Abstract of PhD Thesis

Contested Boundaries, Contested Places: An Exploration of Ireland’s Contribution to Natura 2000

Sharon Bryan, Trinity College Dublin (2009)

Natura 2000 is a network of protected ecological sites across the European Union considered important for biodiversity. Breaking with the traditional notion of “nature reserves”, designated sites include public, private and commonly held land.  Drawing on ideas emanating from a Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Actor Network Theory (ANT) and a dwelling perspective, this study explores the dilemmas and conflicts arising from attempts to implement the network in Ireland, and through doing so develops sociological themes around nature-society relationships, particularly those relating to ‘place’.  Natura 2000 is conceptualized as an attempt to draw and manage lines or boundaries around ‘nature’ and ‘society’ – a process that entails the translation of ‘places’ into ‘habitats’.   The study reveals the challenges and dilemmas facing those attempting to devise and manage these conceptual and geographic boundaries and explores the resistance to place translation by people on-the-ground.

The thesis employs qualitative research methods, drawing in particular on data derived from 59 qualitative interviews with key informants and landholders directly affected by site designation.  It also draws on documentary analysis and participant observation. The research is divided into two phases.  Phase 1 explores the process of Natura 2000 line-drawing at national level while Phase 2 consists of two case studies of contested line-drawing in specific places. The main findings of the study are outlined below.

In Natura 2000 there is a tension between “science-first” and “people-included” (Kelsey, 2003, Stoll-Kleeman et al, 2002) models of conservationism: it attempts to achieve a scientific objective, biodiversity conservation, while taking social, economic and cultural factors into account (Alphandéry et al, 2001).  This entails repeated line-drawing exercises between what is considered ‘natural’ and what is considered ‘social’.  Through an analysis of its implementation in Ireland, this thesis reveals Natura 2000 line-drawing as a highly controversial, socially mediated and politically negotiated exercise based on ‘uncertain’ and ‘incomplete’ science (Pinton, 2001), the boundaries of which are always contested.

The thesis also reveals the impracticalities of devising and managing conceptual and geographic boundaries between ‘nature’ and ‘society’ in particular locales.  It shows how scientific uncertainties can plague decision-making processes and how these uncertainties can exacerbate conflict.   It further shows how standardised, ‘placeless’ solutions can be insensitive to the particularities of place and how ‘nature’ continually exercises an agential role that can frustrate humanly-devised attempts to define, control or manage it.

While powerful lobby groups (both pro and anti designation) have enjoyed some input into line-drawing at national and EU levels, both case studies reveal the extent to which people on-the-ground played little or no part in these processes.  In spite of integrationist rhetoric promising moves towards a more “people-included” model of conservationism, Natura 2000’s “science-first” (Kelsey, 2003) methodology effectively displaces people-on-the-ground.  The translation of place to habitat takes nature out-of-place and out-of-time: it reduces places to only that which can be viewed through the lens of ‘science’.

Unlike lobby groups at national level who attempt to influence the process by drawing their own, alternative nature-society boundaries, ordinary landholders on-the-ground resist the ‘scientisation’ of their places by not drawing nature-society boundaries. They resist ‘place as habitat’ through a reliance on alternative local ways of knowing and relating to ‘nature’ and the habitual practices of dwelling-in-place.

Against the background of extensive socio-ecological change in rural Ireland, conservationists focus on protecting nature while local people focus on protecting their place. Through strikingly similar rhetorics of loss and catastrophe, both groups articulate concerns regarding the changing nature of these (for one reason or another ‘special’) places.  The thesis concludes that resistance to designation is bound up with a broader sense of anxiety regarding changing rural lifestyles, livelihoods and experiences of place.  These are further threatened by “science-first” (Kelsey, 2003) methods of nature conservation.