What’s Happening on the Ground?

A statement from the Indigenous peoples’ Forum at an international conference in 2004 summed this up:

‘First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.’

Exclusionary ‘fortress conservation’ has in recent decades been increasingly militarised – barbed wire fences, park rangers trained by foreign armies carrying automatic rifles, drone surveillance and other military technologies are common sights in protected areas around the world.

This frontline militarisation is directly associated with huge numbers of rights abuses against these dislocated communities – including restraining their access to local natural resources they need to survive, sexual abuse towards local women(men too), rape and other forms of gender-based violence, murder, torture, unlawful arrest and detention, physical beatings, destruction and theft of personal property, torture and harassment.

“Paradoxically, once a national park or wildlife reserve is established, the same groups who kicked out the locals then welcome thousands of other (paying) people onto the land. Many protected areas encourage tourism, facilitate trophy hunting, or permit logging, mining or other resource extraction. Under fortress conservation, the ecosystem is not simply preserved in its natural state, it is managed according to economic imperatives.”

– Sophie Grig, The Independent




“About 300 families from the Ogiek community who inhabit the Mau Forest, and 28 families from the Sengwer people in Embobut Forest had seen their homes demolished or burnt down, and their farms destroyed by forest guards, they said.“

Kenya’s forest communities face eviction from ancestral lands, even during the Covid pandemic

-Reuters, 23 July 2020

“This is one of the evictions that have really hit us differently because it’s an eviction during COVID times. It’s evictions when children are not in school and from nowhere they are just being rendered homeless and it’s during the coldest season of the year up in the mountains.”

Kenya’s Indigenous complain of forceful eviction from forests

-Voice of America, 23 July 2020

This is happening without any reason

“By 2017, communities were already acknowledged as owner-conservators in over 448 million hectares of forests. Many Community Forests are even now designated as Forest Parks and Reserves of national importance, and scientific studies testify to their success.”

Evictions amid Pandemic: Communities call for government action

Science Africa, 24 July 2020


“The lives of hundreds of thousands of tribal people (Adivasis) in Indian tiger reserves are being destroyed in the name of conservation. The Indian government is illegally evicting them from the land where they have always lived and that they have always protected (Modi’s government is attacking Adivasi rights in other ways too).”

“They are accused of harming wildlife. But, far from killing tigers, many tribes worship them as gods and take care of their environment better than anyone else. Where tribal people’s right to stay in a tiger reserve was recognized, tiger numbers soared.”



The people of Kaziranga have come together with a message for all those who celebrated World Rhino Day.

“We are sending out an emergency call to you that we are being crippled from every direction. We are being treated as criminals, our land has been taking away by different agencies – in the name of embankment, in the name of industries, in the name of corridors. Why don’t you take into account that WE are the major contributors.”

“The biggest contributors to conservations are the people of Kaziranga: the tribal communities; the indigenous communities; the traditional forest dwelling communities of Kaziranga, who have sacrificed day and night for the survival of elephants, rhinos, tigers, and deer, and all flora and fauna in Kaziranga – they should not be forgotten”

“Tribal peoples are being illegally evicted from their ancestral homelands in the name of conservation. The big conservation organizations are guilty of supporting this. They never speak out against evictions. WWF even offered commercial tours of Kaziranga on its website. Tourists are welcome in the reserve – but tribal peoples are not.”


Check out Survival International’s articleFive things the BBC didn’t tell you about Kaziranga’.


“How could we harm the forest? We’re the ones that save the forest. As long as we are here, the forest will be fine. We are the defenders of the forest. If we leave, who will protect the forest?”

“We were stronger in the forest. We could go wherever we wanted, wander wander wherever we wanted in all directions”

Baiga, Achanakmar Tiger Reserve


The displacement of indigenous people legitimized by conservation initiatives is irremediably eroding individuals, families and entire communities’ livelihoods and cultural identity: access to essential natural resources, sacred sites, burial grounds and medicinal or sacred plants is significantly restricted, families are torn apart and members of the community are forced to disperse and relocate in urban settings or foreign rural areas.Communities loose their livelihoods, their homes, their belongings, their food reserves, their access to water.

The violence of evictions raids, and their long-term impacts on communities’ physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing, is particularly detrimental to women and children, since they are significantly vulnerable to “psychological torture, and to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, at the hands of those evicting them, [while being] especially vulnerable to illness and poverty following the destruction of their homes” said Milka Chepkorir, one of the Sengwer Indigenous People’s community members.

As concerns over the climate and ecological crisis are being mainstreamed across both state and non-state environmental (and political) agendas, climate change mitigation is being weaponized to further a colonial tradition of local displacement of indigenous people and state-led violence. This is eco-fascism. It is a product of years of racial capitalism and (neo)colonial power, rooted in white supremacy and born out of the genocide and systemic oppression of indigenous people.

The racism at the heart of modern conservation is made clear by the double standards we have become blind to. In some European countries, for example, people residing in areas that became national parks have been left to live happily and in peace. How is it that in countries like the UK villages, working farms and even whole towns can be found in national parks and considered a charming part of the landscape while indigenous peoples’ century-long settlements are framed as illegal and environmentally destructive in the global south?

