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How Conservation Contributes to the Displacement of Indigenous People

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability CRISIS - Viability of Life on Earth by Quinn LuthyMar 8th 202312 mins
How Conservation Contributes to the Displacement of Indigenous People

In early 2021, US President Joe Biden officially adopted the 30×30 initiative, which calls upon world leaders to conserve 30% of the Earth’s land area by 2030. While protecting and conserving land and ecosystems – especially land threatened most by the climate and biodiversity crises – is important, it is equally crucial to examine the role that conservation has played in the ongoing displacement of indigenous people. 

Conservation and Indigenous Communities

According to Zhaawnong Webb, an indigenous content creator, storyteller, and member of the Crane Clan of the Anishinaabe Tribe of Canada, “Westernised thinking separates human beings and the natural world. The Anishinaable on the other hand, see the natural world as a living breathing entity just like us. We believe there’s a relationship to be had with those beings.” 

This difference in worldview is exemplified when it comes to modern systems and implementations of conservation. Conservation as a whole is one of our best tools to fight the climate and biodiversity crises but at the same time, implementation of conservation and preservation practices has historically been a way for settler colonial governments to remove Indigenous people from their land. Take, for example, the world’s first national park, Yosemite. Yosemite National Park was designated by an Act of Congress in 1890 as a wilderness “for public use, resort, and recreation […] inalienable for all time.” Its creation exemplified a model of conservation that would eventually be exported to Europe, and through imperialism and colonialism, spread throughout the world. 

To this day, the park remains a place for people to go to see picturesque, healthy ecosystems and, most importantly, a lack of human development. The only problem with this narrative is that when Yosemite was designated, the Ahwahnechee band of Miwok people had been living there for thousands of years. Yosemite’s designation served a twofold purpose. One the one hand, the US could use the park as a nation-building project, intertwining the ideas of a ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’ west with national identity. On the other hand, the government used its ability to designate protected areas as a mechanism to expel indigenous people from their lands. 

Yosemite is different from other national parks when it comes to the expulsion of indigenous peoples in that at first, the US Department of the Interior allowed the Ahwahnechee people to continue to live within the park. The Park Service designated a small area where they could live, and employed them to maintain park and guest services. However, when Ahwahnechee workers retired, they were forced to leave Yosemite and their ancestral homelands, the last indigenous worker in the park left in the 1990’s.

Conservation Refugees

In his book Conservation Refugees, award-winning journalist Mark Dowie estimates that there could be as many as 14 million people alive who have been displaced by the establishment of protected and conserved areas around the world. In most cases, these conservation refugees are indigenous people who have been forcefully removed from their ancestral homelands which have sustainably supported them for thousands of years. In many cases, land selected for conservation already has indigenous people living on it. This creates a vicious cycle for indigenous people who have developed reciprocal, ecologically sound relationships with the land that they live on. So how did conservation get here?

The short answer is colonialism. 

As European countries began designating their own national parks, forests, and monuments, they did the same in their colonial holdings, which survived even after decolonisation and independence. After the industrial revolution, European colonists and nations began to see the consequences of pollution on their environments and came to the conclusion that the progression of society, and healthy environments were at odds with each other. Their solution was to designate areas where people couldn’t live. Known as fortress conservation, the concept refers to an idea according to which conserved areas need to be protected from human development across the world. Fortress conservation is also deeply informed by racist ideologies that people of colour are a threat to their environments. 

Fortress Conservation and Tourism

Fortress conservation serves many colonial purposes, but there are generally two reasons that this type of conservation is implemented. The first reason is for tourism. Conservation as tourist attraction means different things for different areas. In the imperial core (Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand), conservation areas were historically established as ways to rid land of its indigenous inhabitants and then repurpose that land to serve as wilderness destinations. In former colonies, conserved areas are regions set aside for wealthy people from the imperial core to visit. Tourists visiting Africa for a safari or big-game hunting do so on land stolen from indigenous inhabitants. Effectively, this method of conservation forces people out of their own land so that wealthy foreigners can exploit it. 

Advocates for conservation tourism in Africa often cite the creation of jobs and the usage of land as a net benefit for local inhabitants. Safari tour guides in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania make an average of US$80 a month while resort workers earn around $200

Considering how much tourists pay for tours and all-inclusive resort, however, many argue that workers could be paid much higher wages. For example, a week-long Safari in Serengeti cost between $2,500 and $7,500, and all-inclusive resorts between $180 and $920 per night. 

Inhabitants surrounding Serengeti National Park are not receiving a fair portion of the weath that the park generates. In addition, many locals cannot afford the park’s entrance fees. It costs at minimum $30/day to visit, which can be up to half of a local worker’s monthly salary. Many resort and Safari company owners are foreigners who use Serengeti National Park as a means to extract wealth from Tanzania. 

