Conservation or Colonialism?

Maya Zealey, with art by Vicky Chu

For those of us that respect our world and are horrified to witness its rapid rate of destruction, conservation may exist in our minds as the single most important thing we can do. Without trees and bees, flowers and fish, the webs of nature that are needed for our survival on this planet will disintegrate. Essentially, if we don’t protect what we have now, nothing else will matter later. For activists and government leaders alike, there has never been a more important time to conserve the Earth’s most precious resources. However, the sudden rush by the West to get involved in conservation has eerily colonial overtones; ‘saving’ countries from their own poor governance, and doing it through market-based methods feels like a mission to school these countries about land they know better than we do.  

In the new public consciousness, tropical forests are passionately described as the lungs of our Earth, and more dispassionately understood as massive carbon sinks that are vital protectors against climate change. In recent years, much of the forest has been ‘green-grabbed’, referring to the practice of states and international organisations seizing land and restricting access to it in the name of conservation. Historically, this has occurred because small communities who practiced shifting cultivation or small-scale farming have been blamed for deforestation. A focus on this small-scale farming, often just for community subsistence, obscures the reality that it is multinational corporations who are destroying our planet’s resources at incomprehensible rates, often backed by Western finance and/or consumption.

“The problem is it’s often seen as more economically worthwhile to cut the forest down than to keep it standing. We’re working hard to change that perception.” 

The above quote is taken from the WWF-UK website about what it’s doing to help conserve the Amazon rainforest. The hypocrisy lies in that WWF is partnered and influenced by the same people that profit every day off the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Tesco is the UK’s biggest supermarket, and as such, sells meat on an unimaginable scale. Some of this meat is bought from companies that destroy the Amazon rainforest to clear space to rear livestock. The meat that isn’t from Brazil, is fed with soya grown in deforested Amazon rainforest. Either way, Tesco have made big bucks from the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately, WWF has also decided to team up with Tesco in a multi-year partnership. Furthermore, Tesco’s former CEO, Dave Lewis, was appointed Chair of the Board of Trustees for WWF-UK. The very same organisation that is supposed to be conserving the rainforest is tied with a company responsible for massive amounts of its destruction. This exposes a problem at the heart of Western attempts at conservation. We put celebrities and businesspeople on a pedestal and task them with safeguarding some of the world’s most powerful resources. This is why private-jet flying Leonardo DiCaprio remains a powerful poster-boy for environmentalism, despite having no credentials that back up this role. It is these people who are stewarding our forests, pushing the real conservationists off the land.  

Indigenous communities make up 6% of the world’s population but safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Not just because of their historic knowledge of and relationship with the land but because they have been actively resisting land destruction and deforestation through land surveillance, advocacy campaigns, and taking corporations to court. They have already been fighting for decades at the frontlines of deforestation. Yet they are being pushed off land that’s been green-grabbed and sectioned off for exclusive use. Armed anti-poaching ‘eco-guards’ trained and supported by the WWF have been found to have burned houses, beaten, and killed Baka villagers. This community were no longer able to hunt for survival in the forest because it was being established as a protected area. This is not a unique story. In Botswana, the San have been arrested, beaten, and detained for poaching in a nature reserve. The San have been evicted from their land, their houses burned, and are not allowed to enter or hunt in the land they have survived off for centuries. Inside the park however, a diamond mine has been allowed to open and big-game hunters from abroad are welcome to stay in newly built lodges. The ability to push people off their lands to make way for eco-tourism and sustainable safaris is a practice pioneered by the conservation industry.  

This exposes another problem with Western conservation efforts; the emphasis on making conservation a ‘win-win’ scenario where money can be made, often through eco-tourism. Eco-tourism has been a popular strategy used by WWF to try and support local communities rather than starve them in the name of conservation. However, there are two problems with this approach. Eco-tourism, as with any unreliable revenue stream, is not resilient enough to external shocks to be a reliable way for communities to sustain themselves. The Covid-19 pandemic halted much of this tourism, and as such left (often remote) communities completely unsupported. With the climate crisis causing much extreme weather and the increasing likelihood of further pandemics, eco-tourism is not a sustainable way to support communities. Secondly, this need for communities to have a way to sell themselves in order to survive feels like both a civilising mission, and gives zero recognition to the work they already engage in. Whether it’s conservation, farming or trading, these communities have not been waiting idly for conservation organisations to organise them. It might be fairer and more productive to work out an economic organisation that respects and values the work communities do to protect the land they rely on, it is after all in their best interest, rather than simply forcing them to sell themselves when Westerners take over the management of the land.  

So what can we do here in the West if we care about conserving the planet’s resources but don’t want to engage in neo-colonialism? What we can do is put our money towards organisations that work to get legal land rights to Indigenous and local communities, instead of to organisations that simply aim for consent to act (there is just too much room here for exploitation). Survival International, an NGO that has exposed much conservational colonialism, deserves further amplification for their work.  

Also, as COP 26 approaches and we have greater access to climate news, we can amplify and support Indigenous leaders’ demands and suggestions for how we can best conserve the land. We also can demand that our governments move towards a rapid reorganisation of our economies, in a way that properly recognises the Earth’s resources and supports the states in which they reside to protect them and their people. It is not until we move past extraction-based Capitalism, and our obsession with production, that we will have any hope of creating a truly sustainable future.

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