The much-loved wildlife documentaries that are a staple of family television perpetuate ‘colonial and racist beliefs’, according to a leading conservation group, which says ‘myths’ are preserved in such programmes, as well as in school textbooks, the media and NGOs’ adverts. ‘Conservation has a dark history,’ says Survival International, ‘and it’s rooted in racism, colonialism, white supremacy, social injustice, land theft, extractivism and violence.’
Urging greater respect and a central role for indigenous people as guardians of ecosystems and biodiversity, Survival’s new ‘guide to decolonize language in conservation’ analyses how apparently neutral words can shape our perception of nature – and the people who live most closely with it. It also takes aim at the world’s main conservation organisations, such as the World Wildlife Fund and the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which are accused of perpetuating this racism, violence and ‘commodification of nature’.
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The dominant ‘Fortress Conservation’ model – fiercely criticised by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples’ rights, in her 2018 report Cornered by Protected Areas – is one in which local people are excluded from ancestral lands, often at the point of a ranger’s gun, says Survival, with logging, mining or other resource extraction then allowed on the now-empty land.
It also contrasts the connotations of almost synonymous terms, such as ‘exploring’ and ‘encroaching’. Why, it asks, is hunted meat in Europe’s restaurants called game and considered prestigious, but when eaten by Africans or Asians referred to as bushmeat, a term it calls ‘particularly racist’. With hunting versus poaching, Survival says the latter is used to criminalise hunter-gatherers feeding their families while rich tourists shoot ‘trophy’ animals for fun. Other binary concepts we are urged to reconsider are rancher/herder, and traveller/nomad.
Botswana and the San
Survival has documented many examples across the Commonwealth of how human rights have been trampled on in the name of conservation. It has long defended the San, Botswana’s indigenous people, who were forced out of ancestral hunting grounds in the central Kalahari game reserve after diamonds were discovered there and now live in government camps, beset by alcoholism, depression, and modern illnesses. ‘After the Botswana government closed the Bushmen’s only water borehole and forced them from their land, Wilderness Safaris opened a tourist lodge on their land, complete with bar and swimming pool,’ Survival notes.
India’s indigenous people, or Adivasis, are also often forced out of national parks, usually to protect tigers – though some of these reserves have no tigers. The people evicted from Rajasthan’s Sariska reserve over the decade since 2008 said their local knowledge could have helped save the animals and combat poachers but they were ignored. In Karnataka, 20,000 Jenu Kuruba (‘honey-collectors’) were illegally evicted from Nagarhole national park, with the support of the WCS (some are still fighting for their legal right to live in the forest).
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Survival estimates that 100,000 people have been removed from protected areas in India and almost 300,000 people, from 700 villages, are earmarked for relocation (though another report estimates 700,000 indigenous people are at risk of being forced out of Indian forests and one puts the figure at 9.5 million).
In June, Survival reported on thousands of Maasai near Serengeti national park fleeing from their homes after police fired on protesters resisting attempts to evict them to make way for more land earmarked for conservation and trophy hunting: 31 people were shot, and 13 wounded with machetes.
Maasai have also been excluded from former territory in Kenya, where the Northern Rangelands Trust, which covers 42,000 sq km or nearly 8% of Kenya, has been created from grazing areas once used by them and their fellow pastoralists, the Samburu. Survival says indigenous people are ‘violently excluded’ from NRT-controlled conservation areas, which draw huge funding from carbon trading, donor country grants, and luxury safari lodges.
There is nothing new about people finding themselves fenced off from lands they once used – loss of rights to graze, forage and gather wood as land became royal hunting preserves was widespread in feudal Europe, and conflict over ‘poaching’ persists. But one notably different aspect of what many see as ‘bourgeois environmentalism’ imposed on Africa and Asia since the colonial era is how general ecological catastrophes are often extrapolated from deterioration in one area, such as when Maasai, unable to use former rangelands given over to national parks, are forced to over-graze other areas, thereby reinforcing western ideas of how indigenous people degrade soil and spur deforestation: Africa must be preserved from Africans.
Nothing illustrates this double-standard better than hunting. While San were shot at from a police helicopter while hunting antelope to feed their families in Botswana, even lions can now be hunted by tourists for the right price. This restriction of hunting to a privileged elite follows a pattern set by British royals – on a safari in 1860, about 600 head of large game were shot in one day.
It is not just conflict over apparently dwindling resources that fuels such injustices. Paleoanthropologists have marginalised and excluded local Maasai from the Olduvai Gorge while researching the earliest hominins – ironically ending use of what is probably the world’s oldest site of continuous human existence.
But the best argument for the west to rethink notions of conservation is self-interest. As Minnie Degawan, of the Philippines’ Kankanaey-Igorot people, put it last year: ‘Indigenous peoples have centuries’ worth of traditional knowledge to contribute to the fight to stop climate change and biodiversity loss.’
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.