Conservation or Colonialism? Rochelle Kent-Ellis

The world is ‘on fire’. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate. Scientists agree we are going through the world’s sixth known mass extinction. Something must be done.

A proposed solution to this crisis comes from the global group, High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People. The campaign named ‘30×30’ is supported by over 50 countries who have pledged to turn 30% of the world’s land and ocean into protected areas for nature by the year 2030, with a further target of 50% by 2050. These protected areas will be reserved entirely for wildlife and thus free from human development, free from pollution, free from destruction. How could you disagree with such a seemingly ideal solution? We all want to save the planet – to protect all of its beautiful creatures – don’t we? I certainly do. As a zoologist and wildlife lover who has studied and worked in the field of conservation, often feeling like a misanthropist as a result of witnessing habitat destruction and loss, this is an issue that I care for with every fibre in my being. But there is one thing I have missed; one thing I hadn’t stopped to think about when I have enjoyed visiting various national parks across Africa, Asia and South America – how they came to be. I was so focused on the beautiful wildlife I was keen to photograph and observe thriving in their natural habitat that I hadn’t stopped to think beyond wild animals. I hadn’t stopped to think about who actually lived in these spaces before they were claimed as ‘protected areas’; it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone ever had.

The hidden, dark truth behind protected areas is that they require the removal of tribal and indigenous communities. They require the abhorrent eviction of human beings who, as ancestors of their lands, are a natural part of the very ecosystem that we in the West are claiming to protect. Shamefully, even today, much of the Western conservation industry shares the same patronising ‘white saviour’ ideals that were prevalent during the colonial era: the belief that we are the most civilised, have the greatest expertise and, as a result, can dictate how non-white people should live their lives in their own countries. I feel this racist approach is particularly prevalent in wildlife conservation because it is romanticised in a way that no other form of aid is; there are countless opportunities for white people to partake in ‘voluntourism’ and have, for example, an ‘African gap-year’ experience looking after orphaned elephants.

Batu woman and child © Survival
Batu woman and child © Survival

However, wouldn’t it be better if local people were afforded the choice to work in these roles as part of sustainable conservation? On the same piece of land, why are Africans who kill animals to feed their family persecuted as poachers yet some conservation bodies permit rich white folk to come and kill lions for fun and call it hunting? It is deeply wrong that in 2021, over a century since the colonial rule of Africa, black people are seen as being incapable of protecting their own lands and in need of the animals there being saved by the white man.

It is believed that the creation of these protected areas could displace over 300 million indigenous people throughout the world. Indigenous human rights, non-profit organisation, Survival International, are campaigning against the ‘30×30’ conservation proposal, calling it the ‘Big Green Lie’ and the biggest land grab in history.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is one of the best known non-governmental conservation organisations. Generally speaking, NGOs such as this are regarded as wildlife saviours and so positive assumptions are frequently made about how they carry out their missions. Survival International interviewed members of the Baka community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the WWF plan to create Messok Dja national park, involving the employment of ‘eco-guards’ to look after the area and protect wildlife from poaching. The WWF claim that the Baka support their plans to turn the area into a national park and that they included in decision-making. However, during interviews by Survival, one man describes the violent abuse that he, along with many other Baka, has suffered at the hands of these conservationists. And another man tells how none of his people like the national park. This story is repeated throughout national parks and protected areas across the globe.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) were responsible for the exhibition of Congolese teen, Ota Benga, at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Stripped of his humanity, Benga was stolen from his home in Africa and put on display in the Monkey House at the zoo. He later took his own life. The WCS have remained a successful organisation and only issued an apology for what happened to Ota Benga last year in 2020, 114 years after the atrocity occurred. Today, WCS are evicting indigenous communities from their ancestral lands across Asia and Africa in the name of conservation.

1906 photograph of Ota Benga
1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. Author unknown.

It is important that we recognise the racist roots of the industry and that organisations are held accountable for both historical and current failings. The idea that nature conservation can work without local people is out-dated and those working within the sector know this but there is still not enough being done to create space for positive change. Local communities should not only be involved from the very beginning but should be leaders at the forefront of any decision making. Conservation bodies should be taking direction and learning from those with the wealth of knowledge that comes from centuries of experience of living in these areas. It is both patronising and harmful to speak on behalf of communities without any consultation and then expect them to say thank you for making unwanted changes.

