This September the IUCN (UN) World Conservation Congress begins in Marseille, which aims to demarcate new areas of natural protection. Ahead of this conference, human rights, indigenous, solidarity and environmental organisations have gathered at another congress, mainly promoted by Survival International, called “Our land, our nature“. This sought to “decolonise nature conservation” and put “an end to fortress conservation” by guaranteeing “full recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples”. This alternative congress was attended by a wide range of experts and by affected people from different countries (impossible to include them all here!) who corroborated the widespread faults of this model, ending with the conclusion that we must “put people at the centre of conservation”. (See conclusion of the conference)
The conference and the reaction of social movements is provoked by the so-called “30 x 30” proposal, which corresponds to a target of protecting 30% of the planet’s land and water by 2030. This means more protection – double the amount. The head of the Minority Rights Group, Lara Domínguez, who works with communities affected by this model, introduced what the process has been. The plan is included in the Biodiversity 2050 Plan of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. They published a first document this past July that will now be discussed at the 15th Biodiversity Summit in October, and will be continued in a 2nd part in 2022. So, as Domínguez added, there is still time to influence and reverse this approach. We should remember that a few days ago the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment himself published a strong policy report in which he called for “a drastic change from ‘business as usual’ conservation”.
What at first glance seems like a great idea comes at a time when many organisations, and especially local and indigenous communities, are fed up. Because many of these demarcated areas coincide with territories that are inhabited and vital for these communities. However, it is understood as colonial protectionism, because people, including local communities, are seen as a problem in these ecosystems and are expelled from them or prevented from carrying out activities that are vital to their survival.
Undoubtedly the major reason to justify such a proposal is the accelerated reduction of biodiversity. However, Congolese environmental lawyer Blaise Mudodosi explains that the system of nature reserves as we know it today was started in the 1920s, and since then there has been no discernible improvement in biodiversity conservation. Mudodosi refers to WWF reports that estimate the decline of global biodiversity at 68%.
Conserving biodiversity by perpetuating violence?
Joe Eisen of the Rainforest Foundation explained one of the hottest and most controversial topics of the discussion, namely the violence perpetrated by reserve rangers themselves, which has even led to the deaths of people. This specialist has worked mainly in the Congo River Basin in Africa. He spoke about Unesco’s Salonga National Park, the largest protected forest in the world, where he works. He reported 11 cases of killings by park rangers, as well as 9 cases of rape and 23 interviews about torture. He clarified that this is what is known because “we work with 11 communities, but the affected communities in that park are 6,000, so there may be thousands affected”.
This situation contrasts with the perception that the rangers are the ones affected, as in many cases it is, as the history of protectionism is dotted with rangers killed by poaching gangs in the protection of gorillas and other species (see “Fallen for the Planet“: the last one was on 29 July 2020, Lorenzo Wampagkit Yamil in the Peruvian Amazon). The fact is that in many cases many local people join the rangers as a way of securing a livelihood but also to protect their ecosystems, and in many cases they do so to the last consequence.
But the conference showed that this is not always like that and that in many cases the rangers themselves are mostly the ones in charge of implementing policies against the communities in the area to be protected.
At the heart of the problem are large organisations such as WWF. Another panellist was the prestigious and veteran environmental journalist from The Guardian, John Vidal. He explained how in his early years as a journalist he visited different WWF projects in Africa, but how recently, after the expulsions of up to 5 villages, they refused to communicate with him. Vidal was also accurate in accusing what he called the “Conservation Industry” of being a big business that lives off “charity, aid, but is a multi-billion dollar corporation”. In 2017 alone, WWF raised more than 767 million euros, more than half of which came from citizens1, and works in some 100 countries.
WWF has been accused of various bad practices, such as its activity alongside transnationals considered immoral (Coca Cola, Monsanto, Ikea, etc.), but without a doubt, the criticism that concerns us most is the one associated with this problem, the bad practices and violence in its management of natural reserves with the local population. In March 2020, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a report on the case of violence by park rangers, burning of communities and limitation of access to the territory against the native Baka community in Messok Dja, in the Congo Basin. WWF was then also investigated by the UK Charity Commission for abuses by its rangers. Similarly, abuses by WWF towards the Okiek people of the Mau Forest in Kenya have been reported.
