By Chris Lang
In 2018, researchers published a paper in Nature Sustainability that includes a geospatial analysis of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation. The researchers write that,
The striking feature of our analysis is that although Indigenous Peoples’ represent <5% of the global population, they currently manage or have rights over many of the world’s most sparsely populated, intact places. Countless Indigenous management institutions have already proven to be remarkably persistent and resilient, suggesting that such governance forms can shape sustainable human-landscape relationships in many places. This means that, even for localities where Indigenous Peoples are still in the process of regaining land rights, the maintenance of the conservation values of a significant share of the planet depend on the institutions and actions of Indigenous Peoples.
Land grabs and conservation propaganda
Yet, as Aby L. Sène, assistant professor in parks and conservation area management at Clemson University, writes in a recent article, Indigenous Peoples are facing “the threat of a colossal land grab by Western conservation agencies, and their corporate and state allies, who advocate to double the coverage of protected areas around the world by setting aside 30 percent of terrestrial cover for conservation by 2030″.
Sène’s article is titled “Land Grabs and Conservation Propaganda” and is well worth a read. This post is a summary of Sène’s article, but her article is so concisely written and well-argued, I would recommend skipping straight to the original:
Protected areas already cover 15.73% of the world’s land area. Two-thirds of that area is in the Global South. Sène writes that many African countries have set aside between 35% and 42% of their land exclusively for wildlife and biodiversity conservation. In the US the figure is 12.45%.
Sène writes that,
An overlooked yet critical perspective of protected areas is their primitive accumulation function to transfer wealth and immaterial values of nature from colonies to colonizers. They start with the violent dispossession of Indigenous communities, followed by militarized control over the territory, and commodification of lands and wildlife resources by the corporate imperialists.
The violence of conservation in Africa
Maano Ramutsindela, Frank Matose, and Tafadzwa Mushonga’s book “The Violence of Conservation In Africa” was published in January 2022. The book starts with the human rights abuses against the Baka people carried out by armed guards supported by WWF. For years, WWF has been pushing to create a new National Park called Messok Dja, in the Republic of Congo. In 2019, Channel 4 produced a documentary about the abuses:
Ramutsindela, Matose, and Mushonga’s book demonstrates that this is far from an isolated example. They argue that “violence is a permanent feature of conservation in Africa because of four main conditions”:
- The hierarchical ordering between humans and nonhumans and the enduring stereotypes and perceptions of black people and indigenous groups
- The introduction of global environmental agendas on the continent. The violence of conservation in Africa is an outcome of the contradictions inherent in in the pursuit of global green agendas under conditions of poverty, inequality, and reliance on natural resources.
- The inability of the African state to regain resource sovereignty and to resolve the colonial architecture of resource regimes for the benefit of ordinary citizens./li>
- The neoliberalization of conservation, which is a global phenomenon with its own sting in Africa, where state resistance against well-resourced conservation groups is weak.
“In other words”, the authors write to explain the second condition, “African states commit violence in conservation spaces to demonstrate their political commitment to global environmental agendas through which they gain international recognition and access to a whole range of other services and benefits.”
African Parks has bought and manages a total of 14.7 million hectares of land in 11 African countries. The NGO has a “business approach to conservation”, according to its CEO, Peter Fearnhead, “which means we are directly responsible for the production of results. This is a moral imperative.”
African Parks, as Sène notes, “has been at the forefront of the miltarization of parks in Africa, recruitng rangers from local communities who receive paramilitary training from French and Israeli military personnel”.
“African Parks is not unique,” Sène writes. Another example is Capitals Coalition that pushes ideas to save the remaining African wildlife. Goldman Sachs and the Blackstone Group are working with BINGOs “seizing on the biodiversity crisis to package predatory agendas under the guise of conservation,” Sène writes.
To protect wildlife we have to know what we are protecting it from. “Colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy birthed this incommensurable ecological crisis including the rapid decline of wildlife populations,” Sène writes.
It should also be clear that protecting biodiversity dominates the framing of the Black Internationalism movement, while the Convention on Biological Diversity pushes an obfuscating vision of a global society living in harmony with nature that serves little more than to maintain the status quo ushered through a colonial and capitalist global order.
But the propaganda machine behind conservation claims that it is poor people and their expanding populations in Africa that are the problem. Invisible in this propaganda are the government land grabs, the protected areas, the industrial logging operations, the “development” projects, the hydropower dams, the roads, and the industrial plantations, that push communities further into wildlife territory.
Sène notes that the conservation propaganda aims to convince us that the elite class that can afford to fly to Africa and pay US$800 a night for a luxury safari in the African “wilderness” is the best ally to save wildlife. Needless to say, this elite class of tourists are almost invariably white. A few years ago, Mordecai Ogada issued the following challenge: “I challenge you to find any advertising brochure advertising safaris to Kenya that shows you black people, as clients. I challenge you.”
The reality is that this model of conservation is straightforward colonialism:
“White conservationists like Jane Goodall”
Sène writes that “mainstream conservationists—largely dominated by middle- and upper-class liberals of the Global North—adopt as their symbolic leader, White conservationists like Jane Goodall whose image has been rendered palatable, and non-threatening to corporate interest”.
But the Jane Goodall story involves a cover up. The Jane Goodall Institute’s REDD project in Tanzania was a “totalitarian approach to conservation that led to increased inequity, undermining of democracy, and violent evictions”. Villagers were evicted to make way for the REDD project. A ten-year old boy was kicked so badly during the evictions that he later died.
Sène concludes by writing that,
As we think about the future of conservation alongside the liberation struggles of Black and Indigenous peoples, privatizing and militarizing the commons to “protect” biodiversity have no place in our world. Instead, land should be restored to its original owners by birthright, where they can exercise traditional rights that have proven to be central in global conservation.
The struggle to protect land, water and wildlife from destructive forces is deeply entangled with the de-colonial struggle. Survival International has been at the forefront of the battle to decolonize conservation by working with Indigenous communities to protect their land and livelihoods, and offering a vision we should all draw lessons from to save the last remaining biodiversity hotspots.
PHOTO Credit: Screenshot from an African Parks promotional video, titled “A Business Approach to Conservation”.