In 2013 I spent the summer helping out with a conservation research project in a wetlands reserve in central Thailand. The aim of the project is to study Fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) in order to better understand the ecology of the species and secure and restore populations. I had the privilege of assisting a local man, Ruj, in setting up camera traps, tracking the cats with radio collars using telemetry and looking for indirect evidence of their presence, such as documenting scat and hair samples. The wetlands are part of a national park. However, indigenous communities still reside outside of the park boundaries and because of men like Ruj and the involvement of the local community, including the school children who live in the area, potential conflict between wildlife and people is reduced. While occasional retaliation wildlife killings may occur (usually due to individuals losing their livestock to wild animals), there is increasing community outreach which helps to limit this. As a local man himself, Ruj meets with local farmers and involves them in conservation efforts so that both fishing cats and people can thrive there. It is a great example of how local knowledge and expertise is vital in administering successful conservation efforts.

Ruj carrying one of the fishing cat live traps
Ruj carrying one of the fishing cat live traps. A chicken carcass fresh from the market is hung inside which attracts the fishing cat (or sometimes dogs!) And the door shuts behind them. This then enables the researchers to tranquilize the fishing cat (or release unwanted animals) and put a radio collar on their neck so that they can be tracked to study their movements and population numbers etc.

I found it incredibly disappointing to watch the BBC’s The Year Earth Changed [1] recently, where influential figure and national ‘hero for nature’, Sir David Attenborough, labelled all human beings ‘intruders’ of Earth [2]. Attenborough suggests a planet without humans is a thriving planet, which is a dangerous blanket to throw over the entire human population. A blanket which influences the well-wishing nature lovers and eco-warriors among us to believe that for one to thrive the other must not. While I whole-heartedly agree that it is human behaviour that has led to mass species decline and accelerated climate change, I do not agree that humanity itself is to blame. Hundreds of millions of people live in symbiosis with their ecosystem; they do not just live alongside nature but are nature. They do not see wilderness but see oneness. Indigenous peoples are already guardians of nature; they help to protect biodiversity and have little to no negative impact on climate change, they are the ecosystem and the balance we so desperately need.

So the question is why are conservation organisations insisting that we protect land which is already being looked after in the best possible way? How is this a solution to climate change? Why are we misplacing millions of people in the name of conservation? Isn’t the real problem capitalist greed, mass-consumption and pollution? Fast fashion, plastic pollution, factory farming, habitat destruction to aid more shops, a ‘throwaway and buy more’ culture all driven by the bottomless appetite of economic growth. Western humankind considers itself the most intelligent species of all yet we have lost our way and are increasingly blinded by the greed that is destroying our connection with our home.

The world is on fire. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate. Scientists agree we are going through the world’s sixth known mass extinction. Something must be done. Evicting millions of indigenous peoples from their homes will have little to no effect on climate change, quite simply because those who live in these areas so rich in biodiversity are not the ones contributing to climate change. It is us who must change, we must each do our part to live more sustainably and protest against the injustice of green colonialism campaigns such as 30×30. We must not tolerate the evictions, the assaults and the murder of indigenous peoples in the name of conservation.

References / More Information

Sources relating to information in the article about the WCS:

Sources relating to information in the article about the WWF:

Rochelle Kent-Ellis is a zoologist who is passionate about wildlife and environmental issues. She has participated in a diverse range of conservation work including: tracking wolves and lynx in Poland; working as a conservation assistant at a fishing cat research and conservation project in the wetlands of Sam Roi Yot, Thailand; working on the Mankwe Wildlife Reserve in South Africa and initiating a project erecting barn owl nest boxes in Wiltshire, England! Rochelle is also a keen wildlife photographer.

This article featured in Issue 49 of Indie Shaman magazine, published in July 2021.

[1] Radio Times: The Year the Earth Changed.

[2]BBC News: Sir David Attenborough’s new doc: ‘Humans are intruders’

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