I Spy… Something Beginning With Con

Photograph Source: DAVID ILIFF – CC BY-SA 3.0

There is an emerging awareness that Western “conservation” has always been used to take the lands and resources of colonised peoples in order to benefit the colonisers, mainly now through resource extraction, “carbon offsetting” and tourism. Many people are also waking up to the fact that the reasons claimed for doubling “Protected Areas” are bogus. It turns out Protected Areas are not good at reversing biodiversity loss, and play no discernible role in mitigating climate pollution or reducing pandemics. Often, they make things worse.

Managing the lands stolen for conservation requires controlling the dispossessed, which is one reason why conservation needs intelligence gathering. Although this has received little attention, it’s bound to be an important factor in shaping its agendas.

Which brings me to a tweet of mine from 24 October, As Ukraine war is escalated by all sides (NB “all”, rather than “both”), who pays the price and who pockets it?”

This turned out to have an unexpected connection to conservation, as it provoked an attack by Dr Timothy (Tim) Wittig (@Tim_Wittig) who retweeted it with,  “This is bizarre. Indigenous rights champion @StephenCorrySvl parrots talking points of a colonial power currently attempting genocide of an indigenous people.”

I hadn’t heard of Dr Wittig, but he’s a conservation champion with an exciting record. After some toing and froing he exited with a dramatic flourish – but first, our exchange.

I asked, “Which colonial power has said all sides are escalating?” He speedily replied, “Russia”. I enquired when Russia had said that all sides were escalating, and he retorted, “nearly daily”.

The first fatality in all wars is of course truth. Everyone spews streams of propaganda vilifying the enemy and unfurling their flag supposedly alone atop the moral high ground. In reality, all sides commit atrocities, even where commanders don’t want them to. It’s always been so; combat is high on adrenalin and fear, and hate is one ingredient in pushing soldiers to kill. Perhaps they’re increasingly trigger happy as suicide attacks, combatants disguised as civilians, and women and children used as human shields, are normalised around the world. The days when occasional battles might be decided by single combat are long gone. War is always dirty.

Equally obviously, not all sides stand equally guilty of all aggressions and atrocities. Due apportionment of guilt and accountability is vital, but always beware history written by the victor.

In other words, trusting the propaganda gushing from any of the conflicts which have infected the globe for a long time, and doing so without impartial examination, is foolish at best. In Ukraine, all sides blame others for the escalation rather than admit they are doing the same themselves. The war didn’t start in 2022 or 2014: it’s, at least in part, another act in the complex power struggle between European powers which has plagued the world for generations. In this deadly “great game”, alliances and enmities can be declared, revoked and reinstated at high speed, sometimes for reasons which remain opaque.

This view isn’t radical. I’d alluded to it three days before my clash with Wittig when I’d tweeted, “77 yrs ago, ruins of Nazi Berlin, West-Russia embrace. Russian Sector (I visit) 23 yrs later, supposed to hate Russia. West gains ascendancy, Wall falls, supposed to love RU. Now, 33 yrs later, supposed to hate… Wars made by elites. Stoking is complicity. Stop stoking.”

Anyway, I attempted to condense this into another tweet for Wittig, “My point is that ALL sides are escalating. This isn’t repeating any side’s propaganda. I also think ALL sides are engaged in propaganda (as always in war).”

A couple more exchanges led him to obliterate his entire twitter account. Why? What might have been there which he no longer wanted seen? I don’t know for how long he’d been “following” me, but I’d not previously come across him. So who is Dr Timothy Wittig and what’s the connection with conservation?

In turns out he’s an expert in “intelligence analysis, and African and global security”, who once worked for the USA’s Department of Defense, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society, a group criticised for its long-standing violations of human rights.[1] As with many big shots in environment, he gets around a great deal: he’s worked in nearly forty counties and lived in six. He has impressive and widespread connections. He’s now head of intelligence for the Prince William initiative, United for Wildlife, and fills the same role in Focused Conservation, an American government-funded outfit which, “employs a stronger… approach to ending the illegal wildlife trade”. He’s a founder of that New York not-for-profit.

He’s also a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, in Germany, a component of the Defense Department started after the 1991 failed Russian coup. It’s led largely by American military officers and seeks to “affect regional, transnational, and global challenges”.

He also seems to be (or was?) head of intelligence at the Basel Institute of Governance in Switzerland, and was a professor at Globalisation Studies Groningen in the Netherlands until recently. He’s held appointments at several universities including John Hopkins, St Andrews in Scotland, and the U.S. National Defense University. He was company secretary of Beyond Conservation Inc, incorporated in Florida in 2020 but now inactive.

Given all this, openly offered, intelligence,[2] it’s to be expected that his view of the world centres on American interests, but his core belief about environmental problems is rather more surprising. He’s observed “how the major threats to the environment today – species loss, climate change, pollution, et al – are all underpinned… by crime, corruption, and illicit networks”.

One can of course find crime pretty much everywhere, but the suggestion that it’s a significant foundation for major environmental threats is curious. Damage to the environment surely has its principal roots in “growth” and consumerism – which are legal and encouraged – with war a significant but usually uncounted factor.

For Wittig however, pictured on the lefthand of the heir to the British throne, the real key is fighting crime. Prince William of course commands influence in powerful circles and some of his known views are tragically a step back to a colonialist conservation which should have been laid to rest generations ago. The prince is convinced, for example, that the big problem for African wildlife is that there are too many Africans. Why is this royal heir being advised by an American intelligence agent and – a wider and more important question – what role does Western intelligence execute inside conservation and environmental organisations?

Any sizeable U.S. NGO or foundation will be monitored, including from within, by the intelligence services. Indeed not to do so would be a dereliction of duty as the not-for-profit sector exerts enormous influence and deploys billions of dollars. It’s also true that, whatever the obligatory denials, everyone knows that no spy agency always operates within the law, or ever has.

Conservation, particularly in Africa, has little to do with the often contrived theatrics of stepping gently through a “pristine Nature” which it enacts for gullible viewers. On the contrary, much of it blunders about former colonies supporting a heavy burden of evasions and lies, racism, eugenics, forced evictions, shoot-to-kill policies, torture, rape, the sale of stolen resources, and deals with private armies.

As conservation stumbles around the continent, its agents must be busy scouting and scoping out allies as well as potential obstacles. But what exactly are the intelligence gatherers gathering and, most important, what ideas and ideologies are they sowing in the course of their reaping? We can be certain of one thing: in spite of the spotlight beamed into the dark side of the sector in recent years, much “conservation” remains a wild and hidden environment with much unexplored territory. The fact that it often seems to be directed largely by ideology, geopolitics and commerce, rather than by any scientific and sensible analysis, is a matter which should concern everyone who cares about the vital diversity of life on Earth.


[1] See for example: https://truthout.org/articles/the-colonial-origins-of-conservation-the-disturbing-history-behind-us-national-parks/

[2] https://www.timothywittig.com/

Stephen Corry worked with Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, from 1972 to 2021. Twitter: @StephenCorrySvl.