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Conservation Refugees

The only thing that has displaced more people around the world than war is wildlife conservation. For Indigenous Peoples, the consequences are the same.

At the Third Congress of the World Conservation Union (also known as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN]) in Bangkok, Martin Saning’o, a Maasai representative and the only black man in the room, listened intently to a panel discussion of the human factor in conservation. When his turn came to comment, Saning’o spoke softly in slightly accented but perfect English, describing how nomadic pastoralists once protected the vast range in eastern Africa that they have lost over the past century to conservation projects.

“Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between ecosystems,” he explained to an audience he knew to be schooled in Western ecological sciences. Yet, in the interest of “biodiversity,” more than 100,000 Maasai pastoralists have been displaced from their traditional homeland, Maasailand, he said. “We were the original conservationists,” Saning’o told the room full of shocked white faces. “Now you have made us enemies of conservation.”

This was not what 6000 wildlife biologists and conservation activists from over 100 countries had traveled to Bangkok to hear. They had come to explore new ways to stem the troubling loss of biological diversity on an ecologically challenged planet. What drew Martin Saning’o and about 400 other Indigenous people to the November 2004 gathering was the congress’s theme: “People and Nature—Only One World.” It was not a title that all members of IUCN would have chosen, as there remains in that community a fair number of traditional conservationists who define wilderness as the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964 does: “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It is a definition that expresses itself through a practice known in the field as “fortress conservation,” in which areas designated for conservation protection are bordered and guarded to keep wildlife in and unwanted humans out.

From 1900 to 1950, about 600 official protected areas were created worldwide. By 1960 there were almost 1,000. Today there are at least 110,000, with more being added every month. The total area of land now under conservation protection worldwide has doubled since 1990, when the World Parks Commission set a goal of protecting 10 percent of the planet’s surface. That goal has been exceeded, as over 20 percent of all land, a total area of 11.75 million square miles, is now under conservation protection. That’s an area greater than the entire landmass of Africa and equal to half the planet’s endowment of cultivated land. At first glance, such a degree of land conservation seems like an enormous achievement of good people doing the right thing for our planet. But the record is less impressive when the social, economic, and cultural impact on local people is considered.

About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by Indigenous Peoples. In the Americas that figure is over 80 percent. The most recent and rapid expansion of protected-area initiatives, however, has occurred in Africa and Asia.

During the 1990s, the African nation of Chad increased its protected area from 1 to 9.1 percent of its national land. That land had been occupied by estimated 600,000 now-displaced people. No country I could find beside Chad and India, which officially admits to about 100,000 people displaced for conservation (a number that is almost certainly deflated) is even counting this growing new class of refugee.

Charles Geisler, a rural sociologist at Cornell University who has been studying the problem for decades, believes that since the beginning of the colonial era in Africa there may have been as many as 14 million evictions on that continent alone. Conservation refugees, however defined, exist in large numbers on every continent but Antarctica, and by most accounts live far more difficult lives than they once did. Today, they are banished from lands they thrived on, often for thousands of years, using practices that even some of the conservationists have since admitted were sustainable.

Not to be confused with ecological refugees—people forced to abandon once-sustainable settlements because of unbearable heat, drought, desertification, flooding, disease, or other consequences of climate chaos—conservation refugees are removed from their homelands involuntarily, either by force or through a variety of less coercive measures. They have come to call the gentler, more benign methods of displacement “soft evictions,” which they claim are as bad as the “hard” ones. “If you allow people to stay on land without the right to use it,” said Rebecca Adamson, the head of First Peoples Worldwide, “you might as well have taken their land from them. It’s as bad as outright eviction.”

Soft or hard, the relocation often occurs with the tacit approval of one or more of the five largest conservation organizations—Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the African Wildlife Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Society—which collectively have been nicknamed the “BINGOs” (Big International Nongovernmental Organizations).

Until quite recently, most conservation leaders responded to the injustices of exclusion by denying they were party to it and generating unapologetic and defensive promotional material about their affection for and close relationships with Indigenous Peoples. That message was carefully projected toward a confused and nervous funding community. The good news is that all but the transnational corporations involved in conservation have expressed concerns about the uneasy relationship between Indigenous Peoples and global conservation, and have begun to insist on fairer treatment of Native Peoples who live in areas of high biodiversity.

International funding agencies, such as the World Bank and the Global Environmental Fund, dedicate the equivalent of billions of dollars every year to land and wildlife conservation, with the five largest conservation organizations absorbing about 70 percent of that expenditure; Indigenous communities receive virtually none of it.

