Increasingly, natural resource conservation programs refer to participation and local community involvement as one of the necessary prerequisites for sustainable resource management. In frameworks of adaptive co-management, the theory of participatory conservation plays a central role in the democratization of decision-making authority and equitable distribution of benefits and burdens. We observe, however, that the institutions of state, society, and economy shape the implementation and application of participation in significant ways across contexts. This paper examines the political ecology of participation by comparing and contrasting discourse and practice in four developed and developing contexts. The cases drawn from Central Asia, Africa, and North America illustrate that institutional dynamics and discourse shape outcomes. While these results are not necessarily surprising, they raise questions about the linkages between participatory conservation theory, policy and programmatic efforts of implementation to achieve tangible local livelihood and conservation outcomes. Participation must be understood in the broader political economy of conservation in which local projects unfold, and we suggest that theories of participatory governance need to be less generalized and more situated within contours of place-based institutional and environmental histories. Through this analysis we illustrate the dialectical process of conservation in that the very institutions that participation is intended to build create resistance, as state control once did. Conservation theory and theories of participatory governance must consider these dynamics if we are to move conservation forward in a way that authentically incorporates local level livelihood concerns.
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