Decolonize Conservation: Global Voices for Indigenous Self-Determination, Land, and a World in Common
by Fiore Longo and Ashley Dawson, eds., Survival International
Publisher: Common Notions
ISBN: 978-1-942173-76-2 Published: April 2023, Paperback, Pages: 256
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In fact, this book makes a strong case, bordering on a polemic, that it is rather bad intentions, those of Big Conservation, that paves the road to hell for the Indigenous peoples. It proposes alternative conservation models fully involving the Indigenous, the traditional, wise guardians of nature, and rightful owners of what became "Protected Areas", National and Transboundary Parks. Despite centuries of displacement by colonialism, Conservation rarely takes place in a vacuum with total wilderness remaining, largely, a myth. Conservation nearly always affects indigenous and local people and should no longer take place at their detriment or without their full and informed consent and participation. This is an eye-opening book that every well-meaning supporter and employee of big conservation organizations should read. Edited by Survival International’s Fiore Longo and Ashley Dawson and written in a reader-friendly, non-technical style, it contains first-hand testimonials/horror stories and views of some 40 authors, mostly indigenous activists but also analysis by academics from 18 countries, in Africa, South Asia (predominantly India) South America, Europe and North America. Most chapters are based on presentations at the “Our Land, Our Nature” congress, which was organized by Survival International, Minority Rights Group and Rainforest Foundation UK, and held in Marseille in September 2021, during the pandemic.
The central argument of the book is more or less: Wilderness is an artificial concept, as on the one hand Humanity is not separate from Nature and on the other around half of the protected areas had been previously inhabited by indigenous people who managed them wisely. Characteristically, the world’s first park, Yosemite, was developed in the land of the Miwok people, 39 years after they had been expelled by miners. California’s empty parks, also thanks to the Climate Change, now catch fire more easily. Big Conservation is an industry, with roots in Colonial times, and like any other industry, in its neocolonial (and neoCO2lonial) form, is out to make money from the Global South. In addition, this industry is hypocritical too as it claims to save nature and communities while actually destroying them both, by displacing communities and allowing extractive activities inside protected areas. It leverages the Climate Crisis to protect vast new chunks of ‘wilderness’ (from the current `17% of the world or roughly the size of Russia, to reach 30% by 2023 under the infamous 30x30 plan ) so as to attract huge additional funding (up to $10 trillion by some estimates, little of which will reach the communities) by greenwashing (via offsets, REDD and nature-based-solutions) corporations so that the latter can go on polluting, extracting and exploiting, sometimes within the said protected area. Other funds are being generated through cooperation with the intelligence community to combat illegal wildlife trade, also a source of funding for extremist groups. In essence, the big 5 (pun intended) conservation organizations of the Anglo world, are the new “East India” and “East Africa” Companies of the colonial era, thus we have a neocolonial conservation model. As their forefathers, they went in first, then came the troops: conservation is becoming increasingly militarized, with lethal effects for indigenous and locals. In Tanzania , Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Botswana and some of India’s states, among others, there is a shoot-on-sight policy, so rangers are allowed to shoot first and ask questions later. Anyones that moves inside the forest is conveniently called a poacher, even if hunting for subsistence. In Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the biggest rainforest reserve in Africa and one of the biggest in the world, there have been several “extra-judicial killings'' (a polite synonym for “murders”) of suspected “poachers”. Pastoralists are also unwanted and occasionally shot at. While agro-pastoralism is accepted in France and within Cévennes National Park (a World Heritage Site) for some reason it is not fit for Tanzania and the Maasai traditional pastures. Could this just be plain racism?
Then there is the new fruit of international networks of protected areas governed by hybrid bodies led by royalty and their trans-boundary conservation areas. The powerful donors associated with big conservation are actually investors, buying up land. In fact the whole nature-based-solutions idea is built on shoddy calculations and fake promises and premises: Due to the Climate Crisis and forest fires “the ecosystems that are supposed to be offsetting continued fossil fuel emissions are themselves increasing emissions, not reducing them!”. A land the size of Australia would have to be planted with rapidly-growing Eucalyptus, a disaster for biodiversity, to have a meaningful effect in absorbing CO2. The Indigenous peoples are between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between death from mining, and death from conservation. Not to mention drug dealers, wildlife dealers, guerrillas, religious extremists, racist politicians and other diseases. And they are becoming fewer and more vulnerable every year. The taxpayers and micro-donors to big conservation NGOs in the Global North, the indigenous people and local communities of the Global South, do not really understand what is going on, when they find out it is too late. The Media Industry is also largely failing the Indigenous people, barely publishing a negative story, which is very strange because the media loves disasters. A major exception was the BuzzFeed investigation of human rights abuses in Congo in 2018.
The above is a non-exhaustive attempt to sum up some of the wealth of documented evidence presented in the book. Even though it is hard, and unfair, not to believe testimonials from people risking their lives, this reviewer is not convinced that the Global Conservation sector is evil or rotten at its core. Most of the employees and officers of big conservation organizations I believe are well-meaning and chose this not so lucrative career, not to torture or exploit indigenous people or greenwash extractive corporations, but rather for the exact opposite reasons. Still, they should carefully read this book and compare notes between themselves and their colleagues. Surely they must have some observations and doubts of their own! And then start asking questions from those higher up. Surely, the vast majority of conservationists are against a fortress, militarized, neocolonial, conservation model and against becoming the green-washers of extractive corporations!
So, what are the alternative options, what can be done? The book first of all recommends: Resistance! Followed by Solidarity to those resisting. Then a prioritization of alternative forms of conservation which involve the indigenous communities, the traditional guardians of these areas. One of the most moving statements in the book is made by Tokala Leeladhar, an indigenous activist at Amrabad Tiger Reserve, in India: “Whenever a tiger kills our cattle, we feel happy that our elder brother came and visited us and ate whatever they liked.” Pause for a moment to think about this.