In Nepal WWF has also been accused of the deaths of local people, following beatings and torture, with no evidence of their involvement in poaching, let alone being proven or prosecuted for it. But furthermore, the fact that WWF then lobbied the courts to drop the charges, and their celebration when this happened, confirms their knowledge and acceptance of these methods. In 2017, WWF rangers tortured an 11-year-old boy in front of his parents.
Organisations such as WWF and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) succeeded in getting governments to take over the contracting of eco-guards and thus distance themselves from their behaviour. Governments such as Tanzania have even made it a law to shoot anyone believed to be a poacher. But European conservation NGOs have continued to train and organise them, although they have lost the means to discipline them. In many cases they have also armed them, turning them into para-military forces.
Meanwhile, as denounced by the conferees, conservation organisations such as WWF repeat the discourse of respecting communities and human rights. Finally, in February 2020 WWF issued a statement on its efforts in Messok Dja towards the Baka people. It stated that “we know that people and nature go hand in hand and that local and indigenous communities must be the cornerstone of conservation efforts”, something they continue to be criticised for.
From Yellowstone a colonialist model is perpetuated
All indications are that the colonialist and Eurocentric principles that underpinned the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the origin of conservationism, are still in place. Then, too, the native Shoshone people were forced off their land.
The same is happening now2 : like the Baka people who are being confined to smaller and smaller areas in the Congo Basin, the Maasai people were evicted from the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania by WWF, as were tens of thousands of indigenous people to create the Chitwan National Park in 1967 in Nepal3. In 2008, Uganda evicted more than 4,000 people from the Benet and Ndorobo indigenous communities to create Mount Elgon National Park4. (See more cases)
Environmental historian Guillaume Blanc estimates that 40 million people have been displaced by the implementation of these reserves.
For African ecologist Mordecai Ogada however, that is the problem, that WWF is part of the structure and it is that structure that needs to be changed. Ogada is the author, together with John Mbaria, of “The Big Lie of Conservation “5 in which, as an African, he denounces the colonialist bias of conservation. He focuses on his own Kenyan experience, concluding that conservation in Africa has been dominated by the West (white and rich) to the exclusion of native voices and needs. He argues that this domination is based on names, people who have become references and about whom a historical myth has been created, extolling something that native Africans have done for centuries: living alongside and protecting wildlife.
Guillaume Blanc introduces other myths on which conservationism is based, such as the “good hunter” and the “empty jungle”. The good hunter is the colonial image that exalts hunting as modern, sophisticated and acceptable, as opposed to wild, unacceptable hunting. The European one is justified, and so the Europeans show off their trophies. Blanc shows Theodore Roosevelt with a slain leopard, but it could be the rhinos he killed. Or it could be King Juan Carlos emeritus with his elephant or his bison.
The other is the image of habitats not inhabited by people as jungles in Africa or Latin America, propagated by cinema or National Geographic reports, when it is not true. And if they are empty now, it is because they have been dehumanised, because their inhabitants have been expelled. Instead they are now open to tourists, which is another colonialist and mercantilist aspect of many of these initiatives.
An exclusionary and anti-democratic model
But while the violation of these human rights is blatant, other rights of these communities that are violated must be taken into account. Mudodosi refers to the right to participation, to be included. “There is no framework for community involvement”, neither in governments, nor in organisations, nor internationally.
This aspect was corroborated by Kipchumba Rotich, an indigenous Segwer indigenous Kenyan who was evicted from his territory first by settlers and then by conservation demarcation. Rotich complains that his people were not consulted in the drafting of the new National Forest Act. The expelled communities live around the demarcation without access to these areas. Meanwhile, the ecosystems have been plundered, which he claims is having the opposite effect. He also accused WWF of being the excuse for the displacements. In 2018 a https://nymag.com/developing/2018/10/kenyas-indigenous-sengwer-document-forced-evictions-embobut-timby-app.htmlcolleague of his was killed.
The same situation is found in Asia: India is the country with the most protected territory in the world, with 900 reserves, but also with ecological corridors. Despite this, the populations have no rights whatsoever. Between 2000 and 2004, 300,000 families living in declared protected areas and another 300,000 living in the surrounding area were evicted, and another 10,000 families in 2007, in very unfavourable situations. Wildlife researcher Neemar Pathak Broome sees the destruction accompanied by conservation to be added to that of mega-projects, power and hydroelectric plants, to which she also adds what she calls “fortress agriculture”. Neemar recalls that “India has a great history of community conservation, with many initiatives”. Resistance movements are multiplying, but at the same time they legitimise the state to use violence and militarisation of park guards. She ironised with the question of what reserves will be needed for those persecuted and expelled from the parks.