Why is this happening?

The History and Ideology of Conservation

Early conservation practices evolved out of trophy hunting activities in North America, where hunters sought to secure exclusive access to animals and their habitats to ensure they could continue to practice their sport; killing prized species. To achieve this, groups of hunters organised protected areas with special laws excluding anyone else from using the land, including Native Americans who had inhabited those ecosystems for generations. Under the pretense that local populations were undermining local ecosystems, the hunting clubs claimed to be protecting and conserving nature through the dispossession and genocide of Native American people. For centuries, all around the world, the conservation discourse has been used by colonizers to legitimise their political and economic interests.

Yellowstone: the first conservation project

When US settlers invaded the region, Yellowstone was home for over 20 indigenous peoples. This was old living within the environment – people embedded within the seasonal flows of the valleys – and had been going on for generations. 

At the same time as logging and mining were expanding into the territory, the US government declared Yellowstone as the first national park in the US and sent the army to violently evict indigenous groups from the land, killing scores of them and relegating them to marginal lands. This violent eviction of the land’s peoples also began the process of erasure – stories were invented to suggest that native peoples had never really visited the area of the park anyway, to create the image of a  ‘pristine wilderness’.

The Wilderness Act clearly defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and her community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” That is a construction of colonial societies to pretend that the original owners of the land no longer exist and never had an impact on the land which is simply not true”. It clearly frames human’s relationship with nature not as an interconnected one but as a negative one – defining all humans within this seperationist colonial legacy and writing us off as ‘spoilers of nature’

Conservation is widely seen as both undeniably necessary, and beneficial to the wellbeing of our planet’s ecosystems and all the creatures that inhabit them. This widespread belief can make it hard to believe that conservation has a contested and controversial past and present. This widespread belief has also allowed conservation organisations to grow without scrutiny or accountability. 

Now more than ever, as the climate and ecological crisis continues to irreversibly destroy life on Earth, we need to make a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ conservation; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ climate change solutions; between radical and systemic change and capitalist techo-fixes; between climate and social justice and eco-fascism.

Although the history of conservation can be linked to the rise of racial capitalism and the consolidation of western imperialism, many conservationists genuinely were, and still are, motivated by a desire to “protect” nature. However, this vision was rooted in a fundamentally flawed understanding of nature itself.

Understandings of nature in the western colonial mindset were underpinned by European enlightenment ideas, particularly the thinking of Descartes who created a way of rationalising the external world so that man could control it. In this way of seeing the world humans are essentially separate to nature, and through their superior intelligence can and will dominate the natural world. True wilderness can only exist, therefore where there is an absence of humans: human and non-human ecosystems are incompatible.

Therefore the only way to protect nature is through a “fortress” model of conservation: creating protected areas that remove, and exclude, all human inhabitants from them. As the contradictions of capitalism intensified and endless growth and exploitation brought more and more of the world’s ecosystems under threat this logic began to seem self-evident – only by excluding people can you protect non-human life.

As the consensus around the need to “protect” the land from human activity grew, so did the colonial idea that white people are better able to “take care of the environment”. This idea still shapes a lot of conservation initiatives today, and often determines who has the authority to define how conservation should be practiced. This unspoken hierarchy has legitimized the systematic eviction of indigenous people from their customary lands, their exclusion from leadership positions in local and global conservation projects and the increasing militarization of “protected” areas.

The crux of the problem is top down approaches based on a one size fits all mentality. This type of thinking is underpinned by a belief that western ways of seeing the world, through a reductionist empirical ‘scientific’ lens that excludes other forms of knowledge and understanding. Backed up by abstract data policy makers impose inappropriate conservation methods on communities whose very livelihood is often a process in sustainable land management.

Global conservation is ultimately undermining its own efforts and is contributing to the climate and ecological crisis by ignoring indigenous expertise and resources and in many cases actively fueling the displacement and destruction of indigenous cultures . An increasing quantity of evidence is showing that when local communities – especially those that have a long-lasting relationship with their local natural environment – have secure land rights and autonomy within local land management biodiversity levels are high, low rates of deforestation are recorded and more carbon is stored.

Dispossessing those who are best equipped to look after their local environment and destroying their ability to use, refine or update their land and wildlife management skills is not only a justice issue, but a climate and ecological one.

“Indigenous peoples have long stewarded and protected the world’s forests … They are achieving at least equal conservation results with a fraction of the budget of protected areas, making investment in indigenous peoples themselves the most efficient means of protecting forests.”

– Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations

“Anyone who truly cares about the planet must stop supporting any form of “conservation” which wounds, alienates and destroys the environment’s best allies. It’s time for a new conservation that recognises indigenous peoples as senior partners in the fight to protect their own land, not as “squatters” and “poachers” to be evicted and criminalised” – Sophie Grig, The Independent

Here we have a responsibility. We have an opportunity to build meaningful solidarity relationships with each other, collaborate and join the existing efforts to “decolonize” conservation towards systemic justice-based change.

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