Not all is bleak, as some of the less combative authors inform us. There are several national agreements and international treaties. In 1988, Brazil recognized some rights of Indigenous peoples to their traditional lands, but then came the devastating Bolsonaro years. In 2006 came India’s Forest Rights Act which if it becomes genuinely implemented, 50 percent of India’s forests will be returned to local communities. Officials have put up huge resistance and implementation has so far been very slow. The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is a milestone (although it suspiciously ends in RIP…). and there are other ongoing UN initiatives (see for example https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/about-us.html ). There are community-based management mechanisms such as Community Forestry, Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs), and PAs based on local/global collaboration, such as the Itombwe Nature Reserve and Tayna Gorilla Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also, the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve where the community rights of the Soliga community have been officially recognised. While twelve thousand Soligas live in the same area, the number of tigers has more than doubled, from 25 in 2011 to 68 by 2014! Coexistence is possible in tiger reserves!
Key principles of another, progressive, conservation are developed in Chapter 34, by Robert Fletcher, Professor at the Wageningen University. These are (p.214):
“1. Advocacy of conservation within integrated landscapes that do not strictly separate humans and other species as conventional Protected Areas usually do;
2. Advocacy of decision-making within and concerning conservation spaces via direct democratic institutions that follow the principle of subsidiarity in devolving authority as much as possible to the people who live most closely with the biodiversity in question;
3. Funding for conservation efforts not through the competitive market engagement encouraged by advocates of MBIs, but rather through mechanisms intended to redistribute and share existing resources and thereby cultivate biodiversity as a commons grounded by an ethics of care and mutual support;
4. Valuation of biodiversity based not on economic criteria but rather on the intrinsic and/or spiritual significance that nonhuman entities hold within specific cultural spaces;
5. Conservation knowledge-production and decision-making based on negotiation among diverse ways of knowing and relating with nature, rather than only on the Western scientific knowledge generated and valued by most conservation biologists. ”
According to Professor Fletcher, this “whole earth” approach to conservation is in stark opposition to the “Half-Earth” or 30x30 fortress conservation model. These principles make sense even if they may appear a bit dreamy to many, so called, decision-makers, who as we are told, are always under pressure to make quick decisions and choose the lesser evil.
Some other interesting points, questions, thoughts and doubts raised in the book, and in my mind, after reading it are:
- Even though “poaching” is a convenient term to discredit the Indigenous people, there are undeniable links between poaching and wildlife trafficking, in a system driven by profit.
- P. 179 “Indigenous Peoples protect 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments where they have lived for generations”. But can indigenous peoples manage protected areas in a traditional way, totally on their own without assistance and without protection from outside interference?
- There is no particular criticism of private protected areas developed for trophy hunting
- There is no mention of community tourism as an option. All types of tourism seem to be bundled as unwanted: In Ethiopia, we are told that “children stop going to school so they can beg from tourists. Once the children are seventeen or eighteen years old, the tourists no longer give them pens (which they resell), so they become tourist guides. But there are so many tourist guides that a lot of them are unemployed.”(p.17). “So let’s dare to say it: coming to visit a nature park is the equivalent of destroying it.” (p.18) “Tourism should be completely removed from the conservation discourse. Tourism is not a livelihood, it’s a dependency - a very dangerous dependency that makes Indigenous people depend on outsiders. It’s slavery” (p.174) . On the contrary, community-owned tourism can be emancipation for the communities, an alternative to this displacement model. Community-owned Conservation and Community-owned Tourism can work hand in hand and resist Neocolonial Conservation and Neocolonial Tourism until the new system emerges.
- The question of Individual indigenous land rights vs communal indigenous land rights vs state rights. Who owns minerals below the earth?
- “The West” is blamed for pretty much everything, for example both for inventing the concept of Indigenous (p.182) and for ignoring, using and exploiting the Indigenous. There are no apparent differentiations in "The West". In our efforts to understand and defend the Indigenous we should avoid creating an absolute ‘Aboriginalist’ doctrine where indigenous societies, cultures and practices are by definition treated as totally different or better than non-indigenous ones, just because they arrived in a specific area a few thousand years earlier!
- The discussion is rather depoliticized/sanitized. For example there are a handful of occurrences of the term ‘capitalist’ in the book, but none of marxist, communist, anarchist, socialist. The role of local elites is also not examined in the book. There is no mention of local class struggles, revolutionary forces, progressive movements and how these involve or affect the Indigenous. Or how socialist states like Vietnam and China, the former Soviet Union, or India's Kerala, have approached Indigenous communities and conservation. Clearly the Indigenous are not in a vacuum with only a couple of Western organizations taking up their cause.
The book concludes, appropriately, with an important product of the conference that also gave rise to the book The Marseille Manifesto, “A People’s Manifesto for the Future of Conservation”, of October 14, 2021.
It contains 12 sensible, but not all easy to digest by the status quo, demands which stress the need for a new conservation as well as a new economic model. But if the international community, national governments and indeed Big Conservation, can agree to at least seriously consider the first three demands, included below, the future could be far better for the Indigenous people, their lands and nature conservation, and all of us.
“The international community must agree to a complete halt in the creation of new Protected Areas, which exclude Indigenous and local communities;
Governments must fully respect, protect, and uphold Indigenous Peoples’ land and forest rights, and respect collective customary land and forest use by local communities, to ensure protection of that land in accordance with their wishes; this should be the primary means of protecting biodiversity throughout the world;
Governments and conservation organizations must not embark on any conservation projects without the full Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the communities concerned ”
Clearly, we also need better communication and cooperation between proponents and activists of Indigenous rights and proponents, practitioners and academics of Indigenous and Community-owned Tourism.