation agenda was enabled by the neoliberal push to reduce the role of the state, in combination with the participatory turn in international development that empowered nongovernmental, largely foreign-run, organizations to determine the goals and strategies of conservation in Madagascar.
Corson asserts that the network of international conservation organizations, donors, philanthropists, celebrities, and private companies, something she calls the “conservation enterprise,” has not only taken decision-making authority away from local resource users, but has also led to fewer funds making their way into the rural reaches of Madagascar. She illustrates how financial and technical expertise are concentrated at the highest levels, funding the creation of reports, brochures, maps, and meetings that take place primarily internationally or in Madagascar’s capital city.
A significant portion of the book concentrates on the role of the United States in conservation efforts in Madagascar. USAID has been one of the largest financial supporters and intellectual architects of conservation efforts in Madagascar, something that Corson argues was enabled by the lobbying efforts of organizations in the United States to influence legislators who were more likely to fund environmental protection efforts overseas than within the United States, precisely because it wouldn’t impact the constituents of congressional representatives. This dynamic illustrates another take-home message of the book: a fundamental injustice stems from the fact that the successes of conservation projects in Madagascar have been measured by a narrow set of biodiversity indicators established by distant funding organizations, instead of by those most intimately impacted by the projects. Biodiversity conservation has had consistent support from all US administrations since the 1980s; therefore, environmental organizations with much broader mandates learned to fit their missions into this more narrowly defined objective. This mandate inhibited organizations from taking on underlying structural issues pertaining to conservation governance or the deeper economic and social drivers contributing to biodiversity loss.
Corson specifically explores some of the more problematic components of the “Durban Vision,” a commitment made by Madagascar’s President Ravalomanana in 2003 to triple the area under protection in Madagascar by 2008. To do so, she draws on field research in two ecological corridors in eastern Madagascar. She shows that the hasty timeline undermined meaningful engagement with local resource users. Mayors were brought to large regional meetings where they were encouraged to accept the ecologically driven protected area boundaries, with little to no consideration for traditional users, sacred sites, or the potential socio-economic impacts of the new protected areas on local people.
One of the book’s strengths is also one of its shortcomings. Corridors of Power is primarily an institutional ethnography; it traces the key players and negotiations at a level few authors currently cover concerning Madagascar. At the same time, little space is dedicated to showing how the key decisions made at the international and national levels play out on the ground from the perspective of local people. A small section in chapter 7 highlights more regional representatives, such as mayors, and local resource users. Given the book’s assertion that local interests and needs were not adequately considered in the majority of conservation strategy decision-making, the book would have benefited from a few more examples grounded in interviews and opinions from individuals living in proposed or existing protected areas.
This minor shortcoming aside, Corson’s critical and deeply historicized analysis of environmental policy in Madagascar affords readers unique insight into processes often shrouded in secrecy. Some of the more important financial and political decisions, as Corson points out, were negotiated behind closed doors or informally between strategically positioned actors. Corson’s work is detailed, pulling from an impressive number of interviews and archival sources. As a result, this book will be the definitive source on Madagascar’s conservation aid history for years to come.