Commitment to People
All of the BINGOs and most of the international agencies they work with have issued formal and heartfelt declarations in support of Indigenous Peoples and their territorial rights. In 1999 the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas formally recognized Indigenous Peoples’ rights to “sustainable traditional use” of their lands and territories. The following year, the IUCN adopted a bold set of principles for establishing protected areas, which state unequivocally, “The establishment of new protected areas on Indigenous and other traditional peoples’ terrestrial, coastal/marine and freshwater domains should be based on the legal recognition of collective rights of communities living within them to the lands, territories, waters, coastal seas, and other resources they traditionally own or otherwise occupy or use.”

But many conservation biologists still maintain that humans and wilderness are inherently incompatible. They argue that by allowing Native populations to grow, hunt, and gather in protected areas, their supporters become agents in the decline of biological diversity. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s outspoken president, Steven Sanderson, believed for some time that the entire global conservation agenda had been “hijacked” by advocates for Indigenous Peoples, placing wildlife and biodiversity at peril. In contrast, human rights groups accuse the BINGOs of complicity in destroying Indigenous cultures, the diversity of which they argue is essential to the preservation of biological diversity.

Meanwhile, the public-relations spin placed on “market solutions” to this unfortunate divide has been relentless and misleading. BINGOs promote cooperative management plans, ecotourism, bioprospecting, extractive reserves, and industrial partnerships as the best ways to protect land and community. Market-based solutions, which may have been implemented with the best social and conservation intentions, share a lamentable outcome. In almost every case, Indigenous Peoples are moved into the lowest end of the money economy, where they tend to be permanently indentured as park rangers (never wardens), porters, waiters, harvesters, or, if they manage to learn a European language, ecotour guides. Under this model, “conservation” becomes “development,” and Native communities are assimilated into national cultures. It should come as no surprise, then, that Indigenous Peoples like the Maasai, who have seen their lands plundered for 200 years by foreign colonizers, regard conservationists as just another colonizer. They associate plans to protect biodiversity with forced expulsion and declare themselves “enemies of conservation.”

Evictees, deprived of their rights to use their own land, are driven to desperate survival actions denounced as “criminal” by conservationists. Once accustomed to harvesting game for their own community’s use, expelled people often buy rifles, reenter their former hunting grounds, and begin poaching larger numbers of the same game for the growing global “bush meat” trade. Banished Batwa in Central Africa sometimes sneak back into the forest to harvest medicinal plants and firewood at the risk of being legally killed by ecoguards hired by conservation agencies. And much less desirable groups—colonists, renegade loggers, exotic animal hunters, cash-crop farmers, and cattle ranchers—are moving into unpatrolled, protected areas the world over. Since they often share ethnicity with the ruling class of the nation involved, the new settlers are generally favored in territorial conflicts with Indigenous Peoples, who are arrested or expelled for doing the same things. In such areas, biodiversity ebbs closer to zero as species either leave or crash. International conservationists then issue reports lamenting the impending extinction and blaming the very poachers and timber thieves that their policies and actions created.

Some Native Peoples are abusing their environment, but before condemning them, conservationists need to ask why this is happening. Why, for example, have some Huarani, a people who lived productively in the Ecuadorian rainforest for thousands of years, suddenly turned against the ecosystem that sustained them? What is disrupting their social networks? What forces undermine their traditional livelihoods, their cultural identity?

Indigenous Peoples’ presence, it turns out, may offer the best protection that conservation areas can ever receive. That’s a possibility that international conservationists have begun to consider, but large organizations are generally slow to learn. One of the major lessons conservationists need to learn is the role Indigenous Peoples play in maintaining stable ecosystems precisely by disturbing them. The romantic goal of preserving nature as untrammeled wilderness casts humans as a destructive force because we “upset” the natural balance, but this view belies the reality that ecosystems are constantly in flux and need some level of disturbance to make them viable. The goal, then, is to disturb nature as stewards, not vandals.

More species than once was believed rely for their survival on disturbances, human and other. Conservation scientists agree that many human activities have a negative effect on ecosystems, and that too much activity can drive other species to extinction. However, a closer examination of some traditional practices, such as the cultivation of selected perennials, methodical grazing of livestock, and the deliberate setting of grass and forest fires, suggests that human interference, if practiced wisely, can enhance eco-complexity and species diversity.

