Even though conservation is commonly perceived as an indeniably beneficial and necessary practice for the safeguard of our planet and of all living creatures, the story of conservation is a complex and controversial one. 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.
Historically, early conservation practices originated greatly from “trophy” hunters in North America who aimed to secure exclusive access to animals and their natural habitats as a strategy to strenghten control over the land, natural resources and Native Americans. For decades these practices have legitimized the appropriation of land and resources, serving the political and economic interests of white colonial settlers and resulting with the violent dispossesion and genocide of indigenous people all over the world.
Even though the history of conservation can be greatly linked to the rise of racial capitalism and the consolidation of western imperialism, many conservationists were indeed on a mission to “protect” nature. This colonial project was, and still is, based on the idea that human and non-human ecosystems are distinct entities and fundamentally incompatible with one another. Therefore the only way to protect nature is through a “fortress” model of conservation: creating protected areas and remove, and exclude, all human inhabitants from them. As the contradictions of capitalism – unlimited capitalist exploitation of the natural world is set to destroy its own conditions of production and reproduction – became more and more evident the need for conservation became inevitable.
Key to the ideology is that white people are seen as better able to “take care of the environment”.
As the consensus around the need to “protect” the land from any form of human activity grew, so did the colonial idea that white people are seen as better able and more equipped to “take care of the environment”. This idea, which still shapes a lot of conservation initiatives today, has been determining who has and who hasn’t authority in defining what conservation is and how to best put it into practice. This hierarchy has been legitimized the systematic violent 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.
“Big conservation attempts to justify its land grab by claiming that the local people don’t know how to care for their own land and don’t respect wildlife. Yet, for generations, these communities have made their living as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers: their day-to-day survival has always depended on their profound understanding of their environment and ability to maintain healthy wildlife populations, but somehow the myth persists that saving the planet is the white man’s burden.” – Sophie, Grig The Independent
The crux of the problem is top down approaches based on a one size fits all mentality where white scientific methods are imposed over communities who actually know how to manage the land. This frontline militarisation is directly associated with huge numbers of rights abuses against these dislocated communities – including restraining their access to local natural resources, sexual abuse towards local women, 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
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. Governments from the Global North offsetting their carbon emissions by investing in tree-planting and other “conservation” initatives. Conservation agencies funding and supporting an increasingly militarized form of conservation responsible for systematic human rights abuses in local and indigenous communities.
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. In some European countries, for example, people residing in areas that with time 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 when at the same time indigenous people century-long settlments are framed as “illegal” and environmentally “danerous”?
It is undeniable that big conservation is contributing to the climate and ecological crisis by not only ignoring indigenous expertise and resources, but by actively fueling their destruction. An increasing nuber of evidence is showing that that when local communities – especially those ones that have a long-lasting relationship with their local natural environment – have secure land rights and autonomy within local land management biodiversity levels are maintained high, low rates of deforestation are recorded, more carbon is stored. Disposessing 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.
“When bulldozers or park rangers force indigenous peoples from their homes, it is not only a human rights crisis, it is also a detriment to all humanity. 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, organize and join the existing efforts to “decolonize” conservation towards systemic and transformative justice-based change in this time of worsening crisis.