Big-game hunting is another story altogether. Many people assume that national parks and conservation areas are put in place to protect wildlife within them from hunting. In practice, conserved areas that allow big-game hunting keep local people from living on, cultivating, or sustainably hunting on land, while at the same time enabling wealthy tourists to shoot endangered species like the White Rhino, the African Elephant as well as lions and leopards. Tanzania charges trophy fees for killing its wildlife, with prices varying by animal. It costs $8,850 to kill a lion and killing an elephant can cost up to $31,000. Paradoxically, these trophy fees are used to invest in conservation. 

A photo of Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of the fast-food chain Jimmy John’s, posing after legally shooting an elephant in Tanzania.

A photo of Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of the fast-food chain Jimmy John’s, posing after legally shooting an elephant in Tanzania.

Proponents of big-game hunting argue that the sport adds value to the lives of endangered animals, but indigenous groups like the Maasai in Tanzania point out that they have lived sustainably around populations of big game for hundreds of thousands of years without endangering their populations. Yet, too often, the Tanzanian government has sided with colonial trophy hunters. In 2018, Tanzanian conservation officials forced four communities of indigenous Maasai people to leave their homes to clear a segment of land bordering Serengeti National Park for big-game hunting. 

Protecting Endangered Animals and Ecosystems from Poaching and Logging

Fortress conservation is also implemented in areas that are vulnerable to poaching and illegal logging, and initiatives like civilian anti-poaching groups have seen some success in combating poaching. Militarised conservation can appear important when it comes to saving critically endangered species from poaching, but it comes at a huge cost to indigenous people. 

In countries like Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Indonesia, illegal and unregulated deforestation and farming has caused an alarming decline of the world’s rainforests. Central Africa’s rainforest has seen the lowest deforestation rate of any major rainforest area in the world, but there are still a multitude of threats to Congo’s rainforests and its residents. Industrial logging and mining is responsible for the majority of deforestation in the DRC, though it should be added that logging roads are often used by poachers, colonists, and farmers to exploit the rainforest. Civil war and unrest in the country has also driven people into the rainforest to escape widespread violence. 

You might also like: Deforestation in Africa: Causes, Effects, and Solutions

A photo of a cleared section of the Amazon Rainforest. 

A cleared section of the Amazon Rainforest. Photo by Kate Evans/CIFOR/Flickr.

In countries like Congo, reputable organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the African Wildlife Defense Force, and Africa Parks fund conservation areas and supply workers with the means to protect these areas with weapons and other enforcement mechanisms. One implementation of militarised conservation happened in Cameroon, with horrifying consequences to indigenous Baka people, who, with the help of Survival International (an organisation that campaigns for indigenous peoples’ rights), submitted a 228-page formal complaint to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report alleged that the Baka people had been denied access to their ancestral lands after the Cameroon government established protected areas with the “vital support of the WWF.”

Some anti-poaching forces are initiated by people living in areas affected by it and have been successful in defending animals like rhinos and elephants from poachers. It is important to note that not all anti-poaching forces are violent towards indigenous people. However, testimonials from members of the Baka community describe “eco-gaurds” funded by the WWF burning down houses, torturing, raping, and killing members of their community. Other indigenous groups around the world cite militarised conservation as an existential threat to their existence, and say that conservation is the number one reason that they are concerned about the future. 

Extractive industries like mining and logging create vicious cycles of violence for indigenous people. When logging companies create roads and infrastructure in previously inaccessible areas near indigenous communities, they also make these areas more accessible to poachers and illegal loggers. NGO’s like the WWF will then work in partnership with local governments fund conservation guards, often equipped with guns and riot gear. Indigenous people are often labeled as poachers even though their farming and hunting traditions have been practiced for thousands of years. In this way, militarised fortress conservation is violent towards indigenous communities, and perpetuates the displacement and destruction of indigenous cultures and their resilience.

But if not fortress conservation, what is the solution? How can we ensure the health and well being of endangered ecosystems and animals without using conservation, which is a tool of colonialism? 

The answer has been in front of us all along. According to a report produced by the Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) Consortium, indigenous people inhabit and administrate 21% of the Earth’s land, despite this small number, the same report posits that 80% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity lives on these lands. This is because indigenous people around the world practice ways of interacting with their ecologies in a way that regulates and encourages biodiversity, this unique interaction with nature and wilderness is generally referred to as stewardship

Conservation vs. Stewardship

The concept of stewardship resists conservationist understandings of nature because it does not view human society and nature as separate. Instead, it encourages people to practice ways of interacting with nature that are mutually beneficial. As the climate crisis unfolds, it is hard to imagine positive societal interactions with nature in the imperial core, but indigenous people have continued to do so for time immemorial. 

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer – a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and lifelong Botanist – describes the tradition of Potawatomi basket-making. Potawatomi people have been using black ash trees for basket making for thousands of years, and doing so requires cutting down a black ash tree. The process of selecting a tree can take hours, but once it is done, community members gather to collect the tree’s wood, which is thinned and then weaved into beautiful, patterned baskets. However, the black ash tree has come under the threat of emerald ash borer beetles. These beetles are invasive to North America, and are fatal to North America’s ash trees. Emerals ash borers drill deep into ash trees when they are larvae, and when they emerge from their pupal state as adults, they bore out of the trees. 