The conference was attended by another Indian, Pranab Doley, who has been persecuted for his activism: he is the secretary of the peasant organisation JKSS and a defender of human and indigenous rights. He and Soneswar Narah were arrested for their statements in a BBC documentary on the excesses of the Kaziranga natural park. In it they denounced the impunity enjoyed by the park’s guards, who have also been continuously harassed by the police. Doley speaks of Kaziranga as the most successful model of conservation, with an increasing rhino population. But he credits it to the indigenous people who have been able to conserve them.
Obviously, as activist Ashish Kothari pointed out, this also corresponds to the power structures, to the way states are constituted, with “power in private hands and no space left for indigenous people” and to a concept of democracy that is reduced to allowing you to exercise your right to vote every four years. Kothari recalled that 30% of the Earth corresponds to indigenous territories and claimed them as Territories of Life.
Anthropologist Jerome Lewis, who works with the Baka people in Cameroon, advocates “projects that promote conservation from below”, which he calls “extreme citizen science”. This is based on local people, understood as those who best conserve the areas they inhabit and who have the greatest interest in doing it well. His project is based on supporting and empowering them.
More plundering of indigenous territory under the pretext of climate change
Another current aspect associated with conservation that Joe Eisen referred to, also promoted by the UN, are measures to alleviate the climate emergency such as carbon credit offsets or schemes like REDD+. He explained that big oil companies such as “Shell pays 26% with these nature-based solutions” to compensate for the greenhouse gases produced by the oil and gas it sells.
In 2009, Survival published its report, titled in reference to Al Gore’s landmark climate emergency book/movie, “The most uncomfortable truth of all – climate change and indigenous peoples”. In it Survival charged against those solutions that were proposed at the time but which have since been implemented and whose impacts on indigenous peoples (and the environment) have been more than proven. These proposals included, for example, agrofuel production, hydropower production, forest conservation and carbon offsetting.
REED+ is a plan promoted by the UN since 2008 to allegedly, as its name suggests, promote Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. It therefore seeks to reduce emissions from polluting countries and companies by compensating countries in the South in exchange for them preserving or reproducing their forests. It is therefore a so-called compensatory measure, whereby emissions are not reduced but paid for6 . In reality, what it achieves is the creation of a new market in which companies take over forests and jungles, or land to plant monoculture tree plantations, often associated with other industries such as pulp/paper or timber. WWF also participates in this scheme with its Amazon Indigenous REDD+ plan.
Soon the impacts were visible and indigenous peoples and other communities organised themselves into an international platform, Global Alliance Against REDD. For them the acronym stands for “REAPING profits from EVICTIONS, land grabs, DEFORESTATION and DESTRUCTION of biodiversity”. Nowadays, REDD+ is added to the plundering of indigenous territory to be added to nature reserves.
By way of conclusion
As Pranab Doley denounced “tigers are killed mostly by industry, not by communities”, which is the same point made by Neemar Pathak Broome. It may be part of the solution to preserve biodiversity of places by implementing formulas to do so, always with those communities and people who have respected them and ensured their continuation to this day at the centre. But what is clear is that as long as this unbridled capitalism, this extractivism that seeks more and more resources, and to do so digs, cuts down, floods, occupies and destroys more territory, especially other people’s territory, in other countries, in other communities, continues in this way, polluting more and increasing global warming, the future of biodiversity will continue to be very dark.
These same communities that are suffering the effects of the extractivist advance are also suffering the effects of the climate emergency (among others) and are also suffering the supposed solutions to both the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis: carbon sinks, natural parks, power plants and plantations for supposedly clean energy. While the real solutions are to consume and produce less, locally, according to our possibilities, solutions that ironically they, the indigenous peoples and small communities, are also the ones who do it best and who constantly show it to us.
Enough of pseudo-solutions, enough of making business out of everything, enough of 30×30 – respect for indigenous peoples and life NOW!
6 see also Lolita Chavez’s talk “Biodiversity, health and resistance” | Agora K2050 |
1WWF’s Secret WarWWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People http://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tomwarren/wwf-world-wide-fund-nature-parks-torture-death
3 WWWF’s Secret WarWWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tomwarren/wwf-world-wide-fund-nature-parks-torture-death
6see also Lolita Chavez’s talk “Biodiversity, health and resistance” | Agora K2050 |