A 1997 study conducted by Krishna Ghimire, of the UN Research Institute for Social Development, and Michel Pimbert, agricultural ecologist at the International Institute for Environment and Development, found that the grazing and migration practices of the Maasai, which tend to mimic the grazing habits of local wildlife, enhanced the biological diversity of the Serengeti grasslands.
Maasai cattle, which have been grazed from the Rift Valley to the Serengeti for somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 years and rely on the same grasses as the topi, zebra, gazelle, impala, and other grazing animals, prevent thorny scrubs and woodland species from overgrowing, which in turn allows for more grazing opportunities for wildlife. In fact, recent studies of rangeland ecology indicate a positive symbiosis between wild and domestic ungulates grazing together. If properly managed, shared grazing can create a landscape that supports both wild and domestic species better than if they were apart. Other studies indicate that if disturbances are either too rare or too mild, biological diversity drops severely—in some cases to a single species.

The notion that carefully managed rotational cattle-grazing methods can enhance biotic health is widely accepted by experts in both traditional and contemporary modern agriculture, but wildlife conservationists remain skeptical. Allan Savory, founder of Holistic Management International and creator of highly productive rotational grazing systems, goes a step beyond the advocates of constructive grazing by encouraging conservationists to consider the deliberate introduction of domestic ungulates into areas threatened by desertification. “No tool is known to science that can reverse desertification better than livestock properly handled until such time as wild herbivore and predator populations are sufficiently recovered to maintain grasslands,” Savory asserts. “If national parks in such grasslands are to be regenerated it would be wise to consider working with pastoralists so that their animals, properly grazed, can restore wildlife habitat and water sources.”

Although some conservationists also question the value of fire, there is less argument that periodic fires in coniferous forests, whether deliberately set or natural, open serotinous cones (seed cones that only open when exposed to fire) and canopy gaps, both of which encourage an increase of endemic species. And extensive research indicates that pastoralist burning of rangeland cover encourages the new growth of nutritious grasses that are attractive to wildlife and livestock alike. Perhaps the most controversial human disturbance is swidden agriculture (also called rotational farming, shifting cultivation, or, when disapproval is intended, slash-and-burn agriculture). Of course, swidden agriculture is a method of farming that is not always practiced well and is suited only for certain types of forest ecosystems. But if practiced as it has been for thousands of years—clearing and burning small patches of a forest, planting and rotating food crops for as many years as the soil will support them, then clearing a new area and allowing the old one to go fallow and slowly return to forest—swidden agriculture can enhance the health of the larger ecosystem.
In Central America, for instance, rotational clearings create a regular disturbance pattern where patches of young vegetation more resistant to frequent hurricanes and fire enrich the highly valued mahogany groves that surround them. Studies performed by the U.S. Forest Service station in Puerto Rico conclude that not only do mahogany trees flourish under this regimen but that they would not survive without the disturbances.

Similar studies conducted in Sarawak, Malaysia, and Thailand showed that traditional shifting cultivation produced much lower erosion rates than other systems of tillage and clearing. In fact, if practiced with care, swidden agriculture has a smaller ecological footprint than any other system used in the tropics.

For centuries the Kayapo in Brazil’s Para have cultivated small rotational gardens on forest patches they call Apêtês that appear to aid forest conservation. Each Apêtê begins with an abandoned ant nest about three to six feet in diameter that is rich in organic material and tunneled in such a way that it will retain moisture. Seeds or seedlings are planted in each mound during the first part of the rainy season. Garden tenders often cut down a few trees to let light into the Apêtê and plant palms in their place, alongside vines that produce drinkable water. After a few years of cultivation, Apêtês grow to look so natural that visiting biologists have failed to recognize them as human artifacts.

The Kayapo have also discovered that some plant species grow better when planted next to each other. They designate the roughly 25 varieties of edible tubers and numerous medicinal plants that thrive near bananas as tyrutiombiqua, or “banana neighbors.” What look like random field plantings are actually carefully grouped,  concentric zones of cultivars. Like so many Native cultures in the world, the Kayapo do not distinguish between cultivated and natural environments. It’s all natural, or as they prefer to say, “cultivated wilderness.” And what we call second-growth forest, they call “old fields.”

Banning an Indigenous lifeway because it is perceived as a negative disturbance can have the opposite of the desired effect. After Indigenous Peoples and their cattle were evicted from Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, India, for example, paspalum grass grew so thick without cattle to keep it back that it choked off shallow bodies of water in the wetlands, and waterfowl lost their nesting grounds. The illegal reintroduction of cattle into the area improved the situation. In fact, the deliberate breaking of conservation rules has been found to maintain, even enhance, floral diversity in various settings around the world.