A photo of an Ojibwe black-ash box, with birch bark and porcupine quill details. 

A photo of an Ojibwe black-ash box, with birch bark and porcupine quill details. Photo by Mathers Museum of World Cultures/Flickr

John Pigeon, a Potawatomi basket maker, is deeply reliant on black ash trees for his craft and protects these trees using a combination of indigenous and scientific knowledge. Tree thinning – so-called trap trees, and targeted insecticides are used to keep the stands of Black Ash around John’s community beetle-free. At the same time, research that Kimmerer conducted proves that removing individual black ash trees from overgrown stands allows light to reach the forest floor which encourages new black ash seeds to sprout. Kimmerer observed that these indigenously managed ash stands were faring far better compared to stands in conserved areas. 

Potawatomi society evolved in a way that mandates the usage of every plant and animal that surrounds Potawatomi communities, which means that members of these communities are deeply invested in maintaining and protecting all of these species. It may sound counterintuitive at first, that picking and using plants as well as hunting animals can actually benefit the environments that they inhabit, but when it is done correctly, informed by generational and societal knowledge, it is more beneficial than just leaving ecosystems to their own devices. Black ash trees in conserved areas do not have people caring for them and without indigenous-informed intervention, they are at risk of dying out.

Most indigenous communities around the world have societies which are intimately interconnected to the environments in which they inhabit. When it comes to conservation, governmental and non-governmental leaders alike should be putting indigenous communities at the forefront of conservation and biodiversity protection methodology. 

“We are the enemies of conservation,”said Maasai leader Marin Saning’o in a 2004 speech at the Word Conservation Congress in Bangkok, Thailand.

Saning’o reminded his audience – which was comprised of mostly white European and American conservationists – that they were “the original conservationists.”

“Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seeds species and maintained corridors between ecosystems. We don’t want to be like you, we want you to be like us. We are here to change your minds. You cannot accomplish conservation without us,” he added. 

He also spoke about how more than one hundred thousand Maasai people have been displaced by conservation efforts led by large non-governmental organisations in Kenya and Tanzania.

Bear’s Ears National Monument 

These buttes are the ‘bear’s ears’ of Bear’s Ears National Monument.

These buttes are the ‘bear’s ears’ of Bear’s Ears National Monument. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Allowing Indigenous people to steward their ancestral lands is the single most important action that governments can take if they truly care about endangered animals and ecosystems. One such arrangement has recently been reimplemented by the US Department of the Interior under the administration of Deb Haaland, the first indigenous person to head the department. 

The Obama administration designated an area known to the Diné (Navajo) people as Shash Jáa, and to the Hopi people as Hoon’Navqvut as Bear’s Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016. The monument was the first of its kind because it established an inter-tribal coalition consisting of five Indigenous nations (the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Utes, Uintah, Ouray Utes, and Diné) that would partner with two federal agencies to jointly manage the park. Bear’s Ears was historically of great cultural and spiritual significance to these tribes, but it was designated as federal land when the United States won the Mexican American war. 

When President Obama designated Bear’s Ears with this managerial agreement, it was the first time in nearly 200 years that indigenous tribes had any sort of ability to directly manage, and interact with this land. In December 2017, the then President Trump announced that he would shrink Bear’s Ears and open up the land around the park to natural gas extraction. Since Trump was ousted from office, President Biden and Deb Haaland have restored Bear’s Ears to its former size. Lawyers on both sides are debating the future of the monument in court, but its establishment creates a new precedent to follow when it comes to conserved areas in the United States, offering a glimmer of hope to environmentalists and indigenous groups alike. 

Indigenous People Should Be at the Forefront of Conservation Efforts

As we witness the climate and biodiversity crises, we are reckoning with the fact that protecting our planet has never been more important. At the same time, we have to recognise the roles that colonialism and imperialism have played in creating these crises in the first place. While imperial-style fortress conservation may on its surface seem to be the most effective way to nourish and protect important ecosystems, it too must be reimagined and decolonised. 

Protecting the rights of indigenous people and giving land back to be stewarded is far more effective than establishing ‘traditional’ conservation areas. Indigenous people have been caring for their environments for hundreds of thousands of years and they should be at the forefront of conservation efforts around the world. 

You might also like: The Remarkable Benefits of Biodiversity

About the Author

Quinn Luthy

Quinn Luthy (they/he) is a writer and editor usually based in Brooklyn, New York, on land that was stolen from Lenape people. Quinn graduated from the New School in the spring of 2022 and has published poetry, fiction, and journalism centred around the climate crisis. Quinn is a proud member of the queer community and wants to use their writing to create and explore queer ecologies. Image credit to Jonathan Lovett.

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