Something to Think about on Earth Day

22 Apr

 When investigative journalist Mark Dowie went to visit the Batwa people of southwest Uganda in 2007, he found them reduced to lives of penury and squalor. For centuries they had lived in such close harmony with the region’s montane forests that wildlife biologists barely noted their presence.

But as that forest became one of the last refuges of the mountain gorilla, the Batwa were accused by no less a conservation icon than the late Dian Fossey of hunting them. While they denied, and indicated who in fact were, poaching the endangered primate, the Ugandan government paid no heed. More than 1700 Batwa were expelled from the Bwindi National Forest and a second park, stripped of their rights and culture. Today a few are allowed into the forest to collect honey and visit the graves of ancestors. But they may do so only when foreign tourists — paying thousands of dollars for the privilege — are not there to observe gorillas.

With seventy per cent of them surviving by begging, one Batwa leader told Dowie, “It is better to die than live like this.”

The tragic tale of the Batwa is just one of the many Dowie relates in Conservation Refugees: The 100-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. From the San Bushmen of Botswana to the Karen villagers of Thailand and the Adivasi of India, the Toronto-born author and co-founder of Mother Jones magazine estimates that millions of indigenous people have been displaced from their lands in the name of environmental protection.

Citing well-known and well-funded associations like Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society, he said, “The best way to describe what (they) are doing when the evictions occur is just looking the other way.”

Few Canadians are likely aware that their donations to help save endangered species can end up exacerbating Third World poverty. Yet the social cost of protecting biodiversity is the fruit of a peculiarly Western way of thinking about nature. That philosophy is best summed up in the United States Wilderness Act of 1964, that describes wilderness as areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

With this image foremost, critics say, conservation advocates, often referred to as BINGOs (for Big International Non-Government Organizations) are persuading governments to preserve their biological assets as national parks, and helping fund their management. Much of that funding comes from the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility and affluent government agencies such as USAID. Compliant governments then carry out wholesale evictions of anyone living in or near those parks.

“When (conservationists) wave two or three million dollars in front of a poor country government,” said Rebecca Adamson, the Cherokee founder of Fredericksburg, Va.-based First Peoples Worldwide, “they have catalysed the issue of evictions. They have supported it, they have promoted it and they have underwritten it.

If it would have happened en masse,” she added, “there would be an outcry like Darfur. But it happens in dribbles of a couple hundred, a couple thousand, several thousand, so it never makes the news headlines.”

Indigenous people around the world are increasingly voicing their anger at big conservation. At a 2004 conference of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping in Vancouver, which Adamson attended, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that, “the activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands.”

They are also suspicious of the tendency of the BINGOs to accept donations from corporations most think of as by far the greater threat to the environment. Conservation International, for example, maintains a Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. It includes mining companies like Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, oil firms like Chevron and Shell, and agro-business behemoths like Monsanto and Cargill.

“Their argument,” said Dowie, “is that bringing these people on board, admittedly allowing them to greenwash themselves, also allows them to have some input into the way they do their business, the way they extract their resources.” Yet this also makes indigenous people distrust their motives, he added, “because they’re fighting both forces at once. If the conservationists are looking aside while they’re being evicted, they’re also in bed with people who are giving them a lot of problems – the loggers, miners and big planters.”

For Dowie, another tragic paradox is the fact that even as more than 10 per cent of the earth’s landmass is officially protected, global biodiversity has continued to decline precipitously. Some countries evict forest dwellers from officially gazetted parks only to let in companies that plant monocultures of valuable trees, eucalyptus for pulp and paper, or – particularly in Southeast Asia — palm oil. For these governments, such plantations still qualify as forest cover.

Meanwhile forest peasants who practice traditional rotation planting, extraction or a combination of both, are vilified as encroachers, their peasant farming methods as slash-and-burn agriculture. “People tend to look at it as a very primitive, backward practice,” said Hein Mallee of the International Development Research Centre, “but researchers in many cases, not always, often show that it is really a complex system of agro-forestry, managing succession forests.” Having encountered forest peasants in Asia who leave fallow areas for as long as 60 years, he said, simply looking at the land when it is under cultivation leads people to “completely misunderstand the whole system.”

In Africa, Maasai pastoralists and their cattle have been and are still being forcibly expelled from the Serengeti plains to protect zebra, gazelles and other wild ungulates.  Last summer, several Maasai villages in Tanzania were burned down to keep inhabitants away from a luxury game reserve. Yet as Dowie points out in Conservation Refugees, recent studies of rangeland ecology show “a positive symbiosis between wild and domestic ungulates grazing together.”

What’s more, eviction can so embitter some indigenous people that they turn against the land and wildlife they once cherished. “When people get evicted, they really just get dumped into the surrounding eco-system,” said Adamson. “So that ecosystem cannot carry the current people who are living there and the new people, and gets depleted. Then they start encroachment, because it’s either that or die. Are you going to feed your kids or are you going to just lie there and die? Because some scientist is running around in a brand new SUV taking samples.”

Adamson also pointed out the faulty thinking behind the rationale of saving one piece of the planet while polluting and destroying another. After all, it is one single planet. And that’s something everyone should think about on Earth Day.


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