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Do Black Lives Matter to Big Conservation Groups?

Akash Orang, a seven year old tribal boy, was maimed for life after being shot by a guard in Kaziranga National Park. The park has a shoot on sight policy. Copyright: Survival Intl.

You are walking through the rainforest with your best friend. Sunlight sparkles through the leaves and the two of you are chatting and laughing. Birds tweet, monkeys hoot, and perhaps that was the sound of a forest elephant you heard in the distance. Suddenly you hear the crack of a rifle: your best friend collapses, crumpled, and you fall to your knees to catch them as their blood pours over your hands and stains your clothes.

Your best friend has just been shot by an anti-poaching squad. Does that change how you feel about their murder? According to certain online animal lovers, when a person is unlawfully killed “to protect an endangered species,” the appropriate response is to celebrate their death because it helps keep “our” precious rhinos, tigers or elephants safe. Apparently, “the preservation of these endangered species is more important than preservation of the lives of some worthless peasants.”

Armchair environmentalists proudly declare how readily they would sacrifice brown bodies halfway across the world to save an animal they may only ever have seen on TV or in a zoo. Extra-judicial killings of innocent people, including children, in Africa and Asia, are airily dismissed as merely collateral damage in a “battle for nature.” If a white American student on their gap year was killed for picking plants in a conservation zone, there would be international outcry, yet when this exact thing happened to Mbone Christian, a 17 year old boy in Democratic Republic of Congo, it made barely a ripple.

For a lot of conservationists, it seems like black lives don’t really matter. “They see Baka as animals, they don’t see us as humans.” a man from the Baka people of Congo Basin told me. In the name of “conservation,” agents supported by world-renowned nature groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have tortured and murdered dozens of innocent people, including children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Ecoguards, park rangers, and even government officials have variously burned down villages, bulldozed houses, gang raped women, stolen possessions, beaten people up and maimed them for life.

The organisation I work for, Survival International, and the indigenous and tribal people we partner with, have essentially been gaslighted for the past 30 years: people simply don’t believe this is happening because they cannot fathom how cuddly-panda conservationists could possibly be guilty of racism and violence. WWF, WCS, and other international environmental NGOs have been aware of these atrocities for many years and they continue to fund, equip and train the perpetrators. When confronted with evidence, the conservation giants simply arrange cover-ups.

Conservation suffers from the racist delusion that non-white people in Africa and Asia don’t know how to look after their own land and cannot be trusted with the animals that live there. Speaking to The Guardian in 2018, my colleague, Dr Mordecai Ogada, author of The Big Conservation Lie, said “The message is that African wildlife is in danger, and the source of the danger is black people, and that people from the US have to come and save wildlife from these black people.” Vast areas of land have been stolen from tribal people and local communities under the false claim that this is necessary for conservation. The stolen land is then called a “Protected Area” or “National Park.”

National parks epitomize the racism of conservation. First created in the United States in the 19th century, they are predicated on the notion that nature is “untouched wilderness” until white people “discover” it. According to Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Sicangu and Oglala Lakota: “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame.”

The superiority complex of the colonizers blinded them to the fact that thousands of Native American people were not “just” living on the land, but actively using, shaping and nurturing it. They were playing a vital part in these ecosystems and possessed deep understanding of them, yet were perceived, racistly, as no more than an “inconvenience” to be “dealt with;” just like the inhabitants of African and Asian protected areas are today.

National Parks in the United States today are still seen as places where white people go to “get back to nature.”  Between 88 and 95 percent of all visitors to public lands are non-Hispanic white people, even though they make up just 63 percent of the US population. In her book Black Faces, White Spaces, cultural geographer Carolyn Finney says:

“The narrative of the Great Outdoors in the United States is explicitly informed by a rhetoric of wilderness conquest…it is informed by a legacy of Eurocentricism and the linkage of wilderness to whiteness, wherein both become naturalized and universalized”

The legacy of colonialism not only means that many American people of color don’t feel comfortable exercising their right to enjoy nature in their own country, it also explains how their wealthy compatriots still feel entitled to do whatever they like in other people’s. Mass tourism, trophy hunting and “sustainable” logging, mining or other resource extraction are often welcomed in areas where the original inhabitants have been evicted and forbidden from using the land themselves.

Both in 19th century America and in much of Africa and Asia right now, “conservation” means that the original custodians cannot live on their ancestral lands but tourists can come there on holiday; local people are forbidden from hunting for food in places where foreigners hunt for sport; indigenous communities are banned from using resources they depend on to survive but we’ll find a way to justify cutting down trees because we could use some fancy new lounge furniture as the stuff we have looks a bit dated.

The idea the indigenous peoples don’t understand how to care for their environment is simply cultural imperialism. Evidence from across the world shows that securing land rights for indigenous communities produces comparable or even better conservation outcomes at a fraction of the cost. United Nations special rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said in a 2018 report:

“When bulldozers or park rangers force indigenous peoples from their homes, it is not only a human rights crisis, it is also a detriment to all humanity. Indigenous peoples … are achieving at least equal conservation results with a fraction of the budget of protected areas, making investment in indigenous peoples themselves the most efficient means of protecting forests.”

Tribal peoples, who live mostly without money and get all they need from their forest, rely on their expert knowledge of their environment to be able to make a living as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. The fact that 80% of the planet’s biodiversity today is in tribal territories is testimony to their ability to maintain ecological equilibrium and healthy wildlife populations. Their expertise in sustainable resource management is why rare species survive on their land when other people, the same kind of people who are now stealing their land for “conservation”, have wiped out species and destroyed ecosystems elsewhere.

Anyone who truly cares about the planet must stop supporting any form of “conservation” which wounds, alienates and destroys indigenous and tribal peoples. It’s time for conservation to recognize them as senior partners in the fight to protect their own land: for tribes, for nature, and for all humanity.

Fiore Longo is a Research and Advocacy Officer at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples. She is also the director of Survival International France. She coordinates Survival’s conservation campaign, and has visited many communities in Africa and Asia that face human rights abuses in the name of conservation. 

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