Vital Diversities: Balancing the Protection of Nature and Culture
One day, while studying population distribution and migration, the former director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, David Hancocks, made an astonishing observation. When he overlaid a map of the United States showing the duration of residency of each county with another map displaying counties with the most threatened or endangered species, he found an almost perfect correlation between unstable human populations and high species loss. He wondered: Could this be related to the findings of studies by anthropologists and ethnobiologists in rain forests, montane regions, savannas, and coastal communities that found a strong association between cultural and biological diversity?

Anthropologist Mac Chapin had a similar experience in 1991, when he compared maps titled “Indians of Central America” with those of the region’s vegetation. What was immediately evident was that Central America’s lowland Indigenous Peoples all lived under the continent’s richest forest cover. Combining the two maps into one produced not only a statement about the good stewardship of people whose existence was barely recognized, it also “helped to strengthen what soon became a widespread campaign for protecting and legalizing their territories,” recalls Chapin.

Hancocks’s and Chapin’s correlations were confirmed again in 1998, when the Worldwide Fund for Nature completed its long-awaited Global 200 project, in which 233 of the earth’s biologically richest ecoregions were identified and mapped. Examination of the human populations in these landscapes revealed that about 80 percent of the ecoregions were occupied by an estimated 3,000 separate Indigenous communities, most of which had thrived there for hundreds if not thousands of years.

But conservation has a recorded history and a literary tradition. So the perspective of “fortress conservation” and the preference for “virgin” wilderness have lingered on in a movement that has tended to value nature without human intervention and refused to recognize that most Indigenous Peoples deeply respect biodiversity and are committed stewards of their lands and environments.

It has taken big conservation organizations a long and painful century to see the folly of some of their heroes and admit that conflating nature with wilderness and occupants with “first visitors” is specious reasoning. Slowly they are realizing that Indigenous Peoples manage immense areas of biologically rich land, and in most are managing it well. The facts speak for themselves: After setting aside a “protected” land mass the size of Africa, global biodiversity continues to decline and the rate of species extinction approaches 1,000 times its natural level. Convention on Biological Diversity scientists have documented that in Africa, where so many parks and reserves have been created and where Indigenous evictions are still common, 90 percent of biodiversity lies outside of protected areas, most of it in places occupied by human beings. If we really want people to live in harmony with nature, history is showing us that the most idiotic thing we can do is kick them out of it.

Surely of the 108,000 registered protected areas in place, some are unnecessary, even counterproductive to wildlife conservation. Why not give the land back to their rightful owners, and look for more ecologically vulnerable and socially suitable places to protect? And why not consider a new and different social contract with people living in or near protected areas, a contract designed to advance conservation?

Indigenous-initiated Protected Areas
In fact, this contract model is already working across the globe, whether formally, through Native-initiated Community Conservation Areas, or through ancient commitments to no-catch zones, crop rotation, or  community wildlife preserves. If such unofficial conservation areas were added to the official ones, it would almost double the area under protection.

A unique and increasingly popular form of rights-based community conservation area is the Indigenous Protected Area, an invention of Australian Aboriginal Peoples. For the past 30 years, the Australian Homeland Movement has been resettling people back into the country that was theirs for millennia, with an agenda that restores all custodial rights to its original owners. The process of creating Indigenous protected areas in Australia is entirely voluntary: The area is claimed and mapped, and rules set and enforced by the Indigenous Peoples involved. The only requirement set by the government is that Indigenous residents develop a management plan that conserves biodiversity.

Many Indigenous communities throughout the world have regained ownership and territorial autonomy under new treaties with their national governments, and Indigenous protected areas in various forms are appearing everywhere, from Lao fishing villages along the Mekong River to the Mataven Forest in northeastern Columbia, where six Indigenous tribes, living in 16 Indigenous resgaurdos along two rivers bordering a four-million-acre, ecologically intact reserve, manage the conservation of a national park within the reserve, and collectively own considerable acreage around its border. Are the BINGOs there? Yes, but as scientists, rather than rulers or managers, as stakeholders, not rights-holders; in short, as servants of the Mataven Forest. It’s a good relationship. Such alliances are more likely to succeed, according to anthropologist James Igoe, “where Indigenous people have legal authority over natural resources and are allowed to live inside protected areas where they themselves have initiated the relationship with conservation.”

As Martin Saning’o reminds us, if local people aren’t for conservation, it simply won’t work. The dozens of successful models in place on every continent prove that community-initiated and -managed conservation can work. As Nelson Mandela said at the World Parks Conference in 2003, “I see no future for parks unless they address the needs of [Indigenous] communities as equal partners in their development.”

Mark Dowie, an investigative historian living near Point Reyes Station in California,  is the author of six books prior to Conservation Refugees: The Hundred Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (MIT Press 2009) from which this article was extracted.

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