Development in Practice 20 (2010)
Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples
Conservation regimes, with 12 per cent of land already secured under them, have become a major cause of displacement worldwide. The victims are largely the indigenous peoples (IPs), often referred to as ‘the first peoples’ and ‘the first stewards’. The author captures the misplaced language, perceptions, plans, and projects of the ‘conservation aristocracy’ who, with their billions of dollars, have coaxed national governments to unleash a war of sorts, resulting in tens of millions of conservation refugees (p. xxi). This ‘conservation aristocracy’, led by the US-based Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature sold the American fiction of human-free ‘wilderness’, packaged into an ugly conservation strategy under the garb of ‘science-based conservation’ (pp. xv–xxvi). A gullible elite class of conservationists and environmentalists from various scientific backgrounds readily sanctified this misplaced strategy. Modelled around Yosemite National Park, in California, which was carved out of a ‘war of extermination’ (p. 1) waged primarily against the Miwok Indians in the mid- 1800s, the idea of colonising biodiversity rich regions and converting them into enclosed ‘fortress conservation’ areas spread far and wide within the USA and into Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Africa and then on to Asia, especially since 1960.
As the conservation agenda moved to the foreground, in the context of alarming natural-resource crises and increasing species extinction, the IPs who occupy about 85 per cent of the 100,000 (or more) protected areas worldwide, while claiming most of the remaining, challenged the conservation aristocracy, their supporters, and donors such as large foundations, international financial institutions, bilateral and multilateral banks, transnational corporations, and of course the governments. The author narrates the slow and painful process whereby IPs worldwide have remarkably confronted the fundamentals of this ‘sciencebased conservation’ in various international forums, such as the erstwhile United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, CoP meetings of the Convention on Biodiversity, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), World Parks Congress, and many others. Unable to defend their ‘science-based conservation’, which treats humanity as ‘something apart from nature’, the author sees these transnational conservationists ‘gradually changing the practice of conservation biology and hastening the demise of exclusionary conservation’ (p. 236).
The traditional ecological knowledge of IPs has begrudgingly been reframed as ‘a major contributor to their [the conservationists’] own sound science’. Alongside this are the well-documented positive impacts of human disturbances on the world’s ecosystems, such as positive symbiosis between wild and domestic ungulates grazing together; enhanced biotic health through cultivation of selective perennials, methodical grazing of livestock, deliberate setting of fires, and carefully managed rotation of cattle; reversal of desertification with properly managed livestock; preservation of cultural diversity as the only way to protect biological diversity; the undesirability of a complete ban on hunting by villagers for
their own consumption; and discovery of human settlements practising scientifically sound conservation for generations, resulting in biodiversity hot-spots. Not only this, but the removal of people undermines biodiversity, while often ‘deliberate breaking of conservation rules and regulations has been found to maintain, even enhance, floral diversity at various settings in the world’ (p. 139). The positive-disturbance theory in conservation
is now scientific. Moreover, no serious environmental degradation is caused by people settled in protected areas.
All these developments, according to the author, have led to the IPs’ involvement in co-management and collaboration, as stakeholders and sometimes even as rightholders. The setting up of indigenously owned and operated projects, indigenous reserves or community conservation areas, biocultural heritage sites, community reserves, and locally managed marine areas is seen as a positive development. The Indigenous
Protected Areas, beginning with the Nantawarrina in the Flinders Ranges of Australia and later on appearing in various forms in Lao fishing villages along the Mekong river, and the Mataven forest in north-east Columbia, the obtaining of ‘Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claims’ by
Tagbanwa people in the Coron Island of Philippines, and the hunting ban and wildlife-protection rules by the Nagas of Khonoma village in Nagaland in the Indian subcontinent are depicted as instances of radical departure leading to a new era in conservation. The author sees a new
relationship emerging between native people and transnational conservation NGOs.
The IPs’ aspirations meanwhile became strongly embedded internationally, as in the ILO Convention 169, Agenda 21, the Convention of Biodiversity, and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Mention is also made of pathbreaking Court judgements that paved the way towards rectification of historical injustices, such as verdicts by the Canadian Supreme Court in the Calder case in 1973
and the Australian High Court in the Mabo case in 1992, and legislation such as the 1988 amendment to the Canadian National Parks Act, allowing selective annual trapping and controlled wood cutting in parks, and the 2006 Forest Rights Act of India. The author’s easily readable narrative is given life and punch by anecdotes from the experiences of the Miwok, Paiute, and Ahwahneechee of Yosemite Valley; the
Maasai of Eastern Africa; the ‘Pygmy’ peoples of Uganda and Central Africa; the Karen of Thailand; the Adivasis of India; the Basarwa of Botswana; the Ogiek of Kenya; the Kayapo of Brazil; the Mursi of Ethiopia; and the Babongo, Bakoya, Baka, Barimba, Bagama, Kouyi, and Akoa of Gabon, as well as numerous conferences.
At the very outset, Mark Dowie insists that his book itself is a ‘good guy vs. good guy story’, with the conservation aristocracy and the IPs as the honorable ‘contestants’ who ‘share a goal’ of obtaining ‘a healthy diverse biota’ (p. ix). Transnational conservationists, it is averred, ‘should not be assigned the same “bad guy” status as extractive corporados who push native people over and compromise ecosystems in their avaricious quest for resources and profit’ (p. x). Their conflict with the IPs is easily explained away as ‘due mostly to conflicting views of nature, radically different definitions of nature and profound misunderstandings’ (p. ix). This conclusion is hugely problematic. An extension of this logic would then lead these extractive corporados too to be perceived as good guys, sharing the same goal as IPs by providing huge funds for conservation from their accumulated capital in the larger pursuit of progress, development, and the well-being of society. Never mind the unsustainable use and destruction of biotic wealth in the name of growth and profits: their Corporate Social Responsibility rating increases with their funding to transnational conservationists. The conservation aristocracy maintains a resounding silence, hence gives its tacit approval, on the subject of the root cause of the destruction of nature. But, along with their cosy relationship with powerful extractive industries, the elite conservationists do not look like good guys, as demonstrated throughout this book by ample evidence supplied by the author.
Transnational conservationists provide a respectable veneer for the eviction of IPs. For them ‘resettlement’ is the business of government, and not theirs. They cite national sovereignty as the common excuse for turning the other way around. Often they patronisingly proclaim that these Stone Age creatures – the IPs– also have the right to enter the age of computers. For them, nature is a commodity to be preserved as an assemblage of scientific curios with economic value for ecosystem services, bioprospecting, carbon-sink and tradable carbon credits, and ecotourism. But IPs believe that they belong to the natural world, and that conservation requires us all to re-organise our very ways of being on this planet, by redefining our relationships between ourselves as well as our relationship with nature. So do IPs and the conservation aristocracy have a shared goal?
The author defines the problem as modern science-based conservation versus rights based conservation. But this is only a propagandist slogan designed to appeal to the urban elites. It has neither science nor logic to validate it, but it helps to divert attention from the root cause of the destruction of biotic wealth, which is the industrialization model, fuelled by the insatiable and self-destructive drive for accumulation of capital by enclosing the commons for extraction and conservation, by dispossessing indigenous people, and by denying democratic governance and rights to self-determination. The book is both compelling and valuable for conservation.
C. R. Bijoy
Campaign for Survival and