A Parable for Environmentalists

By: Katherine Marshall

January 25, 2010

A monkey, so goes an ancient eastern parable, passed by a stream and saw a fish in the water. Assuming that it must be struggling for breath, he "rescued" it. On dry land, the fish flopped about as the monkey rejoiced in its liberation. But the fish soon died. The monkey was sad that his rescue had come too late.


The monkey/fish parable is often told to highlight the dangers of an imperialist spirit and of aggressive religious proselytizing. The obvious message is that the desire to help others may be gravely misdirected. It's a story that speaks to the arrogance of power.

An unfolding story from Madagascar has poignant echoes of the tale of the monkey and the fish. The global environmental movement is cast as the monkey, the local population as the fish.

Madagascar is an ecologist's dream and nightmare. A dream because it has unique animals and flora that evolved after the island separated long ago from Africa. Lemurs are one famous example of a unique Malagasy species. I was told years ago that Madagascar's snakes resemble their poisonous African cousins but the poison ducts are not connected - which came as a relief when I stepped on one barefoot.

The nightmare is the vision of ecological destruction -erosion, loss of species, disappearance of forests, climate change. So a host of programs are working to protect the island's natural heritage.

Scholar Eva Keller cautions that a complex clash is taking shape between ecologists and the Malagasy who live in some areas where the environmental movement sees an urgent need for protection. Her research has focused on the Masoala Penninsula and Park, along the northeast coast.

The large protected park comes with strong international support and strict regulations. Lemurs play and a wild variety of natural fauna and flora thrive. The aim is preservation and research. Park management focuses on ending slash-and-burn agriculture and the extension of farming into forested areas.

But for villagers, the park program is something akin to a military occupation. People are imprisoned for cutting trees on what they see as their own land. Their view is that foreigners, in a throwback both to the French colonial era and autocratic regimes long before, are imposing a new form of slavery.

All this despite the best intentions and efforts to "empower" local communities. With strong local traditions of large families needing new plots to farm and deep social tensions in Malagasy society, it is not hard to imagine a situation leading to acute conflict. The welfare of very poor Malagasy seems to clash with the challenge of protecting the earth. There are plenty of other places where similar tensions are building.

It is telling that ecologists and environmentalists are often described in terms reminiscent of missionaries spreading the Gospel: a righteousness in their fervor, a certainty in their beliefs. National Public Radio this week reported on studies suggesting that acute tensions between environmental proselytizers and their families are increasing divorce rates. That's bad enough but the dangers of accentuating tensions between conservation groups and local populations threaten both human welfare and the vital cause of environmental protection.

The monkey/fish parable is an epic tragedy. Not only does the fish die; it dies for no reason. The monkey learns nothing, convinced that his view of reality is unassailable: the poor fish needed to be rescued! There are real monkey pitfalls in the path of the environmental movement if the cause is advanced in a spirit of total certainty and righteousness. In places like Madagascar there is a danger of seeing local people like the fish, in need of salvation by outside intervention. Most important, images like the monkey/fish story are the way many people see what's happening in the world and the implications of unbalanced power. It's a good admonition for humility.

But the monkey/fish story, for all its telling symbolism, is a poor frame for the important discussions we need to have today about culture and empowerment. It's far too polarizing. We have moved well beyond a vision of a world where modern and traditional, man and nature, religious and secular, are pitted one against the other. In practice, however, as the Masoala story suggests, the wisdom we have gained about the complexity of development challenges and the merits of pluralist approaches have yet to be translated fully into practice.

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A Parable for Environmentalists