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’

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.